DAVID TEEMS BEING DAVID TEEMS. That’s me. Some of you know me. Some of you may not. Those of you who do know me may just be curious. What’s he up to? I can use that. Curiosity. Imagination. They work well together, and are especially welcomed here. A book, a poem, an essay, a song, even a podcast works best when it leaves room for the reader, or listener, to imagine. It is a cooperation of a kind. And the best books and poems and songs don’t say everything. Nor should they. Poems are not written to instruct. Charm doesn’t work that way. The purpose of a dance is not to transport you from one location in a room to another. Destination is not the point. There is something else at stake.
Well said in the introduction, David Teems being David Teems is a stage, and I have always been comfortable on stage. From this stage I will read from my books, both published and not-yet published books. I will try new things on you. New music. Old music. I’ll pose questions. Think of it as me unplugged.
AS SURE AS APRIL is actually a line from a novel I wrote years ago, my first . . . novel. My first book, actually, a book that currently sits on the shelf (metaphorically, of course). I go back to it often enough, steal from it on occasion (in the publishing business that’s known as cannibalizing), so in spite of the years, it hasn’t gathered much dust. I will, in time, remove it from the amber, so to speak, sanitize it, check it for . . . I don’t know, worms, grammatical parasites, a botched metaphor or two? Who knows?
April is also one of the main characters in a new novel that comes out in, well, April of 2020—a probable history, a Shakespeare in Love meets the DaVinci Code kind of tale [title withheld for the moment]. In the beginning of the narrative, successful songwriter Brook Allen of Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee is suffering the loss of his wife . . . the recently deceased April Allen, a professor of Shakespeare studies at Vanderbilt. But don’t let that scare you away. It’s a happy little tale, or as happy as a tale can be when a death is written into it. It celebrates the redemptive power of music. And love. After both have suffered. I don’t want to give too much away at this time, but it features a songwriter, so there are songs in the book. The original idea of this podcast was to use it as a platform to promote this new novel, to read from it until its release. It still has that purpose, but there is more. For now, I just want to read the opening paragraph of the novel, to give you a small glimpse into this world. A little music please.
Until she saw him play that night at Twelfth and Porter, she never gave the instrument much thought. It wasn’t the song he sang or the hush that fell over the room as he played. It was his hands. There was piety in his touch, a tenderness between him and the old guitar that moved her in a private way. He can’t play or go near that guitar now without thinking about her. And in spite of an old love of metaphor, he is smothering in it. Death puts its strong dark glaze on everything—the trails she walked, the prints she left, the cups she favored, the precision of her handwriting, her movement through a song.
I will read more from this manuscript later, but in this context, April is a fictional character, the ghost in one of my stories. In another context, she is, or was, very real. And still haunts our little house. Let me explain.
On 14 April 1988, Benita miscarried. It was a girl. This terrifying little episode almost took my wife. The physician told me had I gotten her to the hospital fifteen or twenty minutes later, I would have lost her too. They actually made us say goodbye, and quickly as they rushed her to surgery. I was in shock for days. We were a young household. Adam was eight. Shad was two. A year later, I woke up one day and not long into the morning I started weeping, and for no conspicuous reason. It wasn’t depression. Sadness. It made no sense. And this went on all day. Weeping, the deep guttural messy uncontrollable kind. I use the word “weep” when its torrential. It was certainly more than just a good cry. There was something in it. Benita’s nephew, Daniel, was living with us at the time and when he saw me that morning, he asked what was wrong. When I could speak, I said, “I really don’t know.”
It wasn’t until deep in the afternoon Benita reminded me what day it was. It was April 14, 1989, one year to the day. I hadn’t wept when it happened, not even at the threat of losing my wife. Shock, I suppose. When she told me that, and though it made sense or something like sense, it started all over again. We knew her as April. That’s what we called her. A name we can’t let go of.
AS SURE AS APRIL, therefore, suggests an optimism of a kind, of hope in loss, of loss and recovery, the bittersweetness of all the what-ifs, of old love, long love—the stuff of poetry and song. In literature, the month of April comes with promise and bloom, the cycle beginning again. And again. There’s certainly poetry in that. For my wife and I, the name implies a kind of place-time stamp, not unlike hearing a song whose memory brings with it what you were doing at the time, where you were living, who your friends were, your ambitions, and so on. It also comes with a pang of memory, an ache that has no explanation, nor needs one. For our little camp, her name is a poetry of the quietest, sweetest kind.
