My Papa’s Waltz
By Theodore Roethke 1908–1963
The whiskey on your breath
could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
REFLECTIVE MUSIC: Mark O’Connor: Appalachia Waltz
By Diane Wakoski b. 1937
Can these movements which move themselves
be the substance of my attraction?
Where does this thin green silk come from that covers my body?
Surely any woman wearing such fabrics
would move her body just to feel them touching every part of her.
Yet most of the women frown, or look away, or laugh stiffly.
They are afraid of these materials and these movements
in some way.
The psychologists would say they are afraid of themselves, somehow.
Perhaps awakening too much desire—
that their men could never satisfy?
So they keep themselves laced and buttoned and made up
in hopes that the framework will keep them stiff enough not to feel
the whole register.
In hopes that they will not have to experience that unquenchable
desire for rhythm and contact.
If a snake glided across this floor
most of them would faint or shrink away.
Yet that movement could be their own.
That smooth movement frightens them—
awakening ancestors and relatives to the tips of the arms and toes.
So my bare feet
and my thin green silks
my bells and finger cymbals
offend them—frighten their old-young bodies.
While the men simper and leer—
glad for the vicarious experience and exercise.
They do not realize how I scorn them;
or how I dance for their frightened,
REFLECTIVE MUSIC: Istanbul: Awakening and Turkish Dance by Sergio Assad (not available)
My Last Dance
By Julia Ward Howe 1819–1910
The shell of objects inwardly consumed
Will stand, till some convulsive wind awakes;
Such sense hath Fire to waste the heart of things,
Nature, such love to hold the form she makes.
Thus, wasted joys will show their early bloom,
Yet crumble at the breath of a caress;
The golden fruitage hides the scathèd bough,
Snatch it, thou scatterest wide its emptiness.
For pleasure bidden, I went forth last night
To where, thick hung, the festal torches gleamed;
Here were the flowers, the music, as of old,
Almost the very olden time it seemed.
For one with cheek unfaded, (though he brings
My buried brothers to me, in his look,)
Said, Will you dance?' At the accustomed words
I gave my hand, the old position took.
Sound, gladsome measure! at whose bidding once
I felt the flush of pleasure to my brow,
While my soul shook the burthen of the flesh,
And in its young pride said, Lie lightly thou!'
Then, like a gallant swimmer, flinging
My breast against the golden waves of sound,
I rode the madd'ning tumult of the dance,
Mocking fatigue, that never could be found.
Chide not,—it was not vanity, nor sense,
(The brutish scorn such vaporous delight,)
But Nature, cadencing her joy of strength
To the harmonious limits of her right.
She gave her impulse to the dancing Hours,
To winds that sweep, to stars that noiseless turn;
She marked the measure rapid hearts must keep
Devised each pace that glancing feet should learn.
And sure, that prodigal o'erflow of life,
Unvow'd as yet to family or state,
Sweet sounds, white garments, flowery coronals
Make holy, in the pageant of our fate.
Sound, measure! but to stir my heart no more—
For, as I moved to join the dizzy race,
My youth fell from me; all its blooms were gone,
And others showed them, smiling, in my face.
Faintly I met the shock of circling forms
Linked each to other, Fashion's galley-slaves,
Dream-wondering, like an unaccustomed ghost
That starts, surprised, to stumble over graves.
For graves were 'neath my feet, whose placid masks
Smiled out upon my folly mournfully,
While all the host of the departed said,
Tread lightly—thou art ashes, even as we.'
REFLECTIVE MUSIC: Gerald Finzi: Romance (from Five Bagatelles)
By Rachel Hadas b. 1948
A Greek I worked for once would always say
that tragedies which still appall and thrill
happen daily on a village scale.
Except that he put it the other way:
dark doings in the sleepiest small town
loom dire and histrionic as a play.
Cosmic? Perhaps. Unprecedented? Not
to the old women sitting in the sun,
the old men planted in cafes till noon
or midnight taking in the human scene,
connoisseurs of past-passing-and-to-come.
