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A new way to hear Glass

The critically acclaimed Miró Quartet performs Philip Glass's "String Quartet No. 5" at this year's White Pine Festival with 2009 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award-winner Matthea Harvey reading a new, 5-part poem inspired by and set to the Glass composition. Harvey's work includes 5 original photographs that serve as titles to the poems. As host of this performance, Fred Child talks with Matthea Harvey and John Largess of the Miró Quartet about their collaboration.

Hear the interview and the debut of the performance.

Inside the bell jar of the glass factory,
the girls bend over conveyor belts, lean
into kilns, bobbing like birds diving for fish.
One taps a finished porthole window
with a small silver hammer and
pronounces it sound (outside
a woodpecker smashes its beak
into a whitebirch, searching for sap).
One girl runs her finger down the seam
of a serving plate (outside floodwater
makes a mirror of the meadow).
Another girl holds a thermometer
up to the light (the sun has inched up
a few degrees and yes, Monday has a fever).
Another dips her finger into
a beaker of water and tests
that each goblet in the set sings
a successive note in an E minor scale—
six notes the other girls know so well
that at night, in the dormitory,
one or all of them can be heard
hum-dreaming the song in their sleep.

Since they’re not allowed outside—
never have been, never will be—
they used to watch rainstorms
like television, cross-legged, wiping
the glass if their breath fogged
the view. They used to exclaim
over drops of dew. They used to
run their fingers along the walls,
searching for a way out, but that only
smeared the sky. At break they lie
on their stomachs in the sunroom,
where they’ve stacked a wall of cracked
glass hands. Looking through it is the closest
they come to touching the things they see—
the horizon a lifeline across one palm,
the pine trees in the distance like
bonsai in tiny finger terrariums.
Moving things—foxes and half-moons—
slink in and out of adjacent wrists,
slide under successive glass fingernails.
Once a stag walked past and scraped
its antlers along the glass wall.
They all gasped. It was the closest
they had ever come to another body.

Now as if their skull walls had
windows and each brain were
a clear, crystalline thing, the synapses
making temporary chandeliers
of thought-sparks in the brain’s
blank sky, they are all having
the same idea at the same time—
to make a girl out of glass. 
The sketches start out simple, but soon
one girl proposes a glass voicebox
strung with glass chimes, another petitions
for porthole pupils, a fringe of glass
lashes on each eyelid’s hinge, another
imagines a mouth made of powdered
glass and crinkle enamel, and off they go.
Not one finger here has ever felt fur,
seen veins or bones except under
the cover of skin, but they bypass
all that with the force of their dreaming—
how best to make her glass hair seem to
stream down her back, whose forefinger
they should choose to dent in her dimples.

The thermometer hits one thousand
degrees and suddenly she’s standing there—
hot, glowing, almost still liquid. Like them,
but unlike too. They don’t question that
she is alive, walking, gesturing. But no one
imagined that she, with her new glass eyes
would be able to see the glass lock
and the glass key. In an instant, she opens
the door and they stream outside into
the solid world. This isn’t at all what
they imagined. The sky is like lead
above their heads. The once-silent birds
flood their ears with clashing arias.
All the puddles on the path are blurred
with mud. The glass girl disappears
and they don’t go after her. When they finally
reach the forest—it is miles further
than they imagined—the air inside is hazy
with dust and spores. They can’t see much
beyond their fingers. A bear or maybe
a deer thuds by. When they come upon
a stream, for a moment they brighten:
the light prances on its surface like the prisms
they make in the factory, but they can’t
see through to the fish, or the shadows
of fish flitting along the river floor.

Weeks later, they are back in the factory,
busily pouring bright liquids from
one beaker to another, sliding barefoot
between kiln, conveyor belt, workshop.
Then sleep. In her dreams, the girl who
has begun building a glass owl
from the inside-out, starting with
its morning meal of mouse, will invent
a formula for flight. Another is designing
a glass ladder where each rung has
a different horizon hidden inside.
The glass girl could be anywhere.
She could be just outside, watching
or she could be worlds away, and truly,
they like it that way. In the hot afternoon,
the girls melt into various poses by
the glass walls, molding their memories
of the outside world into newer, clearer forms.
One taps a finished porthole window
with a small silver hammer and pronounces it
sound. One runs her finger down the seam
of a serving plate. Another holds a thermometer
horizontally, and uses its markings to measure
the height of the trees. The mercury inside
shivers in the newly imagined breeze.

Poems and photo titles by Matthea Harvey, commissioned by the Poetry Radio Project, a collaboration between American Public Media and the Poetry Foundation. Copyright 2009, Matthea Harvey. Used with permission of the poet.

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