Poetry | March 01, 2003

Winner of the 2002 Editors’ Prize for Poetry.

Featuring the poems

  • An Occurrence of Grace at a Bartok Concert
  • Riffs Thelonius Put Down
  • Memory and Mozart
  • The Insistence of Water


An Occurrence of Grace at a Bartok Concert

This concerto could cripple a sky.

The woman in the wheelchair

wants her voice to be the viola


and, for a moment, it is. Beautiful,

its guttural tone, from

enough distance, could be mistaken


for the rosined scrape of the bow.

What is love for this woman,

her hands demented buzzards


flapping in her lap, her body

a kind of grave

carnival-mirror imitation


of a body? Without enough control

to form words, her mouth

has gone slack, a bitter cavern,


the acoustics no consolation.

Music’s impossible

without pain, a dead composer


said alive. If he was right, this

woman’s crippled body

could be the most beautiful quartet


ever composed for strings, unplayable,

perfection no one living

can appreciate. No one has heard


the viola in her voice before.

At the beginning of

this century, she’d have been


dolled up in scales, and factory workers,

their drab wives left home,

would have paid pennies to see her


flap around in a shallow pool,

the Fish-Woman.

They’d have heard whales in her voice,


seaweed and rust, not Bartok. Those

vain hawkers of deformities,

who charged men to touch suffering


flesh masqueraded as mystery,

weren’t interested in grace.

Their shrill voices are too often ours.


The man who wheels this woman away

from the music, to stop

her voice, has lifted her out of


water, loving how her body clutches itself,

the spine a fist closing,

knuckles white down her twisted back.


Has he come to think love’s a freak show,

a necessary complement to

the light bulbs, accordions and laughter


of wavy figures in warped glass?

The carnival,

without it, drifting between towns,


no one believing its loud insistence

that joy exists? Has he

drawn petroglyphs on her flesh


with his tongue, like those on rocks

in the Southwest, long

dead voices still loving the earth


in translation? Is her body any more

crippled than any of us

brought to our knees by this concerto?


Is music loss we can bear because

of its beauty? The heart

isn’t something we speak of these days.


Nothing consoles us, it turns out. Still,

the most crippled body

is capable of more joy than


any dead composer. And this music

risen, warped, out of

this woman could bring any sky


to its knees. The way buzzards,

in flight, from

a distance, can define grace.



Riffs Thelonius Put Down

The landscape here is flat enough

to drive turkey buzzards

to circle where nothing’s dead.

Some howl in my body

says, home. Everything is

how I left it—a player piano

gutted, abandoned. Memory is

a map folded up wrong, streets

dead-ending into the legend

of a place blank from drought.


The fronts of the few stores open

downtown, rough as any weather,

could bluff a pair of deuces

to the moon and back, life over

the stores a dull tale of debt

and weeping mistaken for the duff

of laughter, nothing you’d want

to walk on. Over the bar, sober

and fatalistic ghosts of veterans

dance to riffs Thelonious put down.


Light at dusk is a flush, a hand

hard to beat. The stoic moon holds

its face cards, hoping for

a high straight. It’s too pale

to get anyone to fold. The veterans

who won’t dance play poker, a heartache

or better to open. Down in

the bar, whiskey reminds me, sad,

where the bodies are buried. “Straight,

No Chaser,” howls out the jukebox.


Tone-deaf ghosts scrape a piano

in need of tuning over the floor

upstairs. Down the bar, a drunk woman

signs blurred sentences, her once

deft hands dancing for rain.

Rough weather’s forgotten this town,

the sky mute. A sax has taken up

what Monk and his blunt fingers

laid out on a piano so sober

it couldn’t even bluff a straight.


I’m so much in the hole no one hand

could pull me out, not even Monk’s.

This the last dregs of Ohio, the ghosts

know the moon often bluffs. Still

they fold, too rich a pot. I’m trying

to pick up the deaf woman.

Holding her hands leaves us nothing

to talk about. Buzzards, grotesque

fruit, snore in the trees. Thelonious

is sober, ready to call it a night.


The ghosts don’t know enough

to call it quits. Tickle them bones,

they beg Monk’s shade, and he does.

Only the deaf woman’s drinking. Last

call sent the rest of the drunks home

with six-packs and regret. She leans on me,

her hands fumbling what could be words

on my hollow chest. The moon

has stumbled off with everyone’s cash,

the ghosts muttering how it cheats.


Whatever Thelonious might pound out

over the bar, land’s too flat here

to hold anything good without

giving it away. The deaf woman

lives miles to the south. The ill-folded map

can’t guide me there. Even drunk,

her hands remember touch

used to be another, better language.

The way they move now,

she couldn’t pound love from any piano.



Memory and Mozart

It’s ecstatic, this lake wind

that shreds plastic garbage bags

draped, a shroud, over this

discarded pine tree. The season

has gone over to cold, ice

qualifying every sentence.

Talk of the sky becomes talk

of a threat, the wind’s direction

a feeble prayer muttered

by chapped lips. Lake effect snow,

they say on the local weather.


