At the Fourth of July parade
he wouldn’t stand for the flag.
Slumped in a fold-up chair,
cowboy hat low over thick eyebrows,
tapping his metal-toed boot
against a crack in the pavement.
I’m sure he stuck out—a lost tooth in a smile,
a nubbed finger in a wave, the absence
of what you’ve been conditioned to see.
When I think of Stuart, he’s at his farm;
he pats the back of his strongest mare,
she neighs, and trots away,
splitting clods of manure and dirt.
He picks up a stiff leg,
thumbs the round scar on his thigh
through dusty jeans,
and turns to warm his face on the morning.
I SEE MY OWN MRI
and the vertebrae gleam silver,
like collected nodes of moonlight,
keys of a ghostly piano
waiting to be played,
as though Beethoven’s sonata were a look
inside the self, the ostinato of the thrumming heart,
the anatomy turned inside-out. There—
the same bones that folded
to my last recital bench, cushioned
by dimples and rivulets
in front of the baby grand,
an instrument with its own viscera:
the lid prop like glossed black skin
over a cast iron frame, a sinewy soundboard,
hammer and string guts.
I always wanted to look inside while I played,
see the smooth padded action,
watch the steely vibrations.
It’s the only piece I know anymore,
traces evident in this inner picture.
These are the melodies of the protoplasm,
chiseled from the deep strata of composition,
excavated, assembled in score, alive.
When I sit at the keys now, and hunch,
and bend, and sway, I wonder
if it’s that old dialogue between the staff and the spine,
the fossils of music never extinct.
B. L. Homuth
Written in the quiet confines of my apartment
July 29, 2014
"An Old Man's Head"
Oil on Canvas - 19th Century
George Elgar Hicks
And therefore restlesse inquietude for the diuturnity of our memories unto present considerations, seems a vanity almost out of date, and superanuated peece of folly. -- Sir T. Browne
I have about as much musical talent as an Eskimo has at surfing. Thus, the following analysis of modern church music must be taken with a grain of salt—or even disregard entirely. Nevertheless, though I have very little musical talent, I do possess an awareness of good writing, an ability to judge whether meaning and truth are being conveyed through the medium of words. And that is necessarily what music should be set to accomplish—most notably church music. Thus, when a modern Christian songwriter1 pens such lunacy in his repetition of the phrase “God’s big dance floor,” the man listening to the song should not melt with feeling because the guitar tells him to do so but should question what on earth is meant by “God’s big dance floor.” Now, I use a silly example which will really do no harm, for “God’s big dance floor” essentially means very little and is closer to the jabber of academics than a coherent suggestion on the nature of our Lord. Furthermore, I doubt, though perhaps I shouldn’t, that any church actually sings such a song, and so it should not be labeled as “church music.”
However, there is a very real and a very serious danger when that same lunacy enters the church. If, for example, people began repeating the phrase “stand up” fifteen times in a row for no apparent reason before switching to “hands up” fifteen more times (in which both actions are mimicked respectively by the crowd), the musicians have achieved little more—nay, much less—than if they had simply sung the popular children’s song “Deep and Wide” or “Father Abraham” and had that congregation follow the actions. Those songs at least had a moral to them. But too often congregations are spinning in circles because the guitar and the drums make them feel as if they should.
All this does is make the modern church appear very silly. But when congregations start singing songs which do nothing but focus the attention on themselves and their struggles2, any sense of worship is nearly completely lost, and the God who was to be praised is now functioning as a mere counselor for our pains.
The organist of a certain church where I reside is a lady of perhaps sixty or seventy. In fact, as I meandered my way in to the sanctuary, and sat near the back, I noticed that the average head donned a light grey or white. (The fine gentleman in my row had such a hoary beard that he looked as if he had just alighted from his sailing ship after many months away from home. I expected him at any moment to reach into his pocket, pull out a pipe, place it between his pursed lips, wink, turn to me, and say “Aye, Matey!”) Barring three children, forced to be there with their parents, and one young intern pastor, forced to be their by the good nature of his willing soul, no one came within fifteen years of me. The organ blared the prelude to the service as laymen prepared their hearts (and knees) for worship. We all rose, slowly, and sang the old hymn “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling.” Love, it appears was the theme for the service. “Love Lifted Me,” “My Savior’s Love,” “O the Deep Deep Love” were others sung with a mere organ and piano. The beautiful thing about an organ is that it is so loud one can hardly hear themselves singing, and this, in my case, is a plus.
Nevertheless, as we sang together, the deep voice of the old man behind me, whose named I learned is Jim, bellowed like a beluga whale seeking a mate. The congregation was old. The songs were old. There were no drums or bass or electric guitar—there was no guitar at all. But true, genuine worship was had because the words of the hymns had deep meaning and concrete images.
