Four Trees Down From Ponte Sisto

I first came across a sampling of Sharon Charde’s poetry completely by chance, while browsing through a local women’s magazine. I was instantly struck by the disarming directness and documentary detail in poems that dared to articulate the unspeakable loss of her son Geoffrey while a student abroad, under circumstances that remained obscure, with no known witnesses. At the bottom of the page, there was mention of a forthcoming reading at a library nearby, which I attended. As Sharon read, I was once again moved by the calm precision she was able to bring to the most terrible scenes, and by the rich polyphonies that gave subtle dimension to such a raw wound:

stanza from MOTHER'S DAY AT THE MORGUE

That evening confirmed my sense that her poems, written across three decades, comprised an important body of writing that deserved a wider audience. Fortunately, Sharon agreed to the idea of a BBC radio adaptation, and generously provided me with Geoffrey’s own journals, photographs and documents, as well as many supplementary stories and recollections, some of which I then incorporated into the script. Since her writings obliterate the idea that grief unfolds in tidy linear stages, I became increasingly committed to the fundamental truthfulness of an unresolved narrative structure, where the traumatic moment of the fall remains vivid, through to the very last sound.

We considered many actresses to give voice to the play, though my first choice was always Anne Undeland, who brings an open spirit of brave simplicity and deep insight to everything she does. I knew that Anne had recently performed a one woman show based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and she has worked with me on a number of other radio plays, including The Loneliest Road. As it happens, she also lived in Rome during the 1980s, and knew the Trastevere neighborhood where Geoffrey had lived, which helped bring the story fully into the present.

GIVING VOICE TO THE WOUND

For music and sound design, I had in mind the image of a precious Roman mosaic that I had let slip from my hands, and thus it was left for me to piece it together again. There would be jagged edges to be sure – imperfections – and sometimes the edges might cut fingers. To achieve this acoustically, I improvised to recordings of Anne’s voicings on mandolin, bowed psaltery and a cigar box guitar, and then added a variety of sounds to the mix, including the snapping of twigs and the crushing of dry leaves.

I knew Geoffrey liked Simon & Garfunkle, and that he had used a quote from the song “Old Friends” in his High School yearbook. Though I never actually play the song, those chords and rhythms were certainly on my mind as I slowly assembled the final montage.

The play will air on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, June 29th. The first three minutes are excerpted here.

33 Responses to “Four Trees Down From Ponte Sisto”

  • How does that work, Gregory? Do we need to listen to it at a specific time, or is there some leeway?

  • Jim, the streaming link will work the night of the broadcast, and then IN THE PAST, plays have been available through the BBC iplayer, but it seems that this policy may have changed….

    In any event, when I have time, I will design a way to link longer excerpts and scenes: there are some very moving poems and an extraordinary performance by Anne Undeland. I’m very happy with the music/sound, as well.

  • Lou Lewis:

    Looking forward to listening tonight. I can’t understand why BBC radio doesn’t broadcast more of your work, Gregory.

  • richard:

    Gosh.
    Raw emotion. Amazing radio.

    Thankyou for creating this.

  • Judy:

    I came across this broadcast by accident and couldn’t turn away. Simply wonderful.

  • Frank Wood:

    Frank Wood
    I made a special effort to listen to this program and found the poetry and thoughts well edited and profoundly moving, but the interruptions from the guitar and the eerie voices detracted from the beautiful reading.I found the noises off more and more irritating the longer I listened and in the end it was all I could do to stay tuned. I feel the poet and reader were treated shabbily.

  • Thanks — all credit to the poet and to my amazing actress, Anne Undeland. Fortunately, neither of them agree with Mr. Wood.

  • elenem:

    I don’t expect anyone else to agree with my response but I loathed it. This woman, yes, it’s terribly sad that her son died, but for goodness sake she evidently has a stable loving relationship with her husband, she has at least one other healthy child and is a published writer. How much more good fortune does she think she deserves? Try having a disabled child that you have to bring up by a man you don’t love and then spend most of the rest of your life alone without love, then yuo have something to moan about. As I said, I expect no sympathy.

  • Just happened to switch the radio on last night, not being aware this programme was even scheduled; was I meant to listen I wonder?

    This exquisite dialogue reached me like nothing else has since the loss of half my family. The author expressed feelings that I have never been able to articulate. Somehow I am soothed. Bereavement is isolating. For all the world to see you are the same person, going about everyday things, but inside one’s head the nightmare is ever present. Sometimes I think I will go insane with grief. The poet poured out in words what I have held inside like a heavy unknown thing which has stolen the real me off to some other place. My Mother endured the loss of her two sons at tender ages; how did she cope caring for the rest of us? I loved my brothers. Now she is gone and I am living some of the experiences depicted in this drama which pulse alongside the shell I have become and gains momentum each time I lose another loved oned. Please do not get the impression I am sitting in a room and wallowing. I simply wish to convey that listening to this drama has helped enormously. To the author thank you. Thank you for this truly superb piece. I believe it will have helped many by sharing her experience. Eileen

  • Gill Hammond:

    I was folding and putting away laundry when this play began. I hadn’t planned to listen, but then couldn’t turn away. The writer took all the emotions and words and conveyed them exactly as I have felt since my son, Chris, died 15 years ago, aged 14. The physicality of grief which is carried with us all the time, everywhere, was expressed just right. Thank you so much for those wonderful words.

