Voices of Women Singing by H.R. Stoneback
Codhill Press Books
October 1, 2011
When I decided to go to the Hemingway conference in Michigan this past summer, somehow it slipped by me that Stoney was going to be there giving a plenary session entitled “Hemingway’s Michigan–My Michigan?” I saw his name on the program and my jaw dropped and I was so happy to get to see and hear Stoney speak and had no idea how delightful his session was going to be. His talk was one of the numerous highlights for me that I just kept experiencing at that conference. Even more exciting was seeing him on the campus of the conference center sitting outside and relaxing and enjoying the day and getting to talk to him. He was so very nice and I can tell he is a most generous man because he wanted to give me a copy of his latest book on poetry and women, but he did not have a copy with him at the time. Of course, when I returned home and came off my Hemingway high, I found Voices of Women Singing on Amazon and ordered a copy. I knew he had been sincere in his wanting to give me a copy when I was reading Voices and saw:
It was on that trip that I vowed never
to travel without copies of my books
to give away to people I really liked,
people I knew would read them. It was a pain
to carry your own books but you wrote them
to give them all away as special gifts.
Voices of Women Singing was absolutely mesmerizing to me. Stoney said I would enjoy it and I surely did. This book of prosepoems and poetry and songs and stories is about Stoney and Sparrow’s (his wife of forty year’s nickname) life of singing, travel, friends, and relationships. The book starts out with Stoney referencing excerpts from the songs of many great female singers and his impressions of them, a short introduction to the book, and some short and longer poems to introduce the reader to the world of Stoney and Sparrow. The next part of the book is some very long prosepoems about Stoney and Sparrow’s life in the early 1970’s in Paris (mostly recorded at the time in an old notebook). After their years in Paris and move back to America, Stoney relates many of their island travels in the West Indies in poems and prosepoems. Stoney finally ends the book in a fourth section of poems. He also alludes to another volume to perhaps follow. I really hope he is working on this second volume (after his New Street commitments, of course).
Stoney is a great Hemingway scholar and aficionado. Many references to Hemingway, his life, his books, and his geographical locations are made by Stoney. Some of these are direct and some of them are very subtle. If I did not know a great deal about Hemingway already, I probably would have missed many of the ones with no direct reference. I probably still missed some anyway. An example is what he wrote the day after he and Sparrow say goodbye to one of his assistants at the school he was leaving:
“Yeah right Isn’t it pretty to think so the skeptical part of my mind says as I write this in my notebook the next morning and if the three of us had traveled together I don’t know what would have happened eventually because it has to be a bad idea for one man to travel with two beautiful women—but last night on that bench the deeper or higher love was profoundly true and maybe that was all that mattered.”
The first sentence reflects the famous last line of The Sun Also Rises and the rest is a reflection on what a great last night the three of them had and Stoney ponders what it would be like to have two women as Hemingway did with his first and second wives when they were all three vacationing in Switzerland, as well as the months afterward, all without mentioning Hemingway.
Following is another paragraph full of not so subtle references to Hemingway if you are familiar with A Moveable Feast and the great writer’s locations in Paris:
“It was fun to walk over to Contrescarpe now that we were closer to it again and to renew our sense of that quartier that we had ignored for a long time. And Mouffetard was fun again. And the long walks down to the river and the Île, going and coming back on Lemoine, the back way to the island where we wouldn’t see anybody we knew, and trying new cafés along the way.”
Words I had to look up:
These first five were all in the first paragraph of the second chapter:
accidie-spiritual sloth; apathy; indifference
anomie-a state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown or absence of social norms and values
anosmia-absence or loss of the sense of smell
ennui-a feeling of utter weariness or discontent resulting from saity or lack of interest; boredom
fecund-prolific; fruitful; productive
And then the rest:
alembic-a vessel with a beaked cap or head, formerly used in distilling
cacotopic-dystopian; characterized by human misery such as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding
chthonic-of or pertaining to the deities, spirits, and other beings dwelling under the earth
dolmen-a prehistoric megalithic tomb typically having two large upright stones and a capstone
epiphanic-relating to a sudden or great manifestation
menhiran-upright monumental stone standing either alone or with others, as in an alignment, found chiefly in Cornwall and Brittany
*numinous-surpassing comprehension or understanding; mysterious
prosepoem-a prose composition characterized by a poetic style
prurience-inordinately interested in matter of sex, lascivious
selvage-the edge of woven fabric finished so as to prevent raveling, often in a narrow tape effect, different from the body of the fabric (but Stoney uses it as “the selvage of the fabric of our lives . . . “
villanelle-a verse form of French origin consisting of 19 lines arranged in five tercets and a quatrain. The first and third lines of the first tercet recur alternately at the end of each subsequent tercet and both together at the end of the quatrain
*probably Stoney’s most used adjective (and he addresses this use in the book)
A few observations from the book that I enjoyed:
Comment on seeing Jackie Kennedy Onassis at Fouquet’s on the Champs Elysées:
“I had never met Jacqueline Kennedy then but a few years later when I did, and knew some of her close friends in New York, and had dinner and drinks with her a few times and good conversations about literature, about French writers and Hemingway, I liked her and felt sorry for he, trying to live a real life behind the myth.”
Comment on our travel and learning and our fast food society:
“How can you assess and understand steak au poivre flambé au cognac if you know only Big Macs and Double Whoppers with cheese? How can you taste caviar or day-boat scallops dusted with red hibiscus powder or loup de mer au fenouil flambé au pastis if you know only Mr. Paul’s fish Sticks and Long Jane Silver?”
Instead of writing “suffer fools greatly“ Stoneback writes, “he liked to rip erudite fools.”
“Ecdysiast’s Cathedral” instead of “strip club”
Interstitial fustiness instead of layers of memorabilia
A handful of the endless people he has known or met:
Art Buchwald (International Herald Tribune writer and author of We’ll Always Have Paris)
George Whitman (Shakespeare and Company proprietor)
James Jones (writer)
Auden (attended his last public reading)
Oscar Epfs (Lawrence Durrell, artist)Robert Penn Warren (Stoney’s mentor and friend)
From Stoney’s writing, Sparrow seems like such a cool lady that I wish I had known. From her first “Look y’all,” . . . “Yonder’s a café,” to several instances where Stoney thought he had her fooled, to the two last stanzas of poetry in the book, Sparrow sings and shares adventures and shares her life with Stoney, and still does.
I was there in Notre-Dame. That is real.
You could say I dreamed the rest—I considered that,
since dreams can feel utterly vivid and lived.
But there’s the matter of that second empty mug.
Was I so thirsty I didn’t know I drank her beer?
But check this out, if you don’t fear the ethereal:
A few days later when I put my hand, very real,
in the real jacket pocket where Piaf put her real hand—
Now let all the bells ring again and again
Let Sparrows sing their earlthy hallelujahs—
I found the Saint Hubert medal that was in her hand
when Sparrow’s coffin was closed forever, sealed.
If you like poetry and Paris, you really should read Voices of Women Singing . . .