By Chelsea Spear
Monday morning, 10 a.m. The sixth floor of the UMass Boston Healey Library, overlooking Boston Harbor. I have been working on this goddamned paper about Marc Hirsch and Billy Collins and the role of the audience in poetry for two weeks now. The words on the page have calcified into incoherence, but I still feel the pressure of academia goading me towards a conclusion that wraps my argument into a tidy bow.
My eyes shift from the eyestrain-inducing computer screen to a small rowboat in the Harbor, by the Corita Kent gas tanks. A tiny woman, clad in an elegant grey wool coat with the shiniest brass buttons, stands at the hull of the boat, lifting her arms to the overcast sky in a dramatic gesture. I can hear her voice—a high soprano, rich in tone and trembling with vibrato—perfectly.
Another woman sits behind her at the port of the boat, plucking away at a sky-blue toy piano as the winds tousle her head of dandelion-blonde hair. The boat can barely contain the broad strokes and tiny details of their music, can it? The sound of a string quartet peeling out dense melodies seems to fill the library. As I look around, the other students are engrossed in their schoolwork and pay little heed to the auditory ambrosia filling the room. “This must be what going mad feels like,” I think to myself as my eyelashes flutter and my head hits the cool desk beneath me.
The heady arrangements open up with closer attention, leading the listener through an aural labyrinth and providing a new experience with every listen. Throughout the album, Shara Worden’s voice serves as a guide to the world Sarah Kirkland Snider has created, placing audiences in a loose narrative that tips its hat to one of the oldest stories known to man—Homer’s Odyssey—but from the perspective of the wife left behind.
Even without Worden’s chilling, operatic vocals, the tension that pulls the piece together—from lush, melodic movements performed in minor keys, to percussive interludes that seem to come from nowhere and serve to startle the listener, to major-key resolution—delivers a compelling narrative.
As the whirling winds, arpeggiated guitar, and string charts of “As He Drifts Out to Sea” fade from hearing, my eyes open once again to the hive known as the sixth-floor computer lab. The rowboat has pushed out of the harbor, and a small fraction of blue sky has become visible through the gathering storm clouds. I look at the smooth blue oblong in my hand, and the experience I have just had has a name: Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snider.