MEDITATION AT OYSTER RIVER was written in the summer of 2003. Though I have not written a great deal of vocal music, I have been drawn to Theodore Roethke’s last book of poetry, The Far Field, for at least twenty five years. In the early 1980’s, I based a violin sonata on selected passages from the title poem. I am drawn to the collection’s natural imagery and insight. And, though the prevailing subject matter centers around the poet’s impending death, I have always been taken by the poetry’s optimism and celebration of life.
As an artist, I sympathize with the poet in his identification of his life energy with his art. Though the end of his life brings despair, it also brings inspiration. That inspiration allows him to treasure his existence and come to terms with its limits.
The poem, Meditation At Oyster River, seems to me to be a metaphor for how that life-nourishing inspiration emerged from under the shadow of death. At first, it is just a single ripple, barely noticeable through the stillness. But a lifetime of experience identifies its meaning. A lifetime of seasons identifies the illusive scent of spring. The poet sits on the riverbank and waits with patient excitement for what he knows is coming. His tired body disguising his tingling flesh. As the inspiration rushes over, he is revitalized and feels young again, turning his despair into wonder and irony.
After choosing the text, it still took me quite a while to come to terms with it, but I found this project to be enormously fulfilling, even cleansing. It has been about 30 years since I last wrote a set of songs for my sister, Eleanor Stallcop/Horrox. My views on many things both musical and nonmusical have changed in the meantime. However, my respect and admiration for her talents and abilities have grown steadily. Hopefully, it does not take another 30 years for the next set.
Over the low, barnacled, elephant-colored rocks
Come the first tide ripples, moving, almost without sound, toward me,
Running along the narrow furrows of the shore, the rows of dead
Then a runnel behind me, creeping closer,
Alive with tiny striped fish, and young crabs climbing in and out of the
No sound from the bay. No violence.
Even the gulls quiet on the far rocks,
Silent, in the deepening light,
Their cat-mewing over,
At last one long undulant ripple,
Blue black from where I am sitting,
Makes almost a wave over a barrier of small stones,
Slapping lightly against a sunken log.
I dabble my toes in the brackish foam sliding forward,
Then retire to a rock higher up on the cliffside.
The wind slackens, light as a moth fanning a stone —
A twilight wind, light as a child’s breath,
Turning not a leaf, not a ripple.
The dew revives on the beach grass;
The salt-soaked wood of a fire crackles;
A fish raven turns on its perch (a dead tree in the river mouth),
Its wings catching a last glint of the reflected sunlight.
Mvt. 2 – With These I Would Be (7′)
The self persists like a dying star,
In sleep, afraid. Death’s face rises afresh,
Among the shy beasts — the deer at the salt lick,
The doe, with its sloped shoulders, loping across the highway,
The young snake, poised in green leaves, waiting for its fly,
The hummingbird, whirring from quince blossom to morning-glory —
With these I would be.
And with water: the waves coming forward without cessation,
The waves, altered by sandbars, beds of kelp, miscellaneous driftwood,
Topped by cross-winds, tugged at by sinuous undercurrents,
The tide rustling in, sliding between the ridges of stone,
The tongues of water creeping in quietly.
Mvt. 3 – The First Trembling (6′)
In this first heaven of knowing,
The flesh takes on the pure poise of the spirit,
Acquires, for a time, the sandpiper’s insouciance,
The hummingbird’s surety, the kingfisher’s cunning.
I shift on my rock, and I think:
Of the first trembling of a Michigan brook in April.
Over a lip of stone, the tiny rivulet;
And the wrist-thick cascade tumbling from a cleft rock,
Its spray holding a double rainbow in the early morning,
Small enough to be taken in, embraced, by two arms;
Or the Tittabawasee, in the time between winter and spring,
When the ice melts along the edges in early afternoon
And the mid-channel begins cracking and heaving from the pressure beneath,
The ice piling high against the ironbound spiles,
Gleaming, freezing hard again, creaking at midnight,
And I long for the blast of dynamite,
The sudden sucking roar as the culvert loosens its debris of branches and
Welter of tin cans, pails, old birds’ nests, a child’s shoe riding a log—
As the piled ice breaks away from the battered spiles
And the whole river begins to move forward, its bridges shaking.
Mvt. 4 – The Motion of Morning (6′)
Now, in this waning of light,
I rock with the motion of morning;
In the cradle of all that is,
I’m lulled into half sleep
By the lapping of waves,
The cries of the sandpiper.
Water’s my will and my way,
And the spirit runs, intermittently,
In and out of the small waves,
Runs with the intrepid shore birds —
How graceful the small before danger!
In the first of the moon,
All’s a scattering,