Emily Dickinson

A Heroic Reader Scored

Review of Passions of Bloom: Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, The International Festival of Arts & Ideas

In a work commissioned by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, Martin Bresnick, a professor of composition at the Yale School of Music, pays homage to a fellow Yale professor. Bresnick’s  oratorio, Passions of Bloom, was performed one night only, in a world premiere, at Morse recital hall, with the Yale Philharmonia and Yale choral artists. And it was a stunning event.

Harold Bloom, the eminent Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale and a renowned literary critic with a popular readership, has long mused upon the unique contributions of a trio of singular figures who stand as the lights of 19th century American literature: Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson. For Bloom, these three authors are not only superlatively gifted. They each represent a particular aspect of the American psyche that we all—as Americans—must understand to understand who we are. To ponder their words is to ponder what defines America, as a long, evolving myth that began on the eastern seaboard of this continent and which Bloom calls “the American Sublime.”

Bresnick’s libretto draws from the works of all four authors, Bloom included, to provide what Bloom himself might call an agon. Bloom, eighty-five at the time of composing The Daemon Knows (the text used by Bresnick), long ago posited a deep psychological struggle between a major poet and his predecessor poet. That agon, in Bloom’s account, did not include critics struggling with artists, but Bresnick’s selective quotations from Bloom suggest quite effectively that the “mode of memoir,” as a critical decision employed in Daemon, invites a rather lyrical conception of the critic’s relation to his objects of study. The fact that Bloom’s lines are set to music and sung lends credence to a certain bardic power common to both poet and critic. Though if Bloom is explicating his own consciousness he is doing so by means of the poets who take precedence in his mind and to whom his thoughts constantly return.

Consisting of twelve distinct sections, Passions of Bloom begins with an invocation to the sun before Bloom, sung by tenor James Taylor, takes the stage, and ends with a segment called “The Lesson is Done,” in which Bloom and his interlocutors—Whitman (Brian Giebler, tenor), Melville (Paul Tipton, bass-baritone), and Dickinson (Kate Maroney, mezzo-soprano, and Sherezade Panthaki, soprano)—suggest wisdom dawns at last. Throughout, we are given glimpses of Bloom as a student of these authors who continues to teach their works well past the age at which many would retire, if only because he is not done with his imagined dialogue with them. While that dialogue might not seem dramatic to those indifferent to the authors and their critics, Bresnick’s composition finds a means to express the lasting gravitas of what Bloom likes to call “cognitive power.”

In the two central sections, characters from Melville’s Moby-Dick appear, with Ahab (Glenn Miller, bass) in interesting counter-point to his author in section 6, and Ishmael (Thomas McCargar, baritone) adding the distinctive tone of Melville’s narrator in section 7. Miller’s voice, with its deep notes, suits the grandiose mania of Ahab, while McCarger’s lighter tones suggest the wry eye of Melville as Ishmael. As Bloom queries, “Where is Melville the Man in Moby-Dick?”, we see Melville represented by his characters, and, as sung by Tipton, as a figure of dark doubts delivered with robust power.

The strength of the piece is in Bresnick’s way of working with the words, to give them musical settings that can complement Bloom’s changing tones—at times abstract, at times personable, and at times truly inspired—and, at the same time, support the lyrical power of the great writers’ words. Whitman’s lines, as sung by Giebler, particularly in “And I Say to Mankind,” have an almost homiletic quality, while Maroney’s solo as Dickinson in “The Saddest Noise, the Sweetest Noise” is wonderfully effective as a setting for Dickinson’s lines, and the most satisfying rendering of a poet, independent of the critic or other characters. Maroney is then joined by Panthaki, and mezzo-soprano and soprano give a soaring other-worldliness to “I Reason, Earth is Short.”

For the penultimate section, “Bloom’s Daemon,” the two tenors, Taylor and Giebler, take up the main theme of Bloom’s book to let us see how Whitman, more than any other American figure, is the “Adam”—or originating figure—of what Bloom articulates as almost a religion of American literature. In the struggle to comprehend such original figures, Bloom suggests, his “daemon” has written the books and taught the classes. What keeps readers returning to Bloom’s work, for all its grand manner and sweeping generalities, is his heroic sense that reading literature with understanding is a mighty labor, one that not only determines the quality of one’s mind—or soul, as Whitman would have it—but also determines the kind of world in which one lives. Bloom’s daemon is informed by the critic’s need to make sense of what he reads, but it also informs us that how we make sense is who we are.

