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Lyrical Ballads
Essay by Hugh Blumenfeld


Phoenix Envy
by Andrew Calhoun
Waterbug Records

Poetry without music is a temporary aberration in the history of literature.

Before print and wide-spread literacy, singing or chanting was the only way to preserve poems. The post-modern era is post-literate; recording technologies can finally preserve words and music together, accurately and cheaply. In between, poets committed their lines chiefly to paper and gradually lost the music. For roughly three hundred years, most of our poetry has sat on the page. It has sat on the page and gotten fat and slow and inbred.

Song has been there all along, of course, a refuge for the sacred and the profane. Murder ballads, love songs, divine psalms: all have preserved a directness, passion and power that poets have consistently tried to carry off with words alone. Sonnets, odes, villanelles - all originally song forms - helped evoke the lost music and escape the abstractness inherent in the print medium. The Romantics tried especially hard, writing more odes, songs, hymns and lyrical ballads than anyone. But only Blake and Burns are known to have actually sung theirs; the Romantics' "ditties of no tone" were mostly a tactical maneuver in their programme for returning poetry to its sources in everyday language and powerful emotion. Until the advent of the tape recorder and the radio, poetry and song continued on separate courses, with song - even sacred song - becoming simplistic while poetry became hopelessly arcane.

In the last fifty years, this split has begun to heal. No living North American poet of the page has had the cultural impact of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, or Joni Mitchell: none has added as many bywords to the language, inspired as much social thought and action, or brought about as much catharsis. Only the Beats and the Black Revolutionary poets, along with a few of their slamming and rapping descendants, rival the power of the song poets, and they, too, write for the voice, evoking the breath - or breathlessness - of musical chanting. Contemporary music is full of poetry, if you can get past the triumvirate of major labels that virtually monopolize our ears. There is a surprising number of quiet, eloquent poets singing, and Andrew Calhoun, founder of Chicago's independent Waterbug label, is among those who are helping to bring some of them to a restless audience.

Calhoun himself is one of the best of these song-poets. His music is shaped by traditions as varied as the Scots song hoard, the baroque guitar repertoire, and the Chicago blues. In his poetry, Robert Burns, Leonard Cohen, and Anonymous meet. Calhoun has fused all of it into an art that is at once contemporary and timeless. His fifth album, Phoenix Envy, selects twenty of his finest songs from the last twenty years.

The recurring theme of Phoenix Envy is the longing for rebirth. But unlike the mythical bird, when we rise from the ashes of the loves and passions that consume us, there is always a loss: diminishings that humble us and scars that make us sadder but wiser. Our endless potential does not make us omnipotent; our best intentions do not make us good.

Because he looks unflinchingly at the limits of love's power and at the pain we cause each other in love's name, many have called Calhoun's songs depressing, but they are the opposite. If he puts his finger on the source of each particular brand of suffering, he also finds out the reserves we possess to survive it. His finest images flash and cut so deeply, that even though love conquers all, it cannot dissolve the moments of searing pain or heal the wounds. Instead, each song has the quality of a koan, a puzzle without a solution beyond the effects of its own repetition.

"Lonesome," for instance, has the simple, plaintive power of Hank Williams, who also knew that lonesome is different from lonely:

     I am so lonesome
    As lonesome as darkness
    As lonesome as water
    As lonesome as God

Lonesomeness is not relational but ontological, the knowledge that the presence or absence of others does not affect the essence of who and what you are. "Sheila" is a study in blindness and insight, the story of a man who escapes from one couple's domestic hell, realizing too late he is only stumbling toward his own. Balancing these preoccupations is a generous dose of playful humor. The live performance of "Folksingers Are Boring" ("c'mon, join hands and sing along!") and the balky ballad of the hapless "Paul Scott" ("I don't know if it's the end of his career or mine") lighten the mood, but even dark songs like "Sheila" show a wry wit, and many, like "Sparrow," a eulogy for a South Side gospel singer, are full of joyful exuberance:

    She's fatter than her Mama
    Bigger than the blues
    Louder than the comics
    in the Sunday News

Two long songs support the weight of Phoenix Envy like suspension bridge towers. "Jack and Jill," is a magic tale of sacrifice and salvation. Like Laura in Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market," Jill seeks out Death in a night-forest and wrests a feverish Jack from its power. With nothing but her fierce love she confronts a "marvelous man" of ivory and flame and is consumed in Jack's place. Her sacrifice rouses Jack whose dream of pulling her from a pit saves her. Using echoes of the disturbing nursery rhyme "Jack and Jill" is typical of the way Calhoun mines the darker, often repressed experiences of childhood for material that has the power to free us from the bonds of reason and habit.

"Never Enough" is a tour de force of Calhoun's methods. The playful stream of consciousness that drives its rhymes and images also drives its epileptic shifts from one rhythm to another, its hanging dissonant chords, and its lapses of nonsense that disintegrate into nonsense syllables which then suddenly open onto moments of clarity:

    We know many things
    And they have made us weak
    We have many friends with whom we do not speak

As in many of Calhoun's songs, an angry God also makes a cameo appearance here, this time in pursuit of a Cain-like character named Henry: "Here he comes, Henry, the great forgiver / To unwind your bowels and pluck out your liver." There's a similar moment in "Journey":

    And the sun raised high
    Like a mighty club
    Said "Where are you hiding?
    And why are you hiding?"

Calhoun's theology is tragedy. God stands for the fate-like forces in the universe that lie beyond our control, buffeting and punishing us. But he barely figures in the struggles we carry on with our own human shortcomings and our imperfect loves. Jesus embodies all that is divine in humans, pitted against the impersonal forces of the natural and supernatural world. So, in "While Jesus was Waiting to Die," an impassive crow presides over a carnal crucifixion:

    While Jesus was waiting to die
    His belly groped for air
    And piss burned on his thigh
    While Jesus was waiting to die

Jesus' cry "My God, why have you forsaken me?" gains pathos by coming after the gorgeous song "O My Son," in which a father tries to save his son from the pain of his parent's divorce and to reassure the boy of his continuing love and protection. Calhoun's characters stand utterly naked before their parents, their children, their lovers, and before us, vulnerable and powerless, as if every song were a crucifixion, a fall from Eden. And yet they stand unembarrassed, these fragile, divine heroes.

"When My Time Comes" is a perfect farewell. Like most songs on the album, it is delicate and almost painfully beautiful. The voice is not a singer's voice, but the voice of a poet compelled to song, breaking sometimes with passion or rage, never sentimental. If the poets are to teach us anything about living, they must also teach us about dying. Victory is not the point - death defeats us all in the end.

    Goodbye to hearts that burn
    Goodbye to hearts that break
    And I'll let go of the difference
    That was not mine to make
   When my time comes

Yes, when his time comes. But not before then.

©1996 Boston Book Review