No God in Us but Song
By Daisy Fried
Ruffs are optional for trebles in Anglican church choirs.
Bored in the balcony reading your novel
hoping it will keep me awake —
religion was always a blind spot —
with my Sunday headache waiting for the service
to finish so I can retrieve my little chorister,
no god in us but song, while
pale important teenage Sophia
in blue head chorister ribbon,
face dumpy as a Flemish burgomaster,
bosses littler kids and loves
leading them expressionless
in paired rows from the choir stalls,
holding the processional cross high,
shushing and huffily eyeing them
for babyish disregard of cleanly neatness,
my own chorister dripping orts of tissues
she stows in her sleeves for sniffles,
in the choir room struggles
out of her ruff ringed dark brown inside
from years of child chorister sweat, hair oil, dead skin.
Me: Your other ruff was white and clean!
Her: Sophia said it was too big.
She gave me this one instead. I showed her
it was dirty and tight. She said “deal with it.”
I think Sophia changed since she went to high school.
Service over, ruffs and black robes
dangling awry from a clutter of hangers,
restored to bright colors the kids bang
out swinging doors to shout among gravestones,
delicate stems of ruffless necks
bare to autumn sun, leaves hurrying out of trees,
leaving Sophia alone striving with their robes,
sighing out her burdens in a way
she could only have learned from a mom.
I sang twice in church when I was a kid.
First time with Katrina and Dona —
Dona and I white, Katrina black — we
called ourselves the Albanettes, mostly sang
strident show-tune medleys, jingled-up folk songs —
one day were messing out carol harmonies
at Xmas in a nursing home, the inmates
nodding, tapping, sleeping in their chairs
when Katrina said come to my church,
they never heard singing like this.
At Katrina’s storefront
the praying, swaying and testifying rose up
as we opened our mouths to twine
our voices so they burred and shone together like silver spoons
then guitar, drums, keyboard shimmerchords
surrounded and supported our Gloria,
Echoing our joyous strains, Glo-o-o-o-oria
the first time I felt sex in my sweat,
the congregation clapped rhythm and counterpoint
R&B-ish shivers and thrills.
Dona’s single mom came along
to drop us off but stayed the whole service,
amazed and beside herself
dabbing fingertips into her hair cried
thank you thank you for your hospitality
I have never been so ... so ...
the same smell in her sweat,
embarrassing us, squeezed in at the end of the pew.
The second time, the Albanettes and whole community choir
sang Messiah at the Catholic cathedral from beginning to end;
while the solo basso rolled out Thus saith the lord
sounding like Paul Robeson doing Ol’ Man River
and snow came down outside
and I will shake all nations
Dona, Katrina and I couldn’t, could not
stop giggling, was it the little girl
down front with her mouth wide open
gawping lustless love at the basso,
we giggled harder, was it the river pouring from his mouth,
hard to stay soundless as he rumbled, our giggles
birthing new giggles till we sweated and wept
our mirth, our noses gushed, our bodies shook
... whom ye delight in; behold, He shall come ...
Sophia’s mom stops me exiting to say
You’re doing the right thing
bringing up your child in the church.
I cough into a tissue.
We have not loved You with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves,
I think the communal confession goes,
not that I was listening.
The morning’s scripture lesson:
raising the citywide minimum wage.
Not that I was listening. Though I agree.
If I kept singing maybe I could keep you here.
The phrase has dark in front of it,
darkness after it, dark riddled through it
like whatever isn’t sparks in a bad connection.
Do you mind I put your death in the poem.
You can put the wife from hell in your stories.
All the women in my stories are the wife from hell.
If I kept singing I could keep you here.
We’re atheist, in it for the music education
I don’t explain to Sophia’s mom,
my Sunday headache lifting, my book closed on my finger,
my particular chorister running the graveyard outside the church
among stones of colonists — low humps
crumbling to soil — climbing the cenotaph
dedicated 1971 to Wabash, Piankeshaw
and six other chieftains who gathered, 1793, in the city,
to negotiate against George Washington’s land-stealing treaty,
whereupon, dying of smallpox — some people think the chiefs
were only invited because the white men knew
they were likely to die of white man disease — were interred
unknown places in our churchyard, graven
image of their frilly headdresses
signaling tribal-spiritual affiliation.
Me, to my husband, 30 years older:
I’m afraid I’ll lose you, to death or divorce.
Him: You’d rather I divorce you? or die?
Me: Divorce of course, we could still
talk to each other, and laugh.