Imagine snow could be mistaken

for a lake, the sky

not falling but overcome

by tides, the distant moon

a dominatrix unfrozen

water huddled in our flesh

licks the boots of and loves.


Things we discard are cheap,

we say. Ice disguises them,

makes the mundane pass for

elegance. And an ecstasy

found in what we’re done with

seems fit for the dead of winter,

every front off the lake

urging us in. Deference to

the sky is local wisdom,

the wind carrying enough at times

like this to bury us and forget

last rites, the soul lost

in some sudden snow squall.

The neighbor said to have Alzheimer’s

may have lost any memory

of how to act, hugging

the pine tree at the curb,

tattered plastic stinging his face

raw with the wind. He’s wailing

some prayer in what must

be Hebrew, cutting wind to shreds,

the loss he’s confused for

this Christmas tree real and bitter

in the ruined chambers of his

memory. God knows how far back

this wail started, but the years

it’s traveled to mourn this tree

are enough to make it

a shivering of the flesh

gone beyond the body. Soon,

his daughter will come home,

brew his tea, and talk to him

until he laughs, back with her,

his loss his own again.


But the wail will not go in,

and the shrouds

over the trees set out,

strummed by wind off the lake,

will make us all cower inside

and beg to be punished,

each of us guilty, and not

one worthy of being forgiven,

unless it’s this old man

who sobs because he can’t remember

the name of the woman who

helps him to bed and calls him

dad. It is Mozart the wind

hums over the plastic shrouds.

An aria, or some sad fugue

that would make ice break down

and promise the moon everything.


The Insistence of Water

The slightest rasp of any moon on water

darkens what’s left to call sky, the voice of

a woman the gasp of one wave collapsing

into the next, water a conversation

with itself, and nothing but the sky to

expect an answer from. A late spring evening,

something as mundane as music

coming from an open window, “Spanish Steps,”

Van Morrison, the piano an echo of

the moon playing water, the saxophone

a kind of sorrow that leaves the heart

vulnerable to the vicissitudes of joy.


In deference to weather, one sentence calls out

to another, any music mentioned

just a distraction from the rhythms words

fulfill under the harsh needle of time,

wearing, as it does, grooves in the heart

where any music could alter the course

of a moon. Clouds, the outline of a front

pushing in from off the lake to change

what I’d call weather, could almost convince me

any voice that rasps with the authenticity

of the blues at the beginning of

the last century must hold within it truth.


The truth about what is a necessary

addendum, since truth is always

connected to what it claims to be of, music,

in one incarnation, the playing out,

over time, of opposing arguments, time

itself the true subject about which the moon

wants to convince the water, each swell

a manifestation, in singularity, of

a line of reasoning, crescendo nothing

without diminuendo, both required for

the illusion of motion or the miming

of a voice refusing to be diminished.


The way the sky, abandoned by the moon,

collapses and murmurs a dark it means

to explain everything, but the dark

lets us all down, even the sky, refusing

to be set in any groove, to follow

anything we’d call a pattern. History

finds it difficult to leave ruts in the lake,

all those waves the best damn eraser

anyone could come up with, constant motion

maybe just an idea, but the water

comes close enough to fool us, close enough

we can’t imagine waves without the moon.


Step into cool water off the coast of Spain

and shiver in whatever language is

best able to echo the collusion of

water and flesh. The moon will believe

the lie concocted by your body’s calm

surrounded by gypsy water, this urge

in the form of what must seem mere ripples

from the distance of the moon, the slightest

undulations, no more than the passing of

music through a body. The moon doesn’t know

any language but time, its only voice

a rasp Lorca heard in his bones and named duende.


But a word is only dark in part, and can’t

contain even one nth of this late spring

evening. All the light, all that empty space,

in any word, even duende, carves

so many inlets, so many coves and bays

(where beaches burn the feet of women and men

who have taken time off, they say, from

the mundane sorrows of their lives and tossed it

carelessly behind them where it shivers,

abandoned, and murmurs curses at the backs

of the lovers who stand in the water

to cool their feet), any dark is compromised.


And time, outside of language, isn’t a thing

to be worn, any more than any word could

do without the lovers who lie down and burn,

naked, on the beaches made private by

the undulations of islands that are nothing

more than letters. Cliffs rise, dark, over water

that rasps a kind of longing over and over

against the land, like a tongue flicking

over flesh and birthing a language of

shivers and moans and exaltations the moon

likes to pretend is meant for it. Tonight,

any word, whispered right, could hold the moon.


Tonight, every word is a moon, and burns

with the light that, tomorrow, will burn the flesh

of lovers on every beach in every cove

and bay carved by the insistence of water

or the desire for meaning. Someone’s brought

a radio, and spare batteries, and music

carves its own niche in the damp, moon-thick

air the lovers breathe. It’s “Moondance,”

Van Morrison again, and even Lorca

can’t help but want to stand up and strip down

to naked flesh and start to dance, the moon

his partner, in passion, on this bone-white beach.

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