  • JANE wARMAN:

    I happened to switch the radio on last night and caught most of this amazing broadcast. I thought the music and sound effects and voices in general really enhanced the whole spirit of the piece. So affecting.

  • Eileen, thank you for listening, and yes, the gods do bring stories to us, if we are open to them. I know the poet has written for so long about the loss of her son in the hope she might help others. In fact, she gives workshops called “writing through grief”, to help break the crushing sense of isolation.

    I can tell instantly that you are not a wallower! It takes bravery and courage to find a voice for loss and trauma; to confront that “terrible unknown thing”. Keep writing!

    Elenem, it would indeed be hard for you to expect sympathy, since you apparently have none. I know the poet does not privilege her suffering in any way. The suffering of humans can never be compared, one to the next. Through art, we can take one story among the millions of others, give it depth and focus, and then hope that it crosses into other lives and hearts, and helps in some small measure. It is always a risk, of course, though unless we take such risks in the world and with each other, well, then we are nothing.

  • ROSEAPPLE:

    I CAME ON THIS PROGRAMME BY ACCIDENT AND WAS TOUCHED BY THE POIGNANT EXPRESSION OF FEELINGS ON THE LOSS OF A SON. IT WAS A REMINDER THAT MOST PARENTS HAVE FACED THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH A LOSS, FOR THE MAJORITY THE WORST DID NOT HAPPEN BUT ONCE YOU HAVE CHILDREN YOU ARE A HOSTAGE FOR FORTUNE. YOU KNOW THAT YOU SHOULD NOT OUTLIVE YOUR CHILDREN.

  • Bill Kepler:

    Thank you Sharon. This exquisite poetry, so movingly portrayed by Anne Undeland. She is so skilled. The sound, music, background voices are all so beautiful. I am one of the ones mentioned in the story, a friend who listened to her story, feeling guilty, so glad his children are alive. And yet through her I have learned so much of grief and loss.
    I have listened to this drama twice already. Is there any way to save it, short of recording it on my iPhone?

  • Suzannah:

    What an extraordinary piece of work. Thank you so much.

  • Tom Charde:

    Stunning drama. Congrats to all for creating a production so solid.
    I thought the music worked beautifully with the poetry, conveying the unrealness of what had happened to Geoffrey, Sharon and her family.Thanks Sharon for allowing us in to see and feel with you, the little that we are able to. Geoff to me,will always be the boy working at the lake who loved fishing and was our kids favorite babysitter.

  • Leslie Charde:

    Dark, daunting, made me feel helpless and frightened to think one could actually experience such emotion. So raw! Thank you Sharon for bringing us along your journey. For being brave enough to voice your pain and honesty. I , too will always remember the long haired, soft spoken boy who had a heart of gold . Love to all, Leslie

  • gabriel:

    I had read all of Sharon’s poems and was moved greatly by them. The radio presentation, however, was STUNNING. I sat listening to Anne Undeland with tears in my heart. I shared anguish, loss and great emptiness. If Sharon were here, I would hold her in my arms and sing her softly to sleep. Thank you, Sharon.

    Thank you, Greg, Anne and BBC for gifting us with this unforgettable experience.

    gabriel ever gabriel

  • Maureen Radford:

    My experience was exactly that of Judy. I was transfixed, unable to move or continue with what I had intended to do when I turned on my radio for company during some mundane task. The dislocated and dissonant sounds of violin and guitar (?) supported the poets emotions perfectly. Sharon Charde has expressed those feelings that most of us are terrified to let loose. Thank you Sharon Charde, Gregory Whitehead and Anne Undeland for giving us this. Will it be possible to buy a recording? I would love to know that it will not disappear.

  • Kourosh:

    Gregory (and Sharon). Thank you so much for this. Like Eileen, I switched on the radio by chance and was stunned. My own lovely boy died earlier this year from cancer, aged 29. The nature of the production was particular poignant because before he became ill my son was studying for a diploma in sound engineering.
    Only another mother knows the howling pain we go through every day.
    I’ve ordered Sharon’s book and am looking forward to reading her poetry. And will try to “write through grief” some of my own.
    The final sentence in your reply to Elenem says all there needs to be said.

