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Poetry Is Set To Melody In Iris DeMent's 'The Trackless Woods'


This is FRESH AIR. The singer and songwriter Iris DeMent has a new album in which she set to music a collection of poems by the Russian writer Anna Akhmatova, who lived from 1889 to 1966. DeMent was born in Arkansas and is a longtime resident of Iowa. The melodies she wrote for this album derive from her long-standing interest in folk and gospel music. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of the album, which is called "The Trackless Woods."


IRIS DEMENT: (Singing) Broad gold the evening heavens glow. The April air is cool and tender.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Frequently, on "The Trackless Woods," what leaps out at you primarily is Iris DeMent's voice and her piano playing, showcasing the passionate yet austere poetry of Anna Akhmatova. It's easy to hear what drew DeMent to this poetry. It shares with DeMent's own compositions a sense of place and a yearning for passion that deepens into love. But to suggest that this was a natural match is to do a disservice to what DeMent has accomplished here.


DEMENT: (Singing) You lead me into the trackless woods. My falling stars, my dark endeavor. You were bitterness, lies, a bill of goods, a bribe. You weren't a consolation - ever.

TUCKER: The medium-tempo American gospel and folk-influenced melodies to which DeMent has set Akhmatova's poetry aren't necessarily a natural fit, neither are these women logical collaborators. There's a drama to Akhmatova's early work that DeMent has denied in her own music, yet they very much share an urge to articulate sorrow, sacrifice and gratitude. One other thing that binds the two together - DeMent has a daughter who is Russian, adopted in 2005 from Siberia, when the girl was just under six years old. DeMent came upon Akhmatova's work after that from a chance recommendation by a friend. DeMent became interested in exploring the culture of her adopted daughter through this work.


DEMENT: (Singing) Oh, how good the snapping and the crackle. Have the frosts that daily grows more keen. Laid and...

TUCKER: DeMent used poems with English translations by Babette Deutsch and Lyn Coffin. She recorded the album in her living room in Iowa, backed by collaborators including co-producer Richard Bennett and the guitarist, Leo Kottke. If you've heard some of DeMent's previous albums, such as 1993's extraordinary "My Life" and her 2012 collection of gospel covers, "Sing The Delta," you know that what you're hearing here on "The Trackless Woods" is primal Iris DeMent - music with an elemental directness. Here is "From An Airplane," one of Akhmatova's late period poems, with Kottke on guitar.


DEMENT: (Singing) Birds by the hundreds, miles by the hundreds, hundreds of dim kilometers beneath our tracks. Rich is the summer's bitter grass that billows. Beyond the summer, cedar groves shone black. It snowed for the first time.

TUCKER: Some of Akhmatova's poems are so brief I can play the entire song DeMent has written around them. Take, for example, a short lyric poem such as "The Last Toast."


DEMENT: (Singing) I drink to the house, already destroyed, to my whole life, too awful to tell. To the loneliness we together enjoyed, well, I drink to you as well. To the eyes with deadly cold imbued, to the lips that betrayed me with lies. To the world, for being so cruel and rude - and God, who didn't save us or try.

TUCKER: The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky wrote that Akhmatova is, quote, "the poet of strict meters, exact rhymes and short sentences." Those are, of course, perfect characteristics of good song lyrics, as well. In thinking hard about what the poet was trying to express, Iris DeMent has created an album that continues her own work as well - a lifelong dedication to finding ways to express the difficulties, the moral complexity and the exultation of day-to-day existence.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Iris DeMent's new album, "The Trackless Woods." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we talk about the new movie "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl," about a girl's sexual coming-of-age.


BEL POWLEY: (As Minnie Getz) My name is Minnie Getz. I'm a 15-year-old living in San Francisco, Calif., recording this onto a cassette tape because my life has gotten really crazy of late.

GROSS: My guests will be Marielle Heller, who wrote and directed the film, and Phoebe Gloeckner, who wrote the graphic novel the film's based on. I hope you can join us. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Ken Tucker incorrectly identifies the songs on Sing the Delta as covers. They are actually original songs by Iris DeMent.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 18, 2015 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this story, Ken Tucker incorrectly identifies the songs on Sing the Delta as covers. They are actually original songs by Iris DeMent.
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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