•Mass Redux @ Wigmore Hall•

Yesterday my poem Mass Redux was performed @ Wigmore Hall. The work was part of Voiceworks, a collaboration between Birkbeck’s Contemporary Poetics Research Centre and the School of Music at Guildhall.

I had been spinning some of the lines of the poem that was to become Mass Redux in my head for some time. I met with my co-conspirator Katie Butler a few times near the Barbican, and we chatted over coffee about ideas. She showed me some pictures she had taken of some of her recent travels, and I was inspired by one in particular, of a man walking under a shaft of light at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It reminded me of a poem I had been working on about the oculus of the Pantheon (also in Rome), which I always felt to be one of the most perfect (and obviously sturdy) buildings in Europe. The poem began to congeal into its present form shortly thereafter.

Katie’s photograph and my memory of the Pantheon evoked the sense of a vast architecture, not only of brick but also of culture, its gods looming both inspiringly and oppressively above the diminutive human flesh and bones below. The poem shows this contrast, this paradox, that those very things that are our free expressions (architecture, poems, religions, monuments) can in time accrue a certain oppressive weight. (I had been reading Nietzsche’s “On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life” from his Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen). In this poem, the human defiantly persists guilt-free at the center of a perpetual cycle: a rising of ambitious production into a vaulting, overhanging burden and its eventual collapse into dust underfoot. Katie rightly chose to give this a plainchant feel, as if it was delivered by a lone voice in the Pantheon itself, or in an airy Gothic cathedral. The music also seems to evoke a gradual line-by-line stratification of structure, slowly building, an eventual climactic moment of dismay, and a collapse.



O every inch was gilt
all o‘er the grandeur-o-matic
long ere this gelded age
sang soprano like a robbed man
in a cage or attic.
O pulvis et umbra sumus.

The burthens of the past
vault overhead safekeepingly.
Keepsakes that we from us
have forged like a shadowy bookmark
dark our place in ages.
O pulvis et umbra sumus

But Alexander’s dust
isn’t static. Pah. It stacks brick
like Attic bric-a-brac
then razes monuments to us
like Ozymandias.
O pulvis et umbra sumus.

So fall upon your knees.
Then rise. Keep trinkets if you must.
But think: they’re all for you
—so central in your wild surmise—
so becoming to us.
O pulvis et umbra sumus.


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