Faith Shearin: “Music at My Mother’s Funeral”

Music at My Mother’s Funeral

During the weeks when we all believed my mother
was likely to die she began to plan
her funeral and she wanted us, her children,
to consider the music we would play there. We remembered
the soundtrack of my mother’s life: the years when she swept
the floors to the tunes of an eight track cassette called Feelings,
the Christmas when she bought a Bing Crosby album
about a Bright Hawaiian Christmas Day. She got Stravinsky’s
Rite of Spring stuck in the tape deck of her car and for months
each errand was accompanied by some kind
of dramatic movement. After my brother was born,
there was a period during which she wore a muumuu
and devoted herself to King Sunny Ade and his
African beats. She ironed and wept to Evita, painted
to Italian opera. Then, older and heavier, she refused
to fasten her seatbelt and there was the music
of an automated bell going off every few minutes,
which annoyed the rest of us but did not seem to matter
to my mother who ignored its relentless disapproval,
its insistence that someone was unsafe.
Poem copyright ©2013 by the Alaska Quarterly Review.

I really like Faith Shearin’s works and I want to point them out as a retort to those who believe that modern poetry is not longer poetry because it lacks metre and rhyme.   What this poem manages to do is tell a story that sweeps up the reader into knowing much more about the mother than a more general remembrance would give us.

Shearin is specific and sincere.  I think I like that about some contemporary poets:  they paint a very specific picture and invite us to relate to it.   Without the self-conscious nodding and winking irony (that’s you, Billy Collins) or the sometimes very amorphous nature-worship (I look at your, Mary Oliver) we have a mother who has gone through various musical phases as she has grown older.
The segue between Evita and Italian opera and the music of the protesting car jolts us with the knowledge (which we already have) that this is the way the world ends for this mother.
The poem invites me to reflect upon the soundtrack of my mother’s life:  Frank Sinatra to Broadway musicals to blaring out Carmen to Beethoven to raptures over Franz Schubert and finally to deeply cherishing Vaughan-Williams, Faure, and Delius.  She went off to do a “Delius and Thomas Hardy” tour of England–old, widowed, but my God—she was really so young!

And for her 70th birthday celebration she wanted nothing more than to have her five remaining children sitting on a sofa watching her “conduct” the Ring Cycle.  That did not last long as you might imagine.   She beamed with pride and pleasure as she conducted the very slow, gradual start of Das Rheingold.  If her children would not pay attention to her very much, she could use her birthday to express herself without the dangerous medium of words.

And finally the final soundtrack—the beeps and blips of a hospital room, the urgent calls over the loudspeaker for Code Blue Stat and the general cacophony which is the music that accompanies most of our deaths.
Faith Shearin makes me partake most lovingly in memory.  Her poems invite us to share her point of view and her vision about many things.   They wander in the vast fields of “memory and desire” where I spend much of my life today.

“The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens and My Own Mind of Winter with a note on Proust: Je suis Tante Leonie!


One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

This one-sentence poem never entirely yields up its wealth. Aside from its spectacular imagery, I puzzle pleasingly over the use of infinitives, prepositions, and the staggering quadruple negative in the final two lines. I turn more and more to Wallace Stevens and Philip Larkin as the bards of my old age: Stevens because he stands aloof from the despair of it and transform it into art and Larkin because he embraces and wallows in it. You need both an exterior and an interior view of having a mind-of-winter.

Right now my “mind-of-winter” is on trial:  I am in a bit of a febrile frenzy reading too much and not doing adequate service by any of it.

For book clubs and challenges I am juggling “The Claverings” by Trollope, “Pendennis” by Thackeray, “Affinity” by Sarah Waters, and “Far from the Madding Crowd” by Hardy.  I also try to spend time every day with Proust.


As I read Proust for the third time I am even more impressed.  The first time I read through Proust I was dashing a bit—trying to pack in the pages.  The second time I read Proust was more like a first time.  Now–I think I am coming at Proust the right way.   The Verdurans and their jolly little gang are amusing.  This time I regard the characters as great characters—not as people who must be looked up to because they were created by Proust.  The insipid fatuity of most “love” or most quests for social position and prestige finally strike me for what they are:  the jostling quest for self-importance as reflected by the “voices” of society or the beautiful people.

But I am now at the Aunt Leonie stage of life–Aunt Leonie with cats to boot!  The only redemption I find in my advanced case of Aunt Leonie-ness is that I have no nephews who are willing to listen to me.  My own Aunt Leonie led me  into crazed dutiful expenditures and was one of the final exhibits in the Case Against Trying to Save People.  I try on Aunt Leonie style fads to see how they work:  how much money would I save if I only wore nightgowns.  I find myself always in an “uncertain state of grief, physical debility, illness, obsession”.

In spite of my love for the other books I am reading, I cling more to Proust because he is the most potentially acidulous–for me, at my moment in life.   Art teaches me how NOT to behave more often than it teaches me how to behave at this late stage of my life.

There’s some brightness here:  I listened to Mozart’s Flute Concerto Number one earlier and it’s lovely (K 313) with all kinds of bright and silvery phrases.



Saffron Ice-Cream

This is yet another part of my week-long tribute to the birthday of Wallace Stevens.  This short poem by British poet, Martin Bell (1918-1978) picks up on the gourmet/gourmand interests of Stevens.  It also reflects the variety of Stevens’s diction from the “Doggone” to the “rococo” and the dissonance between the praise and the bray.  “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is certainly invoked.   It’s a nifty  six-line tribute to two men who toiled to illuminate the unconscious, the active imagination, and the many links between art and the human mind.

Martin Bell:


Wallace Stevens  Welcomes Doctor Jung into Heaven

‘Doggone, they’ve let you in at last, Doc! Gee,
I’m real glad .’ And indicated angels puffing horns
Rococo with praise and bray and bray,
And proffered to him saffron ice cream cones
Topped up with glacé cherries and chopped cashew nuts.
‘Ach! Horn of Plenty,’ the good Doctor said.saffronicecream


Notes on the day:  I’m currently listening to Haydn’s String Quartet Opus 76, number 5.  What harmonic playfulness!  He mixes his notes to achieve the “cantabile e mesto” attribution he gave it:  “singing and sad”.   I think 2016 can fairly be called the year of the string quartet for me.  I have had operatic years, symphonic years, years of concerti and ballet.  Years of all cello all the time and years of Maria Callas and Edward Elgar.


Reading:  I am currently reading White Trash:  The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by historian Nancy Isenberg.  I am only one generation away from “white trash” so I find the book particularly intriguing.  I am also reveling in the opposition:  The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss, the saga of the headmaster of a prestigious New England boarding school.