Tuesday Poem: Messiaen Among The Dinosaurs

Messiaen Among The Dinosaurs
1. Old man with a notebook
They find Messiaen entranced in the magic hour
between dawn and the day’s heat
wandering the woodlands, skirting marshes,
annotating the contrasting calls
of pipit and nightjar. For many hours
he has been walking the forest fringes, lost
in the ecstasy of birdsong, until scientists,
deferential, insistent, come to fetch him home.
“Tell me again,” he says, Loriod
holding his hand. “Your Institute’s machine
will carry us backwards in time
to the epoch of dinosaurs, yes?
And you wish me to join you,
travel back, transcribe their calls?”
2. Such exotic birds
In the fern-enchanted glade, the composer
transcribes the calls of these gigantic birds,
their plumage flaring glamorously
along high necks and feathered rumps.
His guards are restless, watches
synchronised to the end of their brief window,
when time will snap back 120 million years
to the basement of the Institute,
fluorescents crackling overhead, experimenters
blinking like owls in the light of their return.
But Messiaen sits timeless, notebook on his lap,
oblivious to danger, the forest alive
with death’s roar, life’s fluting cry,
the staves and quavers of the dinosaurs.
3. At Clichy-la-Garenne
Death, three-clawed, yellow-eyed,
stalks the garden at Clichy-la-Garenne.
In the pale spring sunshine, notebook
fallen at his feet, sleeps Messiaen.
Loriod is at the piano, practising
Réveil des dinosaures for her next recital.
The notes attenuate among the cries
of great and lesser birds.
The authorities closed down the experiment
when the consequences became known.
Messiaen kept only memories, scores, scales,
the eggs he grew to fierce companions,
and the hymns of praise that throughout time
have soared from feathered throats.

Credit note: “Messiaen Among The Dinosaurs” was published in takahē 89. I’m reading that issue right now and there is lots of good stuff in there!

Tim says: After my poem about Dmitri Shostakovich’s visit to America, which actually happened, I take the bird-obsessed Olivier Messiaen on a more science-fictional journey this time round. Why do I do these things to my favourite composers??

The real-life Messiaen, Yvonne and Jeanne Loriod, and Messiaen’s remarkable music are all well worth exploring!

4 thoughts on “Tuesday Poem: Messiaen Among The Dinosaurs

  1. Wonderful and absurd stuff, Tim. Now I'll have to look at the Shostakovich piece as well. Just out of curiosity, these pieces are shaped like sonnets…I presume that's intentional, but what brought them into that form?

  2. Thanks, Mike! That's a good question – I had early drafts of this poem knocking around for a while prior to getting it into its final shape, so I'm not quite sure now. My memory is that the poem started off using four-line stanzas, but when I decided to split it into parts, I wanted to give each part a more distinct shape, hence deciding to use two-line final stanzas for each part – ending up with the structure, if not the rhyme scheme, of a sonnet.

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