I considered other titles for this podcast. Like me, it’s been called a lot of names. The first was RHAPSODE. [spell] R-H-A-P-S-O-D-E. A proud little word the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a reciter of poems, a rhapsodist.” The kind of word that makes you want to roll your Rs. The rhapsode in ancient Greece was a performer. He would take the stage and recite select narratives from Homer—The Illiad, The Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou. He also carried a staff in his hand, and often sang the words, weaving tale after tale together to the delight of his audience. The word rhapsode, and rhapsody, have a common Greek root that literally means to “stitch together.” Rhaps—to stitch or sew, and ode—a poem. I am fond of the word myself. As a title it seemed to work for the moment, enough to get things moving forward, Then, it just started sounding . . . puffy. A bit pretentious.
The next title I considered was FROM MY ROOM, because literally, everything written, including the books I will read from, any script I use, even music, is created right here at my desk, which, by the way, is made from the base of an old cast iron SINGER sewing machine. I have two of them. The word SINGER in big cast iron letters. I can work the pedal with my foot as I write, or in an idle moment, feel a fan of air if I want. I have a sound booth in my office to record voiceover, so it all really does take place right here, FROM MY ROOM. That title had more stick. Or did for a while. It too kept things moving forward. But I began to feel a little odd about that name too, though I’m not sure I can say why. Exposure perhaps? That lousy feeling you get when you’ve said too much. Or have given too much away.
STORYSONG was another. It seemed to capture in single compound word one of the things I wanted to achieve with a podcast, to play my songs and tell the story that goes with them, where there are stories, which I will do, by the way. But that possibility ended with a google search. There is an already an organization by that name.
The last contender was LOVE MATTERS. I just like the sound of that. The word “matters” I was going to explain would have the sound you would make if you were saying “financial matters” or “spiritual matters.” Love matters. That way the phrase has double meaning, double usefulness. But again, when I thought about it, it seemed to imply some Hallmark movie romance guru Dear Abby thing. I’m not quite, well . . . with so many versions of “this matters or that matters” I thought better of it.
AS SURE AS APRIL, as a title, was more of an afterthought, a distraction from the stress of coming up with a name. Was it too lyrical? Pretentious? Blah, blah, blah. I dismissed it. Of course, I did. Then I came back to it. Then dismissed it again. And again. I finally settled on it. Truth is, this podcast incorporates all the names mentioned above, all their implied uses, each offering a hint of where this all going. It is conceived, written, and recorded FROM MY ROOM. It will feature the occasional STORYSONG. I do function as a RHAPSODE in this context. And LOVE actually does MATTER.
I’ll talk about it again in more detail, but my real hope is to create or cultivate synthesis between (and forgive the possessive) my music and my writing. That’s why I choose to tread modestly at first, feeling my way through, so to speak—not blindly, but like a guy with a divining rod, yet one who knows where the water is. And the thirst.
If this pilot episode has a title, it might be TO AUTUMN. I love October. The sudden bite in the air, the falling leaves, the rich change of color, all the lovely metaphors that come with it, the soft amber light of memory, of harvest and homecoming. Its brush of sadness.
It is in October that we remember the martyrdom of William Tyndale [October 6]. Today we remember Martin Luther’s hammering of his 95 Theses, and, I suppose, his hammering of the Roman Church. The poet, John Keats, was born on this day, 31 October 1795. Keats is the reason I wanted to launch this podcast on this day.
In the fall of 1819, Keats wrote a poem called TO AUTUMN. To some scholars, his most “perfect” poem. Perfect in brackets. I am not going to argue that. Infatuation being what it is, I’ve just finished reading my fourth biography of Keats. 2200 pages. After which, I can say “here is a poet who suffered for what he wrote.” That moves me. A theme I return to again and again. Either way, Keats is now settled among my small pantheon of literary saints. Dying of tuberculosis just a few months after his 25th birthday, Keats died believing he had failed, that he would never be remembered as a poet.
“If I should die,” he wrote Fanny Brawne, “I have left no immortal work behind me, nothing to make my friends proud of my memory. But I have loved the principle of beauty in all things. And if I had time, I would have made myself remembered.”
