Breezeway Homage No. 4, Strange Reaction

Strange Reaction. Susan Scheid (2015)

Strange Reaction, Susan Scheid (2015)

The collage takes its name from the poem “Strange Reaction” in John Ashbery’s collection Breezeway. Its last line, which refers to croutons, may be one of the strangest closing lines in the book. Yet it’s no wonder, for, as the poem notes, “[b]y then we were deep in imagination.”

Listening List

Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014), Sun Music III (1967) (Adelaide Symphony Orchestra/David Porcelijn, conductor)

On Spotify

On YouTube

Sun Music III is just one of the magnificent pieces on the CD, Sun Music, which may be found here and on Spotify here.

The Sun Music series represents four of what are essentially orchestral tone poems, written between 1965 and 1967. Sculthorpe assigned the title “sun” to these works – as he did to related compositions: the ballet Sun Music (1968) and Sun Music for Voices and Percussion (1966) – to capture the scintillating columns of light produced by sunrays striking (and passing through) various forms and structures, as well as the sun’s arid harshness and immense power. Sun Music III is the first of the four tone poems to incorporate Balinese gamelan textures; the term “gamelan” referring to an Indonesian instrumental ensemble, heavily weighted towards percussion instruments, as well as to the resulting aural effects – in particular driving rhythms, and subtle changes in dynamics and pace. Sun Music III also evokes quintessentially Australian soundscapes. As one writer has remarked: “The sounds of the Far East . . . are juxtaposed with wild string harmonics and incredibly subtle use of percussion, while long-breathed themes of utmost desolation place us square in the middle of the Outback.” [citation, p. 4]

A deeply felt memoriam to Sculthorpe may be found here, and a marvelous interview with him on Australian Broadcast Radio may be found (and downloaded) here. In the interview, as one example, Sculthorpe recounts the strange reaction his piano teacher had when he brought her his compositions.

Because I’d been brought up to be active, to do things, when I went to my first music lesson, I naturally thought that I was going to learn to write music. I mean when I went to art lessons I learned to paint. . . . I took my pieces back to my teacher and she was so furious she said “All the composers are dead,” and I should be practicing the piano and she caned me across the knuckles. . . . [from the interview linked above]


Credits: The text in the collage is the title of the Ashbery poem to which the collage relates. The quotations may be found at the sources linked in the text. The collage and its photographic image, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

4 thoughts on “Breezeway Homage No. 4, Strange Reaction

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    ‘Strange Reaction’ is one of my favorites, not just in ‘Breezeway’ but I think in all of his work. I love the whole poem, which to me seems to be about the pleasures of the moment–being in the moment, whatever it is. Tomorrow’s got nothing on this, couldn’t take away so much as a crouton of it!

    And this, your 4th Breezeway collage, is your most beautiful one yet. It’s pure joy to look at, the echoes, the contrasts, the bold luscious colors against those delicate branch/stick/twig structures stacked or reaching. And the eye always coming to rest on that strange reclining figure, looking almost corpse-like, but not quite, so strangely smoking, that long ash defying gravity, almost like a fountain rather than a smoking hazard (as if the person is saying, ‘At this point if my quirks are going to kill me, so be it!’) and seemingly wrong side down on an analyst’s couch. It’s every bit as odd and delightful as the poem. And beautiful too.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: So THAT’s what the croutons reference was about! I was completely baffled, and your interpretation makes so much sense. It’s a real pleasure, too, to come back to this collage with your perspective in hand. I strike out, always, with an idea or two in mind, but quickly the collage materials (both assets and limitations) send me in unanticipated directions, with a result that rarely bears a relationship with my original intention (though in this case, the frogs became essential immediately on reading the second and third lines). This poem, in particular, has several extraordinary, image-rich byways, interspersed with priceless passages of daily speech (“This was it? What we got all cleaned up for?”). The more I read this poem, the more delight I take in it.

  2. shoreacres

    Well. Now that I have my Kindle, I have Ashbery’s poetry, and I must say that, whatever the virtues of the other poems (I’ve not read them all), this is a veritable Brussels sprout of a poem. I’ll admit there are certain lines that delight, such as “From the cast-iron villas of the sanctimonious to the feathered huts of the poor in spirit.” And the sudden intrusion of plain, daily language (“This was it? What we got all cleaned up for?”) was a blessed relief.

    Once I managed my way through the poem enough times to get past strange and get to a reaction, I found myself reading the poem as an inter-generational dialogue. How I came to that, I don’t know, except perhaps for the lines, “Elders give up…get your lifestyle together,” and those last questions: “So, where were you? This was it?”

    As weird as the last line is, it does seem to turn out to be more a matter of (purposely) awkward construction. “I don’t think tomorrow will rob today of croutons” at least makes more sense grammatically, and makes more sense of a dialogue between elders and youth. (She says, tentatively.)

    In any event, one advantage of having the book available is being able to look at some of the other poems. It’s interesting that the very next poem, “Tall Order” also references media (narrative and newspapers) and “picking up crumbs like there was no tomorrow.” I haven’t a clue what it all means, but I think there’s a theme here!

    Your collage is wonderful. I laughed at your “pink jumpers,” and have to say that person on the couch reminds me of Edward Gorey’s illustrations.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Love the Brussels sprouts reference–worthy of Ashbery, I might add. (I wonder what he thinks of Brussels sprouts . . .) I very much like the idea of the poem as an inter-generational dialogue. There are definitely recurring motifs in his poems, and seems to me you’ve spotted at least two of them (the incorporation of vernacular speech and the references to media). That Gorey illustration is perfect–I remember it as part of the lead-in to the PBS Mystery! series.

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