“Musicolepsy” Jonathan Taylor (Shoestring) – poetry review

Musicolepsy by Jonathan Taylor book cover

“Musicolepsy” is largely inspired by twin fascinations with music and astronomy as well as the poet’s own twin daughters. It starts with astronomy. In “Black Hole in B-Flat”, astronomers at NASA Chandra have found sound waves from a black hole.

“For 2.5 billion years you’ve moaned
for no-one, because no-one
could hear you from Perseus Cluster
250 million light years away,
your galactic ground-bass a million billion
times lower than human hearing
dog hearing, even Keplerian hearing”

The poem ends imagining Bach dozing off at his organ dreaming of “flickering fugues”

.                                                     short-lived as anything but you
.                                                                          and all-too-soon
.                                                                                         sucked back down
.                                                                                                          to your B-flat abyss.”

The onomatopoeic “o” assonances, echoing that long B-flat moan, are maintained throughout. The language may be grounded in scientific figures, but it’s also accessible and Jonathan Taylor’s musical ear is put to good use in producing poetry.

In “For My Father”, Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” lingers after the CD has been ejected.

“and I know that circling ostinato tells me:
that despite those seven last words
her fate is to be remembered for her fate,
to be immortalised for nothing else;

and I know too that grief;
the ground-bass to all our memories,
all too often memorialises by mistake
the fate, the last illness, the how
and not the who or what.”

The CD’s reflective surface becomes a way of making a personal loss a universal one. Music is a trigger for “Musicolepsy” but it’s not exclusively all about music. There are instances of being safely isolated at Stoke on Trent railway station by not knowing the score to a football game, the demise of a record shop at Lime Street in Liverpool where customers had argued over who had the best Mahler Five as if their knowing who Mahler was had been an affront to the area. In another, the narrator has been working in a record shop but finding it alienating until a customer asks for the “Magic Flute” only to be alienated again when she realises it’s not in stock. A memory of New Brighton beach and yellow kagools features in “Sterile Promontory, July 1982”, a remembering “that childhood is not/ one long summer but/ one long preparation/ for something colder,/ greyer, drizzlier,/ sinking into a mini-spit/ of squelchy sand.”

There is a central heart of poems loosely about listening to classical music. Fortunately Jonathan Taylor is more interested in the effects of music on the listener or composer so no musical knowledge is required or assumed on the part of the reader. This makes them very readable despite the technical language. “Numeromania”, written for one of his twin daughters ends:

“Perched on my shoulder, your three pounds shrieked louder
than an orchestra in E major. You were sometimes piano,
sometimes a wild Scherzo,

.                                                       as I walked you up and down,
every step a crotchet: Allegro moderato, Adagio,
Sehr schnell, Bewegt doch nicht schnell.

And I thought of Bruckner and his counting mania,
flowers on women’s dresses, leaves on trees,
notes, bars and phrases, windows in churches
to which he’d otherwise feel compelled to return,
footsteps he’d have to retrace,

.                                                          walking up and down
every step a crotchet: Allegro moderato, Adagio,
Sehr schnell, Bewegt doch nicht schnell.

no-one crying on his shoulder.”

The musical instructions within the refrain translate loosely as “moderately lively, in slow time” from Italian and “very quick, moving but not so fast.” from German. The first part of both instructions could be a parent’s anxious heartbeat and steps correspondingly increasing in speed: a three pound baby is a premature one and a shrieking baby demands a fast response. The second part of both instructions is to slow down and in doing so, slow the sense of panic and reassure and calm the baby. Counting is a method of doing this, forcing concentration onto the intent of the action – inducing calm – rather than the reason for the action – anxiety. The rhythm appropriately pedestrian, allowing the reader to keep pace and follow the lines of thought.

Naturally there is a poem for the second twin, Miranda, that appropriately starts with a Shakespearean quote “…my dear on, thee, my daughter, who/ Art ignorant of what thou art” from “The Tempest” Shakespeare invented the name Miranda specifically for his play. The planet Uranus has twenty-seven moons, most of which are named after Shakespearean characters, including Miranda. At one point a comet crashed into this moon so the opening image in the quote from “Uranus V” below is apt:

“a cataclysmic collage of script-shatterings
pasted back together by gravities,

a motley world of places you wouldn’t know,
of other people, father, lover, king, fool:
here you’re never your own true self –
that Mirandian self who’s much nearer home.”

“Musicolepsy” is technically slick, employing music as a vehicle for exploring humane concerns, from the beginning of life to its end. The subjects may not be original, but they are handled with care, sensitivity, intelligence and a clear understanding of rhythm and the technical aspects of poetry. The use of musical instruction and references are used to clarify and specifically convey the poems’ messages, not to baffle or obfuscate.

“Musicolepsy” is available from Shoestring Press.

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