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Poetic Thinking 2016 | January 23, 2020

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Struggling to Hear/Tenth Elegy

Struggling to Hear/Tenth Elegy
Vivian Lam


Toscanini’s Last


Struggling to Hear…After Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonatas






















When Orpheus failed to bring Eurydice out of

the darkness,

he fell in love with a Lament.

He wanders through this quaint land,

absentmindedly plucking the strings of his lyre,

bringing forth pure notes that melt into

an empty twilight,

but the silence of the streets unnerves him,

the roaring in his ears wash over his creations,

and he wonders if he has become deaf.


It is nice to imagine that after he had his fill of

plucking the strings of his lyre for the sun

he died with dignified tragedy—

Take your pick:


lightning strike,

ripped apart limb by limb.


It is so dark,

but is that not

how we return to the forms?

Don’t look back!, don’t look back,

but then how would we know that what we have brought back

is corporeal?


*(images by Idris Khan)


  1. Hi Vivian, Great piece! Tragedy and comedy appropriately share the stage here. Blind musicians are a common trope, but deaf musicians are more rare…and there is something oddly funny about wishing for a dramatic death for Orpheus.

    After having sung about the “dominion of Jove”, Orpheus uses a “lighter touch” to sing of human passion and error. To whom is he singing these songs, or rather, teaching these lessons? Himself? I’m not sure whether to think of these “songs” as a lifelong punishment of self-flagellation or instead as catharsis, or are those the same. Shouldn’t the final loss of Eurydice be punishment enough for his error? In any case, your line, “He wonders if he has become deaf”, captures so much of his struggle because no matter how much he relates to the characters in his story, they mean nothing if they cannot bring back his lover. Furthermore, no matter how many times he tells the same story, humans will remain the same volatile animal.

    I love your decision to pair the poem with Idris Khan’s work. By concentrating an entire work in one image he renders the individual notes incomprehensible, creating a heavy, dense distortion of an otherwise light, ethereal composition. For me the pairing seems to suggest the gravity human error, the dark side of passion.

    PS. Related to Khan’s work, have you seen the movie screen photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto? ( He points his camera at a movie screen and opens the camera shutter for the entirety of the film. What gets recorded is a white screen…similar concept to Khan’s but “lighter”.

  2. “but then how would we know that what we have brought back
    is corporeal?”

    The final words of your poem make me think of the story of St. Thomas the Apostle. In the story (I think it’s in John’s gospel), Jesus is resurrected and the word has spread to his various apostles and followers. Thomas, unlike the others, basically says something like, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” And then he’s scolded by Jesus, who appears to him corporeally and lets Thomas feel his very wounds as proof. Jesus’ scolds him because he needs to see in order to believe, and he says blessed are those who believe even though they have not seen. I bring up this story because it seems to perhaps function similarly to Orpheus and Eurydice as a parable. At the very least, there are similar logics at work here: true belief, true faith, true trust doesn’t *need* proof. It’s interesting, though, that in the Orpheus myth, his trust is in a god (Hades), but he sees a human (Eurydice); in the biblical version, the belief and seeing happens in the same person, God made flesh (Jesus resurrected). I’m not sure if there’s more to say there, except that maybe this shows some sort of shift in how Western culture started to think about belief.

    Also, these Idris Khan images are great, thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Vivian: I love your poem. Very beautiful, and the images you’ve picked to accompany it really hit home in the discussion of music, listening, love, and loss. The “don’t look back” and questions over doubt raised at the end of the poem are the most powerful to me. This is really the epistemological quandary presented by Orpheus; how can we know what is behind us if we don’t look back? Can we verify love if we cannot consider doubt? Doesn’t the process of verification necessarily include some level of acceptance that what one thinks one knows one might find not to be true? In a way, Orpheus is a sort of “curiosity killed the cat” situation, and to be wary of curiosity is a scary prospect. Anyways, more on this later, maybe, but thank you for your creative contributions.

  4. Vivian Lam

    Thank you all so much for your kind comments!

    Steven, your question about who Orpheus addresses his songs to is interesting, and might perhaps be expanded more generally. To whom do we seek to communicate? If no one hears, or otherwise cannot understand, are we communicating at all? Or do we seek to communicate at all (is catharsis a form of self-destruction, as you say)? Is deafness simply indifference? One might sing praises of the Gods to please them. But why does Beethoven continue struggling to hear? Why sing the same old song, if it cannot bring the past to life? Perhaps we simply want to remember our own voice; perhaps it’s just a reason to continue living.
    And I haven’t heard of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s movie screen photographs—thank you for sharing! These images seem to grant a physicality to the senses, as if we are sitting within the theater of his eye—we see what he meant by “the vision exploded behind my eyes.” Likewise, Idris Khan’s layering of composition and sound seem to capture a void of silence, the ghosts of a message faintly whispering something forgotten.

    Audrey, thank you for sharing this connection with St. Thomas the Apostle—this brings a layer of richness to these myths/parables that I need to think more about!
    Sight as proof—it seems almost cruel to be called to believe in a vague image or vapor in one’s head, without even a vessel to hold on to. Or perhaps this is just our spirit of scientific inquiry; post-“God is dead,” where is belief now, in Western culture? Is the guilt of disproved skepticism better than the paranoia of blind faith?

    Yinshi, thank you so much for your kind words. In conjunction with Steven’s comment on the addressee of Orpheus’ song, and Audrey’s on proof and belief, your questions make me think of the content of memory (if it has any). Why do we look back into the past? To seek retroactive verification, to probe dark spots that can never be elucidated? One goes to such lengths to bring back something lost, but the most that can be wrought of these endeavors is a wisp of an old feeling and a great deal of anguish and doubt. Is the only way to continue to accept this doubt? Is it better to be happily ignorant in naiveté, or to take the risk that comes with curiosity?

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