descant

Descant. For me, it decants to a song, a play, a magazine, a poem, a dance.

Of course to a song; descant comes from Latin dis ‘apart’ and cantus ‘song’ by way of French. It referred originally to part singing, especially the highest part, and these days usually refers to a special high line added above the melody. I first became aware of the term and the concept when I was a child at church in Banff, at Christmastime. On the last verse of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Inge Sheppard – a good soprano of German extraction, and host of the glühwein party after the midnight service – would come out on the top with “O come! O come!” and a line of crystal diffractions of the melody following. This, I learned, was a descant, which I took to calling a “desk calendar.” To my father’s credit, though he was the one who taught me to pun, he never said “She descant keep herself from doing it.” Well, not in my earshot, at least.

The next distinctive sighting of this word, for me, was in the play Richard III by Shakespeare. The title character, a hunchback, in his opening soliloquy – the one that starts “Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York” – says,

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity

Obviously he’s not singing a high line. This is a figurative extension: he means comment on it, muse on it, wax philosophical on it. And so we have a paradox in action: the high-flown poetry and the word for a high-floating voice take an indecent descent into scandal, filling five acts before the scoundrel is chastened.

The next thread of sound that separates from the choral mass for me for this word is a magazine, Descant, a book-thick Canadian literary organ of considerable quality. Its candle is made all the more incandescent for me by its having published a prose poem of mine, in an issue focused on dance and edited by Mary Newberry (a lovely person worth knowing).

Alas, I have learned just yesterday that Descant is ceasing publication. Its funds are scanted, and now Canadian literature will likewise be scanted. This is sad. To honour it, or at least to remember it, I present here what they presented for me those few years ago, my descant on dance and dancer, dance as a dancer’s incandescent descant.

Your Feet

I have an issue with your feet. Your feet, your two bound servants, your two eternal cigarettes you snuff out on the stage with telegraphic stuttering, your feet, your feet, that you disown and bind to stumps, your feet that launch you into air and hold you hovering, drifting, fluttering, twisting, your feet, your feet, your feet feet feet feet arms are waving, hands sweep smoothly like gulls in glycerine, your nose your chin your washboard chest, your tits that are nothing but dots, your stomach like a soft-shelled crab, all pulling upwards, frightened upwards, lifting high and pushing, urging, all by force of repulsion and fear of your feet, your feet, your underlying unacknowledged candy ribbon-wrapped stilts, two bunches of cracked firewood, cracked and dirty tar-stained bloodstained ribbon-wrapped glue-bound dripping lit torches burning with a fire that creeps up, up, up and up your legs, the pain, the flames, the hellish earth, the planet, curling smoke from frantic tapping to snuff out the agony, everything fleeing, reaching to stay up above it, and the more you snuff it the fiercer it burns and the bones, the serpent muscles, brown dot nipples, chimney throat, razor chin, straining nose, gothic cheekbones, boiling eyes, hair, arms, fingers flickering into the smoky ceiling, all are fire, all are the flame and nothing but the flame that peels and curls and furls and arcs to the lighting grid, a body of flame that only wants to escape from flame, the fire from the wood from the feet that shoots through your insect legs and forgetting itself screams for heaven and cannot for even the length of a breath last away from the earth, but leaps and smokes and strives to lie in the blackening blue, and you flicker and burn like a moth with its wings on fire, and in all of this I can’t even see your feet. Take off those shoes, touch them to me, ignite me now.

One response to “descant

  1. Thank you for an intensely euphonic moment. (I read ‘Your Feet’ aloud…loved it…scat rap and tap came to mind but then my mom was a tap dancer and the name Ann Miller was spoken in hushed tones in our house.) I also enjoyed the insight into ‘descant’…the link between ‘weak piping’ and Shakespeare’s use of descant makes me appreciate this verse all the more! I had to look up the etymology of ‘cant’ and my particular dictionary says it was originally the high, shrill, singsong tones of a beggar; could be likened to weak piping, as well? Thanks for the fascinating blog; I have lots to explore–a wordsmith who just sat down at a banquet! :o)

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