"Not with a Lover's Lyre":
Regeneration through Poetry
by Nathaniel Osborne
Thank God there's no one left for me to lose —
so I am free to cry. This air was made
for the echoing of songs.
-Anna Ahkmatova, "The Return," 1944
Declared by Merle Haggard to be "the best singer I've ever heard," Iris Dement had endeared herself to audiences and listeners alike through a career spanning over twenty years of "tellin' her truth." Her 1992 studio debut, Infamous Angel, introduced the country-music world to a singular voice and talent already in the full bloom of artistic maturity, spinning country ballads of hallucinatory slowness with an emotional depth and sophistication beyond her years. Throughout her next two albums, she sought to reconcile her background in Southern Pentecostalism and country/gospel musical influences with the realities of loss, religious doubt, and blue-collar struggle. In the songs of this period, she wrestled with the demands of a heritage that was both a lifeline and an enclosure. Recognizing that a denial of her past would be a self-annihilation, she searched for a way of singing and living that would stick true to her roots while remaining honest and empathetic in a world with no easy answers. This dialectic most dramatically expressed itself in her following up of 1996's The Way I Should, in which she ventured into the territory of protest songs and rock-and-roll duets, with Lifeline in 2004, in which all but one song were covers of traditional gospel songs. Perhaps testament to these struggles was the waiting period of eight years between these two albums, and eight years again until 2012's Sing the Delta. The latter, however, proved Dement still in full possession of her abilities. The songs, some of which had been taking shape in her mind for more than a decade, proved witness of Dement's ability to wait for answers to materialize, instead of rushing into an impermanent half-sense of understanding or self-awareness. She required the same level of emotional and spiritual integrity in her songs as in the beliefs and attitudes inherited from the past.
Sing the Delta also proved the channel through which Dement came to terms, in mourning and tribute, with the recent passing of her mother. Almost twenty years prior, Dement had undertaken the same musical ritual of emotional processing following the death of her father. These two partings raised the stakes and were an actualization of Dement's joys and struggles concerning her heritage. The now-concrete absence of parental ties to her roots would certainly re-surface painful emotions and could perhaps even facilitate the makings of an identity crisis. In "Out of the Fire," Dement evokes childhood remembrances of since-departed family members and church revivals through seven minutes of a repeated piano figure. Like a preacher's humble invitation to the pulpit, the images accumulate to instill a sense of nostalgic remorse and spiritual separation. Dement is being led, and in turn leading us, through a prayer-like process of repentance and conversion, though one whose ultimate dimensions remain as yet unclear. Then: "Once you were the dawn, the dusk, and the night. Without the dream of holding you tight, my days turned to black; I could hardly take breath; I stumbled my way through a fate worse than death. But like the Phoenix that rose right out of the fire, I came back too, from a bed of desire, and shook from my wings the ash from the pyre, and headed back home." Dement, engulfed in the darkness of loss and departure, is yearning for, and picturing scenarios of, rebirth, reconnection, reclamation of the ability to feel deeply and live.
Before the release of Sing the Delta, a friend of Dement had given her a collection of poems by the Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet famous for her courageous resistance to Stalinism through art in the mid-twentieth century. Dement was drawn to the poems immediately. She writes that she "felt like somebody (besides me) had started talking to me. What I heard was: ‘Set that to music.'" Over the course of the next four years, she did just that. Experiencing a sense of communion with the late poet, a sense of calling for this task, and at times even asking for guidance from Akhmatova for her course, Dement set eighteen poems to music. In the album that resulted, The Trackless Woods, Dement not only plays the role as intermediary between the world of Akhmatova and the listener, but further travels the road of her own artistic quest and investigations. Through Dement's identification with the poetry of Ahkmatova, she has found new avenues to explore her past themes of loss, the nature of conscientious citizenship, relationship to God, and the nature of song. Dement's act of artistic communion has allowed her to overcome the limitations of her usual approach; through the work of a seemingly alien and difficult poet, she has discovered new roads "back home."
Few obvious parallels exist between the lives of these two artists. Akhmatova in a way functioned as the officially maligned and persecuted poetic conscience of the Russian soul during the Stalinist years. Condemned by the bureaucracy of those times as an adversarial manifestation of the reactionary bourgeoisie, her works were banned and she lived in constant threat of assassination or "liquidation." She maintained a commitment to her aesthetic, emotional, and moral imperatives inconsistent with what the Stalinist bureaucracy deemed permissible. Dement experienced early career success and recognition to answer these certain self-imposed anonymity due to her sporadic output of new material. These narratives alone provide us few clues. What binds Dement and Akhmatova together may lie more in similarities of psychological temperament and artistic approach. In a broad sense, both insist of honest experiences of life in the face of regressive forces, for Akhmatova those being the fantasy consolations of government-imposed Social Realism, for Dement a religious and social orthodoxy restrictive unto the individual. Both used traditional methods of their craft to create decidedly personal and unorthodox responses to life in their output. They offer conscientious second opinions in the face of degenerating social conditions all the while retaining a sense of responsibility and commitment to the spirit of their nation.
