Jason Harding reflects upon Gareth Reeves’s latest collection of poetry, Nuncle Music, a sequence of monologues “spoken beyond the grave” by the composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
Nuncle Music dramatizes the tangled and intricate contradictions of Shostakovich’s effortful struggle to transmute life into art during the fraught, dangerous years of Stalin’s soul-crushing terror. Trying to get inside the head of this shy, nervy genius involves tracing a circuit of high-voltage tensions. Here is “psychodrama” – Gareth’s preferred term – in taut minimalist form, demanding a concentrated attention amply rewarded by the inventively oblique revelation of Shostakovich’s difficult life and art.
“Nuncle Music addresses the weighty issue of the role of the artist in society”
The title alludes to Lear’s Fool speaking unwelcome truths to power (“If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time”). In Shakespearean tragedy, the cumulative effect of subtle and witty wordplay, ripe with ambiguities, complicates and unsettles questions of political power. Nuncle Music addresses the weighty issue of the role of the artist in society but this sequence of dramatic lyrics is consciously post-symbolist in its aspiration towards the condition of Shostakovich’s exquisite last string quartets, inward with suffering.
Nuncle Music draws inspiration from Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. Published posthumously in 1979 and assembled by Shostakovich’s amanuensis Solomon Volkov, these controversial memoirs (some have doubted their authenticity) suggest that behind the composer’s inscrutable public mask was a covert dissident and not the Party lickspittle derided by anti-Communists in the West. Shostakovich was officially denounced twice in the Soviet Union: first in 1936 when Pravda attacked his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (at the height of Stalin’s purges, Shostakovich waited with packed suitcase for a knock at the door); then in 1948 Stalin’s spokesman Zdhanov instigated a ban on the composer’s works on the grounds of their “formalist distortions”.
The following year, Stalin pressurised Shostakovich to attend a “Peace Conference” at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, where this star of the Soviet delegation, flanked by KGB minders, was goaded by American provocateurs into supporting Pravda’s condemnation of Stravinsky: “I fully agree with the statements made in Pravda” a sheepish Shostakovich told the assembled intellectuals. Arthur Miller was appalled by the spectacle of this humiliating forced utterance of Party edict: “God knows what he was thinking in that room, what splits ran across his spirit, what urge to cry out and what self-control to suppress his outcry lest he lend comfort to America and her new belligerence toward his country, the very one that was making his life a hell.”
“The vertiginous leaps of Nuncle Music traverse depths of quiet desperation, brushing aside fugitive hopes”
The vertiginous leaps of Nuncle Music traverse depths of quiet desperation, brushing aside fugitive hopes, in a bravura performance that skilfully plays rhythm off against metre in tough yet plangent language. Among the repertoire of registers are paralysed fear (“Listen all night by the lift / for car-swish, stair-creak, / door-whisper, the muted rap”); the self-assertion of genius (“I can still light a campfire with one match / in any wind” – pure Volkov’s Testimony); the populist on the football terraces (“I yell with the crowd, / I bellow with the best”); the slippery quicksilver of musical abstraction (“slidings, slitherings, ironies, / pulsations, inscrutable insinuations, / amplitudes, harmonics, sardonics”); embittered self-justification (“let’s have no more patented saviours, / no Stalins, no Solzhenitsyns”); subversive anger (“I confirm to conform. / My conformity is contempt”); blasphemy of the saviour-tyrant Stalin (“the Great Ox farts / through everybody” – Volkov records Shostakovich’s remark about Stalin: “He was like a frog puffing himself up to the size of an ox”); strident rant (“that revolting / peace dove by Picasso, how I hate it. / He can say what he likes, I can’t”); the jolt of masochistic confession (“I am a paltry parasite, / a cut-out paper doll on a string”); acerbic outpourings of spiritual anguish in an Eliotic wasteland (“We are all worms tunnelling / the gutted eviscerate soil”).
Above all, it is the agony of a poignant cri de coeur (“In the end I am nothing, nearly nothing, / living in my music, letting the scales fall away, / notes taut and straining, hunted, haunted, / – artist alienated from his art”) that scores this post-traumatic art of survival. According to Galina Vishnevskaya, Shostakovich’s “only real life was his art, and into it he admitted no one.” By contrast, these poems are placed in absorbing dialogue with musically-themed drawings by Durham artist Barrie Ormsby. Endnotes supply political and cultural background information “and it does not require much fortitude to endure seeing what you already know in a note” (William Empson).
Nuncle Music was published by Carcanet in September. In a podcast recorded for READ in 2012, Gareth can be heard reading some of the poems from his collection To Hell with Paradise, which includes an extract from Nuncle Music.
On Friday 18 October (5.30-7pm), Gareth will read from Nuncle Music in Prior’s Hall, Durham Cathedral, where he will be joined by the pianist Edward Cheeseman and painter Barrie Ormsby. For details, see the Durham Book Festival website. Tickets available from the Gala Theatre on 03000 266 600.