Bill Mackechnie,
(self-released, 1998)

It's a neat and serendipitous story. Musician Bill Mackechnie was surfing the Internet when he stumbled across the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye. Taken by the rhythm inherent in the poems, he began to compose music for some of them. Once he realized that he had a full-fledged project on his hands, he contacted Nye, and the result of their collaboration is Famous.

To recognize the potential of the poetry is one thing. To turn them into songs that exercise that potential is quite another, requiring just the right selection, arrangement, and execution; Mackechnie succeeds on all levels.

All of the songs feature Mackechnie's singing accompanied only by guitar. The arrangement is suitably spare and stark, reflecting the poetic form, and it emphasizes the poetry rather than Mackechnie's performance. Nothing distracts the listener from the words; rather, the music becomes an integral part of the poems. Mackechnie's music is written with a keen sensitivity to the rhythm of the words and the mood and meaning of each poem, and he has done a masterful job in selecting the poems to include. Each seems to flow into the next, musically and thematically.

Nye is a completely accessible poet, writing about everyday events with a universal eye. Her images are rooted in common experiences and explore common conditions: loneliness, children growing up, kindness. It is poetry that makes you sit up and pay attention, with sentences that awaken the "oh, yes" experience in heart and mind. Nye's comments on the liner notes expand and illuminate the poems.

"Trying to Name What Doesn't Change" offers different perspectives on what change is and isn't as a student claims that train tracks never change while another observes that "...a track without a train / is a changed track...." The title track, "Famous," is an interesting take on the idea of fame that also shifts the point of view and the definition of fame and its relationship to recognition. Nye next speaks in the voice of a neighbor telling her story "Over the Fence" in a poem about a woman whose life is empty and sad.

"What Is Supposed to Happen" reflects a parent's sadness at a child's growing up which is tempered with acceptance that this is what happens, generation after generation. "Shoulders" also explores the parent-child relationship; it is a gentle yet vivid portrait of a man carefully carrying his sleeping child across a street in the rain. "Kindness" speaks of how one must experience loss and suffering to truly appreciate kindness.

"Catalogue Army" is a wry look at an invasion of catalogues via the mail and the plenty that they promise. Nye uses images from catalogs themselves as porcelain boxes and tartlet pans seem to float through the song. "Negotiations With A Volcano" looks at a community living in the shadow of a volcano as they petition the mountain as if it were a living entity: "We will call you 'Agua' like the rivers and cool jugs. / We will persuade the clouds to nestle around your neck / so you may sleep late." Later, the villagers ask for "...dreams the shape of lakes / with mornings in them thick as fish." "If God Won't Take Me, Why Won't the Devil" is a vivid celebration of Nye's great-great-aunt, a woman who lived life fully.

The final two songs/poems are both about loss. "Saved" explores a fairly violent and impulsive action -- burning a former lover's letters in front of him -- and the impact, or lack thereof, many years later. "Streets" is a response to the death of another friend, and the poem is exquisite in its sorrow: "A man leaves the world / and the streets he lived on / grow a little shorter."

There's no glitz in Makechnie's CD, just simple music which honors the poetry and connects each poem, transforming the poetry into a spare but elegant cycle. Finding Famous might be a challenge, but if you like good poetry, it's worth your while to track it down.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]