February 21, 2020 § 13 Comments
By Kaia Solveig Preus
At first, I was afraid to write my way back into my manuscript after it had been accepted for publication and had undergone its first round of edits. I worried that I had forgotten all of the facts that I had learned in order to write the book years before. My book, The War Requiem, is a book-length essay that blends memoir with historical fiction and research to bring to life a piece of music. I focus on Benjamin Britten, who composed War Requiem, Op. 66, and Wilfred Owen, the WWI soldier-poet whose poems were set in the music. I braid their stories along with mine––a college student learning to sing the War Requiem.
I was afraid, but I shouldn’t have been. As soon as I typed a few words, I fell back into the world I had created. I remembered these men, their voices, their signatures and preferred valedictions in the hundreds of letters they wrote. I knew their lives in the way I knew my own life seasons––my semester abroad, my lonely life in graduate school, my bumbling first few years of teaching––a little blurry around the edges, perhaps, but studded with crystalline memories so clear and sharp they cut me.
The fact that I’d never met either Benjamin Britten or Wilfred Owen, but still knew them, somehow, intimately––well, that was a kind of magic. We all do this to some extent, hopefully, by being open minded and willing to discover. Learning begets empathy begets understanding begets love. Yes, I love Britten and Owen. Yes, I love two dead men I’ve never met and even though I only know about a portion of their lives, I love them deeply.
Think of the way your beloved knows you––knows the backs of your knees, the difference between your fake and real laugh, the last nightmare from which you woke––think of all of the things they know about you. Now stack them up one by one into a pile reaching high.
Now think of all they don’t know about you––the way you sneezed four times in a row on your way to work today, the way your hamstrings ached to run even though you were stuck at the front of the classroom, the way, when you bit into your apple at lunch, you were jolted through time to a date with your high school boyfriend––the air so cold, your toes frozen in your boots, his gold Chevy Malibu in the apple orchard’s parking lot, the warming kisses that would soon take place there––
If you were to pile all the things your beloved doesn’t know about you––the person who ostensibly knows you best––the pile would tower dramatically over all that they knew. We hold so much within ourselves that can’t be given or released. It is not mentally or physically or emotionally possible. Such is the reality of being a human.
Now imagine the stacks of known and unknown things for a person who has died. For a person you know of but have never met. For a person you will never meet. The imbalance is so significant. Every known fact we have about another person, dead or alive, is a gift. A treasure. A thing to be held close to our thrumming hearts.
My grandfather, Paul, died ten years ago, when I was eighteen and he was ninety-six. At eighteen, I didn’t know much about myself. I knew that I liked to write and sing, but I did not know how much I would grow to love classical music. I could not have foreseen listening to a single piece hundreds of times or writing a book about it.
My grandfather was a musician: a conductor, pianist, and drummer. When we visited him, I would wake on the pull-out couch to the sounds of string sonatas on the radio and the scraping of a spatula on a pan as my grandfather made his strange breakfasts for us––scrambled eggs seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla. I wish I could show him my research and ask him what he thought about the War Requiem. I wish he could read my book and see how much I love music, like he did.
I wonder if my quest to learn about Britten and Owen is a quest to learn if it is possible to continue growing a relationship with people who have died. I do not have hundreds of my grandfather’s letters to read or biographies I can check out in a library. I have a few letters and birthday cards, and I have photographs, and I have the stories my family members tell me over the breakfasts where we miss him filling out his daily crossword puzzle. I have links to him, however small, that I can unearth and try to understand.
I remember the collage of songs my grandfather played on my family’s piano when he visited. It started slow and quiet, his slippers with the toes cut out pressing the una corda pedal. Over the next few songs, the tone grew lighter, the una corda and damper pressed less. Finally, he would swing into “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and make me sing along. Sometimes, I will be crossing the street or falling asleep and I will hear the opening chords of my grandfather’s repertoire, and then just as quickly, as easily, it will fall away and I cannot remember it anymore. I asked him once to write down the chords of that first song for me. I held out the pencil he used for crosswords and a yellowed piece of blank sheet music that I’d found in a second-hand store. I watched, amazed as he played through it once and then sketched in the notes, the flats, the naturals, and the time signature without referencing the piano again. He handed it to me, and I told myself that I would learn to play it. I wish I knew where that sheet was now.
Kaia Solveig Preus is from Excelsior, Minnesota. She teaches creative writing in Minneapolis, and her first book, The War Requiem, is forthcoming from Essay Press in March 2020. Kaia holds her MFA from the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia and was a 2019 Author Fellow at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in Pleiades, The Drum, The Briar Cliff Review, Watershed Review, and Barely South Review. She is currently at work on both a collection of essays and a novel.