As we sang, “My Savior’s Love,” we arrived at the third verse. Jim, having left and his absence being noticed, now returned with renewed vigor, bellowing louder than ever the beautiful words:
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
Though I enjoy—and was—cracking open the dusty and neglected hymnals when the opportunity affords itself, I noticed the background of the projector with the words was a picture of an ocean. I imagined to myself this was unlike other services where the lyrics of the song are so open to interpretation that one person can be thinking about his rocky marriage while another is thinking about the Rocky Road he will consume after the service. This group of aging worshippers, however, all had for at least a few moments, the exact same image imprinted on their minds. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a worshipper to get sidetracked when singing a song with such clear images.
It is not that contemporary Christian music simply lacks images and is bad writing. It is that it is not simple. One might hold a note for twenty seconds without any warning, or he might change pace with insane fierceness—like the unfortunate hare who woke up after his nap and had to catch up to the tortoise. The hymn may be overly simplistic, or they may all sound exactly the same to some degree. But the wonder of creativity is not discovered in the randomness. Creativity is had in the fact that hymns are wonderfully uniform, making the entire service appear uniformed. Furthermore, the hymn may be too easy to sing, but at least it can be sung. Some contemporary songs are so “creative” that they create situations in which the congregation is a mere crowd and the compilation a concert.
We arose and sang one last song, “Jesus, We Just Want to Thank You.” After we sat our collective old bones in our seats, a young intern gave announcements. Halfway through the announcements, out of a side door appeared an old man in a blue, buttoned-up shirt and khakis. He proceeded to hold the door open for twenty-two other old men who happened to be dressed in the same get-up. The men proceeded to form to half-circle rows on the stage as the young intern continued giving announcements.
Finishing the announcements, the intern sat himself down, and an older man with a beard in the back of the two rows pulled out a harmonica. After finding the correct pitch, the old man who initially opened the door, conducted the other twenty-two in an acappella version of “This Little Light of Mine.” The same process was repeated as the group sang another song, one unfamiliar to me but just as refreshing for the soul. Indeed, the men were collectively known as the Little Apple Barbershop Chorus. Their music was not catchy. It did not have gadgets and glory. It had nothing with which to move the emotions. But it had character. It had the peculiar ability to take the mere raw materials of man, the voice, and produce a beautiful sound. Modern Christian music would go along way if we did away with the gadgets and glory. It would even benefit more from a mere reading of the hymnals than a smoke filled concert, gabbing and crabbing about “my problems.”
*In the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ fabulous essay, “On Church Music.”
1Chris Tomlin, “God’s Big Dance Floor.” A friend of mine aptly describes the songwriter’s music as “Jesus is my boyfriend music.”
2A current song repeats the phrase “He makes all things work together for my good” about 43 times (emphasis mine).
Written at the Ole Midshipman,
After a morning of worship,
July 27, 2014
Painting: A Lady at a Piano
By French School
Oil on Canvas, 1850-1870
As for the other conceit that a Peacock is ashamed when he lookes on his legges, as is commonly held… let them believe that hold specificall deformities – Sir T. Browne
A keen observer who finds his way to the rolling hills of the central plains and who, after following the mighty Kansas happens upon the Blue River will make note in his traveling log – as any discoverer would have – that the Big Blue is anything but blue. A murky brown dominates its complexion, and one imagines that it moves so causally not due to lack of an incline but to an excessive amount of mud caked along its banks and bed. The Blue – that is, the part I have observed – is further surrounded by brown and green, which in the sweltering summery days grows more and more brown until the only blue on the landscape is that of the sky. And such a contrast makes the Big Blue even less blue until the one musing on this sad fact turns blue himself and realizes that no river is so aptly named as that melancholy river that makes everything around it quite blue.
Two young men were out that way recently – one asking the other what river their eyes were gazing at – the other answering that he believed it to be the Blue. After skipping a few stones across the way, the younger of the two men – a skinny, elfish looking figure with a small, pointed nose, two bulging eyes and a large, dropping bottom lip decided it was high time they identified a tree. Producing a small, brown book, that elfish creature walked up to a tree, poked it with a stick, and tore off a leaf. The elder, holding the leaf in eyesight of the younger, listened as he flipped through hundred of colorful pictures, hoping to fix his eyes on one which resembled it.
It must be a toothed, simple leaf. Willow? No. Cherry? No. Aye, an Elm! Rock Elm? No. Winged Elm. Wrong bark! Chinese Elm? Maybe? Ah but the leaf looks different. American Elm? Bingo!
That skinny man then turned to another page in his book, spotted the American Elm description, and lifting up his book to the tree, began bellowing descriptions as the elder, fixing his eyes upwards on the mighty tree, either nodded in confirmation or scratched his head in confusion.
