The poet's voice
It is rare that we are able to hear poets' voices reading their poems as they intended. It is even more remarkable to be able to assemble the voice of an Island poet reading her work - Dionis Coffin Riggs, who died in 1997 - with the images of her poems, music and art. But Jonathan Revere has done just that.
"I found this in my to-do list and I thought I'd try something interesting," Mr. Revere says, holding up the DVD he made of Ms. Riggs, an acclaimed West Tisbury poet who published over 1,000 poems during her lifetime.
"Circle of Years" is a two-part DVD of seasonal poems written and read by Dionis Coffin Riggs. It took Mr. Revere nearly 100 hours to produce. The poet's daughter, Cynthia Riggs, author and proprietor of The Cleaveland House in West Tisbury, explained, "My brother-in-law did a home tape recording of my mother reading her poems."
Photo by Lynn Christoffers
From those early home recordings came Mr. Revere's gift to fans of poetry and all things Vineyard.
Mr. Revere scanned each poem onto his computer and then synchronized it with the music of Ottorino Respighi's verdant third movement "I pini del Gianicolo" from Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome).
"I've always loved this particular piece of music to speak poetry to," Mr. Revere says, as the credits fade and the title of the first poem, "Two Separate Seasons," appears on the screen.
Dionis Coffin Riggs is not seen, but heard, and through her poetry, Martha's Vineyard emerges as it was and in many ways still is, a land under the powerful sway of the seasons. As the poet reads, the poem slowly scrolls up the screen.
"I found out how to scroll the poem [in time] with the voice speaking the poems," Mr. Revere says. "Before, I just had the poem scanned. That was static. This is magical."
Mrs. Riggs's clear, deep voice begins. The scratchiness of the home recordings has been almost completely removed, but the slight remaining hiss lends the poems an aged quality and reminds us that something that might have lost forever - a human voice, one that was shaped by the Vineyard of the 1900s - has been preserved. "This is a wonderful teaching tool for kids at school and it's a wonderful archive for the Martha's Vineyard Museum, libraries and public access television," Mr. Revere says.
Each breath the poet takes, the emphasis she gives to selected words is heard, and is what Mr. Revere enjoys most about the presentation. "What is interesting," he says, "is to see how much of a pause she gave between stanzas, how she stressed rhymes, how her voice followed the form that you can see passing in front of your eyes. I like it for the subtleties, the nuances, how the poet wanted the poem to be in the mind of the reader. That to me is just fascinating."
A poet himself, Mr. Revere is attuned to the subtleties, but even without his experience with poetry, "Circle of Years" is enjoyable. It is still a delight, after all, to be read to, especially by a poet who commands language and tone as Ms. Riggs did.
The DVD also includes images of selected block prints by Ms. Riggs's husband, Sidney Noyes Riggs, which are included in Ms. Riggs's volume, "The Collected Poems of Dionis Coffin Riggs" (Cleaveland House Books, 1998, edited by Janet Holladay. 684 pages. $28). Presented as a device to create a pause between sections, the linoleum block prints add a folkloric quality to the already rich, local details of the poems and allow the viewer to absorb one section before continuing.
"I started without realizing how magical it is to bring this together. The two forms are so complementary," says Mr. Revere, who along with his long-time friend, Cynthia Riggs, produced and directed 148 half-hour shows of "On Island Writing," shown on MVTV. The editing skills he developed led to his discovery of scrolling a poem and setting it to music for "Circle of Years."
"It is a completely replicable way of presenting poetry," Mr. Revere says enthusiastically, admitting that he has plans to make a second DVD of a living Island poet. "What we could have done with the voices of so many people, and they're gone now."
In this technological era, decisions have to be made about what to transfer and what to leave behind. Mr. Revere understood he'd found something that was worth preserving.
Dionis Coffin Riggs expressed it best in the last stanza of her poem, "The House Is Sold:"
The new people
Won't know where to look
For fritillaria, but we must leave
Something beautiful for them
"Circle of Years" premiers on MVTV channel 13, Saturday, Dec. 20, at 9 pm.
The DVD is available through Cleaveland House Books, 508-693-9352.
Justen Ahren is a poet and writer living in West Tisbury