If I knew where the good songs came from, I'd go there more often.
— Leonard Cohen
What makes a good song? The modern understanding of “song” is the combination of words & music. So, a good song is the perfect combination of words and music. Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah” is an excellent example; especially the line “It goes like this: / The fourth, the fifth/ The minor fall / The major lift” — the supporting musical chords are, indeed, the fourth, the fifth, Am, then F maj.
A good song is also a conversation, or dialogue, between the words and music. I think especially of the songs of Simon and Garfunkle — “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” for example, is possibly the greatest hymn that never mentions God. This contrast can create a sort of dissonance that adds a layer of meaning that could not be found in the words or music on their own.Dave Bonta's latest, Twelve Simple Songs, are not songs in this modern sense of the word. They don't appear to be in any formal structure that I'm aware of. Each poem is short and lyrical, filling no more than one page each. There's no obvious rhyme scheme or meter. The lines are variable in length, but typically very short.
It's fitting that these songs are one page each, because each is complemented by a photo on the verso. So, just as words and music create a conversation, so there is a conversation between each poem and picture. Indeed, Mr. Bonta describes this as “linked verses in dialogue with photographs about an intercontinental love affair.”
These are in fact love songs, which immediately remind me of Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems. Neruda's poems are also lyrical; most are no more than a page long. Both Bonta and Neruda use nature imagery as metaphor for their beloved. Consider Neruda's lines:
In you the river sings and my soul flees in them
As you desire, and you send it where you will.
(Song III, trans. W.S. Merwin)
Then consider these lines from the last song in Dave's collection:
If my words are fish,
yours are lures,
marvels of ingenuity —
a water-bound being's
dream of flight.
In this instance, the photograph on the verso is of a crevasse: moss-covered boulders with a few small plants sprouting on the left center and near the upper-right hand corner. This may be an ancient river bed, but that's not my first impression. It's clear to me this is not an attempt to illustrate the poem, as in a common high school anthology. No: the reader is free to draw his own connections. The poem has to do with communication — “We play a game / called Mouth & Ear: / one speaks, the other listens.” But it's transcontinental communication — the classic long-distance romance. The crevasse suggests to me both the separation and intimacy implicit in such a relationship.
Song Two, “My parachute knapsack,” is another example of the dialogue between photo and poem. The poem closes with the lines “That's what it was like / being alone.” The photograph is of a pair of boots on a red porch, a white wall behind them and white snow bordering the left of the porch. This is possibly the most “illustrative” pairing in the collection, yet I don't see this as cloyingly obvious. There's no self-pity on either the verso or recto: both speak of being alone, rather than being lonely. Each offer images devoid of sentimentality.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that these poems are available in multiple formats: downloadable PDF; a downloadable MP3 file; an on-line version (which includes an embedded version of the MP3); a video version; and a print edition. The first three are free downloads; the last is available at cost. As Mr. Bonta says, the poems came to him freely, so he feels obliged to share them freely. A rather Franciscan attitude, I hope he doesn't mind my saying.
A few words about that video version: it is narrated by a female voice. She reads it as if it is one long poem, rather than an interconnected series of poems. The video does not incorporate Bonta's photography, though I think it would have been interesting if those images had occasionally flashed as small touches of "zen" (to use the videographer's term). The female voice lets us imagine the other side of that intercontinental conversation; it allows us to hear the words new, with new phrasing, new emphasis, added meaning. The images are primarily from nature, with still shots randomly flashing, against a mildly industrial sound-scape.
This may seem overkill for some “simple songs”. But the simplicity is deceiving. Though the chapbook began as a birthday present for Rachel, the beloved, the fact that all are addressed to “you” allows the reader to participate, to imagine himself as the lover, to see herself as the beloved. It allows us to be part of a greater conversation, between the words and the audience.
It is a conversation well worth joining.