Saturday, November 10, 2018



Jeremy Cantor’s Poetry

Through an introduction to Jeremy Cantor reading at Book Passage, Corte Madera, California, August 1, 2015:

It would probably not surprise many here were I to say that Jeremy Cantor is one of my oldest friends, someone with whom I’ve shared interests and passions for much of our co-lengthy lives, that my presence here is part and parcel of a long stretch of mutual involvements in the usual and unusual matters comprised in friendship. The one person I’m certain would be surprised by that assertion is Jeremy Cantor, whom I physically met only six months ago. Our actual meeting was on Facebook, and the first interaction I recall was in a mutual group context wherein a conversation led somehow to one of the topics about which I can’t shut up — an area of mathematics called transfinite theory (incidentally, invented by a genius named “Cantor”, something that didn’t escape my notice). Jeremy clearly knew something about it, and more than a few other things, and I took note, realizing that this was someone I wanted to know. And so I sent the perfunctory connection request which Jeremy prudently questioned then faithfully accepted. Recalling this incident put me in mind of my favorite poem by John Donne, “The Extasie”, Donne’s contemplation of the profundity of ordinary matters in which he makes a beautiful observation about the complicity of sense perception:

But oh alas, so long, so far,
Our bodies why do we forbear?
They'are ours, though they'are not we; we are
The intelligences, they the spheres.
We owe them thanks, because they thus
Did us, to us, at first convey

Donne is commenting here on what a later Englishman would call “the doors of perception,” conceding that without the senses little can advance even to incipience. He goes on to say …

Yielded their senses' force to us,
Nor are dross to us, but allay.

… thus suggesting that the metaphysical realm is privileged by the sensorial, and that the metaphysical and physical, while perhaps distinguishable, are in fact inseparable. My point in laying this out is to address Donne’s “But oh alas, so long, so far, our bodies, why do we forbear.” … “…, because they thus did us, to us, at first convey.”

It was only then that I became aware of Jeremy’s poetry, which I found extremely thoughtful, unusually tinged with science for poetry, and worldly, both like and unlike Donne. Samuel Johnson, who’s credited with having invented the taxon “Metaphysical Poet,” for which Donne is the poster-boy, was not atypically scornful of the movement, saying “The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and, to show their learning was their whole endeavour” (he went on to aim his spear directly at Donne). In this respect, Jeremy’s quite unlike Donne, at least as so wickedly caricatured by Johnson. His erudition is not worn, but is subdued,  enticingly veiled, and that very subduction becomes an effective, almost signatory characteristic of his poetry. Things emerge from Jeremy’s work, as I said in the foreword to his present volume, “their meaning disguised in the plain dress of moment-to-moment experience.” Jeremy’s mastered the stealth epiphany - the most facile metaphor is that of a figure walking toward you in a mist, becoming gradually visible and more lately discernible, finally, fully present. But I think an equivalent formulation is that of a figure, unseen, that has been in the frame the entire time, around which the context subtly shifts, and with it, our attention resolves....

...What gets me is that it initiates in me its very sense of
discovery, as though the poem is but its author’s metaphor for my experience.

I want to continue for a bit with this theme of found meanings, and pivot to the other great passion of my life, music. Much has been said about the musical qualities of poetry and the poetic character of music, and we don’t need to rehash those. But there’s a semantic connection they share - it’s been said of music (and poetry) that it’s the art that is capable of telling you everything without telling you something. Particularly in modern writing, the abandonment of description in favor of evocation has brought it even closer to that ideal in which metaphor is dissolved of all anchored references. That, of course, is the starting position for a musical work, which, if anything, works most unnaturally when it tries to simulate literary or pictorial imagery, literally — think of the bleating sheep in Strauss’s Don Quixote and pity the woodwinds. Unlike music, poetry isn’t restricted by wordlessness. Uniquely, it has the license to draw from every other art’s toolkit. In Jeremy’s poem, “Changing Seasons,” he exercises that license, writing:

Instead of rattling my window pane
(the way the one now letting herself out
by the back door, quietly, had done) she chose
instead to let a silver song announce
her coming, by a barely stirring brush
of scented hands against the old wind chimes
that hung on the front porch.

