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)
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.
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.
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)
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, 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)
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)
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).