Tough Songs about Death (2017) by Eric Moe
for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano, and soprano
World premiere; Earplay commission

I. Lapse
II. What's Broken
III. Shouldering the Dead
IV. Death Comes to Me Again, A Girl

Tough Songs About Death was commissioned by Earplay as a memorial for J. Karla Lemon, the ensemble's first conductor, my close friend. In four remarkable poems, Dorianne Laux gives eloquent voice to the burdens of survivors — the despair, heartbreak, anger, oppressive grief, bewilderment, traumatized detachment — without shying away from the complexity and difficulty of the feelings that the death of a loved one calls forth. Each song features a characteristic soundworld suggested by the text. Lapse begins and ends with the intermittent hollow tock of a clock, "the weight of its tired hands holding forth". The answer to the question posed in the title of What's Broken may be this: the tiny back of a cricket in a nocturnal backyard. Shouldering the Dead, a setting of Laux’s poem Cello, begins with the lines "When a dead tree falls in a forest / it often falls into the arms / of a living tree..." The cello's bow and the guiro enact a somber text about the dead scraping away at the living, "wearing the tough bough down". And, finally, in Death Comes to Me Again, A Girl, the familiar grim reaper is here a surprisingly barefoot, giggling girl who tells us of a place that's "not so terrible", with "windchimes / and the smell of lemons", where "the air is dry/and sweet..."

My gratitude to Earplay, for commissioning the piece — one of the ensemble’s founding members, I derive considerable pleasure from being represented on this its 32nd season. Long may it continue to thrive. My thanks also to the Montalvo Arts Center, the MacDowell Colony, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts whose gifts of time and space made the composition of Tough Songs possible. To Dorianne Laux, who helped direct me in my search through her incredible body of work and assisted in securing permission to set her words. And finally to Christine Brandes, whose friendship and artistry I treasure in equal measure.

Poems by Dorianne Laux:

Poem beginning with a line from Gwendolyn Brooks

I am not deceived, I do not think it is still summer. I
see the leaves turning on their stems. I am
not oblivious to the sun as it lowers on its stem, not
fooled by the clock holding off, not deceived
by the weight of its tired hands holding forth. I
do not think my dead will return. They will not do
what I ask of them. Even if I plead on my knees. Not
even if I kiss their photographs or think
of them as I touch the things they left me. It
isn’t possible to raise them from their beds, is
it? Even if I push the dirt away with my bare hands? Still-
ness, unearth their faces. Bring me the last dahlias of summer.

What's Broken

The slate black sky. The middle step
of the back porch. And long ago

my mother’s necklace, the beads
rolling north and south. Broken

the rose stem, water into drops, glass
knobs on the bedroom door. Last summer’s

pot of parsley and mint, white roots
shooting like streamers through the cracks.

Years ago the cat’s tail, the bird bath,
the car hood’s rusted latch. Broken

little finger on my right hand at birth–
I was pulled out too fast. What hasn’t

been rent, divided, split? Broken
the days into nights, the night sky

into stars, the stars into patterns
I make up as I trace them

with a broken-off blade
of grass. Possible, unthinkable,

the cricket’s tiny back as I lie
on the lawn in the dark, my heart

a blue cup fallen from someone’s hands.


When a dead tree falls in a forest
it often falls into the arms
of a living tree. The dead,
thus embraced, rasp in wind,
slowly carving a niche
in the living branch, shearing away
the rough outer flesh, revealing
the pinkish, yellowish, feverish
inner bark. For years
the dead tree rubs its fallen body
against the living, building
its dead music, making its raw mark,
wearing the tough bough down
as it moans and bends, the deep
rosined bow sound of the living
shouldering the dead.

Death Comes to Me Again, A Girl

Death comes to me again, a girl
in a cotton slip, barefoot, giggling.
It’s not so terrible she tells me,
not like you think, all darkness
and silence. There are windchimes
and the smell of lemons, some days
it rains, but more often the air is dry
and sweet. I sit beneath the staircase
built from hair and bone and listen
to the voices of the living. I like it,
she says, shaking the dust from her hair,
especially when they fight, and when they sing.

Cello, What's Broken, from Facts About the Moon by Dorianne Laux. Copyright © 2006 by Dorianne Laux. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Lapse used with permission of the poet, Dorianne Laux.

Dorianne Laux, Death Comes to Me Again, A Girl from Smoke. Copyright © 2000 by Dorianne Laux. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of the author and BOA Editions Ltd. All rights reserved worldwide.

— E. M.    

[from program for May 15, 2017 concert]