by Christina Mengert
Poetry, 64 pages
Burning Deck Books 2011
When I offered to review As We Are Sung, it was out of a desire for connection over 9 months ago. An issue of Fact-Simile had appeared to me while I was in Santa Fe, at a bookstore downtown. That copy of Fact-Simile, (June 2010), was one of my main sources of feelings of connection to literature and poetic sustenance that summer. I found out later, after arriving in Philly and meeting JenMarie and Travis at a reading at the Walking Fish Theater, JenMarie and Travis had been in Santa Fe at the same time as I had and shared a similar sense of exile there.
I answered their offer of free poetry for reviews and received As We Are Sung.
I had forgotten that a physical relocation is the least part of the larger process of moving, much the same way that the score is the least part of the song for Christina Mengert. Frames of reference, relationships to space and ideas shift, and that takes some time, attempting, resting. I had read and written notes about As We Are Sung several times, but attempts were confused by my own developing and shifting frames, about how to read poetry and interact responsibly in a poetic community. The specific strength of the Philadelphia poetic community is that it is so tightly woven.
As I begin to see myself and recognize the place, I begin to see As We Are Sung again. It is an ekphrastic text, but one that, instead of describing a piece of art, knowledgeably engages in the process of making that other form of art, sensually and philosophically. Mengert insists, for example, on the continuum of musical expression, the non-divisibility of the song, which includes not only notes but states of rest and the reverberations of the body. As a player of instruments, I count in my adolescence only two years of learning trombone. I don’t have a meditation practice, or a Buddhist phenomenology, but As We Are Sung seemed to fulfill these roles. I imagine that for someone for whom music, or the experience of playing music can approach the religious, As We Are Sung might be a heightened and strangely familiar reading experience.
It is fairly rare, I think, to encounter an ekphrastic text so at home in its own medium as well as so in-tune with its approached form. The author is clearly a musician and the language, at times musical and philosophical, takes you into the nature of music and the intersection of the body (making/being made by music) with living. Some of my favorite passages are about states of silence, the potentiality, the connectedness of resting and music.
The poem "Who Can Tell These Things Apart" considers relation of rest, iteration and “outside” noise to song with an irreducible clarity:
"Like leaves agonize their unfurling / the body agonizes its / changing state. …"
"… an attempt / that is—Musica ficta— / it is not the song but it is singing."
As We Are Sung also describes body as the site of music creation and experience. The body plays, and is played by, or sung by, the song. The body changes and is changed. One thinks of water crystals re-aligning. I remember the trombone vibrating my body, leaving hands and lips numb. From “Dance as a Metaphor for Thought”:
“I put my lips to it. We agree to an imminence of sound / but what sound? I breathe out. The air shudders away.”
There are, as well, striking, unresolved images throughout. The reader is on her own in these open passages and, like swimming in open waters, the experience is not without exhilaration.
The mind, reading this book, is changed, and the text, revisited, seems to change. Is this reading more about relationships? It was not a one-time read for me and I suspect it will not be for many others.
As We are Sung reframes and connects modes of experiencing music and that new expansive frame asks us to consider selves, experience, sensation, non-syntactic thought, attempts, notes and rest, in reflection, all part of a larger music. This perceptual shift, as well as increasing familiarity with the un-resolvable visual and concrete details throughout the work make it a slow read that demands and rewards patience and reflection.