We Pulled Each Other Closer in the Turn

Today I start a blog post series on the commissions composed for Lyric Fest’s DEAR MARCH – COME IN! –  American Female Poets in Song. I’ll do one song per post. LF gave a third performance of this concert in July and we have some video to share, so please enjoy….

American Female Poets Songbook Posts


Tomorrow the world turns once again toward September. Here come the shorter days, the longer shadows. Here comes that autumnal unrest… the nostalgia, the mist and even the bit of clarity that sometimes comes with the passage of time. Luckily, we have a song for that! It is Jim Primosch’s spectacular setting of Susan Scott Thompson’s poem Waltzing the Spheres. Its context and its connection to 9-11 have claimed it now for September, and so with this song, I begin our fall blog in which I will share the story of each of LF’s American Women Poets Songbook commissions.

Here is Waltzing the Spheres in the world premiere with Kiera Duffy, soprano and Laura Ward, piano for LF’s concert “Dear March – Come in! –” last spring.

The poem seems to me almost an amazing feat of a time traveler. Here it is…

Waltzing the Spheres

We pulled each other closer in the turn
around a center that we could not see –
This holding on was what I had to learn.

The sun can hold the planets, earth the moon,
but we had to create our gravity
by always pulling closer in the turn.

Each revolution caused my head to whirl
so dizzily I wanted to break free,
but holding on was what I had to learn.

I fixed my eyes on something out there firm,
and then our orbit steadied so that we
could pull each other closer in the turn.

The joy that circles with us round the curve
is joy that passes surely as a peace,
and holding on is what we have to learn.

And if our feet should briefly leave the earth,
no matter, earth was made for us to leave,
and arms for pulling closer in the turn –
This holding on is what we have to learn.

– Susan Scott Thompson (1946 – 2007)

The story of this poem reminds me of a quote of Pulitzer winning poet Sharon Olds, who, when asked what she wanted most from poetry said simply “I want a poem to be useful.”

Turns out Waltzing the Spheres was a useful poem. Its poet explained that it was written while trying to learn to waltz in a production of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, so, penned before it usefulness would be understood. It floated around until the days of the 9-11 disaster when PBS called Thompson and requested that Waltzing the Spheres be recited on Bill Moyer’s program on September 12, 2001.

Susan Scott Thompson wrote of hearing her poem on PBS the day after 9-11, “Peter Francis James read “Waltzing the Spheres,” while photographs of the last two days appeared on the screen – a man carrying a bleeding woman, a fireman sitting alone, head in hands, doctors surrounding a wounded man, exhausted men raising the United States flag, and finally, candles on a dark street, lighting the faces of people gathered there. All day I had been trying to avoid images, but these augmented my words in ways I could not have imagined alone, and I could hardly breathe with this astonishment. My poem had taken on its own life, as all our children do once we have borne them in our private, almost irrelevant bearing.”

Second miracle is that Jim Primosch heard the poem, printed it up, filed it away. Waited. When we commissioned Jim to write a song using the verse of an American female poet, Waltzing the Spheres was the one he chose.  (Read Jim’s blog post about the song here.Watch the second performance in an excerpt here from a live streamed video with soprano Kelly Ann Bixby and Laura Ward, piano.