Idyllwild Poetry and Jazz – Summer, 2014

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Idyllwild Poetry Festival: “What to do with the rest of your life”

The poetry week at Idyllwild in the summer, 2014 held its first reading last night in the Parks Exhibition Center. Ed Skoog led off with a long poem about taking a shower at night that seemed somewhat akin to another of his poem that was recently published in American Poetry Review. In “Being in Plays,” Skoog invokes the “foldable theater / half-constructed on page or mind” that is plastic enough to enfold itself with “the unseen,” implicitly half-visible to him in the poem’s lyric silence. The poem about taking a shower at night, however, is much more ambitious than “Being in Plays” and towards the end began to rise to the dramaturgic challenge posed by Wallace Stevens in “Of Modern Poetry.”

Because the gallery was going to hold an opening at 8:00 p.m., the reading had an hour time limit, and Skoog very generously allotted the bulk of the time to his two featured poets, Troy Jollimore and Ellen Bass. Jollimore focused on poems he had recently written, which immediately earned my admiration. It’s all too tempting for a poet to view a reading as an opportunity to impress the audience with one’s best efforts, and sometimes such a reading is appropriate, but Jollimore seemed to trust both his work-in-progress and the occasion of a new audience in a remote, small town as fully compatible.  Of the half-dozen or so poems he read, my favorites were “On the Origins of Things” and “Marvelous Things without Number.”

Ellen Bass read about the same amount of time, though she focused on published poems from her most recent collection, Like a Beggar.  She led off with that book’s first poem, “Relax,” followed by “Padre Hotel,” “The Morning After” and the evening’s most immediately memorable poem, “What Did I Love,” an extended meditation on being held accountable for the meat you eat by being willing to execute it. Bass is an exceptionally fine reader, and her voice embodied the subtle cadences and rhythms propelling her imagistic rhetoric.


The best moment of the evening was yet to come. On her suggestion, Linda and I walked over to Bowman Auditorium for a jazz presentation. We walked in while someone was concluding a number that featured a meditation on John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood.” Then Marshall Hawkins slowly strode across the stage and took up an enormous upright bass, upon which he began to stroke his bow for the opening moments of a composition entitled “What to Do With the Rest of Your Life.” When I opened my eyes after listening intently to the first 30 seconds or so, I kept looking for the horn. But no one was playing a horn. It was Hawkins, deftly coaxing the strings of the upright into a plangent spindrift of suspended yearning. I don’t have any idea of how he managed to transform his instrument from string to brass, but he did. I have heard Hawkins perform several times over the past 15 years when I was on the main amphitheater stage at Idyllwild for the festival, back when it was impeccably run by Cecilia Woloch. Hawkins is one of the master artists of our time, and I doubt a moment of equally fierce tenderness was offered to any audience on the West Coast last night. It was a privilege to hear him still sharing his vision at the heights of his undiminished powers.



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