Tag Archives: Sharon Olds

11. Singing Muriel

On Friday night, Chris sent through her compositions for our presentation at Michigan, to a Symposium-full of experts of Muriel Rukeyser and her work. One for part of ‘The Speed of Darkness’, which goes at the beginning of Throat of These Hours, and the other for ‘Then’, which ends it.

Chris’ composition and performance exceeded my expectations and confirmed my hunch that Muriel’s poems set to music will offer a way into them that their presence in the play doesn’t otherwise provide. At least, they do that for me. Muriel’s poems always reach my emotions in a way I can’t explain and when I listened to Chris’ compositions they renewed and amplified the poems’ intensity for me. I can’t wait to discover what effects they have on Saturday’s audience (Friday in the U.S.)

Tomorrow, we have a crew/equipment/location meeting and on Tuesday we film Chris performing her composition and two actors reading excerpts from Throat of These Hours.

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And yesterday I re-found what Sharon Olds wrote about Muriel’s own voice:

In 1968, when Muriel Rukeyser read her poems at a gathering of poets against the Vietnam War, I was amazed by their directness and power, and deeply moved by her voice. It had an unusually wide range of tones, and a slight vibrato. It had an amber quality, a dark gold note–it was deep, but with highlights in it when it sailed up almost girlishly, full of hope or promise. When she read, tears came out of me easily, as if automatically–as if this had been the voice I was imprinted with when still in the shell. Now, more than thirty years later, I hear in the recordings the shape of the lips and the tongue and palate and vibrant throat of someone who loves to eat, and to laugh–not a woman with a small mouth, not a woman afraid to open it. She begins each line on a fairly high note, a casting up and out of the shining arc (with its tensile strength, and its hunting), which falls, gradually, in a serious, gravitational curve, to mezzo or alto (no lifting, no questioning, or permission-seeking, at the end). And her voice always sounds physical, homemade, and of its time and place.

(from Poetry Speaks)

After almost a year of writing, alone at my desk, I’ve found it more challenging than usual to shift to a producer role. Something’s happened to my mental flexibility. And I’ve whined a bit to myself as I juggle what’s necessary with the other commitments in my life. Then, further on in Sharon Olds’ essay, I re-read this:

Around that time, I heard of [a] reading where many poets took turns reading…Muriel was reading heartily, with power and verve, and then gradually people noticed that there was no longer any space between her head and the podium. She had sunk down to some degree, and yet there was no diminution in the gusto with which she was reading, so no-one stepped up–everyone was kind of mesmerised. Eventually they realised she had sunk to the floor and someone mentioned an ambulance. But Muriel, lying there, said, “No, I want to finish the passage, I’d like a chair.” One was found, and they lifted her into it and brought down the microphone, and, as if nothing had happened, she continued on with the section and finished it.

Muriel died when she was aged 66 and two months, exactly a year older than I am now. How dare I whinge? I am soooo lucky to be reasonably healthy, to have these wonderful people to help. To have access to technology that makes it possible to communicate with people half a world away, about a woman whose work we all love. I love her life, too. And I love her, after meeting her in her writing and the writing of others like Sharon Olds.

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