(Interval: Poems Based on Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Tucson, AZ: Schaffner Press, 2015)
Echoing the rigid form of the source material, in which the same aria both begins and ends a sequence of variations, Canadian pianist Glen Gould’s first and last recordings are of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” these interpretations of this baroque masterpiece bookending a prolific career. The first, released in 1956, was his debut, and he takes it on in a meticulous, energetic, showy manner: a 22 year old man with something to prove, and, put frankly, proving a lot. The second he recorded in 1981, shortly before his death, and it is a slower, more somber and transcendent take. In the differences between these recordings one finds an imprint of a life lived in music, and it is remarkable that the same score could lead to such disparate results.
It’s that same form, that architecture that is directly echoed in Alice B. Fogel’s ekphrastic Interval: Poems Based on Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Like the piece of music, there is a set structure in place; each of the thirty two poems is thirty two lines—themselves usually split into two groupings of eight couplets—echoing the thirty two measures, similarly split, of the music, and the same “Aria” both opens and closes everything. What becomes interesting, and certainly drives this collection, is the way that, much like Bach’s work or Gould’s disparate interpretations of it, these poems are able to at once convey a kind of formal unity while also displaying invention and eclecticism.
In a similar way that Bach’s compositions and baroque music in general is inherently religious, there is certainly a spirituality at play in Fogel’s work. “Variation 1: Yhwh,” for instance, is steeped in a Biblical conception of an Old Testament God, who proclaims: “Flung wide, electrified, I striated skies/ with ellipsis, color, collapse, shot suns past// eclipse.” What becomes interesting, and arises as a prevailing theme throughout this collection, is the way that identity is portrayed as inconstant, shifting and multiple, even (and especially) when it is connected to the divine. The voice in “Variation 5: Spinning” intones “I was dizzying// the dust scattering debris of meteors splintering/ memory oncoming I spilled in and out of infinities,” and later “the eye inside unseeing and I/ …the world breath living wind.” As throughout, Fogel is tuned into the way that form can inform expression; the spacing between the words here seems to imply breaths both divine and secular.
It is in the space between terrestrial, grounded experience and a sense of the ephemeral that these poems tend to thrive. For instance, there is a distinct loneliness conveyed in the voice of “Variation 13: Artist” as she describes crossing through a snowy, outdoor scene while meditating on the inability to truly capture the moment; “Draw everything—/ the density of trees, sprawled weeds, waves of shadow and shade—// everything else but the snow and still the snow is there.” In some sense, the snow comes to represent potential, a kind of blank canvas that’s destined to change and disappear, but grips the landscape, where it becomes “a vision// like what the dying might see in the mind’s new eye, shaped/ by oncoming memory, or outlined by the failure// of a heart.” Throughout the collection, Fogel’s ability to create a contemplative, reflective field—either with more ornate language or a keen sense of rhythm and music—lends a vitality to the work. These poems, much like Bach’s variations or the vacillations of an active and perceiving mind, are in turns celebratory, mournful, and passionate as they force both speaker and reader to confront identity and the creation of a self.
But it’s the rigidity of the imposed structure that, almost despite itself, gives Fogel the freedom to explore a diverse range of approaches. Most effective and poignant are those moments when the poems start to actually transcend their own limitations: when they move beyond the baroque, as it were. “Variation 27: Awakener” is chilling because of the way it drops the reader into an intimate, almost terrifying experience of alienation, confusion of the senses, and death. “Bough broken, in the bone-// naked light I saw instead their/ demon spirits, gruesome, writhing” the voice describes a chaotic, medical scene, building to “the force of life like a witless bean/ still jumping, spasmodic, inside.” And yet this aura of restlessness and palpable suffering is juxtaposed with a feeling of helplessness, where “I wondered in my/ strapped paralysis if one awful voice was mine.” Simultaneously disembodied, removed from the self, and yet present in the scene, the effect is staggering and complex; a finely wrought music that manages to be both intimate and mysterious.
Perhaps because Interval is at its core invested in exploring the way that a baroque structure could tackle more contemporary experience, the language in this collection shifts from being more plain spoken and being artful and ornate. The persona poems here are able to further this sense of invention and hybridity; for instance, there’s an almost comedic amount of unselfconsciousness at play in “Variation 16: Actor,” in which the voice, a thespian, asks: “Don’t you just wish/ you could live once in this be-costumed bod, and die// night after night, and die and die, and die, and still—wonders—be/ this attractive?” Freewheeling and jaunty here, Fogel is able at once to comment on the artifice, even kind of vanity, of the poetic project itself.
Elsewhere, though, this baroque type approach, especially to language, becomes a little smothering. The first reading of “Aria”—the poem most directly invested in exploring the variations as products of the composer’s hand by addressing him—seems constrained by a desire to sort of describe the project as a whole: “it is as if the finite, bound,/ has unwound when your now becomes now anew,// now mine,” which develops into “the perfect grid of abiding piers upon which you// superimpose the moving force/ of brilliant ephemera.” Something about the tendency to describe what the music does in abstract terms (“the moving force” and the “brilliant ephemera”) here seems to leave less of an impression. That said, when the “Aria” returns after the variations—after the reader has engaged with both the aggregate of the poems in their sequence, with all of their related but distinct voices—these same tendencies actually strengthen the commentary.
Pianists and critics have long debated whether Gould’s initial recordings of the “Goldberg Variations” or the latter ones are to be considered definitive. The answers seem to depend on whether one should value the dazzling technique and bluster of the older version, or the maturity and implied melancholy of the 1981 sessions. What is interesting about Interval is that, in some sense, Fogel is able to capture both of these types of ‘readings’ of Bach’s work: there are as many youthful and vibrant poems as there are those world-weary and steeped in a sense of mortality. By allowing the source material to create a kind of scaffolding without dominating the work—and by allowing these poems to exist both inside their prescribed structure and outside of it—the reader becomes ensconced in an arresting and affecting meditation on the nature of identity and existence, of the spiritual and the earthly, of time and memory.
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Mark Gurarie splits time between Northampton, MA and Brooklyn, NY. A graduate of the New School’s MFA program, he teaches writing online and freelances as copywriter and editor. He is also the Printed Matter editor of Boog City, a founder of Brooklyn based reading series, Mental Marginalia and bass player with psychedelic punk outfit, Galapagos Now!. In 2012, his chapbook, Pop :: Song was selected by Major Jackson to be the winner of the New School’s Chapbook Prize, and his first full-length collection, Everybody’s Automat is forthcoming from The Operating System press in the Spring of 2016. Poems and criticism of his have appeared in Publisher’s Weekly, The Rumpus, Paper Darts, Everyday Genius, The Brooklyn Review, Pelt, Bort Quarterly and elsewhere. Find him on twitter: @chewspoppers.