Review by Donald Mace Williams
by Rhina P. Espaillat, Alfred Nicol, and John Tavano
12 Charron Drive
Newburyport, MA 01950
My Greek lexicon translates “melopoeia” as “a making of lyric poems or music.” In brief notes accompanying this CD, Rhina Espaillat says that in melopoeia the poetry and music “flow separately, through and around each other, without either becoming dominant over the other.” That is the case with these eighteen lyric poems, which are recited by their makers, Espaillat and Alfred Nicol, as John Tavano’s fine guitar plays short pieces by composers ranging from Bach to Satie to Lennon & McCartney and, in four cases, Tavano himself. But when I tried, on first hearing, to listen as closely to one as to the other, I ended up, though charmed and intrigued, also dissatisfied because I hadn’t caught enough of the words. I played the CD again, focusing on the words. Ah! They came across clearly that way, and yet I also heard and enjoyed the music. The title of one of Antonio Salieri’s operas, Prima la musica, poi le parole, is a valid maxim for a medium in which the words embody the music. But when poetry is spoken as music plays, the rule has to be reversed: “First the words, then the music.” Then, as here, they really do flow through each other.
I had known and loved Espaillat’s poetry before, and—full disclosure—known her too, though more by correspondence than in person. Nicol’s poems were new to me, but that was my loss. His work, as displayed on this CD, has humor, a quiet passion, and lovely images: “The laundered clouds are piled so high, the branches will not let them pass.” All the poems on the disc, as far as my ear could discern, are in meter, and most or all of them in rhyme. Each of the poets has a villanelle among the lot—his is “Burn,” hers is “Guidelines”—and I found myself catching with pleasure the recurrences of the rhymes and of the first and third lines. The music with “Burn,” an original composition by Tavano, swelled enough once or twice that I lost a few words. Otherwise, the balance in all these poems seemed perfect for both intelligibility and blend.
Both poets speak clearly and expressively. The lyrical beauty of Espaillat’s voice is a special charm. She spent her early childhood in the Dominican Republic, and she reads one of her poems, “Next-to-Last Song,” in her Spanish version as Nicol echoes with her English one, stanza by stanza, along with Tavano’s pleasant “Spanish Improvisation.” In her sonnet “If There Had Been,” the voices also alternate, as a man and a woman enact a little drama of ifs:
If there had been more time; if you had stayed;
if you had spoken sooner or said less;
if you had turned away; if the parade
had halted elsewhere; if the wrong address
had not been scribbled, or the train delayed . . .
I got those lines from Espaillat’s book Her Place in These Designs, not being a quick enough scribbler to have taken them down by ear. In several other instances, I looked up the poems in print so I could follow as I listened—and that was a mistake. Somehow reading along dulled the pleasure of hearing. It was like watching the projected translations at an opera, when the line comes up overhead a second early, before the music and words make their joint effect—and so the effect isn’t made; the written words have spoiled it. I thought at first that the CD should have included texts of the poems. No. The whole point is that these poems, with this music, are for the ear. It’s a point that would have seemed obvious to Greeks a couple of thousand years ago. These three performers are trying, with dedication and artistry, to make it obvious to us, today. How much success they’ll have, I can’t say, but I know that this disc is a delight to hear, a polished and distinctive performance of notable works.
Donald Mace Williams, who lives in the Texas Panhandle, is a retired newspaper writer and editor, now writing fiction and poetry. He is the author of the novel Black Tuesday’s Child and the poetry chapbook “Wolfe.” He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.