Faint Music

‘Faint Music’ by Robert Hass by Peter Bruun

“And in the salt air he thought about the word ‘seafood,’
that there was something faintly ridiculous about it.
No one said “landfood.” He thought it was degrading to the rainbow perch
he’d reeled in gleaming from the cliffs, the black rockbass,
scales like polished carbon, in beds of kelp
along the coast.”

Robert Hass, from Faint Music

I first read Faint Music by Robert Hass well over a decade ago. It struck me then, and sticks with me now. It’s meant different things to me over time: as with all good art, as I change it changes with me.

For a long time, it was the final line:

“First an ego, then pain, and then the singing.”

Then, my eldest was struggling with substance use disorder, along with all the attendant behavioral issues that come with it. I thought (and still think) that sequence of three—first an ego, then pain, and then the singing—spoke directly to the arc from use to dependence to recovery. I prayed for my daughter to reach the singing (she never did).

Then, for a long time, this:

“I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing.”

My story, since my daughter’s death. (My fractured family; so much art.)

There’s a lot I don’t understand in the poem, but that’s okay; its emotional energy feels so right, its aura of pathos. Its details.

“There was a pair of her lemon yellow panties
hanging on a doorknob. He studied them. Much-washed.
A faint russet in the crotch…”

There are things we see, hear, or learn in this world that turn our lives inside out, perspectives a-kilter as we’ve not known before. Art does that, and so do life experiences: discovering Faint Music; coming across Cezanne’s Vase of Flowers; the phone call I got nearly 8 years ago; seeing those photos yesterday.

The hum of it all makes us who we are. Lands us where we are, with what we have.

“Faint music under things, a hovering like grace appears.”

What I love about poetry—what I love about Hass’ poem—is its sensory detail. Not just any word will do, for each is asked to carry weight. We, in turn, are asked to notice; not gloss over.

When I stumbled upon photos of my daughter yesterday I had not seen before, they were upsetting at first: raw, a view of her I’d rather expunge (sunshine of the spotless mind).

Too much information.

And yet.

With nothing to challenge how I remember her, recollection sets like cement, ossifying into a kind of hagiography. With time and gloss, details give way to general abstraction. She becomes as two-dimensional as a textureless frieze; as general a notion as “seafood.”

And that’s not how I want to remember Elisif: I want to be faithful to recalling who she is in meticulous detail. In granular truth, those photos and all.

What I cherish in the excerpt I chose for the epigraph above is that it takes on the diluting impact of a word like “seafood,” and instead thrills in precision: the rainbow perch “gleaming from the cliffs”; the black rockbass with “scales like polished carbon.” The passage sings of singularity, of paying attention to all the particulars, implicitly imploring us to do the same.

For in paying attention where color and nuance abide, in holding close the coarse with the couth (twinned as night and day), we touch the stuff of life.

In all its melancholic hum, its majestic beauty, we hear faint music.


Tiffany D. Jones

This month’s Cameo features Undoing by Tiffany D. Jones, a photographer and community-based artist and Director of Programs and Equity Initiatives at Access Art in Baltimore.  

Tiffany has long made Black identity central to her art practice.

10 years ago, as her thesis project at the Maryland Institute College of Arts, she created BLACK, 2012, a body of self-reflective work catalyzed by such contemporaneous events as the murder of Trayvon Martin. She went on to other projects such as unFaded (2016), part of a series curated by Rhea Beckett called “Black Space,” and I, Colored (2017), a project exploring the legacy of once-segregated public swimming pools in Baltimore.

Now, in 2021, she’s diving deeper and more personally into her experience as a Black woman in America. The results are as challenging as they are powerful.

As Director of Program and Equity Initiatives at a youth arts program, Tiffany is responsible for the professional development of a team of instructors working predominantly with youth of color and other systematically marginalized communities. She, her Executive Director, and their team are freshly examining all aspects of their programming through an equity lens: topics range from the language they use in the classroom to the artist examples they share to how to talk to young people about their identity, power, and place in the larger community.

“It’s a lot of anti-racism and liberation work. I involve myself, of course—you have to do your own internal work about your own biases—then look at the institutional piece. I found myself doing anti-racist work with four different groups this past year. I’ve been immersed in it.”

