Mary Austin’s Reëxpression

Public Domain Day 2019 has come and passed, opening up a world of 1923 works to us borrowers and thieves and appropriators. Have you grabbed a 1923 poem for your love? “Come Not Near My Songs” is my find for the year, the result of browsing the list of newly-domained titles.

Were I a more thorough scholar, I would have known already of Mary Austin and her remarkable book, The American Rhythm. But late to the party is OK too, and I owe my fresh awareness of Austin’s work to Public Domain Day and its curators.

Mary Austin (1868-1934) was an Illinois-born writer who made an anthropological study of Native Americans in the Southwest and became associated with the Carmel, California and Santa Fe arts communities. She was an acquaintance and admirer of H.G. Wells and a collaborator with photographer Ansel Adams, in addition to being a bohemian mystic, homoerotic feminist, nature writer, and defender of Native American rights (source: Wikipedia).

Her introduction to The American Rhythm is a must-read for poets. Alternately inspired in its insights and bizarre in its musings, the essay might be the most philosophically profound and creative exploration of the connection between poetry’s rhythms and its makers’ bodies.  “The major rhythms of the human organism,” writes Austin, “are given by the blood and the breath. What is the familiar iambus but the lub-dub, lub-dub of the heart, what the hurrying of syllables in the trochae but the inhibition of the blood by the smaller vessels?” (The American Rhythm, pp. 4-5).

Beyond copyright concerns, are there ethical cultural questions raised about Austin’s “reëxpression” of Indian songs (and my subsequent cover version)? Probably!

–Jr. James

Poetry DNA mix performed and arranged by Jr. James

Come Not Near My Songs

From the Shoshone. Reëxpressed from the original by Mary Austin.

Come not near my songs,
You who are not my lover,
Lest from out that ambush
Leaps my heart upon you!
When my songs are glowing
As an almond thicket
With the bloom upon it,
Lies my heart in ambush
All amid my singing;
Come not near my songs,
You who are not my lover!
Do not hear my songs,
You who are not my lover!
Over-sweet the heart is,
Where my love has bruised it,
Breathe you not that fragrance,
You who are not my lover.
Do not stoop above my song,
With its languor on you,
Lest from out my singing
Leaps my heart upon you!
Find Mary Austin’s book here: The American Rhythm.
If you know of a Shoshone recording of this song, please let me know.

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