These watchers locate in their repertory
mythic fragments of some kindred story
and draw them dripping out of memory’s well.
Incest and adultery; exile
and murder; divine punishment; disgrace:
the trick is to locate the right-sized piece
of the vast puzzle-patterned tapestry
from which one ripped-out patch makes tragedy.
This highly skilled and patient process—find
a larger context, match and patch and mend—
is what the chorus in Greek tragedy
has always done. And to this very day
spectators comb the tangles of a tale,
compare, remember, comment—not ideal,
but middle-aged or older, and alert.
Beyond the hero’s rashness or the hurt
heart of the heroine, they’ve reached the age
when only stars still lust for center stage.
The chorus, at a point midway between
the limelight and the audience, is seen
and unseen. Lady chaperones at balls
once sat on brittle chairs against the walls.
“My dancing days are over,” they’d both sigh
and smile. Or take the case of poetry.
Mine used to play the heroine—me me me—
but lately, having had its fill of “I,”
tries to discern, despite its vision’s flaws,
a shape. A piece of myth. A pattern. Laws.
REFLECTIVE MUSIC: Erik Satie: Sarabande No. 3
Victims of the Latest Dance Craze
By Cornelius Eady b. 1954
The streamers choking the main arteries
The brass band led by a child
From the home for the handicapped.
The old men
Showing their hair (what’s left of it),
The buttons of their shirts Popping in time
To the salsa flooding out
Of their portable headphones,
And mothers letting their babies
Be held by strangers.
And the bus drivers
Taping over their fare boxes
And willing to give directions.
Is there any reason to mention
All the drinks are on the house?
Thick, adolescent boys
Dismantle their BB guns.
Here is the world (what’s left of it),
In brilliant motion,
The oil slick at the curb
Danced into a thousand
The bag ladies toss off their
To reveal wings.
“This dance you do,” drawls the cop,
“What do you call it?”
We call it scalding the air.
We call it dying with your
And across the street
The bodies of tramps
In a sober language.
And across the street
Shy young girls step behind
Their nameless boyfriends,
Twirling their skirts.
And under an archway
A delivery boy discovers
His body has learned to speak,
And what does this street look like
If not a runway,
A polished wood floor?
From the air,
Insects drawn by the sweat
Alight, when possible,
On the blur
It is the ride
Of their tiny lives.
The wind that burns their wings,
The heaving, oblivious flesh,
Mountains stuffed with panic,
That can’t make up its mind.
They drop away
With the scorched taste
And under a swinging light bulb
Invent a game
With the shadow the bulb makes,
And the beat of their hearts.
They call it dust in the mouth.
They call it horse with no rider.
They call it school with empty books.
In the next room
Their mother throws her dress away to chance.
It drops to the floor
Like a brush sighs across a drum head,
And when she takes her lover,
What are they thinking of
If not a ballroom filled with mirrors,
A world where no one has the right
In a parking lot
An old man says this:
“I am a ghost dance.
I remember the way my hair felt,
Damp with sweat and wind.
When the wind kisses the leaves, I am dancing.
When the subway hits the third rail, I am dancing.
When the barrel goes over Niagara Falls, I am dancing.
Music rings my bones like metal.
O, Jazz has come from heaven,” he says,
And at the z he jumps, arcing his back like a heron’s neck,
And stands suddenly revealed
As a balance demon,
A home for
We have all caught the itch:
The neon artist
Wiring up his legs,
The tourist couple
Recording the twist on their
And in a factory,
A janitor asks his broom
For a waltz,
And he grasps it like a woman
He’d have to live another
Life to meet,
And he spins around the dust bin
And machines and thinks:
Is everybody happy?
And he spins out the side door,
Avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk,
Grinning as if he’d just received
The deepest kiss in the world.
REFLECTIVE MUSIC: Duke Ellington: Harlem