Adam Whipple

Adam Whipple is a musician, poet, and author living in Knoxville, Tennessee, in a house called Sinclair’s Eve. A graduate of Carson-Newman University, he is a founding member of the creative collective Knox Writes and an editor of Foundling House, an online journal. His work has appeared in Molehill, Vol. 4, by Rabbit Room Press, in Curator Magazine, and in overwhelming abundance at Adamwhipple.com.

Over Heard

My daughter’s dance class:
A brave octet of blue-clad torsos, all
Delicate and strung tight with snare drum ribs.
They gallop like crabs

Gone dizzy with light.
A lone piano chord sends them spinning.
We’re born from beneath a throb of human
Song. We hear sound raw,

Drink it in gulps, and
            Wheel away laughing.

            And then
      I drop a needle on Debussy, sewing vinyl tones
      Into the backdrop of cleaning and home repairs. Dear man,
      Who left the ocean for La Mer, mind lost in a scherzo
      While his fourth mistress pointed a revolver at her chest—

      It was 1904. His friends said, no, he did not play
      The piano, but attacked it, like a brother enraged,
      Lost and mad east of God’s polyphonic garden.
      In ignominy, he must bash the keys to waken me.
             Selah.

Grandmother’s mother.
She plays dominoes after breakfast with
Whoever loves life enough to visit
An old, tired woman.

She repeats herself.
Forgetfulness and age, so we all say.
Or, the wisdom to know you never hear
Everything at once.

Even the short tales
       Have to be spun twice.

Liturgy in Blue

Autumn weekdays at Sinclair’s Eve bring early rising and long commutes. We wish it was less harried, but the presence of children stretches the simplest daily ablutions into inefficient adventures. We brush teeth and tie shoes in a panicked half-jig. We go through breakfast motions. I drive my girls across town to Oak Ridge, to some friends of the family who keep them while my wife and I work. Through the mild suburban sprawl we go, past the park, off the paved road, and into a short stretch of creek-carved wilderness walled by high, tree-thick hills on either side with the whisper of water at the base. I always turn off the music, no matter what we’re listening to, and we crawl the dreamy wynd with the windows down, taking in the intricacies of every sound. It was in this place, in the middle of our normal scrabble for time, that I first saw the indigo bunting.

It perched halfway up a spear of ironweed, looking from my distance like a survey ribbon knotted along the road by some passing crew. Then, as we got nearer, recognition dawned on me that the ribbon was alive—miraculously blue, a heart-beat like a jackhammer, and alive. It was a locus of the affronting holiness one usually associates with supernovae and the aurora borealis, riding the very verge of possibility in its beauty.

As if waiting for epiphany to fire like a nerve impulse, the little bird took wing and was gone, a blur of cerulean against the pale, daybroken sky. I was speechless for a moment as we came to a pair of does that regarded us with their inscrutable expressions. I rolled the back windows further down, making sure my daughters could see the deer, and we drove on to the house different people than we had been moments before. The curtain at the world’s edge had rustled. I felt dazzled out of slumber.

Indigo buntings are not actually blue. Like polar bears, they are creatures of refraction. Their scintillating color is a result of sunlight diffusing at angles through the grillwork of barbules and hooklets that make up their feathers. Backlit, or under certain conditions, their feathers are a standard secretary black. Yet we are mesmerized by them, because we are mesmerized by light. I had waited for years to see an indigo bunting in the way I’ve waited to hear firsthand the freight-train growl of a tornado. Once you experience it, no amount of forgetfulness can tear it from you. Curiously, I found it—or was I found?—on a road I had taken hundreds of times. Tuskegee Drive yields a fair number of glimpses into the microcosmic tapestry of Appalachian flora and fauna. Owls and herons cruise the pass. Whitetails pick their way through the undergrowth, banqueting in the brambles under vows of silence. Sycamores clap their hands, and the gravel track is bordered by Queen Anne’s Lace, Black-eyed Susans, bee balm, and wild flowering peas. I’m in awe of all of these, and I relish the mornings when the fog has yet to lift and the lowland woods unfurl in fern-brake green. Every drive brings a new miracle, and repetition is the key. Great mysteries are learned by rote. Bury yourself in the routine, and have the grace to pay attention. Prepare to be surprised.

