Hutchinson on Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun"

By: Ishion Hutchinson, Assistant Professor,  Department of English
April 28, 2016

"The Search for a Faun"

My poem is called, “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” A famous title I am sure most of you will recognize. The fame is one of the reasons why I am self-conscious about what I am about to do in this reflection, which partly amounts to betraying the naïveté of my youth.

But more fatally, I am going to attempt a précis of how this poem came to be. The danger a poet faces in poking back to the genesis of his poem is discovering how far removed the poem seems from the circumstances that issued it so as to deny the circumstances in the first place. Reality cedes to myth in a poem and becomes difficult to recover, if ever it can be recovered. This is why, to me, the poet—poiitís, maker—remakes as he makes. Poetry is an honest form of resisting history as the past. To poetry, history is the living breath that attunes to the special cadences a poet finds for a poem.

As I now try to listen back to how the music of this poem arrived, I will not, as I should, talk about the poem’s technique, its tone in particular, but I would want to cite these words from a 1891 letter Stéphane Mallarmé wrote to Paul Valéry, which bears out heavily on what I have to say: “Music in the proper sense, which we must pillage, plagiarize, if our own, unspoken, is insufficient, suggests such a poem.” The two key words are “pillage” and “plagiarize.”

In Kingston, one evening in 2003, I heard music coming from the window of one of those leafy suburban houses near the university campus that I assumed belonged to professors. Music coming from windows was common and abundant as there are windows, full of predictable sounds, but the frail, repetitive flute notes straining against the vague sunset was unexpected. I was drawn towards it against my will.  Kingston, then, was still not much more to me than a name. The capital of Jamaica, a city whose volatile beauty, unpardonable, off-the-fringe style as pulsed in reggae songs, excited me. I was hesitant about it, however, returning each weekend to Port Antonio, a rural, ramshackled hamlet about two-and-half hours drive away, my home by the sea.

And that was what the recurring phrase of the flute contained: the sea, waves cresting waves. Fragile, low-ebbed and almost silent, the melody carried the elemental mystery and force of the sea. There was a simpler intrigue as well. I had to imagine, standing in the dusk oblivious to faces hidden behind curtains, the private, interior moment I had happened upon: was it a bachelor listening from a sofa, an old lover’s letter trembling in his hands?

Or, and this is was what I dreamt that night, the “Dorian mood of the flute,” to use Milton’s phrase, following me into sleep: a boy was running through a garden with high groves of a green intense and frightening that narrowed in on him the faster he ran, panting hard, whoever his pursuers were they were getting close, and he felt—in all that heat and green—the cold chill of death on his neck and so he ran straight into one of the groves, which then broke like a hole in a cloud, and in front of him stood a great tree with a tawny goat’s skin stretched and nailed to its trunk.  

The dream stopped at that cliffhanger. But what happened in the city a day or two later gave it a feeling of premonition. The government, seemingly without warning, hiked the price of gasoline. People took to the streets early in the morning, protesting in a kind of charged, festive excitement that resembled an election rally: lots of banner waving and singing.

By noon, however, in the vigour of the heat, the waving of banners and signs written on cardboard plaques, violence broke out between protesters and the police. It turned bloody quickly. Singing gave way to screams; roads were blocked with debris and set on fire; explosions could be heard everywhere; students were tear-gassed by the university; the campus was put on lockdown; sirens blasted throughout the night; a national curfew was imposed.

Somehow I figured out a way to break curfew and convinced a taxi driver to take me to Port Antonio. Kingston at night, as we drove, shimmered with a tense, post-apocalyptic vacancy. Back home I sat on the high veranda in the cool night, the dark sea glittering below me. The calm was immense and contradicted the terror of the day. In that interval between tension and serenity, anxiety and repose, the window music returned to me.

It came corroborated, blurred with images from the day and the garden dream I had had a night or two before; and suspended between reality and dream, it might have been at that very moment—at least so I wished it—I started to recall bits of the second stanza of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the rapturous unheard melodies there, electrified by the ritual of sacrifice. I sat smelling the faint salt breeze, all these things in my head, and a poem began in me. Then, for the next ten years, I tried to articulate it, drafts upon drafts, failing at every attempt.  

Why was I unable to write the poem? It was the music. I knew nothing about the music, the primal motive, which lived incomplete in my inner ears. The ignorance was good only for a momentary reverie. For art, real immersive art, I needed to live more in the music. I needed the music not because it represented anything, but because it marked (and perhaps provoked) a moment of pity and terror my psyche was unable to shake. The need to write a poem that would extinguish the interminable need to write a poem set me on a ten-year odyssey to find the music and so I searched for a melody I could not even hum.

It became an illusion, going after many siren calls, which I eventually realized were wrong. That was until the summer of 2013, in Berlin, the long hiatus, in a moment’s serendipity, broke.   

Seated in the window of a ground floor apartment reading Mallarmé, a poet I hereto did not admire—and I still don’t, really—I turned the page and certain combinations of phrases “the glow of them, so nimble in the air…did I dream that love?...my doubt, the hoard of ancient night…then to my native fervor I’ll awake…burning in the wave…” quickened something to me. I read through the poem again, and again, slower, going back to the title, “L'Après-midi d'un faune.” Hadn’t I seen those words just recently? The apartment belonged to a translator who had a deep passion for music. On the first day I arrived he had shown me his CD collection, laying some out with an auctioneer’s pride on the dining table. They were still there. I climbed out of the window and went scavenging, and in no time I found Claude Debussy, conducted by Claudio Abbado. I put it on.

I sat back in the window of the other room and listened to the recording, as if through the decade-long gap, the harmonic sequence intimately washed the glissandi waves of the harps, punctuated by the antique cymbals’ star twinkles, and after a long repose in the music, the first solid draft of the poem took shape.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Noon ictus cooling the veranda’s

fretwork, the child sits after his harp

boning burlesque in the bower, his slit

of gulls’ nerves silenced into hydrangea.

Violet and roan, the bridal sun is

opening and closing a window,

filling a clay pot of coins with coins;

candle jars, a crystal globe, cut milk

boxes with horn petals snapping

their iceberg-Golgotha crackle.

The loneliness is terrible, the ice is near,

says the hasp-lipped devil, casting

beatitudes at the castor-oiled pimps

in Parliament; Pray for them, joyfully,

their amazing death! Light seethes

bulging like pipes blown with napalm

from his big golden eyes, turning

the afternoon ten degrees backwards,

then through palm fronds’ teething

the bridled air, sprigs of goat hair, fall.

I am certain the poem’s atavistic vocabulary arrived through much creative memory, both of the lived experience—overhearing Debussy, the turmoil in Kingston, my return to Port Antonio—and the dreams fostered in the poetic imagination years have taken me to remake.

Ishion Hutchinson

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