“Work was something that thrived on fire”

Smoke again, from the Interior fires. The sun that eerie pink-gold when you can see it at all. And the world dry, dry. I was at my desk, finishing the first draft of a long essay on grief and music. I told John the reason why I am playing Bach partitas and sonatas for solo violin over and over again is because I need to understand the rhythm of the movements; they correspond with dances of the time. Well, they do, and they don’t. But I listen — Hilary Hahn, who recorded the partitas at the age of 17; Arnold Steinhardt, who recorded the particular partita I’m obsessed with these days twice, as a young man and as an older man, and I can’t say which I prefer (there is such depth and colour in both recordings); Lara St. John; Joshua Bell….In my essay, I am trying to replicate something of that stately music. Only the dancers are old and dying; they’re people for whom this music would have been as foreign as poetry; but they’re mine and somehow I believe they can dance an allemande or a gigue with the best of them.

It’s my youngest grandchild’s birthday in two days and somehow the music reminds me of how rich my life is with him and his sister and his cousin in the world. We won’t be there to help him celebrate but I expect he will like the box I sent to him, filled with little gifts; he will no doubt like the paper and ribbons best. Though in time he will come to the books, the other things. And he will crawl and walk (unsteadily, maybe just a step at a time) in the grass, his beautiful face as expressive as any I’ve ever loved. Sometimes he dances. And he’s in the essay too.

beautiful henry

I’ve been thinking of poetry, of poems about families, and the one that comes to mind is Philip Levine’s gorgeous “Smoke”. Here’s a passage…

Go back to the beginning, you insist. Why
is the air filled with smoke? Simple. We had work.
Work was something that thrived on fire, that without
fire couldn’t catch its breath or hang on for life.

He alludes in the poem to “the mythology of the family” and in an interview in The Atlantic in 1999, he explained what he meant: “When I speak of “the mythology” in that poem, I really mean a way of losing someone.” Which is exactly what I’m writing about in this essay on music and sorrow—in the smoke, in the heart-breaking Chaconne of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, the dance of the one(s) left behind, as the sun retreats from us, and we move into autumn.

4 thoughts on ““Work was something that thrived on fire””

  1. Oh, thank you, Theresa, for this poem. I didn’t know it. This:

    No, they aren’t dead, they’re just treated that way,
    as objects turned one way and then another
    to catch the light, the light overflowing with smoke.

    The poem, the dance, this post – all beautiful.

  2. Behind me the window is open on a chilly, sunny September morning–I’ve got wool socks on–with a city bus lumbering to the curb to let a parent and chattering child get off, yet reading these words takes me to your world of smoke and music, words, grief, and birthdays–and I so appreciate how the words transport me.

    1. Our season shifted quite literally overnight. Thursday night. On Thursday, I swam in the lake (later in the morning than usual!) and it was lovely and warm. Then rain on the roof — I woke to it, in the small hours, the most beautiful sound. Smoke gone (from here at least, though I know fires still burn all over the province), frogs singing, the light changing, and the small boy in Edmonton now officially 2 (though in that photo he was turning 1). Time for Bach again, time for morning fires in the woodstove, and if not quite time for wool socks, they’re waiting.

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