Baudelaire and Rufus

I have mixed up two poems in my head, poems about mixing it up. One is Harmonie du Soir:

Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!

Sounds and perfumes circle in the evening air;
Melancholy waltz and languorous vertigo!

and the other, Correspondances:

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

Like extended echoes which mingle far away
In a mysterious and profound unity,
Vast as the night and as light,
Perfumes, colors and sounds answer each other.

A recent leak in my bathroom ceiling has led to a new, mildewy scent in my apartment, and this morning I decided to begin again using my French coffee press. Stepping in my PJ’s from bedroom to living room, I got the full, mixed-up effect … the lovely smell of ground coffee, the heated-metal smell of the cheap stove in my apartment, the grassy mildew smell, and probably others too faint to mention. All of which was bound to conjure mornings in 1992, in my student slum house in Bloomington, at Hunter and Highland, permeated with moistures past and present, with baseboard heaters, sometimes with the smell of cut grass, and always full of coffee grounds and us three students jolting up. Memories particularly of “how I heard music then.” Fascinating. The famous, heartbreaking quintet from Mozart’s Idomeneo among these memories: music that seems otherwordly, aristocratic, supernatural. Heard in a hideous cinderblock library listening carrel, frantically preparing for a final exam (M 451, “Mozart Operas”), but wideeyed with wonder. How to connect from mold to Mozart?

Coffee in hand, I begged off my sunny, grassy, studential memories of Idomeneo and turned the stereo on–again–to the Rufus Wainwright disc my friend lent me yesterday. Like an archaeologist picking through ruins, I looked at what needed to be done in my apartment. Meanwhile, Rufus crooned:

I don’t know what I’m doin
I don’t know what I’m sayin
I don’t know why I’m watchin
all these white people dancin

As if on cue (and this was the disturbing part, the part that made me feel some force out there had already contemplated my reaction, was toying with me), my alarm CD clock came on (must have forgotten to turn it off?), and good old white Ignaz Friedman starts waltzing away. (“Valse melancolique et languoureux vertige!”) Battling sound systems! The combination of Rufus somewhat pretending to be a modern Schubert, and Friedman playing a souped-up suite of Schubert waltzes was unexpected and horrible. Rufus began to sing about “waltzin” around that time too. I put down my coffee. I was just contemplating a blog entry about the Schubertian harmonic twists in Rufus, and other classical quotes… also about the suspension of disbelief required to be touched by a song rhyming “cruisin” and “bruisin”… but the cacophony seemed to want to dissuade me from these easy amusements: it was a deep, ugly mass of conflicting sound. Like a nightmare, I wanted to interpret it.

I was being ambushed by unexpected combinations in my own house. The little universe I have set up here at 91st and Broadway, though mainly detritus, still has gravitational effects and mysterious laws. Smells, check. Sounds, check. Which senses, which correspondences, were left, and how would they be linked?

Baudelaire’s combos are tremendous, unnerving, they never cease to send me:

L’innocent paradis, plein de plaisirs furtifs…
[That innocent paradise, full of furtive pleasures…]

Et le ciel regardait la carcasse superbe
Comme une fleur s’épanouir.
[And heaven watched the splendid carcass
unfolding like a flower.]

Et que de l’horizon embrassant tout le cercle
Il nous verse un jour noir plus triste que les nuits;
[and when filling the whole circle of the horizon,
the sky pours out upon us a black daylight more gloomy than nights]

Something about the Rufus CD–even before the intrusion–unsettled me, brought Baudelaire to mind. It is, on occasion, so close to so much classical music; he summons its ways too easily? too glibly? and passes by. This makes me queasy at times, and other times is simply silly, but other times truly haunts me, gets me in the deepest places. In the song I have mentioned, there is a beautiful deceptive cadence just at the moment in the text where the narrator reveals his “underside”… this makes me very happy … someone out there also knows this stuff, thinks this element of text-setting is still important … but there is something falsely quoted about it too, something misattributed. I can sense a modern person re-hearing, and placing in the past, the tropes I have tried to make present to myself (in a sense, my whole world). The lostness of my repertoire is made evident to me. Its usage is stylized, and I am forced to contemplate a cynical definition of style–arbitrary combinations, at arbitrary times. If you dig Schubert up like this, does he open “like a flower,” or is this just a holographic image?

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