By Peter Halstead

on Chopin’s Barcarolle

In the grey light scudding on the reef
the tackle sags becalmed,
the sky comes down in sheets

to lie like fronds on a desert beach,
flags numbered by the quick prayers
on our shaking lips, fortune cookie rhymes

attached to branches, the colored names
of timid laundry flying on the line,
waves on waves that ring the ship

in idle coils. Shrouds of flame trees stir
above the sand and hang the scripts
of sunset in an alphabet of fire,

in semaphores of ebb and flow,
on booms that drape the wires
with distended pieces of the breeze and shape

the song of clouds at sea with air,
with distorted music of the gale,
the tide and rinse of grief that moves

the current into wastes and winds
that push the luff, the drift of jib,
the whine and howl of chords and sins

down empty cracks of dark and space,
foaming through the sieve of ribs
and rocking stays, the lap and roll

of night’s abyss, the surf and haze
of ocean’s drowning grace,
the crush and roar, the rip and glaze

of hollow space, the surge and fall
of bays that hurl and sweep across
the sails until the sway and rush

of human loss is tucked and furled
in blades of sun and liquid scales that bathe
the crests of breaking day in iridescent pearls.

Kawela Bay
February 15th, 16th, and 17th, 2018


What is any vast piece by a composer? It is a structure on which ideas hang. It is a laundry line in Murano with the composer’s dirty laundry hanging out for the neighborhood’s inspection. It is a trellis on which tendrils of notes poke out of the arbor’s structure. It is the flesh hanging tellingly off the bones of a skeleton. It is a Japanese lilac tree on which the fortunes from cookies have been attached, the tree of life on which our hopes blossom. It is a rope up which Nepalese prayer flags climb like semaphores, an alphabet of aspirations, towards the mountains.
It is ice frozen around the masts and booms of Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, frozen in the Antarctic winter. It is digressions strung from the rigging like so many sails: topsails, headsails, spritsails, spinnakers, luffs, clews, tacks, and leeches. It is the great exploded monstrance of Friedrich’s Sea of Ice, the wreck of Admiral Parry’s Griper, devastated in the Arctic moonlight. Debussy’s “Clair de lune” suspends its hanging chords from such moonlit spars. Chopin’s great fantasia, the Barcarolle, is a boat song, with the lilt and sway of Venice’s Grand Canal the scaffolding on which the melody and its excrescences hang. You might call them variations on a theme, but the keen, the yodel, the warble, the lullaby, the tremolo, the bobbing cork of the first variation diverge into a scale made out of the interval of a sixth and sink down into the gondolier’s song, which builds like a Mannheim crescendo to an abandoned climax that instead gets lost in the chords, searches for a key, rambles into jeu perlé, a brilliant excursion around the keyboard in a broken scale, the equivalent of a string of pearls breaking and cascading down.
The original theme returns triumphantly, and this boat song concludes with a wild, eccentric scale up and down the piano and a succession of sol-do’s in octaves.
Certainly the two main melodies qualify this piece as a sonata movement, a fantasia, or even a rhapsody, but the dreaminess of it makes it a cradle song, the rocking lilt types it as a gondola song, and everything in between can only be explained as peripheral pieces of laundry hung out on the line for display, to shock the street.
The trellis is there, the pulse, the skeleton, the recurring theme, but half the piece is a rummage sale, a Sunday sail on shapeless waves. Ideas are tossed out, rejected, the pianist gets lost and finally goes home, but not before doubling down on his escapades with that final insane ebb-and-
flow scale.
The Barcarolle is a scarecrow with enough of a broom to support it, but otherwise it is a patchwork quilt, pieces of bright calico stitched together improbably to form enough of a witch to scare a crow.
Truffaut has praised Hitchcock for making his films so driven that the seams don’t show; similarly, Chopin’s genius for melody sweeps everything before it, so that the digressions pass unnoticed, as large as they are. It is like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp with his erratic walk, or Général Lavine’s Debussy cakewalk, a stumble across the boulevard that miraculously succeeds in crossing the street.
And so Chopin’s boat takes on water, lists (or Liszts), settles, but makes it to the flapping laundry in Murano, a shipwreck that ends up stranded on a reef, its masts fizzling with sea foam, an exercise in lost chords and hidden worlds thinly held together by the shrouds and rigging of its scales.