Keats’ “principle of beauty in all things” is the soul of a poem. To plagiarize Walt Whitman, there are millions of poems left. Poets are driven by that same principle of beauty in all things. Singers. Songwriters. Novelists. And . . . podcasts. For all its noise and bluster, all its gloating ironies, there is beauty in this world. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” the poet said. “That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
To reduce the life of Keats to social media length, here’s a guy whose father was thrown off a horse and died when the poet was 8 years old. His mother remarried hardly two months later, disappeared for years, abandoning her four children, squandering her inheritance, her health, and perhaps any faith her oldest child might have had in the almighty. She returned, only to die of tuberculosis shortly after. John was 14 when she died, the oldest of four surviving children, left in the guardianship of a man named Abbey, a kind of ass, forgive me, who cared little for the oldest son, and even less for his poetry. A coil in the life of Keats.
Years later, Keats’ brother George married and moved to Kentucky and the promise of America, leaving the poet alone to tend to his youngest brother, Tom, who was himself dying a slow agonizing death by tuberculosis, the poet at his side. For all this, the year following his brother’s death, John Keats had what has been called the Annus Mirabilis, his miracle year.
That miracle year, the year of his great odes and poems, is essentially why we remember Keats at all. Two things moved him to words. Death. And love. He contracted the family disease, consumption (tuberculosis). Of course, he did. Around that same time, he fell in love with Fanny Brawne, the love of his brief and tragic life. In a letter to her dated July 1819 he said, “Forgive me if I wander a little this evening, for I have been all day employ’d in a very abstract Poem and I am in deep love with you—two things that must excuse me.” In the same letter, he adds, “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.” Remember too, this is Keats’ Annus Mirabilis, his Miracle Year, the year that made John Keats John Keats.
Forgive the digression, but considering the above, the tragedy that shaped Keats, that made a poet of him, I could not help but think of William Tyndale, never far from my thoughts, Tyndale, who suffered a similar affliction, and with similar results. Though not the way Keats was in love, Tyndale was in love. A higher love perhaps, nor a romantic one, necessarily, but love nonetheless, a mystical understanding, both powerful and without limits. Outlaw that he was, a price on his head, a target on his back, the twelve or so years he translated an English bible, he was under a sentence of death. There was treachery everywhere. And I’m convinced his bible would not have been the same otherwise, that is, had it bloomed under fairer conditions. Tyndale gave the English-speaking world something miraculous in his 1526 English New Testament. Again, the twin muses love and death conspiring together to give the English speaking world, literally, something it had never seen, or heard, before.
That’s why I chose Keats for this initial podcast. That, and cashing in the 2200 pages. His is the voice of old October, of the sear, the yellow leaf. Keats makes a high music in me, his story, his poems, his letters, his struggle, his opinion, even the music underneath it all, which is, and must be, a bit sad. TO AUTUMN . . . by John Keats.
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
For any Keats zealots, forgive these liberties I take with his music. If I hear differently than you, it is simply because I hear differently than you. If there is a lot to love about Keats, and there is, there is as much to pity. I couldn’t read his bio, any of the four, without strong emotion, particularly how needlessly tragic his ending. Nursing his dying brother, Tom, the poet saw the image of his own end. When he coughed up blood not long after, he was certain. And being a poet, he thought and reasoned like a poet. “ I have an habitual feeling of my real life having passed,” he told a friend, “and that I am leading a posthumous existence.” Death was his muse, death and love.
. . . for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath:
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain . . .
Lines from Ode to a Nightingale.
To add to the misery of his last days, the medicinal arts, if you can dare call it that, being what they were in 1820, he was starved as part of his treatment. The good doctor said his lungs were good, but his stomach was not. He consisted on about an anchovy a day. He was not allowed to read or write poetry, to speak much above a whisper, to see Fanny Brawne or read her letters. He was allowed glimpses of her as she walked the garden. He was buried with her unopened letters. His traveling companion snatched his laudanum from him, because of the poet’s desire for an end. He long abandoned what faith he might have had, referring, as he did, to the “pious frauds of religion.”
