Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Music, Cognac, and Poetry

Music, Cognac, and Poetry have a lot in common.

Music is made from vibrations in the air produced by resonating instruments in thoughtful and appealing patterns of sound. Composers render musical ideas through skillful selection and careful arrangement of these sounds in time and space, and then distill them for maximum expressive affect.

Cognac is made from what the French call eaux-de-vie (literally, "waters of life"). A subset of white grapes from the Cognac AOC region are carefully selected and doubly distilled in traditionally shaped Charentais copper stills. It must age in porous oak barrels for at least two years (VS), four years (VSOP), or from six years to twenty years (XO, or Extra Old).

Poetry is made from language, but like Music and Cognac, it filters and selects only from the most meaningful and poignant original sources. Poetry achieves its’ magical transformation from common word to highly-refined artistic expression through an age-old process of Alchemy. Distant personal memories, fleeting thoughts and emotions, and alternative perceptions of reality are all elevated to our attention by the poet, and served with a distinctive bouquet.

One can achieve great pleasure – even intoxication - from any of these carefully refined and crafted artistic experiences: Music, Cognac, and Poetry. I recommend all of them.


I’m reading a book of poetry titled “Zero Degrees at First Light" by the New York-based poet Chris Potter, published by David Robert Books (ISBN: 1933456442).

I first read the collection a few years ago, but keep coming back to it to digest individual poems to delve deeper into their richness.

Collectively the poems provide a kaleidoscopic, yet focused, view of a life with remarkable transparency, candor, and honesty. There is wisdom in Potter’s keen photographic eye, perceptive wit, and Zen-like self-awareness.

Its’ elegant writing seems to elicit emotions and memories that were either forgotten or buried deep in my soul. I find that many of these poems (46 in all) ring true, and miraculously provide a mirror to my past as well.

The title poem - “Zero Degrees at First Light” - which begins the book with the downbeat of a musical prelude, is uplifting, buoyant, and (in my reading) supercharged with the creative energy of an artist about to dive eagerly into her daily work. It’s about the noise and turbulence all around us, and how we react to it.

There is quite an assortment of themes throughout the collection, which toll like bells: impending war, loss, family, home, teaching, fine food, music, nature, and the Hudson Valley of New York state. As a poet, Potter skillfully turns the mundane (stripping paint, melting butter, or a missed left turn onto Maple Street) in something psychologically meaningful. She reads people and Nature like tea leaves.

I grinned from ear-to-ear reading the tightly composed English sonnet about the closing of the Ichi-Riki Japanese restaurant in Nyack, NY. She rhymes “hobby” with “wasabi” while reflecting with wry humor about the passing of twenty years of her life.

“On Teaching Romeo and Juliet for the Sixteenth & Final Time“ is also a sonnet, but skillfully adopts the archaic form and rhythmic structure to accentuate the experience of teaching 9th Grade English at a public high school. It is technically impressive, but the rigid poetic form highlights the humor of the moment. The Bard would be proud.

I find the poems about her childhood in suburban NY state to be particularly poignant. I can visualize her aging aunt, grandfather, grandmother, and parents with vivid clarity. She writes about her musician husband too, and the poem "Driving Home, We Listen to an Organ Recording of The Ride of the Valkyrie" is wild, funny, and boisterous. It’s one of the many musical references we find throughout the collection, including a tragically sad poem titled “Talking to Beethoven, 1967.”

The poem "Swimming Laps at the Y" is hypnotic, like a ritual meditation from the East. Structurally the stanzas (or laps in the pool) increase and contract. It breathes naturally. The number of lines in each of the seven stanzas imply symmetry and a numeric uniqueness: 4-5-6-9-7-2-5. Potter is very conscious of poetic structure, and of course is very sensitive to the impact and use of the sound of words.

The final poem or postlude - “Conjoined Twins” - seems to be about separation, and at some level about being isolated from people close to us – perhaps even from ourselves. It serves as a final cadence to the book - a kind of introspection about the act of creating poetry and how, in this case, it is our inseparable twin. It's a fitting way to conclude the cycle.

I see a symmetry between the first and final poems in the collection. They function as logical bookends, and provide the reader with important transitional entry and exit points to this collection of fascinating and loosely interrelated statements about life.

Along with the experience of good music and fine cognac, I recommend it.