Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas and New Year's Wishes (Vol. 2, No. 16)

Everyone loves "Chopin with Cherries" - even Lech Walesa! He came to California for a brief, unofficial visit, on behalf of his foundation, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Solidarity movement. There were lectures and receptions and an opportunity to present him with a copy of our anthology, inscribed "to a wonderful hero of our times." If he does not lose it on the way, scholars of political history will find the book in his library and wonder how on earth did it get there...


For the holiday season, I was asked to write something "Christmasy" for the party of Little Landers Historical Society at Bolton Hall in Tujunga. I thought that a recent poem for a married couple celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary would fit it quite well, if there was a carol in the text. I chose to quote a carol that remains one of the most beloved Polish carols, cited by Fryderyk Chopin in his Scherzo in B-minor, op. 20.

Married Christmas

May your path be smooth,
and your sunlight mellow
~ an old blessing

He said
“You are the apple of my eye”
She said
“Let us have tea for two”

Steam rises from bronze liquid
freshly-baked szarlotka waits its turn
scent of cinnamon sweetens the air
the music box plays an ancient carol

Lulajże, Jezuniu, moja perełko,
Lulaj ulubione me pieścidełko

She does not have to finish –
one glance and he knows
after thirty-five years together
faithful like cranes on a Chinese etching

Their looking glass is hidden away
in a box of treasures they don’t need
to find blessings
among daily crumbs of affection

The carol's text incipit means: “Hush, hush, Baby Jesus, my little pearl, my lovely little darling…” – This ancient Polish carol is a simple lullaby, filled with tender love for the infant, held in the arms of his gentle mother. There are many lullabies among Polish carols; the focus of Polish Christmas is on the baby and his mother, on the familial love that binds them. The Lulajże Jezuniu carol is sung throughout the Christmas holiday season, from Christmas Eve to February 2nd, the Candlemas.

Last year, I was traveling close to Christmas, and the empty airports were full of fake cheer, recorded Christmas carols blaring from the loudspeakers and tinsel with childish decorations everywhere. The poem I wrote about that is similar in tone to the "Married Christmas" - extolling the virtue of the subtle affection, gentle understanding of a shared life, the true family virtue...

Rules for Happy Holy Days

Don’t play Christmas carols
at the airport. Amidst the roar
of jet engines, they will spread
a blanket of loneliness
over the weary, huddled masses,
trying not to cry out for home.

Don’t put Christmas light on a poplar.
With branches swathed in white
galaxies, under yellow leaves, the tree
will become foreign, like the skeleton
of an electric fish, deep in the ocean.

Clean the windows from the ashes
of last year’s fires. Glue the wings
of a torn paper angel. Brighten
your home with the fresh scent
of pine needles and rosemary.

Take a break from chopping almonds
to brush the cheek of your beloved
with the back of your hand,
just once, gently. Smile and say:
“You look so nice, dear,
you look so nice.”

This is the poetry of a moment in the kitchen, home cooking meals of the season and sharing a togetherness and affection that is quite beyond words, yet forms the very fabric of life.

Thanks to all poets and friends who have shared our Chopin with Cherries journey through the Chopin year. Happy New Year with Chopin, Music and Poetry!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tammy Tillotson on Chopin and Cherries

Time to return to Chopin with Cherries, the fruit of the season! After Mark Tardi's responses to my four questions back in October, we had a hiatus of two months, but finally have a contribution from another poet featured in the anthology, Tammy L. Tillotson.

Her poetry has appeared in Sweetbay Review 2008 and won an honorable mention in the Writer’s Eye 2008 and the 2009 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest. She is the editor of the Writers Studio Young Authors Anthology, entitled Bull Bay Review. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Old Dominion University and her Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Hollins University.

Ms. Tillotson contributed three epistolary poems to Chopin with Cherries. These letters are ostensibly written by three different people, protagonists in Chopin's personal drama concerning his failed marriage plans to Maria Wodzińska. His personal documents contain a packet of letters to/from Maria Wodzińska, marked "moja bieda" ("my sorrow") - it was one of his great personal tragedies and Ms. Tillotson dramatizes it in her three poems:

  • A Letter from Countess Wodzińska to her Daughter Maria, Winter, 1835
  • A Letter from Maria Wodzińska to F. Chopin, September, 1836
  • A Letter from Fryderyk Chopin to Himself, September, 1836


[Maja Trochimczyk]: What is your earliest or most intense memory associated with Chopin's music?

