The Attic Which is Desire

treble choir-woodwind quintet-harp

The Attic Which is Desire is not an obvious poem to set to music. Like many of my favorite William Carlos Williams poems The Attic… is ostensibly about things rather than people and their feelings. Still, this poem strikes me as being inherently musical.

The first thing that attracted me to setting this poem was that it contained its own built-in accompaniment. I imagined “SODA” as a tireless ostinato, flashing in regular beats, present before we arrived and continuing after our attention shifts.

In a larger, more general, sense I was inspired by the counterpoint between elements of stillness set against elements of movement: one example is the empty, dark attic set against the obsessive flashing soda sign. Also, nothing really happens in this human-less moment frozen in time. Yet, the language itself creates motion as it draws the reader forward in search of a verb to make sense of it all. We join the first sentence in progress and it does not really have a verb. The word “wait” (motionless imagery there) is the closest thing, but it is part of a subordinate clause that modifies “the unused tent” and suspends the reader’s quest for linear sense. It suggests that we simply consider the attic and the fact of its existence. By the second sentence there is a palpable desire to make sense – to discover what is happening – which, grammatically speaking, means to find a verb. The reader accelerates through more active language (“ringed with running lights”) to the last line where, finally, there is a real verb – “is”– but a verb that, when attached to “transfixed” confirms a larger sense of stasis.

Throughout my setting, all the elements implicitly coexist, simultaneously – timelessly – while creating the illusion of motion as the focus shifts from one element to another. This idea becomes more explicit in a coda in which “SODA,” “ringed with running lights,” and “is transfixed,” are all combined into a bustling yet ultimately static mobile that never really ends but simply fades away.

There is also a personal, non-musical and non-poetic element to my desire to set this poem. When I was in high school I fashioned a sanctuary in the attic of my parents’ house where I would go to be moody. Although there were no flashing soda signs I did furnish it with a strobe light. When I first read this poem I could almost smell that musty space and I was transported back to that frozen moment in time when I was the same age as members of The Young Peoples Chorus of New York City.

Steven Mackey