I wrote my way through the Psalms a few years ago, like a medieval monk. Before the advent of movable type, the Scriptures were copied by hand by these silent, celibate people who slowly went blind by candlelight. I don’t presume to say that many of them had a greater handle on the Gospel than do modern preachers and theologians, but I’m hard-pressed to find a better way to learn these things than to immerse myself in them.

“There is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.” —G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill 1

The more liturgical churches have that much figured out, at least. The Anglicans and Lutherans stage their elaborate pageantries, with the lines and the blocking well-rehearsed. They realize that, being human, we have not yet given anything, even God, our undivided attention. So we submit to liturgy. Eventually, in our most subconscious thoughts, we get walloped by the meaning of it at some unexpected moment in the grocery line, or when the Lord flings a feathered sapphire onto the back roads.

Still, this mortal coil allows me no control over the scheduling of epiphanies. As Chesterton said, it may be the thousandth time down the lane, but the dues of the previous nine hundred ninety-nine must be paid. I have no say in when the heavens open and bright rays of revelation shine forth, but I must show up. If I don’t show up, there’s no chance. Not only this, but it helps to show up at the appropriate place. One will find few indigo buntings bobbing about the deeps of a subway tunnel or a dripping back alley. It helps when you make a point to go looking for the impressionist paint-splatter of the Divine brush.

This cagey, wry sense of joy is one of the most wonderful things about the Psalms. They hide blue birds between their lines, and they never give themselves away in the first reading. Then, with a few repetitions, they become more human, more real. At times, some of them approach the ravings of a lunatic. David begs for barbaric infanticides and revels in self-assured righteousness. The old Hebrew songbook rings with banality, blackness, and all the dark trails one can travel. And then, after a while, with no warning or fanfare, a bunting jumps out of the words, flying and singing like the “man after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22). A thousand readings beyond that, when control is finally ceded or lost, a glimpse of Christ himself takes flight from the pages, streaking like a smudge of uncapturable color across the landscape, leaving holy upheaval in its wake.

I’ve seen only one other indigo bunting since that day, in a tree above a field of sunflowers outside downtown. I was jogging, sweaty and exhausted, and once again on a familiar road. Like before, it took me by surprise. As I have jogged and driven many familiar roads since then, I keep reading the Psalms. After all, the hinge-pin of liturgy is hope. We remember the flutter of wings. We hope to stare through black letters and see only blue light.

1 Chesterton, G. K.  The Napoleon of Notting Hill.  New York:  Dover, 1991.  Print.

 

photo by: Dan Pancamo

The Sound of a Voice

I stand beside another man in casual day-wear and sing the same words and melody he sings, and we learn from each other. I learn, among other things, that one of us is better at staying on pitch than the other. He discovers that I like to belt the music out, occasionally to the detriment of others. I find out that he is a bass, and he finds out I have sinusitis. We make noise. We hope it’s joyful.

Every Sunday this picture is painted manifold. People sing beside each other while professionals stand before some and amateurs stand before others, conducting or playing and generally trying to keep everyone together. People play along in strange configurations – a slow chant, an old man with the oboe, a kid with some plastic congas, a Doctor of Music for an organist, a hippie strumming a guitar. All of it is to accompany the voice, this one instrument that plays not only notes but words. People get impassioned about it. You have the I-believe-we-should-do-this-or-thats and the you-really-don’t-get-it-do-yous. Churches split. Theories are constructed. Talks are held.

And it’s worth asking why.

We sing “Happy Birthday” together and, for the most part, no one panics, though we rarely sing it solo. It just wouldn’t seem right. There’s something about well-wishing in song that calls for group participation. Perhaps it’s that we don’t want to feel awkward about it.

