The Lost Arias of Henk van Strijk, my third manuscript of poetry, was completed in July, 2011, in Peace River, Alberta. It was begun in the summer of 2009 when I returned to Vancouver after having spent three years as a chief administrative officer in local government at the Town of St. Stephen in south-western New Brunswick. As Vancouver is the Canadian city that connects in certain ways most deeply with me, its positive environment enabled an opportune time to attempt a long-delayed search for a particular poetic sound and substance that I wished to pursue. The search was, within its intended parameters, successful, but proved to be different than I had anticipated, and, at its conclusion, veered back to an assertion that I have read in a number of authorities, in particular W. Somerset Maugham and William Shakespeare, but is exceedingly well put in the Ethics of Aristotle:
… we ought, so far as possible as in us lies, to put on immortality, and do all that we can to live in conformity with the highest that is in us; for even if it is small in bulk, in power and preciousness it far excels all the rest. Indeed it would seem that this is the true self of the individual, since it is the authoritative and better part of him; so it would be an odd thing if a man chose to live someone else’s life instead of his own…. [w]hat is best and most pleasant for any given creature is that which is proper to it. — Aristotle, Ethics, X:vii
As it transpired, circumstances kept my wife and me in Vancouver for nearly a year and a half, after which we resided in Banff for a half a year from December 2010 to April 2011, and then moved in May 2011 to Peace River, where we remained for just under a year. It was there, during an initial phase of some bittersweet optimism that Lost Arias was completed. We returned, for the third time, to Edmonton in the early spring of 2012.
The impetus for Golden Shadows, already intended to be a new departure in word, tone, and style, was clearly precipitated by an April, 2011 trip to San Francisco, our great favourite of the American cities. We had been there many times before, but not recently. The trip re-awakened the stimulus of the city and its connection with artistic undertaking and its dense collection of the varieties in life.
I found part of my answer regarding content and structure in Gustav Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, the first Deryck Cooke performing version of which, recorded by Eugene Ormandy, I purchased as long ago as October, 1966, in Ottawa; and the score to the adagio of which I purchased several years later in Montréal. How the book came to be overlain with Mahler’s Tenth Symphony is due to finding, in San Francisco’s City Lights, Norman Lebrecht’s excellent book on the composer, Why Mahler?
The propulsive motivation from the Lebrecht book was flautist Gareth Davies’s observation, upon having returned to performance after recovering from cancer, on the flute solo that comes in the opening section of the finale of the symphony:
Two bars before the flute solo, where the horns almost pre-echo the opening phrase, I felt completely isolated, almost as if on a thin mountain ridge with a drop either side—perhaps even with life on one side and death on the other. The music searches for peace and finally as it drops down, for me I felt a sense of acceptance of what will be. — Gareth Davies, in Norman Lebrecht’s Why Mahler?, p. 246.
Intertwined with these, and specifically with an “acceptance of what will be,” was my own background in Leiden, where I was born. During the composition of the contents of my book, the Dickens of Bleak House and, to a lesser extent, of Little Dorrit was a supplementary influence, and my mind also returned to Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus—and, as it came about, to a re-examination of the symphonies of Shostakovich, which had made such an impression on me on long winter walks in St. Stephen, coupled with a study, on long winter walks in Peace River, of his extraordinary 15 string quartets.
The Gareth Davies quote is the epigraph to the work’s fifth and penultimate section. The epigraph for the full work, however, is this:
… the caravan of the morning, all dispersed, went their appointed ways. And thus ever, by day and night, under the sun and under the stars, climbing the dusty hills and toiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another, move all we restless travellers through the pilgrimage of life. — Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, I:II
During March and May I have been re-reading Wendy Lesser‘s book on the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, Music for Silenced Voices, for the second time, since I found it, also at City Lights in San Francisco in the spring of 2011, as during these same months I continued to study these quartets, in recordings of the cycle acquired in Vancouver, for the fourth time, the second in New Brunswick, the third in Peace River.
“Criticism is, by its nature, reductive: at the very least, it reduces nonverbal artworks to words (or, if it is literary criticism, it reduces complex, ambiguous artworks to narrower, more linear descriptions of those artworks.)” (p. 143)
“It is easy to confuse the autobiography of reception with the autobiography of creation, to imagine that the composer (or writer, or painter) simply put in the same feelings that we later took out. This is not how art works, but part of its beauty and cunning is to make us believe that is how it works.” (p. 145)
“The feeling at the end of Quartet No. 8 is more human than [transcendence]; what we are being offered is not consolation or redemption, but companionship.” (p. 157)
I prefer to work my subject at book length. Hence, my manuscripts contain at least 80 pages and between 60 to 80 poems. Approximately 50% more is actually written, that is, written to the point of potentially publishable draft, than is kept. Each poem first appears in draft, which typically contains the whole manifestation of the idea, but seldom all the words, and very infrequently the right and best ones. Each draft goes through my often lengthy process of refinement.
I begin to build the manuscript once I have enough finished poems to satisfy, at least skeletally, the demands of the structure, which tends to be known from the outset, and typically changes little. Once about two-thirds of the likely contents of the final manuscript have been written and assembled, the revisions begin. Typically, the first and last revisions are quite substantive; the intermediate ones generally less so, tending to concentrate on components of the overall structure.
Golden Shadows was revised substantively six times. The first was completed in August, 2012, the following in January, February, March, and April, 2013, and a final edit in May 2013, overall producing as well the elimination of 54 poems of the working text. Those familiar with the Mahler symphony will detect that sections two and four are the semblances of the scherzi, and that the third section, based largely on material set in Dallas, is analogous to the Purgatorio. What Mahler termed an Einleitungssatz, in which the flute solo occurs that opens the final, and critical, movement of the symphony, in the book precedes the concluding, and longest, section of Golden Shadows.
The manuscript was completed on 14 May 2013, and has 66 poems. It represents 23 months of work. The first “movement,” or section, is titled “Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden.” The second, “The Underside of Time.” The third, “Purgatorio Pays the Organ-Grinder.” The fourth, “Under the Glimmer of the Urban Night.” And the fifth and sixth, which are linked, are the introductory Einleitungssatz and the material it introduces, “The Torn Apollo.”
For a CulturalRites article on an earlier book, see Mortal Dreams of the Demigod.