Martha Graham & Erik Hawkins. Photo: William Eugene Smith
Dancing is an affirmation and assertion of our humanity. Here are five poems that translate dance experiences into poetry with verve and ingenuity:
Ben Belitt, "Dance Piece": Belitt's poem, an homage to Martha Graham, is an ekphrastic after her 1947 dance "Errand into the Maze," seen here performed by the company in 1990. Belitt writes: "Emblem, the heel’s blow upon space, / Speak of the need and order the dancer’s will. / But the dance is still." In five quatrains with shifting a/b rhyme schemes, he captures the iconic, sculptural quality of Graham's choreography with words that, like Graham's dances, are schematic and chiseled.
Rita Dove, "American Smooth": The title poem of Dove's 2004 book embodies the push/pull tension of ballroom dancing, written in short lines as restrained yet sexually charged as the style of dancing she describes; they pull the narrative forward and back around to the stanza's center, two short sentences swinging out and back to stillness at the end. Dove writes: "I didn’t notice / how still you’d become until / we had done it / (for two measures? / four?)—achieved flight, / that swift and serene / magnificence, / before the earth / remembered who we were / and brought us down."
James Merrill, "Farewell Performance": This poem is an elegy to Merrill's friend, the writer and critic David Kalstone, but it is equally beautiful for the way in which Merrill weaves the metaphor of performance through the arc of life as for the way it speaks to the human need to be sustained by performance— for we are merely players, hungry for the moment when Art, as he writes, "cures affliction. As lights go down and / Maestro lifts his wand, the unfailing sea change / starts within us. Limber alembics once more / make of the common / Lot a pure, brief gold." Interestingly, Suzanne Farrell, at the time a principal dancer in New York City Ballet, dedicated a performance of Balanchine's Mozartiana (1981) to Kalstone.
Babette Deutsch, "Ballet School": Deutsch's pithy poem is a delight for the way it moves through and takes on several different classical ballet archetypes — the swans of Swan Lake, the flitting moth-like Wilis of Giselle, the flowers of The Nutcracker, and Firebird's flame — she writes: "The bare bright mirrors glow / For their enchanted shapes. / Each is a flame, and so, / Like flame, escapes." Deutsch captures the fleet-footed, ephemeral nature of dance training--namely, that it is a practice that takes on, and always runs up against, the inevitable forward-rush of time.
Mark Turbyfill, "A Lost Dancer": Turbyfill, a neglected twentieth-century poet, visual artist, and dancer who worked with Katherine Dunham, among others, captures the frustrating moment of 'stuck' that can happen in artistic composition with this poem. What artist, in any medium, doesn't know this feeling? He writes: “Above the profound park / She sees the frozen satellite / Reveal its wrinkled face, / Waits, mirror-like, in trance, / And finds no impetus / To carve the dance.”
Pain doesn't hurt. Fear does. Fear not, Dear Readers. Tomorrow, an interview with the Chilean writer Gustavo Barrera Calderón.