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Literary Arts

Emergent Verse | The quiet work of the heart

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Former villager Larry Hussman, a late-blooming poet, had a long, illustrious career as a member of the founding faculty of Wright State University, professor and occasional chair of the English Department. (Full disclosure: he hired me as an instructor in 1976.) Local writers will recall fondly the wonderful parties he hosted for a number of years that concluded the week’s activities at the now-defunct Antioch Writers’ Workshop.

Now in his 90s and comfortably retired to his beloved Oregon coast, Hussman has distinguished himself with two self-published volumes of poetry in the last couple of years. With his latest, “Pre-Posthumous Poems,” he demonstrates his speedy growth. With “Concert for my Mother,” Hussman transitions from writing primarily nature poetry into the realm of confessional verse. The result is a deeply affecting and well-crafted narrative poem.

Concert For My Mother
We were never close, she doting on my
eight-years-older sister, my only sibling,
myself a likely afterthought or slipup.
We never spoke of weighty things, never
inquired about the other’s heart in hiding.

My richest memory has her prodding me
to train as a pianist, my longish fingers
a supposed sign of keyboard promise.
She played a bit herself, but came nearest
to self-expression when responding
to some plaintive strain that moved her:
“That music goes right through me,”
she would say, but never follow up.

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News of her death reaches me only hours
before my slated lecture in a foreign land,
an honor I dedicate to her memory.
Before I end, two women leave the room,
then re-enter and present me with a bouquet
of red roses, their culture’s balm for grief.

Years later the evocative dreams begin.
I sit at the piano, a mid-sized orchestra
behind me, a conductor in full regalia
urges players through early measures.
I begin to play, but a woman in black
steps onto the stage and presents me
with a wreath of red roses. Then silence,
and I awaken.

The first beautiful phrase of many to capture my attention is “heart in hiding” — in context, it’s perfect. There’s a wealth of personal history conveyed in the first stanza, not surprising since Hussman is a master of concision. And the next stanza follows up in the same rich vein, with the wonderful “plaintive strain … of music [that] goes right through me.” The estrangement of mother and son pierces me in my own hidden, well-defended heart.

In the third stanza, we time-travel from the author’s boyhood reminiscence into his later adulthood, a “foreign land” in more ways than one. He lets the drama — and trauma — of hearing of his mother’s death while abroad unfold, as he’s gifted by students with a bouquet of red roses.

As described in Hussman’s memoir, “Acanemia,” he received word of his mother’s death while delivering a paper at a conference in Poland, where he’d received a Fulbright Award to teach following his retirement from WSU. Two female students in the audience had left the conference to go to a nearby flower shop to perform this cultural ritual, “warmly [expressing] their sympathy.”

Among his exploits in the central European country recently renowned for its compassionate acceptance of Ukrainian refugees, the day of Hussman’s mother’s death ranks among the most memorable. I feel the feminine energy of those red roses, delivered by the students. The symbolism of the multilayered rose that fades too soon transcends the personally poignant to achieve the universal.

The third stanza’s last line, “Culture’s balm for grief,” would’ve made a fine ending. However, Hussman’s story is not finished. The astonishing dream of the final stanza brings the theme of estrangement full circle, when “a woman in black/ steps onto the stage and presents me with a wreath of red roses.” With the woman in black, the mother archetype — female nurturing and fulfillment — unites with Death, which, of course, awaits us all. But “then silence, and I awaken,” suggesting it’s not too late for a new appreciation of the musical gift that wordlessly links mother and son.

We’ve all felt the limitation of language to express our deepest emotions surrounding parental and other crucial relationships. Hussman proves once again that music is the universal language, even though, ironically, he’s done it with slightly less than 200 well-chosen words. Built around ceremonies, the poem does its quiet work of the heart through simple, clear language and dramatic structure: the first stanza’s initial exposition, followed by three dramatic play-like acts.

The intense concision, rising drama and carefully modulated emotion give me much to aspire to in my own poems.

Please send me some of yours at  

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One Response to “Emergent Verse | The quiet work of the heart”

  1. Carmine Di Biase says:

    Lovely article, Mr. Davis. And I miss my own days in Professor Hussman’s class, which I’ve written about for
    a recent online issue of The Vincent Brothers Review.

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