989: Signs, Music

989: Signs, Music

989: Signs, Music


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Once, as I walked with a colleague past a group of street buskers, they said, very casually, “Music is overrated.” I couldn’t believe my ears. This was in New Orleans! It is from this city that some of the world’s greatest musicians gifted us an ability to hear our joyous moments and to withstand our saddest occasions — from Louis Armstrong to Irma Thomas to Big Freedia. For a few minutes longer, I lingered, and listened, awed by the banjo, washtub bass, and violin of a jug band playing with fervor and humor. What enlivened my afternoon registered merely as…faint amusement to my colleague. I knew we’d never grow to become real friends.

I believe life, even the cosmos, is saturated with sound. I’m not alone. The ancient mathematician Pythagoras and his followers discovered that a harmony of sounds exists in our solar system, based on each planet’s orbit around the sun. I would have been friends with him, and those subsequent generations of mathematicians and astronomers who then sought to represent planetary tone and celestial scale.

Back in the late 1970s, several professors at Yale recorded 17th‐century astronomer Johannes Kepler’s hypothetical music. The album The Harmony of the World: a Realization for the Ear of Johannes Kepler's Astronomical Data from Harmonices Mundi 1619 is full of whines, whirs, clicks, whistles, and tweets. Apparently, that’s the sound each planet makes, much like the old dial-up modems.

So much art emerges from the belief in celestial harmony. When asked about her current project on Polynesian voyages, one friend said “I haven’t begun. I cannot hear it.” Poets, in their quest for language that offers up clarity and meaning, listen closely to the heard and the not heard. One can sense a structure of telling, an architecture that must be perceived and imagined. Our poems are songs. We hope to add to the music of the spheres. We sing the body electric, as one famous poet phrased it.

Today’s poem understands the necessity of passing on this belief of a cosmic rhythm, how it exists as an underlying mystery awaiting us.

Signs, Music
by Raymond Antrobus

The first word my son signed 
was music : both hands, fingers conducting
music for everything – even hunger,
open mouth for the chew chew spoon
squealing mmm – music. We’d play
a record while he ate music when
he wanted milk so I pour and hum
a lullaby or I Just Don’t Know 
by Bill Withers because it’s ok 
not to know what you want 
and I want him to know that. Music
is wiping the table after the plates music
is feel my forehead for fever is whatever
occurs in the centre of the body, whatever
makes arms raise up, up. 
The second word my son signed 
was bird – beaked finger to thumb, bird
for everything outside – window, sky, tree
roof, chimney, aerial, airplane – birds. I saw
I had given him a sign name. Fingers
to eyes raising from thumbs - wide    
eye meaning watchful of the earth
in three different roots – Hebrew, Arabic,
Latin – I love how he clings
to my shoulders and turns
his head to point at the soft body
of a caterpillar sliding across the counter,
and signs, music.

“Signs, Music” by Raymond Antrobus from SIGNS, MUSIC © 2024, Raymond Antrobus. Used by permission of David Higham Associates.