“It was like hearing earth’s final act before crashing into heaven. It was a declaration of love and anguish which spoke to an estranged child. A cry of emotion gasped out of my mouth as I heard the last note. The overwhelming sensation captivated my heart…”
So wrote Ella Alalade in March of 2021 on how opera helped her to process grief over the
death of her father from Covid 19. Clearly not alone, opera music and its narratives of loss help many people overcome grief and despair in their lives. Maxima Kahn’s full-length book of poems, Fierce Aria, distinctly approaches this deep emotion through poetic language in the form of the aria.
Oxford describes an aria as “a long accompanied song for a solo voice, typically one in an opera or oratorio.” The Fierce Aria that Maxima Kahn has written clearly adheres to this definition. Though it is not part of an opera that is yet written, it reflects on the grieving operatic narrative with which her life was fraught in the years prior to the book’s release in 2020. Hence “fierce” to describe its powerful intensity and perspective.
Kahn dedicates Fierce Aria to both of her deceased parents. Her father was the acclaimed Harvard philosopher, Hilary Putnam, who died in 2016, at 89. He was partly known for his contribution to a discussion of “knowledge” and how we know what we know, and he advocated for “nonscientific knowledge,” that which comes from ethics, aesthetics, wisdom traditions, and religion, rather than strictly science. In a blog post shortly after her father’s passing Kahn wrote,
My father is the one who got me started on my love of poetry, as he used to recite poems (and tell dirty limericks!) around the dinner table, and I was in awe of this ability. Once, when I was eleven and alone in the house, I snuck into my parents’ bedroom and got out a volume of e.e. cummings—a poet my Dad loved and I love to this day—and clandestinely memorized my first poem, so I could be like my father. My father always enthusiastically supported my writing dreams and my poetry.
Then, in 2019, probably well into the writing of …Aria, Kahn’s mother, Ruth Anna Putnam, also a well known philosopher and teacher, passed away. Of this Kahn wrote that it was “the most unimaginable, wrenching anguish and lingering grief, even though, for her sake, I had wanted her to go for years.”
She maintains a strong through-line from beginning to end on the theme of language and its failure to accurately depict and record our human experience.
So, with this “wrenching anguish,” Kahn drags us into Fierce Aria, to that place of facing grief that resides in all of us, lingering there if not overt and pronounced. In three parts — Andante cantabile, Adagio mesto, Allegro gracioso — the book opens, “flowing and songlike” (Andante cantabile), with a poem called “Winter,” the season when the effects of unprocessed grief are most pronounced in nature, but where she says, “inside…”
there is something
you can build with.
But she ends with a resignation, and we are back outside where
The woods are dark,…
And so into the woods the poet brings us…
The next poem, “Harbor Song” seems to almost thwart any formality, avoiding obvious meter, with no end rhymes, both of which you might expect in a “song.” We have a central 5-line stanza surrounded by six 4-line stanzas, three at the beginning and three at the end, with a reference to the book title in the final quatrain,
Yet I am washed or I am nothing —
life is furious song
or it is emptiness—this wrenching
grace, fierce aria is all
In “Changing the Scene” we see evidence of Kahn as the offspring of two philosophers, particularly in relation to her father’s questioning of how we know what we know.
“…and this is where the unravelling
begins,” she writes,
“—in that sway
between reality and the inner singing— …”
We engage in a kind of continual “re-positioning.” And the “result” she tells us is “disappointment,” and finally asks us if this “elaboration” is not like “poetry”?
In a crushing image of utter grief she describes her heart as “the little stone in my chest knocking in its cavity”
As we can observe here, Kahn does not restrict herself to the grief of human and familial loss. She maintains a strong through-line from beginning to end on the theme of language and its failure to accurately depict and record our human experience. We feel in her writing a tremendous torment over the fecklessness of language in general, and indeed over how the greatest creative endeavors of our time fail to accurately depict the glory of our experiences in the moment.
From “One Kiss,”
I feel a sharp pain where language limits me. I come to the end
of its jeweled brilliance. The saying stops.
Yet living continues—far beyond the bright flicker of words.
All the uncontained like a vast lake, reflective and blue, laughing
at these inky marks, pales shadows,
the sounds our mouths would make…
From there she transports us to the almost cynical perception of how any artistic representation pales in comparison to the actual physical experience of a kiss. But the trace of cynicism is erased by her bold description of the indescribable and unparalleled nature of a kiss that “holds…’
what our speech cannot, a taste
of the unbounded, the sun coming up
inside the flower
Emphasizing “inside” here she shows us how a kiss can be akin to a sunrise within a blossom.
As the first part of …Aria concludes we may find ourselves hoping for a reprieve from anguish, but as in any gripping opera, we must wait for this dramatic unravelling, and instead are first thrust into Adagio mesto, act two, where the theme of mournful melancholy further develops. She begins to move the reader away from (not entirely) the failures of language and weaves in pathos, and the grief of the human condition. In the opening poem of part two, “Small Rooms,” Kahn declares,
I am so tired I no longer know my own name.
I am so empty I am a black book
pages of soot, on which you might scrawl your signature…
Further on, in a crushing image of utter grief she describes her heart as “the little stone in my chest knocking in its cavity” and when she hears on the radio talk of “the academy of saint martin in the fields…” she thinks how,
all our academies
ought to be in the fields where we might
consider the lilies and learn—
[from “Saint Martin in the Fields,” p. 33]
We can never be free from pain and loss, but that love can save us from despair, or at least remind us that despair is both fleeting and unavoidable.
From her poem, “Bridge” this collection takes us onward into the realm of love and longing, embracing again the power of language and the poet to transform and enlighten the reader. “i am carrying my fingers like blossoms,” she says in “Hinge,”
to the gateway of your
skin. together with me make one, pressed flat, fanning
out, inevitably joined in this butterfly dance. chrysalis.
becoming. this is my invitation.
In its flowing brevity, this poem underscores Kahn’s love and appreciation of e. e. cummings.
Just before the reader is brought into Allegro gracioso, the final section of the book, we experience the essence of not only love, but the loss of love through death and attrition, the loss of comfort, and learn
how the edge of death
is made hazy by love…
[From “Another Dose of Pleasure,” p. 49]
To remind us of the reality of experience, she presents us with pain and pleasure juxtaposed. Early on in this collection, the reader is beckoned to join in the dance between things that appear steady and unchanging, like “the darkness despite the sunlight,” and those things that by nature constantly move, like the cycles of days and seasons, joy and despair.
In conclusion, the reader reaches an understanding that we can never be free from pain and loss, but that love can save us from despair, or at least remind us that despair is both fleeting and unavoidable. Love for another. Love for the natural world that sustains us. A grace spills in at the end of this collection, a forgiveness for oneself and those we encounter, and most of all a surrender to the movement of the world around us.
I let my parts fly into the atmosphere.
Who can stop them anyway? I let the gods
sear me with their fierce music.
Do it to me again I say.
Make me your instrument.
Make me play.
[From “Make Me Play,” p. 75]