Caravaggio’s Dagger – A Pursuit of Right Action

The central theme of Caravaggio’s Dagger is Somerset Maugham’s admonition of the error of adopting a course of action thought to be right, even though we knew it could not bring us happiness, ever.

Exemplified by the art of Caravaggio, this work inquires: what, then, is a pursuit of right action? Caravaggio, the murderous, brilliant 16th-century painter, depicted the decapitation of John the Baptist at the moment the act is botched: jugular severed, head attached, the saint in agony—a rendering of humanity’s predilections placed above the altar of the Maltese co-cathedral of the military Knights of Saint John.

Many come to evil; many others search for a different way to be.

There is a matrix of music that permeates the book, and the book also employs a metaphorical and topical counterpoint of water and earth. I am in what has been termed the Sibelius camp, with its acceptance of the intrinsic value of and need for organic, structured, integrated style. Sibelius subscribed to the formal logic that governs an inner interconnectedness that enables artistic synthesis. This, of course, applies not only to music but also to other of the fine arts.

Aesthetically, I am an Aristotlean. The fine arts, he wrote, are aesthetic, rather than applied; thus they engage the intellect and meaning, without seeking practical application. The appreciation of aesthetic quality relies upon refined judgement, which can also be described as good taste; hence, it establishes a differentiation of the fine arts from popular entertainments. The adjective ‘fine’ refers not to the artwork’s quality within the discipline, but the purity of the discipline itself.

Caravaggio's Dagger, Mozart, Clarinet Quintet, K. 581

Mozart: Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, opening bars

Caravaggio’s Dagger is structured as six taxonomies or sections, and contains 83 poems. Taxonomy in this instance refers to division into ordered group or categories. The opening taxonomy, “Pyre of the Accidental Butterfly,” deals with instances of war and social disruption. The second taxonomy, “In the North of the Afternoon,” with the perplexities and vexations of personal life. Taxonomy Three, “At the Widening of the Narrow,” of the intrusion of death into these perplexities. Taxonomy Four, “The Waterways of Avalon,” of approaches to what is gone and past. Taxonomy Five, “Confluence of the Tributaries,” a synthesis of how to recognize what is worthwhile and of beauty in this decay of time. And, the sixth and last taxonomy, “Caravaggio’s Dagger,” with how the artistry of place can assist in an awareness of the inexorability of war and social disruption.

An article on the poem that concludes Taxonomy One, on destruction by bombardment, is found here; from the opening of the book, on refugees, is found here; on the fragility of relationships, is found here; and, on emigration, is found here.

An article on the origin of Caravaggio’s Dagger can be read here.

Many of this book’s poems have previously been published in established Canadian literary periodicals such as Canadian Literature, Descant, The Fiddlehead, Grain, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly, Nashwaak Review, Malahat Review, Contemporary Verse 2, Qwerty, WordWorks, and Windsor Review, as well as in well-regarded periodicals that have ceased publication, such as Quarry and The Far Point.

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Covenant – Of the Caravan of the Pilgrimage of Life

Covenant Cover, Pyramid Lake from Pyramid Island, Jasper, Alberta (Image: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Covenant Cover, Pyramid Lake from Pyramid Island, Jasper, Alberta (Image: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

The subject of Covenant, a book of poetry, is the contract life imposes on a human being as the fundamental condition of its existence. It is explored as the unstated, never negotiated covenant between existence and life; that is, the conditional situation that existence provides to those that live within it, and the necessity in particular of human life to acknowledge and respect the inexplicability and inexorability of the situation it has been given.

The epigraph is from the second chapter of Book the First of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit:

… 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.

Covenant is in four parts and ten sections, contains 72 poems, and was written between June, 2005 and March, 2015.

Part One: The Covenant of Mortal Dreams

1 Cedar Street, my house in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. 28 February 2008. (Photo: Gloria Steel)

1 Cedar Street, my house in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. 28 February 2008. (Photo: Gloria Steel)

Mortal Dreams is concerned with the obligations of the journey. It is in two sections: “Dispossession,” which deals with unexpected transitions and the suddenness of uncertainties, and “Stopover,” which deals the randomness of experiences, and how intentions, however much they are earnest or indifferent, and however good or evil, and however much explored, produce complications that evade explanation.

