or Poem for Eighties Babies
(~also for T. P., 1950-2010)
If it's Teddy singing it—
—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 and —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 under each pace your parents took
beyond the cusp of realizing nothing so good
could stay that good so long.
No God in Us but Song
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.
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
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 ,
the first time I felt sex in my sweat,
the congregation clapped rhythm and counterpoint
RB-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
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 at the Catholic cathedral from beginning to end;
while the solo basso rolled out
sounding like Paul Robeson doing
and snow came down outside
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
Sophia’s mom stops me exiting to say
I cough into a tissue.
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.
If I kept singing I could keep you here.
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:
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 .
Johannes Brahms and
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.
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.
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.