Sunday, May 8, 2016

Tiger Nights and the Voice of Ella

Tiger Nights juxtaposes a strange dream with a re-imagined concert at the Hollywood Bowl, with Joshua Bell as the soloist. It is written in the first person, to strengthen the immediacy of the experience and the intimacy of the voice. The poem appears to be a favorite of editors and publishers, as it was selected to appear in The Epiphany Magazine (No. 6, 2011), along with my profile for the Poets' Cafe radio interview, posted on Tim Green's website, and on the announcement of the upcoming Moonday Poetry Reading. Of course, the incipit of the poem also appears on my Poet Laureate portrait by Ronna Leon posted in a previous blog.

Tiger Nights

Someone nailed gold-plated clouds
to the hard, polished turquoise of the sky.

Striated, like the stripes of a tiger
I did not know I had for a pet

until he bared his teeth
at the dogs flowing through the air

to corner him in my backyard.
The blond fur glistened in shadows.

Three golden labs growled
at the cat the size of a calf.

He turned. His stripes shone
with danger. I woke up afraid.

Now I watch the gold of the clouds
change into orange, scarlet and amaranth

in a quickly darkening cupola
that rests on the hills

above the Hollywood Bowl.
Smooth tones of Joshua Bell’s violin

glow in the air, escaping
the relentless chase of the brass.

Wind snatches notes from the bow,
plays with their glossy sheen.

Stars blossom on cloud-stems
in bouquets, wild as tiger lilies

you gave me that night.
Danger lurks in your smile

as you caress my ear
with a whisper: “Remember?”

To everyone thinking that "first-person" poetry is strictly autobiographical, I hasten to explain, again, that I went to the Joshua Bell concert described in Tiger Nights with my best friend, Elizabeth, who certainly does not resemble a tiger, did not give me any tiger lilies, and did not whisper seductive and ominous thoughts into my ear.

The dream was as real as dreams are, but the tiger's smooth coat appeared to be beige and not striped at all, until I recognized the cornered, graceful creature as one of power and danger: the lovely animal turned its head at the dogs and snarled, becoming a striped beast. That was enough to wake me up. But the word "beige" is too plain for a dream poem, someone said, so I changed it to a more human "blond." The stripes on the sky, the stripes on the tiger, the tiger lilies... this fragmented imagery creates a surreal scene of uncertainty, filled with seductive charm and vague threats. The "gold-plated clouds" become real in a jewel sky as the danger passes, or, at least, seems to do so.

The second "imaginary romance" poem, also a favorite with audiences and publishers, draws together scattered seeds of experience: a glance from a passing biker, a long ride between slopes of California's dry golden grass , contrasting with the deep green of the live oak during a trip to Lake Elizabeth, and the favorite melody outlined by the flowing voice of Ella Fitzgerald. No, it did not happen in my real life. Yes, it could have happened, as the poem is cobbled together from fragments of different memories. Instead of two contrasting images - as in Tiger Nights - I use a refrain that brings back the beguiling singer's voice to lift the biker's narrative high above the melting asphalt.

“Look at me…”

- after Ella Fitzgerald’s “Misty” and a Sunday drive to a peach orchard

the dark honey of Ella’s voice
filled the valley with a golden sheen

The bike stopped at the red light.
The biker looked at me intently.
All in black leather, he did not seem familiar.

the dark honey of Ella’s voice
spilled onto the asphalt

The light changed to green. I was touched
by the brightness in his eyes as he drove by,
turning his head, clearly off-balance. He stopped
to gaze at my metallic Honda. I felt his surprise.

the dark honey of Ella’s voice
blossomed in an aftertaste of sweetness

I knew he realized who I was,
the woman he found irresistible again
and again and again. I wonder if he told
his girlfriend about our sunny encounter.

the dark honey of Ella’s voice
flowed over the wonderland –
the dark honey, oh, the dark honey

The country road led me towards live oak
and grassy slopes, shining yellow and bronze.
There was no hatred, just being alive
after the storm. I was silent. I had nothing to say.

The poem was published in Loch Raven Review (Spring 2010) and reprinted on the Poetry Super Highway website where I was a Poet of the Week in January 2010. The title comes from the first words of "Misty" as sung on that astounding collection of Ella's Blues and Ballads (Verve). The song, by Johnny Burke and Erroll Garner, ends with "I'm too misty, and too much in love..."

You can listen to the version I love on YouTube. Compare it with other interpretations: by Sarah VaughanJulie London (with a charming alto and annoying twitter of flutes), and Ella Fitzgerald, again - with the Tommy Flanagan Trio. If you do not like singing, listen to Stan Getz, as delightful as any of the singers.

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