for SATB chorus, clarinet and piano

The first time I encountered “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” was on September 10th, 2001. It was the day of my first class as a freshman at Juilliard. As a dozen eighteen-year-olds from all over the world sat uncomfortably around a hexagonal table trying hard not to catch each others’ eye, wondering what would become of us both in the next few hours and over the next four years, our humanities teacher recited this poem to us. The message was clear: as creative and performing artists, we would either survive together, by creating an environment in which it was possible to understand and support one another, or we would not survive at all.

I remember that date for another reason, too, though: The following morning I awoke to find many of the same people who had been at that hexagonal table crowding around all the south-facing windows high enough in the residence hall to watch the growing clouds of black smoke that rose ominously from the south tip of Manhattan. At first none of us had thoughts other than that we were lucky to have been spared the atrocity that had come to pass downtown. But as reports started coming in, as we began piecing together the story, huddled together in the underground theater four stories below Lincoln Center, and began to reel at the overwhelming magnitude and gravity of the situation, there was only one phrase that emerged from the chaos. It was the last line of Stafford’s poem. The darkness around us is deep.

This piece is dedicated to Peter Rojcewicz, the humanities teacher who read us that poem, and through all that he believed in and taught, truly expanded my repertoire of ways of knowing.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail, but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider– lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

-William Stafford