Tammy L. Tillotson: My earliest memory associated with Chopin’s music is connected to my suffering through piano lessons as a child. Since my mother wanted my sisters and I to learn to play an instrument, she arranged for a private teacher, who was also a family friend, to come to our house and teach my sisters and I one afternoon a week. My turn was always last as I was never very good and I dreaded the lesson, especially because it took me away from whatever book I would rather have been reading that afternoon.

Before my lesson would begin, the teacher would sometimes take a moment to play something himself. At first, I thought he did so because I was a difficult student and it helped him be more tolerant of my not-so-gentle touch. He was very patient with me, even while his ears were cringing and his bushy eyebrows were wrinkling up. He repeatedly, yet very kindly, often admonished, “Tammy, you must practice, practice, practice, and then, one day, you will play like this...” He would close his eyes and his fingers would dance across the keys, transporting him somewhere else entirely. Once, he stopped playing abruptly and I saw there were tears glistening in his eyes. In awe, I clapped and asked what he had just played. He answered, “Chopin.” Then he quickly closed the lid over the keys and announced, “Today’s lesson is over.”

MT: Why do you like Chopin's music and what does it mean to you?

TLT: It was during those brief moments of listening to my piano teacher play, that I felt, in his own way, he understood me. I felt the piano, for him, was like what writing and escaping into a book was for me.

I was some years older when I learned my piano teacher was of German/Polish descent. His closest relatives had been killed during the Holocaust, and he alone had survived because somehow he had been sent to another town a day ahead of his relatives. His wife once told me how he came from a family that had been very talented musically and how, when they were courting, he used to play Chopin, Bach, and countless others for her. She loved to hear him play though she thought he didn’t play as often anymore because the songs made him so very sad.

Because of these early experiences, I saw how people sacrifice a piece of themselves for beauty, art, and music to exist in the world...I suppose this is more vital to our making sense in a nonsensical world than we will ever truly realize or appreciate.

MT: What is your favorite piece by Chopin and what do you like about it?

TLT: “Romance-Largetto” – the inclusion of this particular Chopin piece is still what I love the absolute most about “The Truman Show.”

MT: Do you like cherries, if not what is your favorite fruit?

TLT: While I like cherries, they will never be my favorite fruit. If I am completely honest, this is partly because both my older sister and my younger sister can tie a cherry stem in a knot with their tongues. I am still a bit jealous, but I can humbly admit that it is not due to lack of effort on my part. Yet, I could always hull strawberries twice as fast as they could and especially in the summer, they still prefer to come to my house for daiquiris. I’d have to choose strawberries any day of the week over cherries!

MT: What are your current poetry projects?

TLT: Since Chopin with Cherries, I continue to write in-between keeping up with a busy three-year-old and a strong-willed kindergartener who remains convinced it is infinitely better to stay home with his brother than go to school!

Most recently, I’ve had poems included in Volume 26 of The Poet’s Domain and Sweetbay Review 2010. Several others are forthcoming. “Scare Crow” will appear January 1, 2011 in Beltway Poetry Quarterly’s special theme issue celebrating the legacy of Langston Hughes. “Overlooking the Blue Ridge Parkway” will appear in The University of Nebraska Gender Programs / Women's Center Becoming anthology. Also, a short poem and nonfiction memoir will be included in the Silver Boomer Books Flashlight Memories anthology.

MT: Now, that's a lot of work! You are one busy poet! You mentioned your sons, I'm just curious, do they like cherries? What is their favorite fruit?

TLT: Both my boys love blueberries and one of their favorite books is Blueberries for Sal. This summer I took them blueberry picking for the first time and pretty much they just sat down and ate berries! They were both a bit disappointed we didn't see any bears, though my youngest laughed and laughed, "Mommy, me full up with berries for the winter!" I owe Robert McCloskey the biggest bear hug ever.

MT: That's a lovely story and congratulations, again. This time, for being a wonderful mother. The portrait with blueberries is very cute. In time, someone will play Chopin to your sons, too...