“The sky is always dark blue, trending towards lavender/when I remember and say—we should not go extinct,/and each time this knowledge arrives/like a silent taxi headlamp in the rain./This evening it comes in a black and white video/of Grigory Sokolov playing a Bach Partita.”—Anita Sullivan
On the Other Hand
By Anita Sullivan
EUGENE Oregon—(Weekly Hubris)—February 2021—Haven’t you sometimes indulged in one of those conversations that begins: “We humans are so innately stupid, greedy, and cruel . . . .” a saturnine glance at the overall worth of our species which then rapidly descends into a full-blown sardonic cynicism: “The world will definitely be better off without us”? Trouble is, the conversation used to be safely theoretical, whereas now “better off without us” is a lot closer to seriously likely. The almighty human “We” may well go extinct within the lifetimes of over half the people now alive on the planet. Even the black humor of this is hard to maintain any more.
Here is my version of “I beg to differ”—not with the likelihood of the thing, but with the all-rightness of it.
A randomly-chosen sample of the bazilllion human endeavors that would be lost in the extinction of us is a 186-page book published in 1943 that occupies itself totally with the song of a single bird, the eastern wood pewee, a small flycatcher with an aching purity to its voice. Its song consists solely of three different notes and the rhythmic alterations between them. The author, Wallace Craig, began the years-long study (involving 22 other researchers) wondering if this song could be called music. He concluded yes, it could. “At any one moment there is a tendency to move between one pattern and another,” said Craig. He did not see this as a mathematical tendency (permutations and combinations working themselves out), but as a musical one. What if this is true? How can we bear to lose even this quivering bundle of possibilities?
When I am playing the worthy-of-extinction game with myself, it almost inevitably involves music. A year or so ago I was watching and listening to a YouTube video of Grigory Sokolov, the Russian many regard as the greatest living concert pianist, playing Bach’s Sixth Partita. It was a black-and-white video, likely recorded fairly recently since his hair was snow white, and he is currently 70 years old. I settled into the listening and looking experience thinking that Bach and Sokolov, as two sides of a three-legged stool, wanted only the full participation of all the rest of us together, holding up the third leg, to pull this thing off. Something that will cost us no less than everything should we be able to make such a choice together.
By Anita Sullivan
The sky is always dark blue, trending towards lavender
when I remember and say—we should not go extinct,
and each time this knowledge arrives
like a silent taxi headlamp in the rain.
This evening it comes in a black and white video
of Grigory Sokolov playing a Bach Partita,
his soft white hair shining out of the preponderant dark
as he hunches over the piano keys,
his hands up and down, one after another,
each like a falcon rising
through its precisely hollowed wind
then falling, falling to its prey.
His rounded shoulders
enact the geometry he long ago committed to
in secret prayer. The odd, old
bulk of him, the sweet mild eyebrows,
speak of books and candles;
but here is the orchard again (with its dark blue scent
of rain and lavender) coming up so close beside the house.
This poem was published in America We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience, in 2018. Published by Sixteen Rivers Press, San Francisco.
Grigory Sokolov plays Bach Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830. (Paris, 2004.)
Grigory Sokolov plays Gigue from Partita No. 1, BWV 825, J. S. Bach. (Festival de La Roque d’Anthéron, 2015.)