In some respects this Part has an examination of the indifference and mysterious inevitability of good and evil that is merged in the human being—just as it is universally immaterial throughout the rest of nature, which, in the inexorable rendering of consequences, has no need of the moral and ethical attributions we peculiar animals put on: with our often purposeless predilection for concepts—and the utter unpredictability of fortune, chance, and happenstance that so greatly shapes any human being’s way.

Mortal Dreams of the Demigod, St. Stephen NB

New Brunswick Southern Railway, off
Hawthorne Street south of Queen Street West, St. Stephen, New Brunswick, February 3rd, 2008. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Much of this Part was written in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, and in New England.

Part Two: Covenant of the Lost Arias

The Lost Arias explores the influence of place, whether gained or lost, on artistry, and the reconciliation between the return of the insistence of voice and the inescapable insistence of the cultures it is within. In these contexts, Lost Arias examines the recovery of the highest that is in us.

Lost Arias is influenced in part by both the positive and negative aspects of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen; for that work and its paradoxes, and, the irreconcilable paradox of the personality of its composer, both of which mirrored, with my realizing it consciously—the concentration of my consciousness of the tetralogy driven increasingly by the clash of good and evil—, a major journey of my own in quest of identity. In retrospect, I thought I was accomplishing security and comfort, when in fact what I was effecting was detour and abandonment—no matter how necessary these may have seemed, and, indeed, how truly important the content of these years were; and, whose manifestations seemed to press, at the time often well, yet later, increasingly less so.

Mortal Dreams of the Demigod, Das Rheingold, Loge

Wagner: Loge, Das Rheingold, 2

Lost Arias also has admixtures of influence from the symphonies of composer Dmitri Shostakovich; the poetry of Hafiz in Daniel Ladinsky’s fine translations; and, smaller but important elements of intellectual contribution from Québec composer Gilles Tremblay, from the fugal mind of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Isamu Noguchi, most particularly his Black Sun in front of the Museum of Asian Arts in Seattle’s Volunteer Park.

A debt to Aristotle’s Ethics, which is referred to in the conclusion of this Part, is warranted for suggesting portions of its development.

… 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

Moreover, as is the case throughout much of my poetry, the subliminal influence of Dickens exists; in this Part, in particular, from Dombey and Son. There is also, once again, a substantial influence of the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich.

View of Howe Sound, British Columbia, from the Bowen Island-Mainland ferry, 7 October 2010 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

View of Howe Sound, British Columbia, from the Bowen Island-Mainland ferry, 7 October 2010 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

It is in three sections. The first, “Courting the Remembrances,” reviews places lost but nonetheless remembered, in that edited, sometimes edifying, manner in which human beings think about what has gone by. It conflates aspects of cultures present and past, and comes to a point of provisional reconciliation between beginnings and the subsequent travels to the present. The second section, “Passacaglia Pier,” moves to a consideration of the sustenance of voice in places of instability, illegality, lawlessness, and partisanship. The third section, “The Ferryman’s Obolus,” returns, in augmentation, to an assessment of right action, specifically that right action may enable a way not only to a re-discovery of voice, but also its reconciliation to an individual necessity of its recognition; and, a conscious awareness of acceptance, wherever one may find oneself.

Much of this Part was written on the west coast, in particular in Ucluelet and Parksville, both on Vancouver Island, and on Bowen Island in Greater Vancouver, and in Seattle.

Part Three: Covenant of the Golden Shadows

The impetus for Golden Shadows was clearly precipitated by an April, 2011 trip to San Francisco, which 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 an 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.

Den Vergulden Turk, Breestraat, Leiden, Netherlands

Den Vergulden Turk, where Mahler and Freud met, Breestraat, Leiden, Netherlands

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.