The concerns of such a work as Bresnick’s may seem rather specialized, but for anyone able to believe that poetry and literature are important to one’s sense of being, one could say that the Passions of Bloom exemplifies the mind’s intense attachment and attention to the written word in its most fervent and deeply American uses. While full enjoyment of Bresnick’s oratorio might presuppose some knowledge of Bloom’s work—which spans six decades—and a penchant for the writers Bloom reckons with, the quality of the lines incorporated, and the distinct tones and musical interplay of the different sections, makes for a riveting listening experience.

At one point, Bloom reflects that he cannot believe the world is best seen as an aesthetic experience, though he would like to. Bresnick’s Passions of Bloom flatters and perhaps fulfills that belief.


The International Festival of Arts and Ideas
Passions of Bloom: Whitman, Melville, Dickinson
Martin Bresnick, composer
Jeffrey Douma, conductor

Libretto drawn by the composer from the works of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Harold Bloom

Brian Giebler, tenor; Kate Maroney, mezzo-soprano; Thomas McCarger, baritone; Glenn Miller, bass; Sherezade Panthaki, soprano; James Taylor, tenor; Paul Tipton, bass-baritone

Yale Choral Artists: Sean Maher, chorus manager; Megan Chartrand, Madeline Heale, Sherezade Panthaki, Sarah Yanovitch, soprano; Eric Brenner, Rachel Colman, Kate Maroney, Megan Roth, alto; Colin Britt, Brian Giebler, Steven Soph, Gene Stenger, tenor; Thomas McCarger, Paul Tipton, Steven Hrycelak, Glenn Miller, bass

Yale Philharmonia: Elly Toyoda (Concertmaster), Elliot Lee, Yurie Mitshuhashi, Marie Oka, violin 1; Rachel Ostler-Abbott (principal), Dio Saraza, Stephen Tang, Laura Park, violin 2; Emily Brandenburg (principal), Isabella Mensz, Alexandra Simpson, viola; Eric Adamshick (principal), Jiyoung Choi, Jesse Christeson, cello; Will Robbins (principal), Kaden Henderson, bass; Felice Dovynov, Helen Park, flute; Graeme Johnson, Eric Braley, clarinet; Alexander Walden, trombone; Sam Um, percussion; Lisa Moore, piano

Morse Recital Hall at Sprague Hall, Yale
June 20, 2017

Apnea Caesura Hold Break

Silence is all we dread.There's Ransom in a Voice -- But Silence is Infinity. Himself have not a face.

-Emily Dickinson

Andy and I have been driving from Burlington, Vermont and back to New Haven a lot lately. Headed north from New Haven, the rise of New England and her green mountains unfolds like mighty sets of biceps, whose arms stretch out and point up and up till we reach the shores of Lake Champlain. Heading south from Burlington to New Haven feels like packing too many clothes into a small, square suitcase.

There is one particularly magical stretch of Route 89 between Montpelier (Capitale du Vermont, 12 KM) and Burlington that’s cause for pause. At this place, the road cuts through a jut of rocks, and for a second or two the road is pinched narrow between the cragged and geometrically planed ravine. Andy calls this pass Silent Rock. When we drive through, heading north or south, at the very start of the rock, we turn off the radio and look ahead, silent. “Yeah, but the funny thing At the end of the pass, the radio's back on and one of us is finishing our sentence. “about it is, there wasn’t even a stove in the house!” Maybe it’s six seconds long, maybe two. But, that silence inside the lash of our speed barreling down the highway has got gravity. It feels like we are living a line out of an Emily Dickinson poem. Silent Rock is our dash.

A friend told me the other night that her son’s been diagnosed with Sleep Apnea. She’s relieved because now there is a name for what’s been going on in his sleep. He simply stops breathing. Snores like an old drunkard. (He’s two.) And then stops breathing again. Maybe he’s got a Silent Rock in his sleep. He is left in the morning exhausted, hungry, clingy, and grumpy. There are various contraptions, of mediaeval proportion, that people strap themselves into to in order to stop themselves from stopping breathing. In this child’s case, he’ll have his tonsils and adenoids out. The cavities where those body pieces will be-apneas of flesh.

In a yoga class the other day, for which I was totally unprepared and much too inflexible, the instructor would remind us in the midst of the hardest most twisty, muscular moves-- to breathe. The sound of breath would rise up again from all of us in the class, as we remembered that we actually need to make conscious the things that are automatic. Like forgetting to breathe is actually a natural thing.