Comfort ye, my people ...
my chorister daughter pretending a basso, chin shoved
way down into her neck to manage it, up on the graveyard wall on the far side,
and lonely Sophia in the shadowy indoors, unsnapping
the ruff of a straggling treble chorister,
stroking it neat, gently folding it away
as her tired mother nags hurry, hurry up please.
History of My Heart
By Robert Pinsky
One Christmastime Fats Waller in a fur coat
Rolled beaming from a taxicab with two pretty girls
Each at an arm as he led them in a thick downy snowfall
Across Thirty-Fourth Street into the busy crowd
Shopping at Macy’s: perfume, holly, snowflake displays.
Chimes rang for change. In Toys, where my mother worked
Over her school vacation, the crowd swelled and stood
Filling the aisles, whispered at the fringes, listening
To the sounds of the large, gorgeously dressed man,
His smile bemused and exalted, lips boom-booming a bold
Bass line as he improvised on an expensive, tinkly
Piano the size of a lady’s jewel box or a wedding cake.
She put into my heart this scene from the romance of Joy,
Co-authored by her and the movies, like her others–
My father making the winning basket at the buzzer
And punching the enraged gambler who came onto the court–
The brilliant black and white of the movies, texture
Of wet snowy fur, the taxi’s windshield, piano keys,
Reflections that slid over the thick brass baton
That worked the elevator. Happiness needs a setting:
Shepherds and shepherdesses in the grass, kids in a store,
The back room of Carly’s parents’ shop, record-player
And paper streamers twisted in two colors: what I felt
Dancing close one afternoon with a thin blonde girl
Was my amazing good luck, the pleased erection
Stretching and stretching at the idea She likes me,
She likes it, the thought of legs under a woolen skirt,
To see eyes “melting” so I could think This is it,
They’re melting! Mutual arousal of suddenly feeling
Desired: This is it: “desire”! When we came out
Into the street we saw it had begun, the firm flakes
Sticking, coating the tops of cars, melting on the wet
Black street that reflected storelights, soft
Separate crystals clinging intact on the nap of collar
And cuff, swarms of them stalling in the wind to plunge
Sideways and cluster in spangles on our hair and lashes,
Melting to a fresh glaze on the bloodwarm porcelain
Of our faces, Hey nonny-nonny boom-boom, the cold graceful
Manna, heartfelt, falling and gathering copious
As the air itself in the small-town main street
As it fell over my mother’s imaginary and remembered
Macy’s in New York years before I was even born,
And the little white piano, tinkling away like crazy–
My unconceived heart in a way waiting somewhere like
Wherever it goes in sleep. Later, my eyes opened
And I woke up glad to feel the sunlight warm
High up in the window, a brighter blue striping
Blue folds of curtain, and glad to hear the house
Was still sleeping. I didn’t call, but climbed up
To balance my chest on the top rail, cheek
Pressed close where I had grooved the rail’s varnish
With sets of double tooth-lines. Clinging
With both arms, I grunted, pulled one leg over
And stretched it as my weight started to slip down
With some panic till my toes found the bottom rail,
Then let my weight slide more till I was over–
Thrilled, half-scared, still hanging high up
With both hands from the spindles. Then lower
Slipping down until I could fall to the floor
With a thud but not hurt, and out, free in the house.
Then softly down the hall to the other bedroom
To push against the door; and when it came open
More light came in, opening out like a fan
So they woke up and laughed, as she lifted me
Up in between them under the dark red blanket,
We all three laughing there because I climbed out myself.
Earlier still, she held me curled in close
With everyone around saying my name, and hovering,
After my grandpa’s cigarette burned me on the neck
As he held me up for the camera, and the pain buzzed
Scaring me because it twisted right inside me;
So when she took me and held me and I curled up, sucking,
It was as if she had put me back together again
So sweetly I was glad the hurt had torn me.
She wanted to have made the whole world up,
So that it could be hers to give. So she opened
A letter I wrote my sister, who was having trouble
Getting on with her, and read some things about herself
That made her go to the telephone and call me up:
“You shouldn’t open other people’s letters,” I said
And she said “Yes–who taught you that?”
–As if she owned the copyright on good and bad,
Or having followed pain inside she owned her children
From the inside out, or made us when she named us,
Made me Robert. She took me with her to a print-shop
Where the man struck a slug: a five-inch strip of lead
With the twelve letters of my name, reversed,
Raised along one edge, that for her sake he made
For me, so I could take it home with me to keep
And hold the letters up close to a mirror
Or press their shapes into clay, or inked from a pad
Onto all kinds of paper surfaces, onto walls and shirts,
Lengthwise on a Band-Aid, or even on my own skin–
The little characters fading from my arm, the gift
Always ready to be used again. Gifts from the heart:
Her giving me her breast milk or my name, Waller
Showing off in a store, for free, giving them
A thrill as someone might give someone an erection,
For the thrill of it–or you come back salty from a swim:
Eighteen shucked fresh oysters and the cold bottle
Sweating in its ribbon, surprise, happy birthday!
