Inua Ellams on tuning out, tuning in

Play me,I'm yours. Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet.
Play me,I’m yours. Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet.

The details are fuzzy, but I believe this is what happened.

One morning, I woke up blearily in a girlfriend’s bedroom and as sunlight streamed in, I misspoke, I was so groggy-headed I said, “Your light is filled with room”. We laughed about it until things turned serious and she dared, or perhaps I dared myself, to write a poem with that ending.

We had gone to see Moses Sumney play at the Southbank Centre in London. Moses is a electro/soul/folk artist who flirts with classical music elements and as much as I enjoyed his performance and the visual spectacle of his stage, I struggled to identify with the music.

Months before I had seen Chineke! Orchestra play, also at the Southbank. Chineke! Orchestra is a British orchestra, the first professional one in Europe to be made up of majority black and minority ethnic musicians. I loved the visual spectacle of that many black bodies on stage playing music I had associated with the upper class, imperialism and power. It felt like reparations or a counter-cultural colonisation of sorts. Though I enjoyed toying with this idea and tuning deeper into the performance, I struggled to identify with the music.

Months before that I had seen Amadeus at the National Theatre in which Lucian Msamati played Salieri, a contemporary of Mozart’s rumoured to have orchestrated Mozart’s downfall and eventual death. There is a scene in which Salieri talks us through a composition, describing what the strings were doing, what the piano line was reaching towards… in the world of that play, I felt like I deeply appreciated classical music. Two days later I tuned in to Classical FM and the appreciation had vanished.

Three months later my relationship had also vanished but I was left with the dare, the poem to complete. I thought long about what had happened, what lessons I could learn or salvage from the relationship and in a meditative mood began flicking through the radio looking for something calm and heard a piano line in a composition that absolutely halted me. I searched in a frenzy for the playlist and discovered the song was the second movement in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major… all of which meant nothing to me… but the song and the line intensely reminded me of who I had just broken up with, of her spirit, intensity and bravery, and pieces of the poem began falling into place.

My poem, ‘Fuck / Symphonies’, is in many ways an ode to her, but also to liminal moments of emotional clarity. I still listen to too much hip-hop, tune into Classic FM now and then and feel like I don’t know what the fuck is happening… but remember that once, I felt I did.

Read Inua Ellams’s poem ‘Fuck /Symphonies’ published in the Spring 2019 issue of The Poetry Review, Vol. 109, No. 1.