It’s a kind of controlled release of rhythm, image, timbre, color, place, objects, even force, its silver song and scent-motivated chimes evoking actual synesthesia. This idea that poetry, unbound, can be the universal art form is due, in no small part, to a musician — John Cage, who was, after all, the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. Whatever else Cage was, he was the most influential aesthetician of the latter 20th century and the very embodiment of the formidable eclecticism he preached. Among the things he famously said is that art is what we pay attention to. I thought of this immediately when first I read Jeremy’s work, whose beauty is built of the things that win attention in their own moments, where metaphor and anecdote, the factual and the factitious are co-morbid elements of the work; where structure and content cross-dress; where questions asked in one realm of existence are answered in another. Cage liked to say that he explored the mystical proposition that “all answers answer all questions.”

Last week, I “interviewed” Jeremy in preparation for this — I wanted to get some idea about his “process” — and what, in essence, he told me is that he really doesn’t have a process. More often than not, he doesn’t know where his poetry comes from, even to the point that it’s sometimes mysterious how exactly it finds form on the page. I thought immediately, again, of Cage, who when mentoring the young composer Morton Feldman asked him where his ideas came from. Said Morton, “I don’t know.” Cage, in his unique affect, both enthusiastic and ethereally detached, said “Isn’t that wonderful!? It’s so beautiful and he doesn’t even know where it came from.” Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my friend, poet Jeremy Cantor.


TWO POEMS by Jeremy Cantor


What my New York City cousin had
tacked to the wall above his bed was
befitting of a New York City cousin —
ads for Truffaut films, record sleeves
from soundtracks of the same, a line drawing
he pointed to, laughing and saying to
my mother “This is a guy getting a fix”
(to this day I don’t see the humor in it
but since I was too young to understand,
it’s possible that some critical detail
has faded, leaving just a memory
that makes no sense) and photos of Italian
actresses, mostly clothed except
for one, standing, eyes closed, in calf-deep water,
her gracilis muscles tensed and stretched
along her thighs like arrows pointing to
the moment where they met, a moment that
wouldn’t come for me until years later,
the first time I was invited to touch
something softer than a kitten’s purr,
softer than the mink collar
on my mother’s coat.


They leave familiar footprints—three toes forward,
one toe facing back, the leg constructed
so as to grip the perch without a thought,
involuntarily, whenever the legs are bent—
nor does a songbird have to worry if
the branch he's perching on should disappear
from under him without a moment's warning.

He won't claw wildly for the support
that suddenly betrays him—even as
he spreads his wings and straightens out his legs,
his toes release the branch without a thought.

I was mistaken when I chose this twig,
this branch, this tree, this forest full of songbirds
this place that I imagined I'd call home
at last—it's not the place I thought it was.

I try to grab the trunk and slow my fall
while branches scrape my skin and scratch my eyes
and opaque layered leaves obscure my sight
but still I see the songbird, unconcerned.

Everything he'll ever need to know
when everything he counted on is gone
is in his tendons and his hollow bones.

His birthright is the art of letting go --
mine is to have faith in what betrays.


Michael Manning has enjoyed an eclectic professional life encompassing academia, print and broadcast journalism and management, scientific research, and software engineering in addition to performing as the pianist with the Endicott Players.  He has served on the faculties of Christopher Newport University, Western Kentucky University and Northeastern University, was Broadcast Director of public broadcasting’s flagship WGBH, Music Critic for The Boston Globe, and Producer for National Public Radio, and is presently a Peer Reviewer for Oxford University Press.  A graduate of Yale University’s School of Music, he has performed and lectured throughout the United States, and has been an established music critic on both coasts.  His radio productions have earned the industry’s highest awards, including Gold Medals from the New York International Festivals and Columbia University’s Major Armstrong Award.   Mr. Manning holds advanced degrees in Music, Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics and has served in executive positions at several prominent technology companies, including IBM and BAE Systems.  He currently teaches undergraduate mathematics.

Six poems from Jeremy Cantor’s debut collection, Wisteria from Seed (Kelsay Books, 2015), arranged for mezzo-soprano and accompaniment by Dr. Robert Gross, a composer of theater, film and television scores and of electroacoustic music, have been performed at the Boston Conservatory.  Jeremy’s poems have appeared in ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, published in conjunction with Oxford University Press) and other journals.   He was a semi-finalist in the competition for the Dartmouth Poet-in-Residence at the Frost Place, Robert Frost’s family home in Franconia, New Hampshire.  Jeremy began writing after retiring from a career in laboratory chemistry.   He has made and tested engine oil additives, detergents and pharmaceuticals, driven a forklift, worked in a full-body acid-proof hazmat suit, tried to keep his fingers working in a walk-in freezer at -40
°F and worked behind radiation shielding.  He prefers writing.