The Stone Harp (2017)

for vocal quartet and piano. 9'

Commissioned in 2017 by the Uncommon Music Festival

When I consider my upbringing in Homer, Alaska in light of the sesquicentennial (150th) year of the transfer of Russian America to the U.S. (always a mouthful), it feels ridiculous to focus on any one person’s or group’s supposed claim to the land. To write about my private relationship to the sea, the mountains, the seasons, or the animals reveals nothing to anyone else. It seems futile to explicitly join the voices of Alaska Natives, Russian missionaries and fur traders, Western gold miners, fisherman, and American colonists into a false paean; worse, it is utterly the wrong place to redress colonial sins.

But Alaska poet laureate John Meade Haines always seems to grasp the totality of the land—scary, sad, arresting, and ecstatic—, the many reasons that people come, and its abiding power over all of us.

Part 1. The Stone Harp

A road deepening in the north,

strung with steel,

resonant in the winter evening,

as though the earth were a harp

soon to be struck.

 

As if a spade

rang in a rock chamber:

in the subterranean light,

glittering with mica,

a figure like a tree turning to stone

stands on its charred roots

and tries to sing.

 

Now there is all this blood

flowing into the west,

ragged holes at the waterline of the sun—

that ship is sinking.

 

And the only poet is the wind,

a drifter

who walked in from the coast

with empty pockets.

 

He stands on the road

at evening, making a sound

like a stone harp

strummed

by a handful of leaves…

Part 2. To Live Among Children

[…] to live among children

the voices demanding or gentle

asked to be told once more a story […]

 

and think of the answers we give:

why the continents drift

what wind carves the rock into cities

or blows the people on their polar journeys

what legendary shoulder continues

to hold up the sky

or why the mountain train

never seems to end

 

all of our history come to that moment

when we look at a shadow flying past

what bird, what beast

was that?

 

to live among children

the voices demanding or gentle

asked to be told once more a story

repeated by the shadows

 

and what had those shadows to say,

vague and nodding

dense with a mystery

always towering in the distance?