Prodigal Summer and Prothalamium

bloom blooming blossom blur

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

The poet Aaron Kramer first passed across my radar in the lyrics to a song, Prothalamium, sung by Judy Collins on her Whales and Nightingales album. I played  the record over and over while lying by the forced air register in a house on Balboa Island. It was 1971.

Decades later, the poem showed up as the epigraph in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Prodigal Summer.

prodigal summer cover

Prothalamium by Aaron Kramer

Come, all you who are not satisfied
as ruler in a lone, wallpapered room
full of mute birds, and flowers that falsely bloom,
and closets choked with dreams that long ago died!

Come, let us sweep out the old streets – like a bride:
sweep out dead leaves with a relentless broom;
prepare for Spring, as though he were our groom
for whose light footstep eagerly we bide.

We’ll sweep out shadows, where the rats long fed;
sweep out our shame – and in its place we’ll make
a bower for love, a splendid marriage-bed
fragrant with flowers aquiver for the Spring.
And when he comes, our murdered dreams shall wake;
and when he comes, all the mute birds shall sing.

 

Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer is a favorite of mine. I used to reread it every spring. I picked it up again just a day ago, and when I read the epigraph, I heard again the song in my head. This reading prompted me to investigate the poem.

 

My curiosity led me first to the poet Aaron Kramer, about whom I knew nothing. Kramer (1921-1997) was a busy guy. Besides producing several books of poetry, he translated works by Rilke and others, and he pioneered the use of poetry as therapy. For more information, check out his page at www.aaronkramer.com.

 

A “prothalamium” or “prothalamion” is a poem or song written to celebrate a betrothal. One of the oldest ,or possibly the oldest, example is the poem by Edmund Spenser, written in 1596 to celebrate the betrothals of two sisters. Spenser invented the name for the form, based on the “epithalamium,” a wedding song or poem.

Here are the first lines of Spenser’s poem:

Prothalamion

CALM was the day, and through the trembling air 

Sweet breathing Zephyrus did softly play, 

A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay 

Hot Titan’s beams, which then did glister fair; 

When I whose sullen care, 

Through discontent of my long fruitless stay 

In prince’s court, and expectation vain 

Of idle hopes, which still do fly away 

Like empty shadows, did afflict my brain, 

Walked forth to ease my pain 

Along the shore of silver streaming Thames, 

Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems, 

Was painted all with variable flowers, 

And all the meads adorned with dainty gems, 

Fit to deck maidens’ bowers, 

And crown their paramours, 

Against the bridal day, which is not long: 

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

Returning to Kramer’s poem, I find its words relevant for our current times. We in the U.S. and much of the world, seem to be experiencing a reordering and growth. The pandemic forces us to acknowledge our interdependency and connectedness. The upheaval over systemic racism pushes forth a truth that demands recognition and change.

Here is the Judy Collins version of Kramer’s Prothalamium, music by Michael Sahl.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dBaMCGsKWg

 

 

My Musical Ambitions

dulcimer

When I was ten years old, I told my mother, “I don’t want to take piano lessons anymore.” She answered that she’d let me stop lessons, but added, “You’ll regret it when you’re older.”

Truer words…

At age nine, I had already begun playing guitar. After a few lessons from a college student, I learned to play enough chords to accompany myself as I sang. Although I’ve never gotten much better, the guitar has been a mainstay. But spurred by fantasies–I kept acquiring other instruments.

Sometime during college I bought a cheap dulcimer. It was little more than a trapezoid box with four strings. I tried hard but unsuccessfully to figure out the chords Joni Mitchell used in her recordings. Later, my first husband gave me an exquisite dulcimer. Made in Asheville, N.C., it had a matched wood back and friction tuning pegs (tricky). Its beauty did not improve my playing.

During my college years, I also bought a saz. What was I thinking? I probably got it because it was so pretty. This I never learned to play.

saz

Another instrument attempt was a violin. I may have traded in my classical Aria guitar for the fiddle. I even took lessons from a master fiddler. My cat would be stretched out in a patch of sun. When I opened the violin case, he’d sit up in alarm. Then he’d bolt for the nearest exit.

Now let me pause here and say that I did actually practice these instruments—for a while. The desire to play didn’t carry over into the rigor of daily scales. My interest wasn’t focused and I’d drift away.

By this time, I knew quite well that musical proficiency requires obsessive practice. It didn’t stop my musical dreams. In Ireland, I bought a couple of pennywhistles and a bodhran (round Irish drum). At home in New York, a little red concertina caught my eye.

My most recent indulgence was a harmonium. I intended to accompany the chanting of kirtan. The instrument still sits in the corner of the living room under a yellow quilted cover. To play this particular harmonium, it must be lifted out of its box to rest on two tiny supports. That in itself makes access difficult. Soon after I bought it, the harmonium developed a sticky key. It’s not hard to pick out simple melodies on the keyboard. But, as with all my musical acquisitions, the harmonium languishes in the corner while I engage in my preferred creative pursuits.

We sold most of the other instruments when we downsized to the apartment. I still have my guitar, the harmonium, and a couple of pennywhistles. In my next lifetime, if I can’t be enlightened, I hope to become a proficient musician.

harmonium