So what if the giver also takes, is after something?
So what if with guile she strove to color
Everything she gave with herself, the lady’s favor
A scarf or bit of sleeve of her favorite color
Fluttering on the horseman’s bloodflecked armor
Just over the heart–how presume to forgive the breast
Or sudden jazz for becoming what we want? I want
Presents I can’t picture until they come,
The generator flashlight Italo gave me one Christmas:
One squeeze and the gears visibly churning in the amber
Pistol-shaped handle hummed for half a minute
In my palm, the spare bulb in its chamber under my thumb,
Secret; or, the knife and basswood Ellen gave me to whittle.
And until the gift of desire, the heart is a titular,
Insane king who stares emptily at his counselors
For weeks, drools or babbles a little, as word spreads
In the taverns that he is dead, or an impostor. One day
A light concentrates in his eyes, he scowls, alert, and points
Without a word to one pass in the cold, grape-colored peaks–
Generals and courtiers groan, falling to work
With a frantic movement of farriers, cooks, builders,
The city thrown willing or unwilling like seed
(While the brain at the same time may be settling
Into the morning Chronicle, humming to itself,
Like a fat person eating M&M’s in the bathtub)
Toward war, new forms of worship or migration.
I went out from my mother’s kitchen, across the yard
Of the little two-family house, and into the Woods:
Guns, chevrons, swordplay, a scarf of sooty smoke
Rolled upwards from a little cratewood fire
Under the low tent of a Winesap fallen
With fingers rooting in the dirt, the old orchard
Smothered among the brush of wild cherry, sumac,
Sassafras and the stifling shade of oak
In the strip of overgrown terrain running
East from the train tracks to the ocean, woods
Of demarcation, where boys went like newly-converted
Christian kings with angels on helmet and breastplate,
Bent on blood or poaching. There are a mountain and a woods
Between us–a male covenant, longbows, headlocks. A pack
Of four stayed half-aware it was past dark
In a crude hut roasting meat stolen from the A&P
Until someone’s annoyed father hailed us from the tracks
And scared us home to catch hell: We were worried,
Where have you been? In the Woods. With snakes and tramps.
An actual hobo knocked at our back door
One morning, declining food, to get hot water.
He shaved on our steps from an enamel basin with brush
And cut-throat razor, the gray hair on his chest
Armorial in the sunlight–then back to the woods,
And the otherlife of snakes, poison oak, boxcars.
Were the trees cleared first for the trains or the orchard?
Walking home by the street because it was dark,
That night, the smoke-smell in my clothes was like a bearskin.
Where the lone hunter and late bird have seen us
Pass and repass, the mountain and the woods seem
To stand darker than before–words of sexual nostalgia
In a song or poem seemed cloaked laments
For the woods when Indians made lodges from the skin
Of birch or deer. When the mysterious lighted room
Of a bus glided past in the mist, the faces
Passing me in the yellow light inside
Were a half-heard story or a song. And my heart
Moved, restless and empty as a scrap of something
Blowing in wide spirals on the wind carrying
The sound of breakers clearly to me through the pass
Between the blocks of houses. The horn of Roland
But what was it I was too young for? On moonless
Nights, water and sand are one shade of black,
And the creamy foam rising with moaning noises
Charges like a spectral army in a poem toward the bluffs
Before it subsides dreamily to gather again.
I thought of going down there to watch it a while,
Feeling as though it could turn me into fog,
Or that the wind would start to speak a language
And change me–as if I knocked where I saw a light
Burning in some certain misted window I passed,
A house or store or tap-room where the strangers inside
Would recognize me, locus of a new life like a woods
Or orchard that waxed and vanished into cloud
Like the moon, under a spell. Shrill flutes,
Oboes and cymbals of doom. My poor mother fell,
And after the accident loud noises and bright lights
Hurt her. And heights. She went down stairs backwards,
Sometimes with one arm on my small brother’s shoulder.
Over the years, she got better. But I was lost in music;
The cold brazen bow of the saxophone, its weight
At thumb, neck and lip, came to a bloodwarm life
Like Italo’s flashlight in the hand. In a white
Jacket and pants with a satin stripe I aspired
To the roughneck elegance of my Grandfather Dave.
