Thirteen Strings: The power of the word

The Seven Last Words of Christ are in reality seven expressions or sayings that were uttered by Jesus during the final moments of the crucifixion.

These are among the most important sentences of the Christian religion being at the heart of the most important festival of the calendar from Good Friday through Easter Sunday.

The sayings are:

  1. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing
  2.  Today you will be with me in paradise
  3. Behold your son: behold your mother
  4.  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
  5. I thirst
  6. It is finished
  7. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit

The words have been set to or interpreted by music several times including by Joseph Haydn.

Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra is performing Haydn’s piece on Good Friday in Dominion-Chalmers. But this is a performance with a difference.

Deanna Young. Photo: Rémi Thériault

The chamber orchestra’s artistic director Kevin Mallon has asked Ottawa’s new English language Poet Laureate Deanna Young to read, among others, three of her own poems. Works  by the the city’s French language Poet Laureate Margaret Michèle Cook will also be read.

Young will also read a poem written by Mallon himself called Outside Myself (which is being dedicated to a friend of the orchestra, Lynn Mainland, who passed away earlier this month).

The poems will be read in between the seven meditative movements in the piece. There is an introduction and a concluding section known as the Earthquake.

“I jumped on this right away because, while I am not a church-goer myself today, I grew up in the United Church tradition. And I went to church with my grandmother,” Young said in an interview. “The King James version of the Bible crept into my psyche and became part of my cultural inheritance.”

Young’s grandmother would read verses before lunch when she stayed with her in Southwestern Ontario.

Needless to say, Young was very close to her grandmother.

“She sort of raised me for the first three years of my life and then I visited her a lot after that.”

Her parents had a farm and even after her grandmother died in 2005 there was a daily hot meal and Bible verses were read before the meal.

She put that aside, she said, until she started writing her most recent collection of poetry called Reunion a few years ago “and it all came out, the Biblical language and the music and the prayers started pouring into the poems from somewhere.”

She attributes this revelation to the mystery of the creative process.

“It was in 2014 and I went away on a retreat for two weeks. I didn’t really know what my next project would be and I started writing in solitude.

“These poems started coming and most of them had this strong current of Biblical sounds.”

She says as she reflected on what she had written that she thought there was a musical element to the poems in Reunion that would suit the stage.

“I would hope all my poems would have some music in them, but this was a very specific sound. It was basically highly spiritual and it had Biblical sounds. I thought it would be neat to bring this alive some day.”

Then she got the email from Kevin Mallon.

“When I heard what he wanted to do, it just struck me right away. Everything he was saying just resonated with me. He was talking about the last words of Christ and how he wanted a concert that was spiritual but not necessarily that governed by Christianity.

“I was thinking ‘That’s my book’. It was a perfect partnership for the poems.”

One of the poems she will read is called Holy Ghost, another is called Lamb. The latter is actually referring literally to a piece of lamb meat in the freezer.

“Symbolically, I meant the lamb of God. The fit was amazing.”

She has another poem called the Holy Bottle which refers to her father’s alcoholism and the role that that had in her family’s life.

The collection has a darkness, she said, but it is “using religious frameworks and repurposing them to tell my own stories.”

She’s not worried about participating in the concert and holding up her end of the bargain. She has read the poems publicly and they have “been with me” for many years, she said.

She does admit, however, to getting emotional on occasion when reading her work aloud.

“I try to feel them and feel their meaning and let them register as I go. After many years of reading poetry I have developed an understanding of the way it works best. That’s based on my idea of reading poetry.

“When I read poetry I read at a slow pace so I can register all the words.”

The performance comes just after Young was named the city’s poet laureate.

These days, she is forming some early ideas around what is means to be a public poet. One early general thought is centred on establishing some sort of permanent presence for poetry in the city.

“My ideal is that the people of Ottawa will encounter poems in some way.”

She is also looking at working with communities and groups that are going through tough times such as those coping with grief or mental illness or victims of domestic violence.

“I know that poetry is one thing that can help when you are alone.”

Young did work in government for a time but quit.

“Now I do some editing for government departments.” She has a teaching degree, and these days she does go into schools to work with students on poetry projects.

She came to poetry in the later grades of high school in London, Ontario. Like many, there is a teacher who inspired her. His name is Ian Underhill and they are still in touch.

“He’s famous. I mention him a lot.”

Thirteen Strings presents Seven Last Words
Where: Dominion-Chalmers
When: April 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.