Musical Poem: Fugue of Images

Fugue, by Stephen Perry. From the collection Mixed Voices, Contemporary poems about Music, edited by Emilie Buchwald and Ruth Roston.

poem fugue light swanThis poem is not about music. It IS music; it is a fugue of images. The images repeat and develop. There is rhythm, both in the words and the way the images repeat, and there is counterpoint (weaving previous images into later ones). The sounds of the words, as well as their images, are part of the experience of the poem.

We start with the themes: old woman, dog, light, curtain, swans, patterns on a wall. Light and patterns on a wall imply something short-lived, fleeting. The we see new material: Mexican mosaics, pieces of a puzzle (like patterns on a wall?), and her mother (another old woman), and a kitchen table. From the past "years ago", oven's smoke, shadows, on white walls. Wall has repeated.

So far we have "patterns on a wall", "pieces of a puzzle" and "shadows on a wall", with wall as a connection and with similar rhythms.

Then we move to variation dog, with light and shadows (second time for both), hands, master, tongue, yawn, corner of his bowl. Then kitchen (2nd time), and light (3rd time) filing bowl (2nd time) with itself. Light seems to be the main theme.

Then- we recap a bit; light, curtain, woman, dog, but we know them better now, having delved into each a bit more. But swan is missing from this recap of images.

Now we encounter death, hunger, waves, thought, quilt, bed and hand, all new images or ideas, which developing the tension.

Though light is blind (seeing neither curtain nor woman nor dog), weightless and timeless, (older than death or hunger, pure, less than the waves of the smallest thought, a quilt "pattern" upon the quilt of her bed); yet light is warming her hand, and also warms (brings to life, like patterns or puzzles on a wall) the dog, room, curtains, and the great wings (new image, implying flight, freedom) of a swan.

The swan is the most significant image; it connects the intangible light and the tangible woman, dog, room and curtains. Swans are also mythical creatures, and references are found throughout history in literature and arts, ancient Western mythology, and Indian and Buddhist mythology. Who doesn't know of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake?

I hope I didn't go on too long. I enjoy thinking about these things.

Enjoy. I like to read poems aloud.


Only one old woman
and her dog
and the light
through a tattered curtain-
she sees swans
in the patterns
on the wall,
great birds,

Mexican mosaics,
pieces of a puzzle
on her mother's kitchen table,

years ago,
and the oven's smoke
in the shadows
on the white adobe walls-

the dog sees
light and shadows
the hands
of his master,

his tongue
in his yawn,
and the corner
of his bowl

in the kitchen,
the light filling
the bowl
with itself-

the light sees
neither the curtain
nor the woman
nor the dog.

older than death
or hunger, pure,
less than the waves
of the smallest

thought, a quilt
upon the quilt
of her bed,
warming her hand,

and the dog
and the room
and the curtains
and the great

wings of a swan.

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