Once a year I permit myself to listen to the last recording I have of my father. I say permit because there are repercussions, and those repercussions are that he is remembered to me, not only intellectually but physically. The voice—always lower than I can conjure in my high-octave mind, and more soothingly Kentuckyian, and wide spread through his broad teeth—provokes a kind of mourning in the molecules. The voice has no body to go back to, nor is there any impediment to its reception: it is so singularly sent. So that at times, as Paul Celan writes, when only the void stands between us, we get “all the way to each other.”
I impart this story not to wax elegiac but because it is connected to the work I do in sound archives and to a specific occurrence—like none other I have ever had—that took place in the Woodberry Poetry Room this summer.
This June, I set myself the task of going through the entirety of our “Magic Closet,” a euphemistic moniker I have given to a closet in which the miscellany of the universe seem to have converged—including over 1,000 uncataloged test pressings and metal Mother discs, as well as overstock from the Harvard Vocarium series with LPs containing the voices of T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and (written in fountain pen in full four-named glory) “Robert Traill Spence Lowell.”
At the bottom of the closet surrounded by a stack of Harvard-sponsored Japanese-language recordings from 1944 and an unproduced 1938 rehearsal of MacLeish’s radio play about Guernica, I caught sight of five 13” discs tied together with a black ribbon. Penciled in cursive on the first sleeve, I could just make out the title: “Mrs. M.A. Howe, Jr. -- Yeats’ Poetry” and the word in all caps: “Cracked.”
Now, in all honesty, we have many recordings of Yeats in the collection—ranging from duplicates of the few poems that Yeats himself recorded in his lifetime (including the infamous Proustian preamble to “Innisfree” and the precipitous “tinkle of water”) to those recorded by such actors as Sara Allgood and Robert Speight in the decade after his death. And, in a town of deep Irish lineage, the name Howe is not necessarily exotic. But it was the particular conjugation of “Howe” and “Yeats” that set off an alarm in me.
With the help of my remarkable researcher Mary Graham, we lifted the hefty discs from their resting-place and carried them into my office. As we began to separate the long-attached records, we noticed a further declension of the title: “Mrs. M. A. deW. Howe.” It was the “deW.” that clinched it for me.
I immediately picked up the phone and dialed Fanny Howe at her apartment in Cambridge, just a few blocks shy of where she and Susan Howe grew up with “Mrs. M. A. Howe, Jr.” otherwise known as their mother.
In the weeks that followed, the discs made the journey from analog to digital, from grooved media to .wav files. When we received the audio files, I found myself refraining from listening to them. Instead, I forwarded them immediately on to Susan and Fanny. It seemed only right that they should experience the premiere of their mother. I waited a good twelve hours, and then permitted myself to hear her.
I later asked them about the experience of being reunited with their mother’s voice and here (in their own voices) is what Fanny and Susan Howe had to say:
“Yeats’ poems were an essential part of our childhood, alongside the theatrical performances directed by our mother in gardens around Cambridge. Cuala Press Broadsides, with their colorful Jack Yeats images, hung on the walls at home. Cut off by war from her family and friends, our mother read Yeats poems aloud, and taught us ‘Down By the Sally Gardens’ and other ballads. She loved to recite ‘A Faery Song,’ ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus,’ and ‘The Cap and Bells,’ and ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ with the felicitous rhythms of nursery rhymes or lullabies.
During the war years our father, a Colonel in the US Army, was in Europe. We lived in an apartment on Craigie Street in Cambridge. Our mother probably recorded these poems during that time. She was directing plays for Radcliffe and her friend Jack Sweeney was creating an archive in The Poetry Room at Harvard. He and his brother James Johnson Sweeney were great collectors of Irish art and literature. We children assumed Jack Sweeney was Irish and were surprised to find out later that he was born in Brooklyn. He and our mother collaborated at least in conversation and probably in experiments at The Poetry Room because his interests were all Irish.
Our mother was born in Dublin and grew up in the thrall of the Gate Theater during the glory days of Micháel MacLiammoír and Hilton Edwards. It was during the Celtic Revival that she was an actress, who wrote and directed plays for the Gate, as well as editing the theater newsletter. Earlier, she trained and acted with Sara Allgood and Barry Fitzgerald at the Abbey. Perhaps she should never have left Ireland for she made the strong imprint there of someone who had an audience that understood her.
Now hearing her read these Yeats poems in a youthful voice reveals her continuing allegiance to Irish theater in the period of Yeats, Synge and O’Casey. This was something she never abandoned. A dramatic monologue she recorded only a few years before she died, from a passage in Finnegan’s Wake, quavers still with the intonations she was taught as a very young woman though in her old age they are more muted.
Now, hearing these poems pulled from out of the darkness of a box in Cambridge, much comes clear to us about our mother's youth spent in proximity to the Yeats brothers and in the Wake of James Joyce. This is most likely the closest we can get to hearing the poems as they would have been read at the time, dramatically and musically. They are strange to modern ears, like fairy songs from a tangled and dark ring, foreign and forlorn; they are, to us, uncannily familiar and heart-rending.”
CURATOR’S NOTE: The two-sided Master disc was broken and deemed unplayable. The digital versions were therefore produced from the four “Hold Masters” and “test pressings” that accompanied it, which were in somewhat deteriorated condition (which is not at all unusual for recordings from this period). Thankfully, the Poetry Room is involved in a pilot project with the NEDCC, which will allow us to play and preserve fragile, deteriorated, and/or broken discs optically through a groundbreaking technology known as IRENE. We look forward to potentially including this broken Master in that momentous project. In other words, stay tuned.