Richard Howard’s poems are meant to be heard, as anyone who has read them aloud will tell you. In this song cycle I’ve recast his ten-part poem Colored Stones into two simultaneous voices: that of the singer, and that of the piano (itself a collection of “colored stones.”) Heard together, these two voices create ten miniature states of mind, each one as much about person (reader, listener, character) as about place (the poem’s ten locales).
Colored Stones is dedicated to the memory of three of my teachers, Milton Babbitt, Robert Parris, and Goffredo Petrassi.
Chris Pedro Trakas, Jennifer Peterson
COLORED STONES by Richard Howard
Marble, said the guide, a marble mount!
Step by step the Acropolitan
ascent rehearsed — disclosed — our Pilgrimage,
Americans, more Germans, even Greeks.
The Way was ready for us as we came:
whatever we were, the white stones would wear.
Fifty feet away, the buildings look
bullet-pocked, but closer to, each hole
turns out to be a scallop or a snail.
The walls are beaches then! a fossil shore
has taught the lessons of Old Main:
Thalassa! Thalassa! The Ten Thousand cried.
Those rusty looking piles offshore? Three Nymphs
the locals call them, though I can make out
no more than a messy form of bricolage;
here on the wrong side of Gibraltar the sea
can oxidize a nymph into a nun
(Atlantic orders, iron-grey and dun).
Bluestone quarries. This was where they cut
the sidewalks of New York, which do not seem
particularly blue. And giving way
to asphalt and macadam, gravel, dust.
Here the walls of fine-grained boulders glow;
sometimes, “in city pent,” a fine blue must.
Bristling with cannas, Dionysos’s Ear
(a cave above the quarry where Greeks died)
shelters a deft ropemaker who demonstrates
for tourists daily. Sleek golden walls
set off his art, and only cannas share
the crimson shame of Alcibiades.
Braided black and white, the waves repeat
or imitate the rocks of Pemaquid;
these are the interferences of quartz
with granite, some archaic violence
garish as light on water. Stone to sand,
sea to sun, identical returns.
Companioned by the Loire whose limestone cliffs
punctuate a classical landscape, pale
as if they had seen the ghost of Italy,
we turned off, down a lane not on the map,
and before us spread a whited precipice,
The shining slate-capped castle of Chambord!
A whirling snowstorm out of nowhere — so
we say, but into nowhere too is more
like it — and all the Utah boulders turned
from red that had the truth of massacre
to merely mass, no color and no truth:
the ruined rocks under the restless snow.
“A stone in the road — it had to be a stone
to keep that still as the car bore down.” “No,
the shock was not the indifferent adieu
of rock and rubber. Stop. See what it … was.”
The pebbled hide lay open: lilac and pink,
entrails of an iguana still alive.
“I find I incorporate gneiss and coal, stucco’d
all over,” Whitman wrote, and I have been
to the low house (he drew it for himself)
where such incorporation still goes on.
The great stones make a tiny Stonehenge there,
and the poet becomes his good gray grave.
Score available through American Composers Alliance (BMI)
Recording available on my 2002 CD Five.