Poetry | March 01, 2003
Poetry Feature: George Looney
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
of a body? Without enough control
to form words, her mouth
has gone slack, a bitter cavern,
the acoustics no consolation.
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,
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?
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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