“Large!” yelled the Elf. (Yep! the reply and nod.)
“Graceful!” (I suppose…)
“Often with enlarged buttresses at base, usually forked into many spreading branches!” (Kind of…)
“Forming a very broad, rounded, flat-topped or vase-like crown!” (Not really…)
“Often wider than high! Height! 100 Feet!” (The Reply: Huh? The Elf in response to the reply: Well, I say, that doesn’t describe it at all.)
Scrolling down further with his eyes:
“Here we go. Bark! Light gray!” (Yep!)
“Deeply furrowed into broad, forking, scaly ridges!” (Yep! Yep! Yep!)
“Habitat: moist soils, especially valleys and flood plains; in mixed hardwood forests! (Well, that’s about right.)
And with that the two young men declared the tree an American Elm and the Elf, holding the book toward the tree as the Elder gazed on, read the following description: “This well-known, once abundant species, familiar on lawns and city streets, has been ravaged by the Dutch Elm disease, caused by a fungus introduced accidentally about 1930 and spread by European and native Elm bark beetles.” (Insert a “Huh!” from the Elder here.) “The wood is used for containers, furniture, and paneling.” And after finishing, the Elf left off with a “And we thank you kindly.” It was not until later in the week that the probability of the tree actually being an American Elm proved very unlikely as they are rare in the rolling hills of the plains.
Among the inhabitants of the modern age rests an unhealthy love of nature; among the inhabitants of the modern age rests an unhealthy indifference to nature. Man, so awed by the aesthetic nature of landscapes and bodies of water, is at fault when he laments the creativity of man because it is deemed “unnatural.” But, as the great Sir Thomas Brown has aptly put it: “All things are artificial, for nature is the art of God.” It is perhaps the most natural thing for man to create. Indeed, the soul, the engine that makes man go, derives itself from that eternal and creative soul above, and it is, perhaps, the most natural of things that man creates, that he build and construct and that he do so not simply as a means to an end but as a process in which the construction is an artistic endeavor and the end result aesthetically pleasing.
The American Elm, that mighty tree, may be chopped up in pieces so man can have something as simple as a cabinet or paneling. But what many seem to think in our day is that because a cabinet has little utility, and because an Elm tree is used, that the act is of chopping down the tree puts man at odds with the Elm. But the problem today is not that man chops down Elm trees; the problem is that he makes very ugly cabinets.
The hastiness of man produced by a fierce materialism that is choking our culture has in effect produced an impatient mindset. We would rather take a few months to construct cheaper buildings and begin making profit than to methodically build structures that will last for ages. The modern building will look nice for a few years, but after a while, time begins to win out and what once was a "cute strip mall" (granting such a thing exists) is an abandoned parking lot full of cement.
The difference between a man-made building and creation is variety. A pessimist may look at a forest and yell, “Monotony, monotony, all is monotony!” A pessimist may have some truth behind his analysis. But if the wood had nothing but Poplars or Persimmons, it still remain that there are Poplars and Persimmons. While it is true that modern buildings and homes all look alike, it is equally true that all modern buildings and homes were created. In the grand scheme of things there may be little difference between a frosted Hawthorn and a Rock Elm, but the fact remains that there is a difference and that nature is fundamentally amusing not because of difference but because of existence.
The Sugar Maple, one of my favorite, is interesting not because its leaves are so easily distinguishable but because it even has leaves at all. It could have been made of an iron trunk with periwinkle leaves, or of a trunk of cotton with leaves of hay. But even if it had, from the dawn of time, been made of blowflies and blue jays, modern man would probably be upset that the Sugar Maple was not a “large tree with a rounded, dense crown and striking, multicolored foliage in autumn.” If the bark consisted of edible cheese, modern man would lament it was not “light gray; becoming rough and deeply furrowed into narrow scaly ridges.”
So as the Elf and the Elder made their way out of the wooded area, they followed a path along full-grown corn stalks, towering at least eight-feet high. They followed the blue to a local fishing hole, an enclosed area quarantined by trees and full of bright green patches of land. Fishermen played by the man-made waterfall as the Elf and the Elder crossed a tiny, though treacherous, rapid which led to a pond-like area. Out on a sequestered plot of land, they walked until the laws of nature stopped their trek. The entire area was incredibly peaceful, so peaceful that when one recollects how even a melancholy river like the Blue can produce such serenity, he recognizes that nature is not an end in itself but points us in the direction of that greater Good.
Sam Snow (theficklefarce.com)
Skipper of The Ole Midshipman
19 July 2014
Painting: "Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree"
By John Constable
Oil on paper, c. 1821