This week’s featured poem: “Blackbird and Beethoven” by Lisa Kelly.
Blackbird and Beethoven
You, Blackbird, are the musical genius among all birds.
However, when I listen to this, the comparison brings up conflicting feelings.
his bust and I can’t recall your call.
How many deaf musicians are there, specifically blackbirds?
The percussionist was self-taught in developing her listening skills.
using other body parts besides her ears
Who dances without shoes in order to better hear the music?
If I’d known more about vibrations, blackbird,
how we hear with our hands with special nerve cells,
known that hearing, blackbird, is an audio-tactile experience,
with both perceptions attuned to fluctuations in the environment
I had the opportunity to refute his story, the leader.
so much like
The person accused the drummer of being a fraud because she bore a strong resemblance to them.
round when he entered her dressing room. Blackbird, I
I would have called out your jingling warning sound.
When I spot you among the ivy, blackbird.
I contemplate thirteen perspectives of you.
You are both a symbol and a melody.
Blackbird, you came before and after Beethoven,
in a structured
The structured recording of your shaped phrases and motifs.
You hum the beginning of the melody in his small notepad.
I observe him as he plays the violin concerto, gracefully moving like a blackbird in flight.
hands behind back
The housekeeper observed him with a pencil in his mouth and his hands behind his back.
A beak that is yellow, touching the other end of the soundboard.
of a piano to feel the vibration of your song. Blackbird,
As he plays the keys with more force, the piano begins to shift.
Will the counterfeit musicians turn around to disintegrate?
The originator of the phrase “the Beethoven of songbirds” is unknown, but it is commonly used and referenced by Lisa Kelly in her work, Blackbird and Beethoven. It is speculated that Beethoven (1770-1827) earned this title due to his habit of transcribing bird calls during his walks in the Viennese countryside. He sometimes incorporated these calls into his compositions, such as the cuckoo in the Pastoral Symphony, but more often used them as inspiration for his musical development.
Lisa Kelly, a poet who writes from the perspective of the D/deaf community, holds Beethoven in high esteem. His personal experiences with complete hearing loss enabled him to turn his condition into a catalyst for the growth and magnification of his talent.
The poem is essentially a conversation with one voice. By addressing the blackbird directly and repeatedly using its name, Kelly overcomes the barrier of sound and species, responding with words to the bird’s non-verbal calls. She also takes a moment to observe and interpret her response visually and through gestures: “When I see you in the ivy, blackbird, / I am reminded of the thirteen ways of looking at you / and how you are both a symbol and a melody.” To jog memories, here is the Wallace Stevens poem being referenced, a piece of work focused on visualization but also creating a lyrical audio through its own unique sounds and rhythms.
Kelly could have easily penned a romantic and embellished poem with blackbirds and Beethoven at the forefront. However, she consciously avoids this approach through her choice of structure, language, and subject matter. In the first three lines, she is diverted from using potentially sentimental metaphors by an unexpected recollection – that of the renowned stern and tempestuous bust of the composer. The poem then delves into even more challenging territory, delving into the physicality of hearing and how our hands play a role in this process through specialized nerve cells. It also explores how both hearing and touch are attuned to the vibrations of our surroundings in this “audio-tactile experience”.
The main purpose of the poem is to reveal the truth, with a hint of anger, about the ignorance of the hearing world. This is portrayed through the story of an orchestral conductor who accused a percussionist of pretending to be deaf because she turned around when he entered her dressing room. The poet laments not speaking out immediately in response to the blackbird’s warning call. However, her poem effectively conveys this message and expands upon it.
In the eighth stanza, there is a vivid and humorous scene described. Beethoven is playing the blackbird’s melody on his piano, using a clever technique to listen by holding a pencil that resembles the bird’s beak and feeling the vibrations. This story is retold in the text.
The fifth stanza of the poem gains strength from a well-known and poignant anecdote, one of the most famous stories about Beethoven. It recounts how the composer had to be physically turned around by the conductor at the conclusion of the first performance of his Ninth Symphony, in order to witness the applause that he was unable to hear. This detail is not explicitly mentioned in the poem, as the portrayal of Beethoven is not one of a sympathetic figure or a towering, heroic figure in the landscape, but rather a man consumed by music who cannot be silenced.
Kelly’s final question is a sharp critique directed towards the idea of “fake musicians.” This is in reference to the host of the hearing and their lack of awareness towards the deaf community. The question also challenges the long-standing issue of critics struggling to comprehend Beethoven’s music and British society’s failure to recognize BSL as a revolutionary language for the deaf community.
Blackbird and Beethoven is from Lisa Kelly’s 2023 collection, The House of the Interpreter. A magical mystery tour of unusual forms of communication, the collection is reviewed here by the poet Stuart Henson. And here for pure enjoyment is the Rondo from the Violin Concerto, a work which Beethoven composed during the “middle period” of his career, after the onset of his hearing-loss.