“The Tone Poet” (ca. November 2006)

translated by Verne Chen.

Claude realized he’d left a task undone. He bent once more over his writing desk and added a G Flat major seventh chord onto the page’s last staff. Looking the line over with patient, confident eyes, he heard the tones in his head leave their impressions on him. The overall relief was satisfactory. Placing the pen into the inkwell for presumably the last time, he stood up and glanced out the window onto the slowly-dusking street. Claude sighed, and left the room.

From his back pocket, he produced three pieces of paper. The first two comprised a letter from his friend Paul duVin. The third was a poem by Jean-Jacques de Michaud, “Jealous Vine.” Claude had been planning to turn it into a piece of music for the last three weeks. His present piece, with which he had just concluded his day, was based on duVin’s “The Lost Bracelet.” No sooner was Claude finished and happy and satisfied with it than he came to realize it was worthless, inferior, and unworthy of being written at all.

And yet, those notes, that rhythm, had been fluttering in his head ever since picking up “The Lost Bracelet” when it was still only a poem.

Downstairs, he reread a few lines of the letter from Paul duVin:

…and I hope it doesn’t detain you from more personal matters, but Claude, let me assure you that this poem came to me as a feeling does from a piece of music. I believe it will be only a matter of matching the correct musical tones with the corresponding emotional stimuli of the poem; it will create a complete brochure of emotion, inspired by these words and music.

For these three weeks, Claude had been bothered by duVin’s use of the word “brochure.” Could duVin, a poet and wordsmith, not have used “exhibit” instead, or “showcase”? Even “folder” would not have detained Claude’s feelings so precipitously.

There was no mistake in Claude’s mind. “The Lost Bracelet” was a fine, moving poem; he knew he was quibbling over a trifle. Yet, fixing tea and watercress salad, Claude was unable to think of anything else, so might his displeasure be due to something more?

He did not want, without good reason and self-assurance, to put aside a work of his own to focus on the requests of another. This thought made him remember, however, that “Jealous Vine” was to begin in precisely that manner: a poet named Jean-Jacques de Michaud had entreated, with youthful humility and verve, that no other tone poet than Claude Cloquet could possibly do justice to his poem. Upon reading it, Claude found that “Jealous Vine” was indeed worthy of a singular justice. He accepted this assignment with no small amount of grace and enthusiasm from his fellow artistic, indigent colleague.

Oh, but the older poet duVin was so less clear in his flattery of Claude Cloquet, and, as it happened, his poem was now so less striking.

Resisting close-mindedness, Claude forced himself to contemplate this: was it de Michaud’s flattery that made his poem so much finer, so much lovelier, than duVin’s? Was it because his vanity had not been satisfied that Claude was less inclined to find “The Lost Bracelet” worthy of his intellectual time, energy, creativity, and love?

And yet, he had done it. He had made music out of “The Lost Bracelet” for nothing in return, except the malaise of unfulfilled vanity.

Finishing his meal, Claude brought the poem and letter again from his back pocket.

De Michaud’s “Jealous Vine” was indeed a fine poem, lacking in originality what it more than made for in greater depth, a pretension Claude often leveled at himself in times of clarity. It would yield a six- or seven-minute piece of music, were one to be written, and it would take about ten days to write, again, were it to be written. But, unfortunately, as Claude read it for the fifth or sixth time in his life, still no signal tune stepped out of him. Still no introduction, no theme, no fantasia, no coda, no bridge, no transition, no resolution or lack thereof. Nothing but his own feelings in response to the lines. One small stanza in particular caught the attention of his mind’s eye:

The clever fog slakes

The object of my loss

And barely dares to glisten,

To offer final marvels,

At the foreignness of death

Claude saw the vine in wilderness and its tremble of goodbye, its disappearance behind a fog of earthly confusion and years gone by, and with the last twinkle of daylight Claude saw only the fog, the vine having never grown so long, never emerged to begin with.

He sipped from the tealeaves, and revised his pretentious opinion. It would take no flattery or coercion or reeducation in the field of good poetry to persuade him this fact: certainly, “Jealous Vine” was a very fine poem.

Yet, still, no tune came.

Claude thought only of that poor, shriveling vine, vanished behind a tightened grate of trivialities. Then, thinking again of “The Lost Bracelet”, he thought of that work’s cheapness and distracted sense of self. As self-conscious as a bracelet, the poem and my music alike.

De Michaud is a fine poet, he thought. It is worthy. His life is not a waste. He asks for nothing from the world but understanding, and he thinks that I can bring it to him. For what does duVin ask? A favor.

Upon the break of moonlight through the kitchen window, Claude Cloquet saw the first few notes of the tone poem, fluttering into his mind like black butterflies across a meadow. It was a new melody, like tomorrow would be, traversing his field of awareness. It summoned happiness, but more, it birthed the bright task of inspiration.

With a word of self-encouragement in his ear, and with a little fear that the fog might envelop his tune at any moment, Claude scurried back to the writing desk, protective of his freedom and of his fear. After all, the fear of getting lost in the fog would be the music’s beauty.

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