Around the same I also re-reread Wendy Lesser‘s book on the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, Music for Silenced Voices, which I had also found at City Lights in San Francisco:

“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)

Golden Shadows is in three sections. “Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden” deals with origins. “The Underside of Time” deals with the nature of certain constants of society. “Torn by Victory” examines how artistry enables one to rise beyond such constraints.

This Part was largely written in Alberta, in the town of Peace River and in the city of Edmonton.

Part Four: Covenant of the River Valley

Courtyard of the the Ursuline Campus of the Southwest School of Art at Rio San Antonio, Texas, 25 July 2013 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Courtyard of the the Ursuline Campus of the Southwest School of Art at Rio San Antonio, Texas, 25 July 2013 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

The theme of River Valley is first the acknowledgment, and then the recognition, in several guises, of the covenant. It is in two sections. “Countersubjects” is concerned with the paradox of antagonism and acceptance. “Landfall” deals with recognition of the interrelationship of existence and life, and the influence of this covenant upon purpose.

This Part was largely written in San Antonio, Texas and in Edmonton, Alberta.

North Saskatchewan River valley, Edmonton, Alberta, 8 May 2014 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

North Saskatchewan River valley, Edmonton, Alberta, 8 May 2014 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)


Excerpts of this work are published in Antioch College’s The Antioch Review (Yellow Springs, Ohio), the University of New Brunswick’s The Fiddlehead (Fredericton, New Brunswick), the Federation of British Columbia Writers’ WordWorks (Vancouver, British Columbia), Prairie Fire (Winnipeg, Manitoba), the University of British Columbia’s Canadian Literature (Vancouver, British Columbia), St. Thomas University’s Nashwaak Review (Fredericton, New Brunswick), the Edmonton Stroll of Poets’ Society’s Anthology 2013 and Anthology 2014 (Edmonton, Alberta), Grain (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), and Descant (Toronto, Ontario).

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Bruce Bond – Losses of the Human Spirit

Bruce Bond is both a poet and a musician, and co-editor of American Literary Review.

These five poems, excerpted below, appear in The Missouri Review 37:3 (2014). They deal in part with uncertainties that have evolved as our understanding of the natural force of our vital spirit is leached away by cognitive constructs dissociated from the physical world.

the fields that are the many heavens / of none now who hears a name among them (from “The Saved”)

Bruce Bond (Courtesy:

Bruce Bond (Courtesy:

You who stare / down to read the stones, die a little, / feel the daylight gather (from “Ascension”)

Beneath each touch a little shadow. Some days / distance is kindness. And then, it’s only distance (from “Touch”)

What I love to hate about the dead, / you cannot kill them (from “The Fabulist)

What I would preserve, I sacrifice / to want and habit (from “Glass”)

Bond, author of twelve books, teaches at the University of North Texas, at Denton, some 40 miles northwest of Dallas. The University has some 36,000 students, fourth largest in Texas, and is one of the largest public universities in the United States. Founded in 1890, its trustees ceded control to the state in 1899, and its budget now approaches one billion dollars. It awards some 9,000 degrees annually, a quarter of these at the graduate level. Denton itself, although primarily a college town, is also known for its musical activities.

In Canada, Bond has taught at Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University.

Bond can be heard reading some of his poems in this video, at an anthology release in 2012:



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Edmonton’s Enterprise Quartet – Une sensibilité sûre et sérieuse

Edmonton’s Enterprise Quartet, in another exceptional concert, last Sunday afternoon, at City Hall, to a full house, played quartets by Cherubini and Beethoven. The Enterprise Quartet is comprised of Guillaume Tardif, first violin; Yue Deng, second violin; Leanne Maitland, viola; and, Colin Ryan, violoncello.

Guillaume Tardif introducing the concert, Edmonton City Hall, 8 March 2015 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Guillaume Tardif introducing the concert, Edmonton City Hall, 8 March 2015 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

The Beethoven Op. 95 in f minor from 1811 has long been my favourite of the Beethoven quartets, but I knew the Cherubini, his first quartet, in E flat major, from 1814, not at all.  The latter seems to be enjoying a warranted resurgence amongst quartet players round the world. Take, for example, this short discussion by members of Australia’s Acacia Quartet.

