In 2011-12, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and Public Poetry co-sponsored a poetry competition titled “The ARTlines.” Texas poets were invited to write about one of nine works of art selected by curators from the museum’s major collection areas.
Submissions were reviewed by a distinguished jury. The competition culminated in a public award ceremony at the MFAH during which the winners read their poems. The poems by the winners, honorable mentions, jurors, and invited poets are still available through the museum’s cell-phone tour program and in a booklet; both also may be downloaded from the MFAH Web site.2 [and from Public Poetry's web site]
One of my favorites in this poetry collection is the poem written by Lisa L. Moore in reference to “Anthropomorphic Harp,” an exquisitely carved musical instrument in the Arts of Africa collection.
The harp is striking in its appearance. Its slender neck is decorated with a carved human head with elongated skull, high coiffure, large almondshaped eyes and pursed lips. These features represent the aesthetic ideal of the Mangbetu people, who for centuries have been living in the northeastern area of what is known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Apparently, this unusually shaped head was far from being poetic license. It was fashionable among the ruling class Mangbetu to bind infants’ skulls, which produced an ovoid head as well as uplifted eyebrows and stretched eyelids.
The inspiration for these musical instruments in Mangbetu culture could be traced to ancient Egypt. However, it was during the end of the 19th, early 20th century that production of Mangbetu harps drastically increased due becoming hot collector’s items among visiting Europeans. Ironically, in the process of creating highly decorative harps, their functionality as musical instruments was lost — they became completely unplayable.
In Lisa Moore’s poem, the harp is telling its story as if it were a human being remembering the past:
Wrapped in the spalted trunk of a sapele,
I heard the elephant splash and rumble
in the rainforest bai. This, and the bush
cricket, was my first music. Light poured
through the leafy canopy, every beam
sugaring carbon strings into mahogany
heartwood. This was before the sawmills,
the tree hewn by hand. Forged copper
scraped me a hollow body, elegant neck,
elongated head achieved by binding
the infant skull. The sharpest blade
cut me a mouth. The green mantis
folded its arms and prayed. I was made
to be African elsewhere, never learned
Mangbetu language, its voiced and unvoiced
trill. I speak only with a mouth carved shut. 3
Lisa Moore sets the scene by evoking sights and sounds of the rainforest — the elephant’s splash in the bai (marshy clearings in the forest, literally, “where the animals eat” in Ba’aka pygmy language), the cricket chirping, the sunlight pouring down through the luscious canopy. This is where the life of the future harp begins. Like a fetus in the womb, it lies “wrapped in the spalted trunk of a sapele” (a scented mahogany or West African cedar), with her “mahogany heartwood” already beating to the music of the forest.
The anthropomorphic association continues as the harp emerges out of the wood and is given “a hollow body, elegant neck, elongated head achieved by binding,” like an upper-class Mangbetu baby. With its long neck and small head, the harp also resembles the praying mantis, as a reference to its indelible link with nature.
The closing lines of the poem may be interpreted as an acknowledgement of the harp’s failure to fulfill its purpose. It is a musical instrument, yet it speaks “only with a mouth carved shut.”
At the same time, one may read this line as a transcendence of the harp’s inability to producesound. It still evokes the music of the forest with its shape and design.