The implicit refrain of common sense and practical experience upon attempts to set poetry to popular or semi-popular musical forms runs something like: Don't do it. The ethos of popular music favors personal expression over recourse to a real or imagined cultural heritage. Inextricably linked as popular music is to the spirit of the times, adaptations of the revered artists or artistry of the past is probably rightfully scorned as a contradiction-in-terms. At best, these attempts seem diminutions of their object, at worse pretentiousness and self-indulgence rear their ugly heads. How then for Dement to succeed in the face of such a reputation?
The initial reaction of any long-time fan of Dement's singing to the first moments of The Trackless Woods might very well be a simple and visceral luxuriation in the novelty of a whole new vocabulary filtered through Dement's distinctive voice. However, after this initial shock and pleasure wears away, the songs still remain remarkably convincing and unpretentious. Dement's earlier material was of a startlingly old-fashioned nature. Her compositions, so radically traditional as to lapse into timelessness, would lull the listener into a sort of dream-state of rapt attention until the accumulating weight of Dement's stanzas would overwhelm the listener with the bitterness of raw, unconsummated longing and poignant tenderness. The Trackless Woods, however, confronts a listener at all times keenly expectant of a distance between text and music. Instead of the unsuspecting open-mindedness of the virgin ear, we, perhaps though with a kindly indulgence, are forced by this awareness into following Dement, half- suspiciously, line-by-line through her recitation.
This skepticism meets happily with Dement's concerted lack of attempt towards "proving" anything. Indeed, so complete is Dement's marriage with text that the boundaries between Akhmatova and Dement seem often to disintegrate entirely. To the extant these settings are unprejudiced "first readings," they are able to function in a strange sense as the "original" as well as contemporary interpretations. Through Dement's heartfelt sympathy with the poet, she is able to simultaneously remain true to the spirit of Akhmatova, and through her selective act of musical "authorship," remain fully herself and work these poems through the prism of her own life and emotional and spiritual imperatives. What would otherwise remain dubiously a constant balancing-act is transcended through an open-minded honesty and directness into a technique which unravels and explores new territory in Dement's inner landscape.
As previously stated, this landscape is dotted with the remnants of loss of both familial ties and romantic attachments. This is the startling plea of "Prayer": "Make me feverish, sleepless, and breathless... O Lord, take my child and my companion, and destroy the sweet power of song. Thus I pray... that the storm cloud which lowers over Russia may be changed to a nimbus ablaze." This supplication, and the high price to pay towards that universal salvation, makes all-too-much sense given the context of Akhmatova's life. In Dement's work, though, such bitter pleading is without direct precedent. However, the wish that out of the ashes of loss and despair a new and higher plane of living might arise brings us circuitously back the rebirth struggle in "Out of the Fire." Here, the transmutation of psychic wreckage results not only in personal rebirth, but also in the salvation of country-at-large. Dement specifically is channeling the heart-rending experiences of the past in hope of a larger spiritual significance and destiny. "Like a White Stone" posits the memory of an unnamed "you" sunk deep in the narrator's soul. The unspoken events are presented as having been decreed by fate so that "marvelous sorrows might endure forever." This remembrance, "such pain and yet such ecstasy," provides a melancholy reveling in unworked-through traumas of loss, and, combined with that dream of a universal blaze of redemption, suggest struggles against and future salvations from gnawing pangs of inexplicable loss.
In 2003, before an expectant audience at a show in Madison, Wisconsin, Dement declared in both conviction and modesty an inability to perform in good conscience in light of the ongoing invasion against Iraq. This risky principled act, combined with the righteous indignation and protest of The Way I Should, was almost ensures to be drowned out and assimilated into the furors of anti-Bush hysteria and partisanship. Bound to be left unexamined in such frenzied times is that such convictions, in light of Dement's deep sense of roots and humanistic enquiries, coexist and indeed spring out of a conscientious sense of patriotism and duty, rather than any sort of merely oppositional politicism. Through Akhmatova's equally remarkable resistance towards emigration, Dement more fully delineates her loyalty to the better spirit of her country, even amidst national hardship and betrayals. "Not With Deserters" rails against the fearful ex-patriotism that would abandon country and thus dutiful conscientious struggle in the critical hour of need. And in a miraculous act of renovation into the distinctly American, Dement transforms the rarified overhead view of Russian wastes in "From an Airplane" into a heartland country-rocker with the Midwest firmly in view. The poem, Dement has stated, in her mind was from the onset straight Johnny Cash; and the conclusion: "As though, for the first time I saw my country, And with a pang of recognition I knew/It is all mine- and nothing can divide us/ It is my soul, it is my body, too" proves unquestionably Dement in possession of that most radical insight of citizenship: the inseparability of individual conduct and existence to its macrocosm in the country-at-large.
