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MAY 10, 1999: 

Chanting: Discovering the Spirit in Sound, by Robert Gass with Kathleen Brehony (Broadway Books, cloth, $20)

Chant: Spirit in Sound-- The Best of World Chant (Spring Hill Music, 2 CDs, $25.98)

So you live in the Land of Enchantment. And the word "enchantment," according to Deepak Chopra, "suggests becoming one with God through chanting." But if you're like a lot of people I know, you think that chanting is a bunch of New Age hippie crap or a passé novelty infatuation with Gregorian monks. Not true, argues Robert Gass. Everyone chants. We chant at sporting events (air ball! air ball! air ball!), at concerts (Freebird! Freebird!) and while reading Captain Opinion columns (kill ... kill ... kill ...). Unfortunately, these aren't the kinds of chants that will improve your physical and spiritual well-being. Instead, Gass wants you to develop a personal chanting practice that will "give new shape to your daily routine and fuel everyday activities with purpose and meaning."

Realizing that many of us have yet to recognize the therapeutic effects of this ancient ritual, he begins with a quasi-scientific explanation of how sound affects both our physical bodies and our consciousness. His journey into chanting then takes us on a tour of chant as it is used in cultures throughout the world, and Gass spikes his prose with enough first-person accounts to keep his book from sounding like another dry lesson in music history. If you can stand occasional helpings of the Chicken Soup for the Soul recipe--writing that calls for saccharin-drenched phrases like "a smile in the face of the mystery that is life"--then you might just learn something about this surprisingly diverse form of music and ritual. And if you can finish his seven simple exercises without falling into a drooling stupor, then you might just succeed in adding a useful ritual to your life.

If not, don't despair. His cross-marketed music compilation, Spirit in Sound, provides a more convincing and entertaining case for the beauty, diversity and wisdom of world chant. This two-disc set (also available on cassette) rivals anything in Virgin's Real World series, partly because it features some of the same musicians (notably Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan). While it doesn't provide chants that are suitable for invoking the wrath of zombies, it is a stunning array of music and perhaps the closest thing to what Gass describes as "the speech of angels." --Stephen Ausherman



Desire, by Frank Bidart (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, paper, $11)

Reading Desire by Frank Bidart can be an intimidating experience. To begin with, there are all the blurbs and acknowledgments. First published in 1997, his poems have appeared in Antaeus, Harvard Review, The New Yorker, The Paris Review and many other big name poetry venues. It won the 1998 Bobbitt Prize (awarded by the Library of Congress) and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Geez!

Then there's Bidart himself wowing you with his credentials. He's won too many awards to list, has five books under his belt, including a Collected Poems, and he teaches at Wellesley College.

Okay. I'm not afraid. I can handle this. Here's a bit from "As the Eye to the Sun": "To Plotinus what we seek is VISION, what / wakes when we wake to desire // as the eye to the sun // It is just as if you should fall in love with / one of the sparrows which fly by // when we wake to desire // But once you have seen a hand cut off, or / a foot, or a head, you have embarked, have begun // as the eye to the sun ... "

Huh? Like I said, reading Desire can be an intimidating experience. The poems are frequently abstract and anything but linear. And though Bidart sometimes uses traditional forms (couplets, a sonnet, a prose poem), he doesn't come out and announce, "This is a poem about an instance of child molestation," or "This poem depicts a nightmare wherein a lover cannibalizes his beloved's flaming heart."

The effect of Bidart's non-traditional manner of expression and use of unconventional subject matter is quite powerful. Without a narrative framework to distance the poems, the reader experiences each word as it adds to the emerging image or feeling (from "Catullus: Excrucior"): "The sleepless body hammering a nail nails/ itself, hanging crucified ... "

Although Desire depicts some brutal and dark episodes, its intent seems to be more noble than merely to shock or numb. Instead, the book aims to lead us through our fears to a place where we can survive, learn and hope (from "The Second Hour of the Night"): "infinite the sounds the poems / seeking to be allowed to S U B M I T,--that this / dust become seed / like those extinguished stars whose fires still give us light ... "  --San Juanita Garza


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