Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Great Pennywhistle Mystery

So on my way to the Great North Woods this summer, I picked up a Generation pennywhistle, key of D, to noodle away on and commune with the loons. Took me longer than I'd like to admit to get a decent sound out of it, but I was determined--and, to be honest, I figured if my son saw me struggling, he'd give it a try just to show up the old man. It was the one on the top there, with the green fipple. (Or is that the chiff? I still haven't learned.) About halfway to the woods, in Stevens' Point, we stopped by a lovely musical instrument store to browse and bargain, and I had a thought: since my son and I were now competing, not only with each other, but with my daughter for the whistle, why not pick up another couple of them for the road?

No sooner thought than done, and we walked out of the store the proud owners of a sweet, smooth-blowing Susato whistle, also in D, which my son seized for his own, and one of those old-fashioned conical Clarkes, with a wooden fipple (or chiff?) and a breathy sound I instantly loved, although it drove my wife rather mad. (Yes, dear, that's an although and not a because.)

Naturally, before we left our little house in the Big Woods, the Susato went missing. Memo to self: black whistle, easy to lose. Next time, leave on ugly sticker, if only to spot the damned thing. The others, though, we should be able to keep an eye on, right?

Well, no. Of course. Now my daughter's wandered off with the original Generation whistle, just when I hanker to try it again, and after an hour's search, I declare it, too, defunct. Damn! And I could have taken it off to school tomorrow, to keep it safe and torment my hallmates, too.

Wistfully whistling on me Clarke, then, let me post a poem: "The Penny Whistle," by Edward Thomas. (A British poet, not an Irish one, but Clarke's an English brand.) And if you see one of my lost friends, do send it along.

The Penny Whistle

The new moon hangs like an ivory bugle
In the naked frosty blue;
And the ghylls of the forest, already blackened
By Winter, are blackened anew.

The brooks that cut up and increase the forest,
As if they had never known
The sun, are roaring with black hollow voices
Betwixt rage and a moan.

But still the caravan-hut by the hollies
Like a kingfisher gleams between:
Round the mossed old hearths of the charcoal-burners
First primroses ask to be seen.

The charcoal-burners are black, but their linen
Blows white on the line;
And white the letter the girl is reading
Under that crescent fine;

And her brother who hides apart in a thicket,
Slowly and surely playing
On a whistle an old nursery melody
Says far more than I am saying.

(There's a penny whistle in Pound's Canto XIV, as I recall, receiving somewhat less pleasant treatment, wielded by "vice-crusaders" in a Boschian inferno. You can look it up.)

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