I’m interested in discovering what it is that is distinct about congregational singing. However, I suspect that to do so would be akin to discovering what is distinct about light or water.  In J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, the demigods co-create the world, including elves, and the elves praise the world, but “water most of all.”  This one thing which has no nutritional value (according to the label on the bottle) is both a constant on our planet and is indispensible to all life. It shapes land and shatters stone.  In C.S.Lewis’s The Man Born Blind, we discover how impossible it is to distill light down to an essential definition. Scientists everywhere find it constantly evading them as well, becoming a particle here and a wave there as if it had a mind of its own. In accordance with these mysteries, I don’t believe I’m taking the easy way out by saying that there is something rich and ineffable about singing together.

My wife and I try to read to our daughters most nights. Usually, we have a couple of good kids’ books on the docket, but I’ve been supplementing, for my own sake as well as theirs, with poems from a large collection of famous works that we own. It’s no Norton Anthology, just one of those beautifully bound, shoddily edited, moneymaking shelf sitters. There are typos I discover that occasionally make me cringe, but we read from it anyway. It was a gift, and we’re cheap.

One night, my wife and I decided to go through “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in unison, as it’s a favorite of ours. There was no fanfare. There was no synthesizer intro or fog machine. There was no organ-heavy summation of the motif to give us the tempo. We were two parents, sitting in our eldest daughter’s bed, reciting a poem together, and our children paused to listen. Let me say again, our toddler and baby paused to listen. Now, they’re usually fairly attentive, often teaching me a great deal about the discipline of sentience, but they do not often turn together to give any one thing full consideration for so long.

My wife and I read the poem, simply, quietly, trying to live in the rhythm that Frost intended, trying to let the meter teach us. When we finished, the silence was more than the absence of noise. It was the release of breath in wonder at what had just occurred.  Though we could put no name to it, something had transpired as we read together that never would have happened had one of us read alone. We looked at each other knowingly, not understanding what it was we knew, just knowing that we had both noticed it. Being in the room with a number of other people singing the same thing is powerful. We see it every time Bono points the microphone toward the audience and the band quiets down to let the crowd belt out “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

Can this be distilled empirically? Likely not.

However, it is well worth remembering in the midst of figuring out what it is that we like and what it is that we want out of congregational singing – an ignoble and foolish place to begin – that we are dealing with something which is, by default, mystical in the human experience. The effect of one person’s voice on another person is more than a mere chemical reaction. If it were not, then it could be seamlessly synthesized, but such is not the case. These things were created uniquely, made out of more than pure whimsy.  There is intention behind them.

I have always recalled a conversation I had with my father about the lack of sound in space. A studied musician, he told me that, in order to have sound, something must create the sound, something must transmit the sound, and something must receive the sound. Did he know at the time what beautiful Newtonian theology this would turn out to be?These three criteria are the legs of the milking stool, as it were – creation, transmission, reception. Without any one of them, the cycle is not complete. Sound does not exist. There is purpose in audibility. At least in part, we must sing together so that I can hear you, and so that you can hear me.

If we were not meant to hear the sounds of our voices, then we would not have been commanded to raise a ruckus. The human voice is a liturgy all its own, carrying with it the weight of woe, of joy, and of desperation. Every vowel or plosive is the audible story of the soul who bears it, and that story is worth telling. Talent is inconsequential. Sing me your story. Sing, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” so that I know how much you feel the nagging doubt that it may not be true, and I will no longer suffer in the shadow of the pedestal I put you on. Sing, “a wretch like me,” so that we’re both human enough to stand beside each other. This exchange of sound is a gift unto us, a perilous entrance into communion with each other and with the Almighty. Small wonder that it’s awkward. Family affairs usually are, and it’s cowardly of us to try so very hard to make it less so.

The man next to me and I stop singing, and for a moment, I hear the space where his voice was – where our voices were. Like emerging from civilization into the relative quiet of the woods or the countryside, it is both the borders and the space which give us definition and time to contemplate. In the breath after our voices cease, I recall that I heard the sound of his heart in it.