Saturday, September 21, 2019

Five Instruments (September 20, 2019)

The Invention of the Saxophone

It was Adolphe Sax, remember,
not Saxo Grammaticus, who gets the ovation.
And by the time he had brought all the components
together–the serpentine shape, the single reed,
the fit of the fingers,
the upward tilt of the golden bell–
it was already 1842, and one gets the feeling
that it was also very late at night.

There is something nocturnal about the sound,
something literally horny,
as some may have noticed on that historic date
when the first odd notes wobbled out of his studio
into the small, darkened town,

summoning the insomniacs (who were up
waiting for the invention of jazz) to their windows,
but leaving the sleepers undisturbed,
evening deepening and warming the waters of their dreams.

For this is not the valved instrument of waking,
more the smoky voice of longing and loss,
the porpoise cry of the subconscious.
No one would ever think of blowing reveille
on a tenor without irony.
The men would only lie in their metal bunks,
fingers twined behind their heads,
afloat on pools of memory and desire.

And when the time has come to rouse the dead,
you will not see Gabriel clipping an alto
around his numinous neck.

An angel playing the world’s last song
on a glistening saxophone might be enough
to lift them back into the light of earth,
but really no further.

Once resurrected, they would only lie down
in the long cemetery grass
or lean alone against a lugubrious yew
and let the music do the ascending–
curling snakes charmed from their baskets–
while they wait for the shrill trumpet solo,
that will blow them all to kingdom come.

"The Invention of the Saxophone" from The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins, © 1995.  All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press

Juliek's Violin


Even here?
In this snowbound barrack?

Suddenly, the illicit sounds
of Beethoven’s concerto

erupt from Juliek’s smuggled violin,
suffusing this doomsday shed

teeming with the trampled
and the barely alive,

realm of frostbite and squalor,
clawing panic and suffocation—

Insane, God of Abraham,
insanely beautiful:

a boy insisting
winter cannot reign forever,

a boy conveying his brief,
bounded life

with a psalmist’s or a cantor’s
arrow-sure ecstasy—

One prison-striped friend
endures to record

the spellbinding strings,
the woebegone—

and the other,
the impossible Polish fiddler,

is motionless by morning,
his renegade instrument

under the haggard weight

of winter-killed, unraveling men.
Music at the brink of the grave,

eloquent in the pitch dark,
tell-true, indelible,

as never before,
as never after—

emending beauty,

linger in the listening,
truth-carrying soul of Elie,

soul become slalom swift,
camp shrewd, uncrushable;

abundance, be here, always here,
in this not-yet-shattered violin.

Cyrus Cassells, "Juliek’s Violin" from The Crossed-Out Swastika.  Copyright © 2012 by Cyrus Cassells.  Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press,

Rendezvous With A Harp


It was too big to take on the subway
so she came to it every day
that winter in the room
where it waited on one foot,
sly seabird.

She sat down and opened her hands,
parted the wings one by one
till it flew ahead of her fingers
the lame foot skidding on gold.

The sun turned its back on the glass
and paled as she sat
her foot on its foot

The fire died.
Snow hissing at the window.
Above her head a baroque hailstorm
failed in 4/4 time. She sang,
unable to hold the bright hinge
to her heart.
Lame savior she sang.
It bowed as she left
and sat, chastened by scales,

Carol Muske-Dukes, "Rendezvous With A Harp" from Camouflage.  Copyright © 1975 by Carol  Muske-Dukes. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Intensity as Violist


That she was not pretty she knew.

The flowers delivered into her hands post-concert by the young girl, pretty, would be acknowledged only. To display was to invite comparison.

Skilled at withholding, she withheld; it was a kind of giving. As when meditation is a kind of action,

a way of leaning into music the way one leans into winter wind, the way a mule leans into a harness,

the way a lover leans into the point of deepest penetration.

After a ship’s prow cuts the water, the water rushes back twice as hard.

Solo R&B Vocal Underground


It seems to head from its last stop too fast,
my transbay train’s strung-out hoo, deep
inside the tunnel, and starts to bleed
into the baritone wail of that guy
at platform’s end, a sort of lullaby
rubbed against the wall then caught in a squall
of wind darkening toward us, his whippy voice
skinning its tired song off the tiled dome:
he’s determined, the silky lyric says,
to be independently blue, while we all
wait to be chuted to car lot or home,
closer to love, or farther, and sooner to loss,
our bashful shoes and arms like lives crossed,
every plural presence now some thing alone,
thanks to our singer-man. We wait for the train,
patient with hope, a hope that’s like complaint.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

No God in Us but Song (September 6, 2019)

Note Blue

or Poem for Eighties Babies

                 (~also for T. P., 1950-2010)
If it's Teddy singing it—don't leave me 
this way—it isn't the arrangement
your parents spun themselves through,
becoming another strobe-lit dervish. Listen
as it pounds. Think of them instead
not dancing but stilled in a corner,
buttressed by their own sweat
and clairvoyant uncertainty. Every plea,
every atonement that reaches sweet
and hard from Teddy's vocal folds,
is ambivalent toward their present,
its travails—the night humid, reduced to tissue
paper's fragility. It's June 1976, years before
code like mother and father—before either
is prepared to admit they could not imagine
the uphill slope of love after disco's
tongue licked the vinyl unfurrowed and the babies
—babies that began as mere pheromone
exchanges on a dance floor—
began falling into their young laps.
It isn't your fault. You did not stop the music.
Or if you did, it was Thelma Houston's cover,
not this bearded prayer of negative capability—
the pleaseplease under each pace your parents took
beyond the cusp of realizing nothing so good
could stay that good so long.

Kyle Dargan, "Note Blue" from Honest Engine. Copyright © 2015 by Kyle Dargan.  Reprinted by permission of University of Georgia Press.

No God in Us but Song


Ruffs are optional for trebles in Anglican church choirs.

— Wikipedia
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.
Source: Poetry (October 2016)



Johannes Brahms and                                 

        Clara Schumann
The modern biographers worry
“how far it went,” their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth-century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone’s eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.

Lisel Mueller, “Romantics” from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1996 by Lisel Mueller. Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press.

The Piano Speaks 


After Erik Satie
For an hour I forgot my fat self, 

my neurotic innards, my addiction to alignment.

For an hour I forgot my fear of rain.

For an hour I was a salamander
shimmying through the kelp in search of shore,
and under his fingers the notes slid loose
from my belly in a long jellyrope of eggs
that took root in the mud. And what

would hatch, I did not know—
a lie. A waltz. An apostle of glass.

For an hour I stood on two legs 
and ran. For an hour I panted and galloped.

For an hour I was a maple tree,
and under the summer of his fingers 
the notes seeded and winged away 

in the clutch of small, elegant helicopters.

From I Was the Jukebox (W.W. Norton, 2010), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize.
Permission courtesy the author

A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687


As from the pow'r of sacred lays 
         The spheres began to move, 
And sung the great Creator's praise 
         To all the bless'd above; 
So when the last and dreadful hour 
   This crumbling pageant shall devour, 
The trumpet shall be heard on high, 
         The dead shall live, the living die, 
         And music shall untune the sky.