As a record collector and a fan of all sorts of music, I love thinking about the relationships between sounds and bodies. One way to think about “Aria” is as seven meditations on this theme. In a conversation about what we might call a “queer poetics,” poet and friend Gabrielle Calvocoressi asked me: “How many times have we wanted to use our body in a way that is just past the point of possibility?” When I drafted sections I-III, I was thinking about this question in relationship to the music that arises out of the body. I also thought hard about my use of plural pronouns when writing this poem, the turn towards a “you,” the use of “we” to capture what theorist Ann Cvetkovich calls “public feelings.” When I refer to “dance interludes” in sections VI and VII, I am interested in music’s ability to rattle bodies in public spaces, too. Specifically, I drew inspiration from Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, a book that opens with a personal experience of a Le Tigre concert, a space where Cvetkovich felt a vital queer and lesbian subculture had formed in response to trauma. Having seen this band live, I knew what she meant and tried to write into this sensation.
I also decided while working on this poem (and the crown as a whole) that metrically I did not want to prioritize unity over disjunction. Rather, what I was most interested in was playing with the sounds and restraints that emerge from a queer body, the sounds that emerge from a queer collective, a body or voice that has the potential to be unified by its disjunctions.
Admittedly, as a poet with queer and feminist sensibilities writing a blank verse sonnet, my impulses err on the side of disruption. I want to break a meter much more than I want to write within it. However valuable this impulse, I found that I had to first fool around with what’s “normal” before I could effectively trouble my metrics. So, when I drafted “Aria,” my first crown, I set the following limits: Irregular feet should not outnumber regular feet in a line. No more than two substitutions per line. [These limits did not hold in the final revision, but these guidelines were crucial to the poem’s genesis.]
My hope was that the first sonnet would foreground the crown’s tensions and establish its sonic texture. The desire to silence or disassociate from a high pitch or a curved body is a concern the speaker wrestles with throughout section 1. Later, the speaker reveals a chest that is bound. I wanted to create in the pitch, timbre, and quantity of sound specific moments where the music, too, is cut off or disrupted. Ultimately, these subtle variations and returns build to a visible psychic crisis and narrative shift in lines 8-11. The stanza break bifurcates the sonnet form, creating a visible chasm. The body is bound. Or is it? Sound is bound. Or is it?
The last line of the first sonnet offers a final turn when the “off-pitch soprano steals through” the flattened “frame.” What does it mean to be “off”— to be unsatisfactory? to be strange? to be separate from? I’m not sure. Are the voices in this poem “off-pitch”? Do they satisfy or dissatisfy the ear? And if so, whose ears? Your ears? According to which standard of musical measure? I do know that there is in line 14 an imbalance of vowel pitches; three high frequency “i” and “e” sounds in “this,” “pitch,” and “steal” clash against the low frequency “o” sounds in “soprano”. On the other hand, the line is not necessarily metrically irregular. So, even if the writer/speaker/body lacks control of one aspect of the sonnet’s music, another aspect of the music is regulated. The one metrical irregularity in line 14 is that the line is truncated to nine syllables. The intent here was to give “steals through” extra-emphasis, space to stretch. And the phrase does stretch—the long-voweled diphthongs in “steals” and “through” take forever to say.
I’ll stop here. There’s much more that I am happy to talk about with regard to the making and thinking behind this poem. Also, in order to give credit where credit is due here are a few liner notes.
Notes for “Aria” (see hyperlinks on right):
In section 2, the italicized lyrics are from “Kimberly,” written and performed by Patti Smith. Section 3 alludes to Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato to sing in the Sistine Chapel Choir and the only castrato to make a recording of his voice. Section 4 invokes jazz flautist Eric Dolphy; bird songs often inspired his compositions. Section 5 makes reference to a BBC recording of nightingales in 1942 in England. Intending only to broadcast the birds in song, engineers in Surrey incidentally recorded the nightingales alongside the drone of bombers flying overhead en route to Manheim. In section 6, the italicized lines are from the Le Tigre song “Fake French.” In section 7, “Danse Russe” is the title of a poem by William Carlos Williams. The italicized lines are lyrics from “[You Make Me Feel Like] A Natural Woman,” first released by Aretha Franklin and co-written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and “She-Bop,” written and performed by Cyndi Lauper.