From the opening song of her debut album, "Let the Mystery Be," Dement's reckoning with spiritual questions has been marked by a resigned agnosticism as to the concrete features and at times even existence of God. However, rather than wrestling with unattainable answers that can end only in embittered disbelief, Dement retains the spirit if not form of empathetic Christianity with agape at its heart and center. "Reject the Burden" allows Dement to explore an amalgamation of these tendencies. The renunciation expressed in the song is in keeping with the most radical and original teachings of Jesus; the burden referred to is none other than the most instinctive human urges. "Put from your heart the claims of home and wife/ Does your child hunger? Give unto another/ The bread that once would feed that little life/ Humble yourself to be the meanest servant/ Of your worst enemy and learn to call/ The brute beast of the forest-ways your brother." This renunciatory asceticism clearly lies at the crossroad between the essential cores of many religions. "Ask of God nothing, nothing at all" the conclusion proscribes, and this utter selflessness connects us back intriguingly to Sing the Delta. In "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray," Dement recounted the spiritual trauma caused by the death of her younger brother when she was a child. Her unanswered pleading to God for a recovery for her brother following an accident led Dement towards a private childhood crisis upon the realization that "God does what God wants to anyway." Through Akhmatova then, Dement is able to glimpse a transformation of the unavailability of God into a larger spiritual reality; without expectation of reward or compensation, love of neighbor and selflessness become consolations and meanings unto themselves.
The sublimation of outward religious expression and prayer for Dement has always been through the art of song. Even through the doubts and uncertainties of Sing the Delta, Dement affirmed her commitment to "still singing my prayer to Heaven above, heartfelt and true." Though perhaps now unsure of its specifications, Dement received from her mother the guiding faith that "music is a pathway to higher ground." Her debt to her religious roots and her mother as musical role model still inform her approach and belief in the higher purpose of her art. One aspect of Akhmatova's poetry that drew Dement was its use of songs and singing themselves as subject matter. In these instances, Dement is uniquely able to meet text with music that brings forth their impulses while expanding their scope and contributing to them her emotional and spiritual reserves. The example par excellence of this process is the miraculous "Listening to Singing." The poem, a hymn-like reception of the mystical possibilities inherent in a single unnamed woman's voice, is extracted by Dement of all its ecstatic connotations into a rapturous and universal affirmation of song and life itself. Indeed, the text unites layers of her emotional and spiritual identity into a paean of overflowing joy. This tribute of an unnamed woman's singing resembles Dement's early celebrations of her mother and her role in her own development. Specifically, "My Mama's Opry" from her debut recounts childhood memories of her mother's singing and their effect upon her. In its chorus that effect is likened in the gospel terms of religious experience: "And we sang ‘Sweet Rose of Sharon, Abide with Me','til I ride the Gospel ship to Heaven's jubilee; and in that great triumphant morning my soul will be free." Her mother's singing, which in that song she exclaimed "sure left her mark on me," parallels now this woman's voice, which, "as it flies, whatever it brushes, It changes and it won't change back." The specifically Christian imagery of that earlier song is now transformed into an indiscriminate humanistic mysticism: "And the power that propels the enchanted voice displays such hidden might, it's as if the grave were not ahead, but mysterious stairs beginning their flight." One factor underlying the outpouring of emotion is the resolution of her religious questionings in the singing's triumph over death. These intimations of resurrection also see Dement coming to terms with the death of her mother. If her mother was both her muse and connection to roots, this musical setting is her farewell to that guiding influence and her assumption into full individuality as a woman and as an artist. The unnamed woman in the poem becomes, through this act of transference, none other than Dement herself. Through Akhmatova, she reaches beyond her dependence and loss towards a wholeness of self and a regeneration of the spirit.
Concrete loss of a connection to the past is in part what has allowed Dement reception of this outside influence in Akhmatova. Through this receptiveness, Dement has been afforded alternate modes of dealing with the remnants of that past and the concerns of her art and career as a whole. What has resulted is not a break or renunciation in the continuity of Dement's psyche, but an intimate record of one artist's grapplings with adversity through a receptive honesty and open-mindedness. If her personal endeavor seems quaint or obscure and irrelevant in the circumstances of our frenzied times, what its success can offer us perhaps is testament to the regenerative power of song in the face of sorrow and loss of roots – in a word, hope.
Also see Iris Dement's website
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