Theodore Roethke, text.
High Voice, Clarinet & Piano (1997), ca. 22′
Premiered by Elizabeth Farnum, Dennis Joseph & Charles Tauber at NYU.
Listen to a live performance by Melissa Fogarty (soprano), Chris Cullen (clarinet) and Laura Barger (piano):
I dream of journeys repeatedly:
Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel,
Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula,
The road lined with snow-laden second growth,
A fine dry snow ticking the windshield,
Alternate snow and sleet, no on-coming traffic,
And no lights behind, in the blurred side-mirror,
The road changing from glazed tarface to a rubble of stone,
Ending at last in a hopeless sand-rut,
Where the car stalls,
Churning in a snowdrift
Until the headlights darken.
At the field’s end, in the corner missed by the mower,
Where the turf drops off into a grass-hidden culvert,
Haunt of the cat-bird, nesting-place of the field-mouse,
Not too far away from the ever-changing flower-dump,
Among the tin cans, tires, rusted pipes, broken machinery,-
One learned of the eternal;
And in the shrunken face of a dead rat,
eaten by rain and ground-beetles
(I found it lying among the rubble of an old coal bin)
And the tom-cat, caught near the pheasant-run,
Its entrails strewn over the half-grown flowers,
Blasted to death by the night watchman.
I suffered for birds, for young rabbits caught in the mower,
My grief was not excessive.
For to come upon warblers in early May
Was to forget time and death:
How they filled the oriole’s elm,
a twittering restless cloud, all one morning,
And I watched and watched
till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes,-
Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean,-
Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,
Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,
Still for a moment,
Then pitching away in half-flight,
Lighter than finches,
While the wrens bickered and sang in the half-green hedgerows,
And the flicker drummed from his
dead tree in the chicken-yard.
-Or to lie naked in sand,
In the silted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar;
Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire;
Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log,
I’ll return again,
As a snake or a raucous bird,
Or, with luck, as a lion.
I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.
The river turns on itself,
The tree retreats into its own shadow.
I feel a weightless change, a moving forward
As of water quickening before a narrowing channel
When banks converge, and the wide river whitens;
Or when two rivers combine, the blue glacial torrent
And the yellowish-green from the mountainy upland,-
At first a swift rippling between rocks,
Then a long running over flat stones
Before descending to the alluvial plain,
To the clay banks, and the wild grapes
hanging from the elmtrees.
The slightly trembling water
Dropping a fine yellow silt where the sun stays;
And the crabs bask near the edge,
The weedy edge, alive with small snakes and bloodsuckers,-
I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.
I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.
The lost self changes,
Turning toward the sea,
A sea-shape turning around,-
An old man with his feet before the fire,
In robes of green, in garments of adieu.
A man faced with his own immensity
Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire.
The murmur of the absolute, the why
Of being born fails on his naked ears.
His spirit moves like a monumental wind
That gentles on a sunny blue plateau.
He is the end of things, the final man.
All finite things reveal infinitude:
The mountain with its singular bright shade
Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope,
A scent beloved of bees;
Silence of water above a sunken tree:
The pure serene of memory in one man,-
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world.
I composed my setting of Theodore Roethke’s The Far Field in 1997, over the course of a month; there was a deadline for a performance that in the end was cancelled at the last minute due to an illness. Writing this piece was emotionally difficult for me. At the time, I had written a string of short chamber pieces, and wanted to tackle something large to shake myself out of the pattern. The large-scale trajectory of Roethke’s text moves from a point of isolation and a fearful contemplation of mortality and decay to a place beyond acceptance of one’s own death, to an embrace of it. The rapidity with which I had to set this monumental, beautiful text meant that I had to live with it intimately for that month, and ultimately take that same journey with the poet. I had trouble with this, and would find myself in a sullen funk for days at a time. In the end I found a place within myself to find the beauty in death that Roethke found, and set it that way. As I write these program notes four years later, I look back on that process and that text and can’t help but regard it as one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received, and thank Roethke for it.