Maureen Scott Harris
Maureen Scott Harris is the author of the poem “Nijinsky,” which appeared in Issue 35 of The Puritan. In this author note, Harris describes some of the background to the poem’s composition.
In 2014 I saw a performance by the National Ballet of Canada of John Neumeier’s ballet Nijinsky—a brilliant work brilliantly danced. In it, Neumeier reimagined the famous dancer’s last performance, a dance Vaslav Nijinsky called his Wedding with God. (Following it, he became mad, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was eventually confined.) Neumeier’s piece opened more or less realistically, with guests in period costume arriving at the recreated ballroom of January 19, 1919. But it quickly became a mix of Nijinsky’s memories, thoughts, and hallucinations, casting back through his life, and it included a powerful scene of soldiers pouring across a battlefield. In addition to being biography, the ballet was “about” art, madness, history, the horrors of war, dance, cruelty in relationships, and the hunger for love.
When I left the theatre after the November matinee performance I exited onto cold and already-twilit streets. The dancing had been superb, the story—witness to the dilemmas and griefs of a life—heartbreaking and true. I was keyed-up, swirling with contradictory feelings: sad and happy, exhausted and energized, exalted and fearful. Needing to move, I walked north up University Avenue, savouring the chill in the air. The waxing moon was already high, clouds crossing and eventually veiling it. In spite of the dimness, everything around me was clear and defined—the sky held a range of deep blues and the sidewalk, dappled with shadows, gleamed. I felt clear myself, and capacious. Nothing was blurred, and yet that chant—dead dead dead dead—as waves of soldiers washed across the stage, rank upon rank of them, was an earworm I couldn’t silence. I was achingly sad for Nijinsky, his talent swallowed by madness, and grief-stricken over our never-ending engagement in war.
The sun insists on breaking through the clouds, shedding warmth in spite of a brisk and chilly wind. I look out my window at a winter sky, pale blue and grey, and turn back to my work.
The year had been thick with deaths—Lauren Bacall, Mike Nichols, Pete Seeger, Jesse Winchester, Maxine Kumin, Maya Angelou, Peter Matthiessen—all people whose work had enhanced my own life and whose deaths diminished it. How much time did I have left? Yet the question did not erase me; I felt electrically alive and, within my grief, vibrantly happy to be so alive.
When I got home I jotted down details of the walk and images from the dance. I learned Mark Strand had just died and added his wonderful remark about being what is missing to my notes. A couple of weeks later I wrote a first draft and put it aside. Earlier in 2016 I came across it. Rereading it, remembering that euphoric state of mind I’d walked in after the ballet, I began to wonder: where did that feeling come from, what did it mean? I’d experienced it before, often in response to a work of art (be it a play, a poem, music, or a painting) and often in response to some moment of beauty in the world around me. I turned toward Aristotle to read about his notion of catharsis and from that reading came the final two lines of the poem.
Of course, the poem could have ended where it was before Aristotle, but I didn’t want to leave it with the unified dissolution, however wonderful, of everything in that lyric moment. There was something else I wanted to say, though I didn’t—and still don’t—know exactly what.
I began writing this author’s note in the immediate and sorrowful aftermath of the American election. I wanted to claim that my intention had been to write about art, what it brings to the world, and its social good. But when I reread the poem in the flickering light of the yellow leaves blowing just outside my window, I see that what I thought of as its undertone—the mystery of death, our mortality—is central. Art, yes, is part of the poem, art that may survive and outlast our individual lives. But the poem enacts and embodies mourning first of all, and notices the enthralling beauty of the world. That combination of beauty and sorrow expands and enlivens me, and I feel wonder at being here at all.
Like many others, I was filled with despair and foreboding after the election. I felt it was impossible to go on and finally abandoned my note. Despair and foreboding are still present, but I’ve come back to the page, rewritten, and rethought. I will end with: Yet we will, we do, go on until our time is over. That’s what my poem wants to say—the wonder of it! Somewhere nearby someone is opening and raising a metal ladder. A slate-coloured junco is harvesting what it can from the eavestrough. The sun insists on breaking through the clouds, shedding warmth in spite of a brisk and chilly wind. I look out my window at a winter sky, pale blue and grey, and turn back to my work.
Toronto poet and essayist Maureen Scott Harris has published three collections of poetry: A Possible Landscape (Brick Books, 1993), Drowning Lessons (Pedlar Press, 2004), awarded the 2005 Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and Slow Curve Out (Pedlar Press, 2012). Her chapbook, Waters Remembered, recently appeared from Espresso.