The Music of What Happens by Geri Rosenzweig

     In a way, an introduction to a collection of poems seems redundant. The
impulse to write speaks for itself in the poems, I can only hope the reader
finds something in them that speaks of the experiences we all share in life.
Poems being moments captured like flies in a web, feelings put into words
using language with a cadence and syntax we rarely use in our everyday

     The Editor, Wayne Ray, asked me how I came to use the images/metaphors found in my poems. Let me answer that with a quote by the scholar and translator of Celtic languages, Kuno Meyer. He said "to seek out and watch and love nature, in its tiniest phenomena as in its grandest, was given to no people so early and so fully as the Celt." Well, I believe this attentiveness to nature is not peculiar to the Celts. Anyone who grew up in the country, the rural areas of their land, has that same watchfulness towards nature which Kuno Meyer speaks of. Yet, I am a Celt, born in a small town in the Irish midlands. At the end of our vegetable garden was a little stream I could cross and enter the world of woods and fields, the green places that children love to wander through. Also, in school, we had to memorize Early Irish poems, small poems written by Irish monks as they sat in their cells, sometime in the 7th century, taking a break perhaps from the illuminated manuscripts they worked on. Here is an example of one. It is obviously spring:

The Blackbird of Belfast Lough
The small bird
let a chirp
from its beak.
I heard woodnotes,
whin-gold, sudden.
The Lagan

     To me, that poem, in its language, is precise and clear as the blackbird's
song itself. This is the kind of poetry I "listened" to as a child. Later, I
memorized Wordsworth, Keats. Keats' Ode to Autumn still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Because of where I grew up, metaphors/similes are "out there" in nature, and if I'm lucky they are waiting to be plucked and linked up with seemingly unrelated events, ideas. They are a way of groping for words, a way to enlarge the language. It's fine to say, "I'm lonely" when you're talking with a friend, but in a poem that's going to sound flat. I think of an expression used all the time when I was a kid in Ireland. "Lonely as the cry of a curlew" was the way someone might express their feelings. There is nothing more mournful than the cry of a curlew on a deserted beach, especially on a summer evening in Ireland! The simile broadens the language and deepens the meaning of the word, "loneliness".

     Poetry is a way of entry into the buried life of feelings, a retrieval
system whereby the past is brought up and restored to the light of the
present. Often it's a word that haunts the ear and mind before it arrives on
the tongue. That was how the poem, "The Quince", started. I heard the word,
"quince" in my ear. The more I repeated it to myself, the more I though of
something bitter, but so what? I know the fruit is hard, sour and is
processed into jams and jellies, with a large helping of sugar, before it
becomes edible. Weeks went by, I couldn't get away from it, then one day,
lying in bed with a back, two lines 'wrote' themselves in my mind; "when I
was young/under a jasmine moon." Suddenly the memories of the orchard I had robbed one moonlit night in my eight year came flooding back, a magical place watched over by stern owners who knew every kid for miles around plotted, regularly, to rob them of the apples, pears, plums in that glimmering garden.

     For me it was the quince, dazzling, golden on its black branch. I imagined it back then as a soft, juicy sort of apple. Perhaps that first subversive act
of "breaking and entering", the kicking against all the "Thou Shalt Nots"
hammered into me by parents and nuns, was my first poem! I do know that in
the writing of it, I felt the old fear and excitement, heard the strange
sounds of the orchard in the dark, and then, the terrible shock of the fruit,
bitter on my tongue. Ah, life! The O sounds in the words 'young, moon,
tongue' echo the darkness, the longing to taste the forbidden. In the first
drafts, I typed it up in two-line stanzas, later when I tried three-line
stanzas, I was pleased with the pause between line three and four, I felt
that slight halt described the stealth, the hesitation between 'slipping the
bolt' and actually opening the gate. I don't want to overload the poem with
too much significance, but the image of the "First Garden", with it forbidden
fruit, etched in the collective unconscious, and how knowledge can be hard
and bitter, pleased me after the poem was finished.

     Poetry is a revealing of the self to the self. In 1960 I emigrated to
America and like any exile, I constantly looked back, hankering after what is
left behind, sometimes forgetting the reasons that made me come here. In "The Calf and The Moon", the impulse for the poem came from a question someone asked me when I was in Ireland one summer. Of course, the answer was 'no'.
Later, I thought of the biblical story of the Prodigal son. I suppose the
poem is an answer to that question. I am the Prodigal daughter who 'won't
return to my mother's house'. Now I had said it! Feelings into words. As the
in the poem, "These Are The Days", I was coming to terms with the past. I
like the I and K sounds in 'dark as a cricket, the feeling of lightness,
quickness associated with youth, the beginning of the journey. The image of
the calf, in section two comes from childhood summers spent on my uncle's
farm; when it was time to leave, I actually 'rubbed the woolly knobs of her
horns good-bye'. Having the calf live on the poem reaffirms the line, 'I
won't return to my mother's house.' In section three, the long O in 'moon,
shadow, song' have a kind of finality about them which I hope speaks in this
poem.  I think of the moon in its journey around the earth describes my
restlessness, my longing to keep moving.

     Let me end this brief introduction to Under The Jasmine Moon with a
story. Finn MacCool, legendary Irish hero, was asked, What is Poetry? His
answer was, "Poetry is being close to the music of what happens." The
experience of the poem, the pleasure in its sounds, syntax, rhythm, for
reader and writer, is a blundering after the music of what happens.


Editor's note:   The above essay is Geri Rosenzweig's introduction to her book,
Under The Jasmine Moon.

Click here to read Geri Rosenzweig's poems.