Carol Muske-Dukes’s poem, White Key, evokes the feeling of suspension. A woman makes the difficult journey by plane back to her home after receiving the news of her husband’s sudden death. As she is suspended in the air between two cities, she is also suspended between two lives, between a beautiful past and the uncertain present. During the journey, her thoughts shift back and forth between these two worlds, as her mind gently unlocks warm memory spaces, only to see them fall away as she returns to the glassy coldness of the present. It is an intimate and powerful thing to be able to peer into her thoughts as she begins to parse the enormity of what has come to pass.
I first heard White Key as it was read by Carol at the funeral of her husband, actor David Dukes, in October of 2000. Their daughter, Annie, is a dear childhood friend of mine, and the shock of her father’s premature death has stayed with me for years. It has been the point of departure for some of my other pieces as well — Elegism, for unaccompanied cello, was written in memory of David, and the title of my violin concerto, The Blue Room, was taken from this poem, which I decided to set in its entirety after completing the violin concerto.
Of the many people close to me that have died, David is one of the few people I know whose life has been commemorated with an incredible work of art, created by someone who loved him. That act of commemoration reminds me of what Shakespeare wrote in the ending couplet of his famous sonnet:
So long as men can breathe, and eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
White Key (for David)
The mountains shut their doors,
Once, twice, in the shadow of the jet
east over the continent,
As it widens like the light on the bed
In the blue room where I last held you.
Out there, the palms in quilted barks
Line up, symmetrical as rain,
A red bird repeats its single question
At each descending step of sleep.
For too long I’ve been dreaming the dream
About prison, turning in circles on that cracked
Floor, trying to wake — as easily as I woke
This morning, the sun inching its proscenium
Of shadow forward to the glass doors I slid open
And walked through — blinded by one floating
Light-puzzle after another: stone Buddha,
Red petals, pool, you smiling, already awake.
In hours, the plane circles above the kingdom
Of realized wishes, my city, (since cities are
Owned by thought and thought is possessive).
Above the pale night clouds: one star, white key
In a white ignition. What do we deserve on this earth?
Not to be lied to by the mind, the body bent by that
Conscious wind into habits of the cage. To not
Hurt, to not betray, to not be prey of evil people,
Drink or pain. The last sculpture of clothes we
Left near the bed drifts in that wind. You are sure
Of yourself, friend, and I like that. The plane hovers
Over its perfectly-marked lines of entry — like thought
Flying parallel to revelation — dreaming of all the places
Along its body it could intersect with sudden light.
We wake up, if we are lucky, once in our lives.
The wheels touch earth, we lean up into love,
Not blind, more white on white, a key unseen
In a cylinder of entry, a handful of passengers
Taking quick ecstatic stock — beginning, one
By one, on a plane, to applaud.
– Carol Muske-Dukes
(used with permission of the author — unauthorized reproduction prohibited)
This piece was premiered by Yale Camerata (Brian Bartoldus, conductor) on April 28, 2011 at Yale University in New Haven, CT.