So what of these holds and breaks that we construct or that the body stores as reflexes? All the spaces of silence between things makes me think there is a poem in that. (In truth, there are many poems in that, this is not a new idea!)

Last night on my way south again, I was blasting sad, old John Prine on the radio as I drove straight through Silent Rock. When I realized I missed the place of silence, I felt sick, unholy, and sorry. But, I couldn’t figure out why.

Charles Simic writes of poetry that he’s “in the business of translating what cannot be translated: being and its silence." In the silence, there is witness to being. In silence there is witness to being-even if you are holding your breath, and grumpy or twisted, staring ahead, or alone in the car, you are sharing the silence with being. And silence is the twin of being. Poetically speaking. The excitement of holding your breath passing a graveyard or going through a tunnel is the same thing. Superstition, or an empathetic gesture for the dead or the still? We are honoring, in our apnea, a ghostly infinity, honoring the silence we are not, just to prove we are alive.

Sketching a Little Madness

I teach 8th grade English here in New Haven. And when I taught my 8th graders Emily Dickinson’s “A little madness in the spring” it was a little joke to myself. I knew they would be bonkers as soon as it started to get sunny and humid. I knew we would be pushing our homeroom, communal deodorant spray on more than one of them, and I knew I would find them lying on the grass during recess, loafing around with each other. I wanted them to use the poem to justify themselves, as a smart way of saying 'let us be.' But here’s the thing. The joke is on me. There is something inside these teenagers that is positively popping. They are taking their newly-over-one-hundred-pounds bodies and they are pawing all over each other. This is what Dickinson calls “wholesome even for the King." For summer reading, I assigned Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In it, Alexie paints a portrait of a ninth grader named Junior, growing up on the Spokane Reservation. Junior is smart and a self proclaimed "weirdo." He chooses to go off the rez for a better education. The better education, as is often the case, is at a rich, white suburban school over 20 miles away. Naturally, Junior becomes a traitor to his community on the rez, and is ostracized as the token Indian at Reardan, his new school. His people call him an apple-red on the outside and white on the inside. The outsider idea is nothing new to adolescent fiction, but what stands out in this book is Alexie's signature, candid wit, and Ellen Forney's illustrations.

For all of his hardship, Junior is saved by the cartoons he draws. And the cartoons make the book; it's sprinkled with hilarious caricatures cataloging his father’s alcoholism, his best friend’s abusive father, and his sister’s death. His self-deprecation and optimism in the cartoons pull the reader along through a thoroughly weighty and grievous narrative. And Junior says of his cartoons, "I take them seriously. I use them to understand the world…Sometimes I draw people because they're my friends and family. And I want to honor them." Words often fail him and cartoons don't.

Lately, my students have been coming to class early to draw pictures on the chalkboard. A colleague enlightened me recently by giving me a few Maxine Greene essays on "esthetic education" wherein the use of art as a means of expression, inspiration, and invigoration in a classroom is seen as instrumental to better and more holistic learning. So, I always let them draw. Yet again, my students (and Junior) teach me. They already knew that drawing- making pictures of narratives is essential to their learning.

We are reading Lord of the Flies. Of course they have some ideas to process through pictures: Jack just stuck a pig in last night's reading! Golding is forever alluding to the “essential human illness” that we all understand but can’t totally articulate-especially when suffering from heat stroke, or puberty. Lord of the Flies discussions have been markedly focused and engaged; the novel is moving them. How does the elusive and present human illness make sense to these 8th graders? They draw it.

Their drawings, which take up the full length of the board, are the boys-in tattered clothing (or naked-no sniggering!) and the pigs, and always a special focus on the boy with the "mulberry birthmark" on his face, whose only real mention in the novel is that he is noticed to have disappeared. He is a lost boy, gone, early on in the novel. My students can't seem to forget him; they draw him everyday. (And not just because he had a birthmark.) But, I think because they want him to be remembered in the midst of the maddening cries of the novel. Because they wouldn't want to be forgotten.

As Junior says, "I draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me."

So I am thinking that a little madness in the spring on all absolutely true accounts is teaching me that my students are reflecting and processing this novel in their doodling. It means something to them, and they want to honor it, even if they can't necessarily write a thesis paper on it-yet. I am thankful that they are getting it out, and the antecedent of 'it' is madness, wholesome, and tremendous.