Virtuosity! The Silly, the Sober, and the Symphonic
by Maryann Corbett
Okay, you’re a reader of Light. There’s a high probability that you also read other magazines that specialize in clever verse, like Lighten Up Online and Snakeskin. So there’s quite a lot you already know about the poems of Jean L. Kreiling. You know she believes in flawless meter, as light-verse poets must. You know how fond she is of received form in all its varieties, of inventing the occasional new form and, once in a while, of breaking out of form entirely. You know she does parody, too, sometimes with a sting in its tail, like “Covid Christmas Carol for Those Who Live Alone.” You know about her penchant for the last-line guffaw, as demonstrated in “The Lonely Poet Answers the Question ‘How Are You?’” and this issue’s “North by Northwest.”
You might also have a pretty good idea of the utter effortlessness with which she turns out sonnets—quite often award-winning sonnets, as witnessed by her six-time-finalist record with the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award and by her many prizes in other contests. She has a special facility for identifying the sonnet-shaped idea, one that fits its argument into fourteen lines and clicks shut (as they say) like a box. She packs a whole plot into a small space, as in “Subtext for Sam.” And she has a gift for skewering human failings, including the ones she seems to claim as her own, as in “Map-Reading.”
Among these, a favorite for me—and I’m sure for other poets—is “A Thousand Clerks,” a too-accurate portrayal of the brain’s refusal to come up with the right words on cue:
. . . Alas, there’s no relying
on these non-union clerks: they sleep for days,
don’t answer when you cry out in frustration,
and don’t react to reprimand or thanks.
They scratch away at their own inclination—
a thousand hands that might fill in your blanks.
Not merely scribes or lackeys, they create
your finest work, but yes, they make you wait.
But if you’ve read Jean mainly in funny magazines, there are aspects of her work you might not know well. Maybe you don’t know that in her sonnets, in addition to the self-deprecating and quirky, she often treats heartbreaking material, and does it with a sure hand. Examples are sequences and crowns like “Sometime after the Golden Anniversary,” about an older couple’s tragic fall out of love, and “Little Girl Lost,” about the aftermath of a child’s disappearance at the beach. And “Waiting for the Helicopter,” another crown and a prize winner, is a psychological thriller about the mental state of an injured hiker hoping for rescue. Jean’s sonnets win prizes—and readers—not only with their musicality but with their accuracy about the habits of the human mind.
So let’s say you know the sonnets. Do you also know about Jean’s skill with ekphrasis based on visual art? She can develop an entire novel’s worth of character and narrative from a single painting, as she does in “Approaching a City” and “South Carolina Morning,” each a sonnet crown derived from the named painting by Edward Hopper. Do you know how very good she is with the visuals of landscape, often the landscape of her beloved coastal Massachusetts? Here’s a taste from “The Bourne Bridge, Late October”—
. . . My eyes will fail
to fully grasp the blue above and blue
below, the red and orange that outdo
each other on the shore, the green of stoic
and sturdy pines, their constancy heroic
but humble. And I won’t quite understand
the sinuous geometry of land
affectionately nudged by water or
the physics of the delicate rapport
between steel beams and thin air. Though my wheels
grip asphalt firmly, I confess it feels
as if I might veer off into the sky
or fall into the water—learn to fly
or learn my limitations. . . .
—which is a good demonstration of the way Jean delivers both the physical and the psychological reality of the place.
And the big thing you might not know—if you don’t yet have Jean’s three books or haven’t come across her poems in their many other venues—is how often and how beautifully she writes about music. (And that’s not just when she’s being funny, as she is in this issue’s featured poems about Bach and Mahler.) The focus on music in her poems should hardly be a surprise, given that she has taught music in universities for over thirty years. What did surprise me, as I read for background to this essay, is just how long Jean has been paying deep attention to the intersection of words and music: even her doctoral dissertation—dated 1986—is about musical settings of poems in the works of composer Samuel Barber. Another moment’s thought says that shouldn’t surprise me either, since her first degrees were in English—after which she decided she loved music so much she had to start again, taking another BA in music, and following it with another MA and a PhD.
One of her poems about performing, called “In the Alto Section,” is a favorite of mine. It hits me whang in the heart because it speaks feelingly about choral singing, my own mode of music making. It also recalls a past experience we share; we both sang (though not in the same years) in the choir of the College of William and Mary, and we both have voices better suited to the centers of chords than to their sparkling top notes. When Jean writes, “You sit behind the orchestra, spellbound,” and “At last you stand; at last you get to sing, / your mortal, midrange voice admitting you / to this inspired amalgam. . . .” her lines are resonant for me in every sense.
Jean also gets inside the experience of listening to instrumental music. She makes the innards of a symphony or concerto comprehensible to those of us who don’t get at the music from its interior, the way orchestra players do. Her “Suite from Pulcinella,” after the work by Stravinsky, is rightly described by Dick Davis as a tour de force (though it’s the sort of tour de force Jean produces regularly; see also “Six Inventions after J. S. Bach”). It mimics the formal variety of the music with a dazzling juggle of poetic forms—triolet, rondeau, quatrain, ovillejo, haiku, sonnet, anapestic trimeter that comes close to limerick, a double dactyl, and couplets in tetrameter—each aiming to match the feel of the musical movement. Take the section called Vivo. Jean calls this duet for string bass and trombone “a ridiculous match!” but goes on to describe how the two instruments work together:
In their shared subterranean range
they began an immodest exchange
of one-liners and leers and suggestions
and improper replies to crass questions,
and they whispered and tickled and slapped—
and their pairing proved perfectly apt.
(In case that rockets you off to YouTube to hunt for a performance, here you go.)
But don’t go yet: Jean has another deep dive for you into pairings of music and words. This one is “Brahms on Interstate 95,” which you can read in its entirety in Mezzo Cammin. The poem sets out immediately its debt to “Rachmaninoff on the Mass Pike,” a beloved poem by Rhina P. Espaillat, her fellow member of the Powow Poets in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Both of those will bring back to you all the times you’ve been driving along and have found yourself walloped by a piece of music, seized by everything it says to you now and has ever said before. Jean tells it this way:
I’m south of Boston when I hear the first
huge thuds of timpani, and I’m immersed
in waves of urgent sound. Although I stay
alert to passing semis, and don’t stray
from my lane, Brahms’ first symphony demands
attention. So again my heart expands
to heed this artful call, its every tone
as satisfying as a rhyme. . . .
These are sounds, she writes, that “ring / in tune with all that hums in me already: / regrets as dark as cellos, faith as steady / as straight-stemmed quarter-notes, riddles as dense / as dissonance” so that at last
. . . I wait
to hear the final chords reiterate
C major: not exactly victory
but resolution, made of harmony
that fills my lungs. My driving’s more aggressive
these days, my search for cheap gas less obsessive,
but Brahms still calls my flesh and bones and cells
and they reverberate like living bells.
I guess it’s obvious that Jean Kreiling’s poems about music are the ones that most reverberate for me. But you, reader of Light, know now that regardless of topic, Jean is in every sense a virtuoso.