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The spirit of the dance (08/10/2008)
By Janet Lewis Burns
“Duende” – it’s only a word, but what it signifies is powerful and intriguing. I had never heard of the word before I became impassioned with the notion of it.

Since I began to investigate “duende” my many pages of notes are like stone tablets chiseled by some manic mind. I feel the push and pull of creativity. Words carved in stone crumble to dust, with the maelstrom of the unknown, before their time. (This is just me being philosophical.) I recently read a fascinating story in an exhilarating book, which would invoke food for thought in anyone who has ever been obsessed by, or in the throes of a surreal creativity (their own or someone else’s.)

One of many eerie accounts, the author writes about a little girl tap dancer with a limp, as she danced on a street corner in New Orleans. “She was going through her ordinary repertoire of rehearsed moves when her accompanist hit a string of unexpectedly low cords and suddenly something indecipherable, almost lunatic, jarred awake inside her, and she started dancing with terrific ferocity. She took off. The dramatic change in intensity was almost frightening.” “The summer sizzled. Time stopped. Her ‘duende’ had arrived.”

My ignited search into the minds and souls of creative individuals began as I started reading literary critic and writer Edward Hirsch’s book “The Demon & the Angel,” in which the mysterious, potent power and source of artistic inspiration is examined.

In explanation he writes, “Duende (deep song) rises through the body. It burns through the soles of a dancer’s feet, or expands in the torso of a singer. It courses through the blood and breaks through a poet’s back like a pair of wings. It smokes through the lungs; it scorches the voice; it magnetizes the words. It is risky and deathward leaning.”

Has it happened to you? I am aware that I was saturated in melancholy when I first heard an old Billie Holiday record, complete with its scratchy, raspy drone, from the singer’s heyday in the early 1900s. I searched to find my cassette of her dreamy, sensual sound. Holiday’s final performance in 1959, when she was 44 years of age, is described in Hirsch’s book: “Her singing voice was gone, leaving emotion her only tool of expression.”

Billie Holiday (“Lady Day”) dazzled those who last heard her, “when it ruptures the surface of daily life and stops time.” “It was said that her voice retained its enchantment, a lapsed beauty, a thin, pure, noble, siren gleam.” Get down!

I anxiously searched essays on poetry and literature – Emerson, Poe, Whitman, Amy Lowell, Van Wyck Brookes. Nowhere did I discover Hirsch’s duende.

I turned to Octavio Paz’s “The Other Voice – Essays on Modern Poetry,” c. 1990. One of the leading writers in Latin America, known for his sensuous intelligence, writes of poetry: “…it is the voice of the passions and of visions. It is otherworldly and this-worldly, of days long gone and of this very day.”

Though he doesn’t mention the word “duende” in “The Other Voice,” Paz tells of ancient medicine and an ancient philosophy, too, beginning with Plato, attributing the poetic faculty “to a psychic disorder. A mania, in other words, a sacred fury, an enthusiasm, a transport.”

There must be a space somewhere between angelic and demonic, where an audience is blown away by a performance, briefly mesmerized and emotionally moved, without vaulting into a complete fugue. Poetry readings and live plays often intoxicate their audiences with obvious intrigue. I’ve been there.

Is “duende” no more than an abnormal burst of rip-roaring energy, sparked by over-indulgence on the fruit of the vine? One drunk on words? Flying high from exacerbating hallucinating? Melancholy meltdown? An outlandish imagination?

Just a bit of food for thought. My research continues.

Janet Burns lives in Lewiston. She can be reached at patandjanburns@embarqmail.com. 


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