But to me, the greatest injustice to Keats, was perpetrated by one of his close, if not closest friend. In his last days, Keats, living in Italy for the sake of his health, informed his traveling companion, Joseph Severn, to have the following words alone inscribed on his tombstone. Here lies one whose name was writ in water. It was a poet’s last request, his last words, capturing, as they did, some essence, some illumination in his final hours, said with all the beauty, sobriety, and economy of a poet, in spite of the minor key it was written in. His friend, Charles Brown, whom the poet simply called Brown, didn’t think the poet’s words said quite enough. Brown took it upon himself to have the following etched just above the poet’s own words. The tombstone read thus:
This grave contains all that was mortal, of a young English Poet, who on his death bed, in the bitterness of his heart, at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraven on his tomb stone “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” February 24 1821.
Brown could not have gotten it more wrong. And if I can somehow help you understand these words, here lies one whose name was writ in water, I would consider this podcast a success. A wannabe poet, a gentleman, a man of the world, loud, somewhat indecent but devoted, I don’t think Brown’s intention was to seal his name with Keats, like Jonson’s to Shakespeare’s. Probably not. It may have been, as I would hope, well intended. But it was so wide of the point. Brown missed it with such magnificence. Yes, the poet’s first reviews were bad reviews, and it might have broken him. But it didn’t. He kept pushing, against ridiculous odds. In this single line of iambic pentameter, Keats, in the wake of a brief and bitter life, saw himself not as a poet but as a poem. Here lies one whose name was writ in water.
A few paragraphs ago, I used the phrase old October. It’s from 20th century novelist, Thomas Wolfe. Dying at 37 years old, Wolfe lived to be little older than Keats. Both Thomas Wolfe and John Keats had a presentiment about their deaths. I will return to Wolfe in another podcast, but I want to read an excerpt from his second novel, the 912 page OF TIME AND THE RIVER, a section I call OLD OCTOBER. If Keats was a novelist at heart, and I am convinced he was, Thomas Wolfe was a poet. He is uncontainable (present tense intentional). But now that I’ve read TO AUTUMN by Keats, I want you to listen for Keats in Wolfe. He’s there. The resonance is unmistakable. Genius feeding on genius.
October is the richest of the seasons:
the fields are cut, the granaries are full, the bins are loaded to the brim with fatness,
and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run.
The bee bores to the belly of the yellowed grape, the fly gets old and fat and blue,
he buzzes loud, crawls slow, creeps heavily to death on sill and ceiling,
the sun goes down in blood and pollen across the bronzed and mown fields of old October.
The ripe, the golden month has come again,
and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.
Frost sharps the middle music of the seasons,
and all things living on the earth turn home again.
But summer is dead and gone, the earth is waiting,
suspense and ecstasy are gnawing at the hearts of men, the brooding prescience of frost is there. The sun flames red and bloody as it sets, there are old red glintings on the battered pails,
the great barn gets the ancient light as the boy slops homeward with warm foaming milk.
Great shadows lengthen in the fields, the old red light dies swiftly,
and the sunset barking of the hounds is faint and far and full of frost:
there are shrewd whistles to the dogs, and frost and silence--this is all.
Wind stirs and scuffs and rattles up the old brown leaves,
and through the night the great oak leaves keep falling.
And often in the night there is only the living silence, the distant frosty barking of a dog,
the small clumsy stir and feathery stumble of the chickens on limed roosts, and the moon,
the low and heavy moon of autumn, now barred behind the leafless poles of pines,
now at the pinewoods’ brooding edge and summit, now falling with ghost’s dawn of milky light upon rimed clods of fields and on the frosty scurf on pumpkins, now whiter, smaller, brighter, hanging against the steeple’s slope, hanging the same way in a million streets,
steeping all the earth in frost and silence.
"Then a chime of frost-cold bells may peal out on the brooding air,
and people lying in their beds will listen. They will not speak or stir,
silence will gnaw the darkness like a rat, but they will whisper in their hearts:
"'Summer has come and gone, has come and gone. And now?' But they will say no more,
they will have no more to say: they will wait listening, silent and brooding as the frost,
to time, strange ticking time, dark time that haunts us with the briefness of our days.
They will think of men long dead, of men now buried in the earth,
of frost and silence long ago, of a forgotten face and moment of lost time,
and they will think of things they have no words to utter.