“It’s a lie to think we can both create and maintain some wholeness in this world.” (Devin Kelly on Grazioso)
Devin Kelly is a contributor to Half Mystic Journal’s fourth issue, grazioso. He earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in New York City. He is the author of two collaborative chapbooks, as well as the books, Blood on Blood (Unknown Press), and In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (CCM Press). He works as a college advisor in Queens, teaches at the City College of New York, and lives in Harlem.
We asked three of our Issue IV contributors to share with us their personal definitions of “grazioso”: how it is formed, where it has been, what it could be. Here is Devin Kelly's vision of the dream-bright waltz – the soft-stained song – the place where sunlight settles & nothing really hurts…
I have stumbled into so many of the loves in my life. Stumble - a cousin of stammer, so lacking in grace, which is the word humming at the heart of grazioso. I was a musician before a writer, but this, too, happened by accident. When my parents were still together, my mother bought a used piano from a sale outside a church. As it goes with most pianos sitting in so many American homes, not one of us - mother, father, brother, me - learned how to play it. We bought the necessary tools, the music books and manuals, the teachers and lessons, but nothing stuck. So it sat and utilized a different purpose. Stack-of-mail and picture-frame holder. Object to stub your toe on in the dark. Place to bang your head.
Years later, when my mother moved to her third apartment after she left my dad, she came back for the piano. I don’t know what compelled her to do this, if she just wanted something to take up space, if she found something beautiful about the idea of music rather than music itself. She bought me a guitar for my birthday, hoping I would be the next Van Morrison, and I would practice at home and then lug the guitar to her apartment when I saw her, plop down on her couch, and show her what I’d taught myself. One day back home, however, I threw myself onto my bed after what must’ve been a long day, not seeing my guitar on the other side. As I plummeted into the cushion, the guitar lifted upward, landing awkwardly on the floor and snapping at the neck. The next time I saw my mother, I walked into her apartment without acknowledging her and sat down at the piano, lifted its dusty lid, and spent the rest of my life teaching myself how to play. My mother still doesn’t know that I broke that guitar. Mom, if you are reading this, I’m sorry.
Those early years of learning the piano, I’d often play with headphones in one ear, trying to learn how the sound I was making collided or jived with the sound I was hearing. I played in stunted, fragmented notes and chords. They ricocheted off the wall and must’ve been painful for others to hear, since those listening must’ve only heard the outcome of my trying and not the sound of the music I was trying alongside. Often, my mother’s voice echoed from another room. Play it softer, Devin, she always said.
To this day, I still don’t know how I must sound on the piano to a skilled listener. Do my fingers touch too heavy? Too light? Is there a gap in my rhythm, a jagged edge jutting through my time? What I do know is that I have come to love both the process of trying and the result of trying simultaneously. I look back with love at my smaller hands on the keys, sounding out each discordant note, one after the other, until I found the right one. And just as much as I love the perfection of the right note, I love the idea of discord, that which jars our stillness. This is why I love first novels and rough drafts and essays comprised solely of fragments. This is not to say that these things lack intention or discipline, but I fall for writing that hints at the falsehood of writing. The absence of plot. An essay that borrows its structure from the outside world.
The idea of harmony is just that, an idea. It’s a lie to think we can both create and maintain some wholeness in this world. When this does happen, it is joyful because it is fleeting. But imposed order and perfection, however beautiful or not, run against the naturalness of this world, where time is the only thing that moves with discipline, ticking parallel to the random flickering of our hearts, which stop suddenly and often too soon.
One of my favorite songs for the piano is an old folk one called “Shenandoah”. More specifically, I adore Keith Jarrett’s brilliant recording of it. I wrote a poem about Jarrett’s version where I say, “think of music not as sound / but as silence,” since, in almost every Jarrett recording, you can hear the moaning of his mouth between or above or below the sound of the keys. The pianist is in the room. And he is feeling. And he is disrupting. This, to me, is a kind of grace for the listener, because it makes the act of listening to art both an act of escape and an act of witness. When you listen to Jarrett, you are hearing his attempt at escape - not just the creation of song, but the need for him to come along with it, to moan above it, to never be let go or left alone.
I think of this always when I am writing, mainly because what Jarrett has taught me, along with so many other beautiful writers and artists, is that two of the most important things I can continue to do as a human being are trying and feeling. I do not aim to create stasis out of chaos or to simply accept chaos, but rather, I find it important for artists to be people who can bear witness to both themselves and others living in this chaos with honesty and generosity. Sometimes I worry that people polish themselves out of sentiment, that they render a piece of writing too fit to feel. And I am being subjective here, but one of the things I tell any creative writing student of mine is to give themselves permission to create a space of feeling out of the page. Give it the safety of a bedroom, a hiding place, a pillow you can scream into. Music has taught me the value of this - that we are emotional, that something inside of us wants to be heard, maybe even to yell.
That silence, though. That silence between each yell, between each word. That’s a kind of music too. I’m thinking of that James Blake song, “Lindisfarne I,” from his self-titled debut, and how, in the pause between each vocoded word, you can hear so much. Your own breathing. His hesitation, his preparation, his gathering. You can even hear yourself waiting, and all the ways your waiting manifests itself. The beating of your heart, the catch of your breath. Tell me what this does not inform. We are all forever in the process. Of something. For someone. For ourselves. It might be the most frustrating thing about being alive. It might also be the most beautiful. That, like music, we can be the resulting notes of all of our feeling and all of our trying, and the space between them too.
Devin Kelly's poem “The Wind in Galway”, along with twenty other pieces by contributors and three columns by the Half Mysticteam, are compiled in Half Mystic Journal’s Issue IV:GRAZIOSO, a volume of work full of the rare kind of light that never drowned anything, the kind of light that knows only song.It is available for preorder now.