Monday, December 11, 2023

Ben Meyerson, Seguiriyas


Tekiah Gedolah

Wind through the ram’s horn. Bone-stench,
a blast from the varicose canal. Stillness
slants the swaying crowd—I await the lengthened
tone even once it spills into my ears:
the breath is sapped of air before it ever fills,
stretched and pale to be preserved, dead but not—
time is a leech that lets the note like blood,
a year milked out into the swollen abdomen of history,
its woolen pulse that ebbs from organs out to breath
and back, our corner of Toronto in a holding pattern
of sleep cars, finery, forgetting. Blithe assurance
that we are special. Wind through the horn.
The call, a muscle wrenched beyond
its axis of return. Time is a leech.

I’m intrigued by this full-length debut by poet Ben Meyerson, a poet who currently splits his time between Canada and Spain, the collection Seguiriyas (Boston MA/Chicago IL: Black Ocean, 2023). Following on the heels of four poetry chapbooks—In a Past Life (The Alfred Gustav Press, 2016), Holcocene (Kelsay Books, 2019), An Ecology of the Void (above/ground press, 2019) and Near Enough (Seven Kitchens Press, 2023)—Seguiriyas is expansive and ambitious: composed around a particular musical structure, one with deep cultural ties to the Gitanos (the Romani population) of Andalusia. To close the three-page “Al Cante,” he writes: “To live is to be buoyed / without knowledge of the buoyancy: // a cry that gives and refuses to give. // A cry that accompanies the cry.”

As his “Author’s Note” offers, the “Seguiriyas” of his title “is derived from the flamenco palo (or ‘song form’) of the same name.” Structured with opening poem “Close” and closing poem “Open,” with four numbered sections of poems in between, Meyerson composes an assemblage of poems that fit together as thoughtfully as individual puzzle pieces, or possibly a quilt, all assembled through and around the larger musical structure of the song form. “Take dawn and make it a hinge,” he writes, to open the poem “Daybreak Translation,” “as if night is a shutter to be tugged / up or down / in the talons of a rock dove, pulled / from above, where the pulsation of wingtips / warps air into pillars banished sharp / against the empyrean cliff, whose summit / is a vertex in the fold / of a face averting.” The poems write elements around and through the large subject of placement, displacement and history—a perspective from and a tether between his Toronto upbringing to larger conversations around diaspora—and how cultural memory is held, passed on and preserved. His opening “Author’s Note” goes on to write:

The seguiriyas palo is known to draw on solemn subject matter— poverty, displacement, incarceration, mistreatment, and lost love are among the most commonly recurring themes across the extant collection of traditional lyrics, which have emerged out of the historical memory, social life and material conditions of the Gitano community in the Iberian Peninsula. Though the vast majority of flamenco’s oldest lyrics within palos such as the siguiriya and the soleá (another fundamental song form in the tradition) can only be dated back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they often showcase an awareness of events in Andalusia that occurred centuries prior, detailing aestheticized interactions with Muslims and Moriscos, who were formally expelled from Spain in 1609, making reference to the historical presence of Jews, who were expelled in 1492, and alluding to the heavily discriminatory policies that the central authorities imposed against the Gitano population between 1499 and 1783, which led to waves of incarceration and the forcible conscription of many Gitano men as rowers in the galleys that carried out the state’s imperial affairs.

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