Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra
The cellist’s bow scrubs hard against the strings.
They grumble in resistance; each bow-hair
joins the others in brazen strokes. The strings—
steel-wrapped gut pulled taut—defy the man
with darkened fingertips. No coaxing here—
he forces strings to moan until they sound
as if they care for Villa-Lobos’ whims.
How angry was the young composer when
he named this scary thrash a fantasy?
The blackened sound he cast would surely reach
some lover, make her dance herself to pieces.
The fantasy, too, quickly peels apart
like waxy ribbons spilling in the wake
of needle on cylinder in an old recording.
The cellist spills his pressure on the strings,
his bow still clutched, then loosed in turns, until
at last the orchestra gains strength enough
to swell and wash away the charcoal slashes
that Villa-Lobos used to scar the page.
A dancer could be soothed by these instructions:
encouragement from French horn, flute and oboe,
the lull of clarinet, and then a wavering
of strings in harmony, like a cool cloth.
The cellist and his gashing are forgotten
and the dancer is relieved, allowed to sleep.
Lemmon comments on her poem:
Music, as I am wont to declare, is my life. I began my musical training at age six; at ten I began learning violin, and by the time I graduated from high school, had added oboe and trumpet to my repertoire. I was voted “Most Musical” (read: Biggest Geek) by my senior class and entered college intent on a degree in music education. I lasted an entire term before switching to my other passion, English, but I continued to play one instrument or another for many years. (Currently, I mainly just sing in church, but I intend to dust off my violin case any day now.)
As a graduate student in Cincinnati I decided to try and incorporate my musical obsessions into my poems. At the time I had a collection of cassette tapes on which I’d recorded CDs from the public library; one of these included Villa-Lobos “Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra,” which moved me with its intensity and the almost guttural resonance of the soloist’s sound. I was also struck with the sense that this earthy, emphatic piece belied the airy delicacy suggested by its title.
What started with a sort of ekphrastic impulse bloomed into a full-blown narrative as I pictured the cellist almost fighting with his instrument, channeling his longing for an impossible love. Their affair, I imagined, had ended tempestuously—she was mercurial, he was offended and enraged, both were heartbroken.
The sinister image of darkened fingers was a literal description of what happened to my bassist boyfriend’s hands after playing—the copper in the metal wrapping the strings stained his fingertips dark green. The waxy cylinder I’d seen in a PBS documentary about Thomas Edison’s inventions. It took many years and dozens of drafts for me to fit all of these elements in just right, and to craft the lines into a rough blank verse. I see it now as a testament to the power of music to disturb and to heal, and most of all to stimulate the imagination.