About the Poems
by Alice B. Fogel
The poems at No Tell Motel are from Interval: Poems based on Bach’s Goldberg Variations & the Predicament of Embodiment, a full-length manuscript which consists of an Aria and 30 “variations.” In the series, each poem matches one of Bach’s variations in style, sometimes in phrasing or voice, and all take the GV’s 32-bar (line) form, divided into halves of 16. They further mimic the GV’s “baroque” effects by using multiple voices: Most of the poems speak to/about a “you” and/or “them” from the point of view of a specific, first-person living (but fictional) entity; other poems—every third one, for formal reasons, starting with “Variation 2” here—speak of liminal states of being with either no “I” or one that is dis- or unembodied or in some other way indefinite. All the poems revolve around thresholds in life or death (representing for me the way music’s physical sensations embody intangible or even spiritual aspects) and explore aspects of identity, mortality, and self.
“Var. 1: Yhwh” is based on the Kabbalah’s notion of the Zim-Zum, which is pretty much like the big bang theory in physics. I also thought of Francis Ponge’s “Kings do not touch doors,” or how lonely the powerful are. The way the universe is spinning in and out replicates the way Bach’s variations often climb up and down scales, sometimes involving the crossing over of hands.
“Var. 2: Interval” is a playful three-part invention. It also indirectly refers to the Jewish prayer called the Sh’ma, in which one calls out to God and then better get on with it quickly lest God take notice of you and zap you up right then. (Of course, Bach was a serious Christian, and I’m not a serious Jew, but the sentiments seemed compatible.)
“Var. 3: Snapping turtle.” The first of ten canons, this one is based on the interval of the (musical) first, and sounds like stepping or layering, also with a kind of in and out motion, hence turtle and ice. The turtle is innocent, thinking its eggs are going to fare better than the water’s ice, but we know that very few of them are likely to survive.
“Var. 4: Child” has a simplistic and somewhat indignant feel to it. The child, about four years old (it is #4, after all), still doesn’t know the difference between dream and waking realities—they’re equally real to him—and is just beginning to get an idea that something like death exists.
“Var. 13: Artist.” Jumping ahead from innocence toward experience, Bach's Variation 13 is a lovely long, slow, ornate, chorale-like piece. On the page, the lines mimic the flow of the music and the shadows of trees on snow (the impermanent “snow dimension”). The artist, accustomed to seeing beauty in light, also projects her dread of change and loss onto the surface of the snow, much like the trees project those shadows.