And that work led to Undoing.

“The piece is about what I have experienced growing up, what’s happening in my life, and me trying to make sense of it all. Of all I have learned and am still learning.”

Undoing includes three self-portraits by Tiffany. Above, the left and right panels show her seated and sideways. In the central panel, she is more up-close and front-facing. In each image, she appears haggard yet strong; beaten down but not defeated. Her hair is by turns contained and unbound. Open-eyed, in naked light, her outward gaze is steady—insistent.

The photos are accompanied by a poem she wrote and reads aloud that opens with these words:

A Tangled mess
Proud of the skin I’m in, with every curl pattern
A young girl is, was proud of her experiences, I was fortunate
Bused. Educated. Privileged?
I could not know then, what I know now
They taught me how to articulate
Code switch my hood would say

Never unruly, following the rules, checking the boxes, doing what I was taught, thought best was
Talk proper, not white

Proper, not a tangled mess

It goes on (watch the video here).


The challenge Tiffany’s art presents is about race, of course, and also about community and accountability, things germane to each of us. For another way to understand anti-racist work is as pro-humanity work: it is at heart about seeing one another as full people, in all our difference and similarity. It is about flagging the communal harm that comes from one group centering its own experience, and the community healing that results when we’re able to take in—honor, respect, and work to understand—others’ experiences and identities. It’s about the benefits that accrue from recognizing past inequity, and seeing one another in full.

Tiffany is asking this of us with Undoing: the piece demands us to see, acknowledge, and embrace her entirely.

And therein lies the powerful challenge of the piece, asserting itself like a question for the viewer to take up, like the word I imagine on Tiffany’s mind as she looks out at us, draped in white:



In recent months, I’ve been enamored of European Renaissance paintings, particularly (though not exclusively) those with Mary and Jesus as subject, for what the hands in them are doing is extraordinary.

Reaching. Twitching. Intertwining. Floating. Flirting. Grasping. Dancing. Playing. Delighting. Grieving. Touching.

The hands do all the emotive work, and they are beautiful.

In what I am working on now, I draw inspiration from such works, appropriating passages as I go (the image atop this article is an example, a detail from a recent work-in-progress). I am not sure if I ought to think of these works as homages, or visual conversations with past works, or fresh takes on old truths. I don’t think I’m merely copying, or leaning overly heavily on the crutch of association with such spectacular works (reflected shine from celebrity friends)—at least I hope that’s not what I’m doing, though I cannot be certain.

No, the only place certainty lies here is with what I’m most drawn to.

The touch of finger on finger, hand on hand, body to body. The touch of my mark, be that a fluid line in oil or a vine charcoal tremble. The touch of paint and charcoal on gesso ground—sanded, ribbed, and rubbed. Delicacy; intimacy.

The meaning of touch. The power of touch.

I remember the violinist Isaac Stern in an interview explaining the job of the musician in relationship to the score. He shared as an analogy saying the words “I love you”: you can say it in a dead-pan voice (which he demonstrated robotically: “I-love-you”), or you can say it with feeling (“I LOVE you!”). It’s all in how you say it; it’s all in how you play the music.

It’s all in the touch.


October 2021

Phoenix Rising: Reimagine Grief, Growth and Action

On Monday, November 15, 8:00-9:30 p.m. EST, Peter is joined by Kondwani Fidel and Ashley Minner for Phoenix Rising: Reimagine Grief, Growth and Action, an event presented by Reimagine as part of its fall Reimagine: Grief, Growth and Action series. Free and open to all, you can register for the event here.

This Can Be Yours

With each newsletter, we are now offering a work of art by Peter. This 8.5″x11″ drawing (based on a letter written by Benjamin Franklin) from Beyond Beautiful: 1,000 Love Letters, ordinarily priced at $100, can be yours for just $15 if you are the first to email Peter to claim it (see a large version of the drawing here). If you want to see more art for sale, visit the sales gallery at the Bruun Studios website.

“Speaking of Grace II” Now Available

On September 26, Hermine Fordcirce dunnell, and Alonzo LaMont joined Peter for Speaking of Grace II, the second and final public program in conjunction with Bruun Studios’ online exhibition Grace. Click the screenshot above or here to see the event, and be sure to visit Grace if you’ve not already done so.