Sometimes, playing in a bar or at a high school dance, I felt
My heart following after a capacious form,
Sexual and abstract, in the thunk, thrum,
Thrum, come-wallow and then a little screen
Of quicker notes goosing to a fifth higher, winging
To clang-whomp of a major seventh: listen to me
Listen to me, the heart says in reprise until sometimes
In the course of giving itself it flows out of itself
All the way across the air, in a music piercing
As the kids at the beach calling from the water Look,
Look at me, to their mothers, but out of itself, into
The listener the way feeling pretty or full of erotic revery
Makes the one who feels seem beautiful to the beholder
Witnessing the idea of the giving of desire–nothing more wanted
Than the little singing notes of wanting–the heart
Yearning further into giving itself into the air, breath
Strained into song emptying the golden bell it comes from,
The pure source poured altogether out and away.
Bleecker Street, Summer
By Derek Walcott
Summer for prose and lemons, for nakedness and languor,
for the eternal idleness of the imagined return,
for rare flutes and bare feet, and the August bedroom
of tangled sheets and the Sunday salt, ah violin!
When I press summer dusks together, it is
a month of street accordions and sprinklers
laying the dust, small shadows running from me.
It is music opening and closing, Italia mia, on Bleecker,
ciao, Antonio, and the water-cries of children
tearing the rose-coloured sky in streams of paper;
it is dusk in the nostrils and the smell of water
down littered streets that lead you to no water,
and gathering islands and lemons in the mind.
There is the Hudson, like the sea aflame.
I would undress you in the summer heat,
and laugh and dry your damp flesh if you came.
By Dennis Cooper
for Brad Gooch
We snort all our coke
on the way to the party.
We bring the new album.
We dance while we listen.
The band is two women
whose husbands control them.
They do not speak our language.
Each syllable’s an obstacle.
They are in love with a man.
He is in love with another.
But they’re in no hurry.
They could wait forever.
And when they are out
on the make for a lover,
they’ll always find him.
They are the tigers.
We are stoned too stoned to.
We dance till we’re tired
and listen to lyrics
we mouth like a language.
What we feel, when we
hear them, is inexpressible.
We can’t put into words.
Maybe our dances show it.
ABBA lives for their music.
We long for each other.
They see what we’re doing.
They put it on record.
They play it, we listen.
We are absolutely stunned.
We feel, and they know
more than anyone can say.
By Austin Davis
Many have told us we’re too young to feel nostalgic but these are merely the people who have forgotten the utter simplicity of turning one year old in comparison to the sheer complexity felt when that year is over.
At three years old we were lion tamers and magicians held together as one by the broken branch waving in our hands. At five we were the supreme rulers of our backyards and the golden dog at our side was the heir to our leafy throne.
At seven we were astronauts. The patches of stringy grass were fleets of rockets at our feet and each one of them took us to different planets each summer.
At nine there wasn’t a single person who could make us believe that we weren’t abducted by aliens earlier that fall and by ten, the comic books scattered around our beds gave us a hero to fashion the clay of our hearts after.
After the next passage of sun to snow however, the little stories we used to draw on the mirrors in the bathroom finally evaporated into the flurries of white.
Newfound armpit hair and our growing fondness for women pulled the strings in our hearts like the dummy hidden behind our shirts and polos and propelled us forward with a more “adult” blade of grass to break open our Spiderman piggy banks and sell the vintage leather of our Star Trek watches for cologne and flowers.
Today, the grape sodas that pop from vending machines don’t morph us into rabid pumas anymore and really seem more like morphine for the masses rather than liquid vending machine babies.
We’re just junior mafia members caught in between stealing a beat up Mustang and flooring the pedal to California, and plopping down in our wooden desks to take the trigonometry quiz during third hour. I realized that we’re not all Donald Trumps or Justin Biebers in this world. We’re taught to shove our dreams in the back attic of our minds right between our knowledge on the proper attire for a game of racquetball and where the drawer with the phone number of our accountants is.
Our thoughts are plastered together with what the white man in the corduroy suit drones on about on the television and what the plastic radio whispers in our ears as we follow the train tracks of adulthood to and from life and death.
I sip my coffee at a red light, the manufactured steam rolling over my chin as I listen to a four beat pop song that soothes me into a subtle conformity and I wonder if the cages they shackled us to felt this confining when it was a red ball we were chasing after and not our crumpled calendars sailing past us in the winter breeze.