Jonathan Santore, Composer
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Smoking, Drinking, Messing Around

Listen to a performance by the New Hampshire Master Chorale conducted by Dan Perkins:

  • Score: $3 (for reproduction rights; minimum purchase of 10 required; additional charge for hard copies); set of parts: $8
  • For SATB chorus, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and piano
  • Secular text: poems by Liz Ahl
  • 15:00
  • Difficulty rating (1-5): 4
  • View a PDF score excerpt
  • Purchase, request full review copy or more information, etc.
  • Commissioned and premiered by the New Hampshire Master Chorale, Dan Perkins, Music Director

It occurred to me that I had done a lot of emotional “heavy lifting” in my compositions over a period of about two years—from a work commemorating the end of the Civil War, to a Requiem, to digital music for a multimedia work about the destruction and recreation of existence itself! So, I wanted to write something bright and breezy for the New Hampshire Master Chorale, and I suggested the title to Dan straight off (though I might have used a different phrase for “Messing Around”).

Once we had the title, I contacted my friend, colleague, and frequent collaborator Liz Ahl to ask if she had any poems that fit well with the suggested subject matter. As her work always does, the poems that Liz shared with me moved me profoundly, and I had an extremely difficult time narrowing down text choices for the piece. And as always with Liz’s work, the depth, passion, and subtlety of her words led me down emotional paths I hadn’t expected to travel in this piece—not only the bright, breezy byways promised by the title, but also the roads of love, loss, experience, and wisdom that criss-cross those byways.

When We Smoked

We were happier when we smoked, when we lit up,
toked a Camel between classes, or froze our asses off
on someone’s late December party porch.

We were happier when the cigarette box was crammed
into our pockets, when we socked away couch-cushion
change at the end of the month for the cheapest generics.

You say this to me: We were happier when we smoked,
you know. And yes, I know—four months ago I stubbed
the last butt, smug as you can imagine. You say this to me

with the calm, shell-shocked voice of a wise survivor,
wide-eyed under the weight of knowing.
You grip my shoulders with your eyes for emphasis.

And if I were our therapist, I would ask what need
we had that nicotine filled like a perfect round peg,
what impediment to happiness blocked then

and still blocks our way like a storm-thrown tree,
but I’m not a shrink, and this isn’t therapy,
and I agree, we were happier when we smoked—

not just deluded. Not just younger. We took our smoke-
breaks round the clock and our days had more
than minutes—the cigarettes that slowed time down

or those that sped it up as needed. The speed of a cigarette
is relative; we only know it gave us time and helped us push
the overly swollen hours to the side and behind, like a machete

hacking a clear path. If you were a therapist, reader,
you’d shake your head, make notes on your pad.
But you’re not. You’re you. And once, you were happier, too.

The Drunks

They pour out of the bars like refugees,
fleeing the brutal invasion of raised lights,
the stopped taps, the bouncer’s brutal grimace.

They stumble up the middle of Boylston Street,
and the taxis take them in as fast as they can,
and the taxis honk and swerve to avoid them, curse
as if the drunks were well-known, long-loathed potholes.

Strangers holler to other strangers. Cars
are towed. Lights dot the darkened Common paths,
and the gold dome up the hill dulls off to sleep,
dreaming its nightly dream of government.

Always a siren blaring off, a shriek
slashing the night, profanity shouted, slurred
just enough to be a lullaby.

Dinner Party

screw the cork
twist the cap
breathe the wine
tip the cup

stir the soup
sear the steak
toss the greens
frost the cake

grind the spice
flake the fish
taste the sauce
set the dish

feed the flock
talk the talk
take the took
screw the cook

Between Song and Scar

Re-stringing the old Fender,
pulling each steel sinew
taut enough for song,

be careful as you bend
over the curved wooden body
not to tune any string past music,

or song will thin to snap,
will dart out to strike your knuckle
or slap your cheek.

Between song and scar,
maybe one turn of the peg,
maybe only half a turn.

Bourbon at Midlife

I splurged on a bottle of the good stuff,
stowed it away behind the daily Beam
for occasional, introverted sipping.

But our parents have started
dying. Our children are mostly grown,
powered now by winds we didn't make.

Things we thought we knew
have turned out otherwise, though
some otherwisdom has also turned.

This winter threatens to never end,
but it will, like it must,
like it always does. So tonight,

because it's cold and because I love you,
friends afloat together in this midlife,
I'm bringing the pricey bottle to share,

and because even now, what I know for certain
about abundance and scarcity
fills barely one finger in a rocks glass.

—Liz Ahl

"When We Smoked" was first published in The Women's Review of Books (May 2002). "The Drunks" was first published in Poetry Motel (#27, Summer 1999). "Dinner Party"was first published in Little Patuxent Review (#17, Winter 2015)."Bourbon at Midlife" was first published in the Pittsburgh Poetry Review, (Vol. 1, No. 1, October 2015). All texts copyright © by Liz Ahl and reprinted with permission.

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