Sound poems can run the gamut, from funny to poignantly melancholic to a jazz breeze. While unstructured prose poetry can be rich and cathartic, the duo of Elizabeth Johnson and Jonny Greenwood play with notes, rhythm and rhythm.
The Wes Anderson “sprinkled” style in their Saturday afternoon reading was animated, but nothing came across as a close cousin to the moving paintings of Henri Rousseau. Johnson’s script hinted at turning sorrow into art and Greenwood’s gentle, chord driven arrangements allowed his music to be fully heard. Johnson’s other narrator, identified only as Faby, “pairs with Gray in virtual duet.” It is in that voice, however, that we hear the poetry – a chronic illness from a favored lover. The title, “Erasing You from the Picture,” might sound clichéd, but it allows us to walk into a lyrical game of cards, knowing the cards will be dealt rather than the routine around us.
When the reading settled down, Johnson segued into one of her more accessible pieces, “Jerkoff,” in which she addresses an artist who specializes in portraits of vagrants. Faby had been cautioned by “Fantabulous” (her hit song) and “Patrón” (“The Birth of Juxtaposition”) to stay away from derelicts. The two parties shared a “strange day.” When Faby was laying on her back, C grew “smiling like he had unspooled a string from a dish towel,” and that can happen when a man “is sauntering out like a cat to an alleyway, devouring an apple left on his shoulders, looking longingly at him.”
The big break in the reading came with Faby and Gray’s duet, “The Passing of Time,” which is “meant to bring closure.” Gray’s light sparkling voice is the perfect complement to Faby’s silvery tone. The silent funeral parlor where the two take their last breaths was hauntingly haunting. And as time fades, Faby describes how Gray was teasing Faby when he was 16 years old, “really giving you pleasure, so sweet that he was unworthy.” But when Faby was married, Gray replaced her with another wife, and she went on with life, becoming a mother. “When he gave me the most beautiful gift, I was lost,” she says, “filled with sadness.” Faby concludes her story with the lines: “The desperate sigh of a woman.”
The title “Equilibrium” is familiar to those who recall Nelson DeMille’s “Shook as Stone,” about a woman who falls into the sea and forgets about her husband. But Johnson and Greenwood (one of the first jazz composers to be named a MacArthur Fellow) did away with DeMille’s kind of absolutism, stepping away from rigid present day rhythms to imagine a world where “human equilibrium… hasn’t been determined, yet.” In this slightly more abstract world, the realization of balance reverberates through the song, making the tone vital.
Thus does this sequel to an almost-lengthy poem become a set of movements that really work. Though a number of the few poems from the previous collection combine short and long, the editors’ choice to omit the blocks of long text and reserve space for three short, sharp pieces is very successful.
All parties are represented in the essay that accompanies the read and offers up gorgeous visual language, including beautiful photos by Christopher L. Spadaccini of Faby standing next to a stained glass window as her husband re-enacts the traumatic image. An essay about attending a jubilee is also exceptionally well written, revealing the slow camaraderie that’s often just waiting to be written down.
“Equilibrium” is a short, magical meditation on home, love and community. It also asks us to commit to a long, deepening look at ourselves, the world around us, and the objects we want to carry in our hearts.
Lillian Allen, Charles C. Smith and Jonny Greenwood
Tuesday, June 12, 8 p.m.