If you look at the score of the quartet, it will be clear that it is far from easy.

The part-writing is intricate, often highly transparent, and frequently demands the players to play passages in which their instrument is highly exposed, or is in dialogue or sequence with another’s, or requires the most stringent attention to silences. In addition, the rhythmic challenges are considerable. The Larghetto, a set of variations in a very tight 2/4 meter, requires meticulous execution of short, complicated note values within a demanding context of dynamics. The scherzo gives the players no respite, and its trio, pp légèrement et detachées throughout, requires the utmost of technique. Fugal passages are often in evidence, and provide an interestingly integrating character to the piece, which does not permit the players any surcease of application even in the finale.

The Enterprise Quartet, breathing life anew into Luigi Cherubini's music, Edmonton City Hall, 8 March 2015 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

The Enterprise Quartet, breathing life anew into Luigi Cherubini’s music, Edmonton City Hall, 8 March 2015 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), although born in Florence, spent most of his life in France. It is possible that he was acquainted with Beethoven’s Op. 95. In any event, this E flat quartet is not in the tradition initiated by Haydn, and pursued by Mozart and Beethoven. Cherubini has been dismissed as a capable composer handicapped aesthetically by his predictability of style and inalterable adherence to the standard tenets of harmony and modulation in music. “Pulverizingly correct,” as Harold Schonberg put it. Even if so, this quartet fully attracts one’s attention. Even Bacharach and Pearce’s The Musical Companion comments that Donald Tovey “acutely remarked that the inner parts of Cherubini … quartets are often more interesting and idiomatically written than Haydn’s.”

The composer’s name, incidentally, means ‘little cherub.’

If Cherubini is nicely expansive, Beethoven (1770-1827) in his f minor quartet is concision to the point of the remarkable. The other works in the same category are his 30th piano sonata in E major, Op. 109, and the Coriolan overture, Op. 62. András Schiff considers that piano sonata the finest of Beethoven’s, and although I am hardly in the same critical league as Sir András, that, too, has long been my view. I have the same view of the Coriolan overture, however much Leonore and the Count of Egmont appeal to me.

The Enterprise Quartet gave this work, frankly, a fantastic performance fully worthy of its composer. The opening movement, with that fierce violence that Beethoven keeps only barely beneath the surface, was stunningly effective. The felicities of the slow movement were sustained with a great purpose of beauty, with particularly fine expression, throughout, of the part for ‘cello, and of the part for viola, on which the central fugato so intensely relies. After the tensility of the scherzo, it is often difficult to bring out the bittersweet ache of the final movement; but not this time. In fact, for once, even the concluding, faster section in the major key, sounded perfectly in place, and not a retreat from the investigations that the preceding has put before the audience.

When I returned to Edmonton three years ago, I heard the Quartet play Beethoven’s Op. 18, and the following year, all the late quartets, twice, including the Große Fuge. Now, I will be leaving Edmonton shortly after hearing the Op. 95. All of these performances were free to the public, and played with musical skill, understanding, and dedication.

If there is one thing I shall most miss about Edmonton, it will be the Quartet.

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Robyn Sarah – The Forgotten Insistence of the Past

Five poems by Montreal’s Robyn Sarah appear in Prism’s 52:3 (winter 2015). They are particularly evocative of the infusion of the past into the present.

Robyn Sarah (Courtesy:

Robyn Sarah (Courtesy:

Consider the subversive hopefulness / of people who are starting over (from “An Infrequent Flyer Looks Down).

It could at any moment pour rain / on your bare arms— / You mistook this for happiness (from “Breach”).

What is the wall that divides us / from our shining? (from “Lacunae”).

It’s about closing the distance / that made them strange? (from “A Guide to Modern Verse”).

the door they shut fast / on the messy years they’ve chosen / not to revisit (from “Swept Away”).

All five of these poems will be included in Sarah’s forthcoming My Shoes Are Killing Me, from Biblioasis Press. Prism’s Rob Taylor interviewed the author about this book.

Sarah can be heard reading several of her poems from Questions About The Stars in this video:

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