“Of silence and cave water” – Human Greed’s “The Green Line”

  November 16th, 2017


      Painting by Nicole Boitos
       Used as cover of Human Greed’s “Fortress Longing” record (2012)

  by Michael Begg 
There is a path,
A green line that runs from the twilight mountains to the midnight sea.
The longer you walk this path
The more clear it seems
You cannot return to the mountain
You will never reach the sea
This liminal moment in full view of your limitations
Where the ivy holds a fragile, transitory peace with the snowdrops
This liminal moment
Where a son bids a sunny farewell to a father
And pedals off into the mossy shadows
This liminal moment
Where the father is not so old
Where the son is not so sure
This is your moment now
All the flowers are open
The new stars are aching in this terrifying sunset
Of silence and cave water
Amid these tiny favours through which we hide from death;
the bloated womb,
the sonorous bells that command you to lift your empty head,
your scribbled activity in the world
Sometimes, it doesn’t get light at all.
     I love this poem. It speaks to me of a great epiphany of existence: we are here, now, in forever-now, never to return to the bliss of the womb, and perhaps never to attain some childlike state of nirvana-fulfillment on the other side. No, we are here, now, fragile vessels of viscera and hope, working and loving and multiplying, always on the verge of something new, something scary, something that shatters us, something transforming, something rapturous.
     I especially love this poem as it was realized musically in this eponymous 2012 composition by musical group Human Greed (Michael Begg and Deryk Thomas and other contributors). Norwegian singer Tommy Aashildrod’s reading is sensitive and tender, the accent difficult to place and by this made more otherworldly: in being from nowhere and everywhere, his voice is all the more fitting to read this text, one that summons the eternal cycling mysteries of the human condition. His reading is balanced expertly against Antony & the Johnsons cellist Julia Kent’s string arrangement and performance, which is nuanced, warm, yearning, aching. The pauses in the reading give way to the strings at just the right moments. The strings calm or grow their swells in time with the text’s emotional crests and lulls.
    When I first heard this beautiful music, I couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. It’s such an expert showcase of how spoken poetry can be serviced by music, and how music can be fulfilled by spoken poetry. Everything belongs here, together, feels inevitable. I know that the text could be read separately, I know that the music could be split off and consumed on its own. And each would be lovely. But the unity is orders of magnitude more powerful in a breathtaking way.
     The poem, which I sourced from omote-no.blogspot.com, differs in interesting ways from the musical treatment of it (note: this was the only trace of the poem I could find online, and it’s possible it does not represent Begg’s original poem; for the sake of argument, I’ll assume it does, and my apologies if I’m mistaken). And that’s what I want to focus on.
     First, the recording begins with the following couplet, absent in the poem: “Will my wings open mother? / Will I have a mouth and will I live?”. These haunting lines seized me the first time I heard them, and seem to me now especially important to the musical setting of the poem. I say this because I read this poem in part as a meditation on transition, on moments of trembling transition along the journey of life, epiphanies of cusps, when we realize we can’t go home to the womb and may never reach our spiritual goal, to which we journey cradling in our palms this ephemeral gift of years and sentience and soul. With this in mind, that opening couplet, that tender voice from the womb, not yet launched into days and decay, takes on such feeling and weight. “Will my wings open mother / Will I have a mouth and will I live?” Thinks the trembling bird fetus, thinks the creature in its chrysalis, perhaps thinks all life before being born. “You cannot return to the mountain”, we hear the narrator speak not long after. Everything will move quickly now. And if you’re lucky, you will have some “liminal moment” one day when you know in a flash all that you’ve been, all you may yet be, how everything hangs on a moment, how death is there but so is joy, so is passion and connectedness.
    Second, the recording triplicates the poem’s final line, “Sometimes, it doesn’t get light at all.” This serves to underscore some of the themes of the text: the pain inherent in our brief, intense lot, how we try to fill our time with meaning amid the death-fear, the ache of not being able to go back to childhood, the dread that we won’t attain spiritual relief. And in so doing, reminds us that sometimes that’s all there is to life. For most of humanity, across history and nations and continents, life has been just that, tiny oases of sweetness dotting vast badlands of suffering, toil and oppression.
    Third, the recording adds these gorgeous lines after the end of the poem proper: “While my children push sighing boats of sleep from the harbors of their mouths / I sit there with my army.” The last word was hard for me to hear in the recording, and there was nothing I could find online, so I could be wrong here in my transcription. But if I’m right, man, that’s some dark, beautiful poetry, especially coming as it does at this point in the text. It seems to summon another character caught in a liminal moment, a father (metaphorically) to his soldiers, or to his actual sons, meditating on the eve of a siege (or besiegement). Everyone knows these “liminal moments”, they unite us all across time and culture.
    Finally we have the song’s closing line, again not present in the original poem, stated more than queried: “Where is my blanket of sound?” This ends the piece just as the musical tapestry resolves to a thin wavering line. Who asks this? Could be the general, could be the avian fetus, could be a new voice entirely. Read just on paper, it’s a bit clumsy to work this line into the rest of the text, and part of me finds it anticlimactic. As part of the music, it makes somewhat more sense, but still doesn’t quite work for me. Still, I loved the other non-poem additions featured in the recording, and find they make excellent sense either in the context of the text or the musical recording.
                                                                           [* * * *] 
     Our lives, so brief but so alive with momentous occurrences: Night skies dense with fireworks and meteorites and headlong blinking red airplane lights. Our lives, our precious meaningless endlessly-meaningful lives. Full of tears and laughter and loss and joy and pain, a hurried children’s song bookended by the warm space of mother, the warm bliss of salvation. We are alive. We are following a path. It is solved by walking, say the Algerians. Walk, keep your eyes open for beauty and love. And when a spell comes over you bidding you to stop and remember and wonder, surrender everything you have to it.


For more about Michael Begg and Human Greed, as well as other related musical projects, please check out omnempathy.com.

For more about Julia Kent’s music, please check out juliakent.com.

[posted by C Way at 4:20 PM]


[file under: Music ||| poetry ]

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