Saturday, September 21, 2019

Five Instruments

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.

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