THE POETRY OF KATE LIGHT
By Richard Aston
The Laws of Falling Bodies: poems. Story Line Press, 1997. ISBN 1-885266-55-3.
Open Slowly: Poems. Zoo Press, 2003. ISBN 1-932023-04-6.
Gravity's Dream: New Poems and Sonnets. West Chester University Poetry Center, 2006. ISBN 0-9785997-0-5.
Einstein’s Mozart. Blue Hour Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4507-3462-2.
Once Upon a Wind, libretti, One-Act Opera, with Theo Popov, composer. Performed at American Lyric Theater at
Symphony Space (New York City), June 25, 2012. See katelight.com
Kate Light’s debut collection, The Laws of Falling Bodies reminds us of objects
falling toward earth as described in Galileo’s classic study, which Light understands metaphorically as people falling in love,
beginning with libido, and characterized by love’s transience which she regrets:
if only I were not so light on my feet —
and so quick, my brothers, to run away.
On another level, love as phila (friendship) she describes in “Care”:
Carefully circulating you gradually unsheathe
(it, her, me). For all this labor, love, in the end,
will be the prize; love of an art, love of a friend.
By her multiple dedications to the arts of music, as a permanent violinist with the New York Opera Company, a member of a traveling dance troupe,
and a poet, Light was obviously dedicated to such phila, even when it involved hard frustrating work. Alas, all such love is transient,
a fact which is ameliorated by Tennyson’s line, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ than never to have loved at all” (“In Memoriam”). Love’s transience is expressed for one of her friends, David, with whom she traveled through the United States and Europe:
If we ever break up,
love, I want the Stonehenge coffee cup . . . .
Admitting her ambivalence, Light rationalizes fickle love with what she learned from her dance mentor, Martha Graham:
The men you love will repel.
They’ll not turn out to be the answer.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
There is no answer
but to move in measure like a dancer.
As she finds safety in art, she moves toward agape:
Love has a vision, It’s want that’s blind.
For, selective, lovely, lithe, Light, recipient of leers and invitations, relationships were fraught with frustration.
In the stunning cover picture of Maya Deren from her film Meshes of the Afternoon, on the cover of Light’s next book, Open Slowly, where her hands simultaneously invite and push away, we are given a picture of what, committed to be single, Light could do deftly. Her poetry shows how her mind operates to create relationships and demonstrates required courage, especially as years accrue. To a lover Garth she says:
I’ve changed, well, mostly,
gotten older, and known and loved more fish;
passed by them or been passed by . . . .
This transient romance is a major, even alarming, didactic motif of this book, which is elevated to transcendence:
Now I understand
the wandering monk who knows
away like dust.
She doesn’t go much beyond the moment, and takes delight in it. Here we see her on the move, her motivation explicitly and emphatically expressed:
Here lies my heart.
It is as simple as
that. It leads me, in art
Open Slowly is more about her way of living life itself than the eros and libido of her earlier work.
Light’s third book, Gravity’s Dream: New Poems and Sonnets, alluding to Newton’s famous law of gravity, metaphorically describes how one is often drawn into love relationships. But these are again marred by the sense that she may be passing her prime. The poem “Lyre, Lyre” puns on and personifies the stringed instrument to which she is wed, and is beginning to burn out on. She criticizes even her formalist poetic style:
I’ve written mainly couplets as if the lines —
like me — can barely bare to be alone.
“You Must Swim Off” she writes, but she can’t. In her final poem in this book, “To You” she confesses:
I bow my head before
these judgment gods
Her fourth book, Einstein’s Mozart, consisting of lyrics meant to accompany music, and allude to the work of geniuses, takes quite different perspective from those previous, being more objective. The daunting task of discussing the work of geniuses requires one to be intimately familiar with their work. Light is better when she writes about Mozart than Einstein because, as a concert violinist and conservatory of music alumna, she, no doubt, played a lot of Mozart, and is more familiar with his music than the physics of Einstein. A major difference from her previous books: there are no love poems, whereas, the others were full of them. Critics have said some of it is doggerel. There are indeed syntactical reversals, forced rhymes and poor word choices, almost never occurring in her first three collections, which are mostly formal and rhymed. When talking science she has awkward lapses in perfection:
this type of physics is so physical
its great work for someone quizzical
Here the first line is a tautology between “physics” and “physical”; and the word “quizzical” might better be “analytical.” This sort of thing does not happen when she talks about Mozart with whose work she is intimate:
The boy was a star that was constantly blazing.
His lightening-fast fingers, his beautiful phrasing . . . .
Lyrics for music can often be criticized negatively as poetry even for great works, as when in liturgical music one word is repeated, sometimes for minutes, or phrases of liturgy that have been used for centuries are sung, even over and over, sometimes making thereby bad poetry, tedious to read. So the effectiveness and lure of the work often cannot be judged without hearing it performed as part of a musical presentation. Many great oratorios are presented in a language foreign to most, if not all, in the audience, and still are effective mediators of music. The composer understands the lyrics are often subservient to the main musical production. For these reasons, her Einstein’s Mozart should be considered judiciously when used to assess Light as a poet. One must keep in mind that Light was invited many times to perform her lyrics, reading while instrumentalists joined in.
That said, Light’s lyrics to Once Upon a Wind, music by Theo Popov, are significant, subtle,
stirring, spellbinding, sad, and deep. The old-fashioned fable features a soldier who captures death in a sack, only to realize that he must release
it, even though his act will bring about the death of his ailing mother. This moral dilemma is a familiar one to families who must make the decision
to take an unresponsive loved-one off an intensive care unit (ICU). One can only marvel at the new direction of Light’s poetic explorations.
That she dares to be awkward and less perfectly iambic makes sense in this case where the words, carried by the rhythms and cadences of the musical
composition, illuminate the story. Among her strongest work, these lyrics are available in performance on her Web site katelight.com.
Kate Light, who died in 2016, was always an artist: in the way she presented her self and body, performed music, wrote predominately rhymed sonnets that read like natural speech, performed her poems, and had them published. She loved intensely on many levels, as revealed consistently in her first three books of poetry. She loved courageously toward the end of her life, as she showed in her libretti.
Copyright © by Richard Aston 2017.