  • pam:

    So odd to find myself reading this today – on the 7th year anniversary of my son’s death. so much sounds absolutely familiar.so unexpected – so difficult to find anything else of importance.. my son my son – the death , the telling to relatives, the immediate denial, the definitive nos, no, the questions, deciding on the clothes he had to wear, the morgue/funeral home, the funeral and the church and awful service – however touching, still awful..because of what it is for not how it was, as it did express him, Brandon and that was beautiful… The way regardless of everyting else, your soul, your heart encompasses my world. No matter what changes, no matter how things are different, he encompasses our worlds.. sharon charde has much importance in her life- her own life, where she goes on and is wellknown, but her poetry remarkably gives us, her readers, the complete and total enmeshment as though Geoffrie’s death completely encompasses her life. But she is in so much pain, but with so much knowledge herself and so much still to offer. he will be replaced – all of the ‘life goes on activities” that consume us and replace our thoughts with you – with him, with our child,.. all of our activities somehow seem to replace what he was once a part of – what once he was with us on, life goes on and he is replaced…

  • I have just read these comments, not realizing they were here, and along with perhaps close to a hundred others I have received on this profound experience, they completely humble me. As a writer, it is impossible to know if your words reach others. As a mother, it is impossible to know if the love you have for your child can help to sustain him in this world. It seems awareness is coming to me through the many responses I have received to “Four Trees”. It seems that my beloved son still lives in words, voice and music. It seems others who grieve for their lost loved ones as well as for the many losses living offers us have been reached deeply by this collaboration. I am filled with gratitude for Gregory’s and Anne’s brilliance, for the BBC for this broadcast, and for all of you who have taken the time to share your feelings about it, whatever they are. Namaste.

    Sharon Charde

  • Sharon — I thought your poetry was amazing when I read it years ago. It is. And this production, the reading, the music,the sound effects are a work of art as well. It is also terrifying and deeply emotional for me to hear your torment dramatized. Thank you for letting me know about it.
    Love Michele

  • MARK:

    I was anxious to read the reviews after listening to this amazing reading of Sharon Charde’s work. I reacted especially to the response by Elenem. I was literally stunned by her response. Her bitterness struck me as a totally unexpected response to this outstanding reading by Anne Undeland. Elenem vented a plethora of unresolved emotional entanglements.I hope she finds peace. However, her particular response confirmed and acknowledged for me the profound effect Ms.Charde has on her audience. Ms. Charde continued to force herself to revisit that unspeakable and unbearable pain. How does anyone who has lost a Loved one do this? Her willingness to expose so many raw and painful emotions are beyond everyone’s choosing.
    Sharon Charde’s Bravery and Strengh has been extended to all of us, who have tried to endure that unbearable,unspeakable suffering and subsequently lost ourselves in the tragic event…. Thank you Sharon

  • Diane Cables:

    Please tell me how I can still listen to Four Trees Down From Ponte Sisto. I was planning to listen to it this evening, knowing today was the last day, but it is already gone. I lost a son, and I started to listen to this amazing story, with hopes of hearing the rest of it. Is it published so I can at least read it?

    Thank you,
    Diane

  • Susan Robinson:

    I was washing up, rubber gloves on, and listened by chance. It would not let me go.Anne Underland’s reading was superb. The music/soundscape together with her voice and the power of the writing produced an atmosphere of such potency and horror, I don’t think I’ve ever known grief so well described.I was transfixed. Please make this available on audiobook/CD. Don’t like the idea of not hearing it again.

  • Thanks again to all for the insightful and supportive feedback, very heartening to know there was such resonance with the experiences of others. Diane, I am quite sure there will be a solution if you contact sharon directly through her website, sharoncharde.com. She can certainly burn a CD for private, non-commercial use.

  • Andrew mulligan:

    There’s so much trivia on the radio, even if Radio 4 dresses it all up as important. And there’s a lot of truly awful radio drama out there too. That’s why ‘Four Trees’ was so shattering, I think, because it was too huge for the slot it was in – I was broken by it. I just wasn’t ready for it. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard sound so perfectly underscore a script, either. Unbearably good. One of those rare pieces that helps you live, and helps you understand.

  • [...] Four Trees Down From Ponte Sisto (blog by Gregory Whitehead who adapted Sharon Charde’s poetry for radio and composed the sound design) [...]

  • Kourosh:

    We have shared the link on The Compassionate Friends in the Uk and many more bereaved parents have got to hear and be comforted by this. Thank you again

  • This haunting play captures many of my own experiences in the sudden tragic death of my 23 year old son (12 weeks ago). Unfortunately I can identify closely with much of what the poet expresses.

    I have put a link to the radio play on the site that I have constructed that aggregates blogs and websites by and for bereaved parents.

    http://www.scoop.it/t/grief-and-loss

  • DOminic:

    I heard part of this on Radio 4 last night. And I wanted to thank Sharon Charde for sharing with me such an intimate portait of her grief.

  • Have just heard the repeated play on radio 4 iplayer. Stunning. I have no children, but the poignancy of bereavement and sudden loss is all too powerful. And the rippling of the simon and garf in the background, totally haunting. Sharon Charde has put into words the unspeakable and I hope those words have helped other people understand or even just describe their pain. Thanks to all involved, this is what great art is for.

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