Poem of the Week | October 07, 2013

This week we feature a new poem by David Kirby. Kirby is the author of numerous books, including The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems, a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. His biography, Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, was hailed by the Times Literary Supplement of London as a “hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense.” His latest book of poetry is Talking About Movies With Jesus. He is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University.
 
Author’s note:

For some time now, I’ve been taken with the idea of how effective restraint is in art. Think about the scene in Macbeth where Ross tells Macduff that his entire family has been slaughtered. Macduff is a general in the middle of a war and has no time to grieve, but of course he can’t quite take in this the terrible news, either. So he says to Ross, “All my pretty ones?” and then “Did you say all?” and gets ready to go back into battle. Watching him control himself is a lot more affecting than it would be if he sat on a rock and sobbed.

So you can imagine how excited I was when I read Michael Byers’ story “The Numbers Man” in a recent issue of Missouri Review. It’s a story which leads you to think, yes, something is going to happen between a teenaged boy and a sexy older woman, and then you realize how much more effective it is that nothing happens at all. Not long after, I heard the writer Lauren Watel read her story “Cul-de-Sac” (you can find it in the current issue of Five Points) in which a woman holding her infant daughter finds one of her teenaged son’s friends at her door instead of in school as he should be. They make awkward conversation, and the kid raises his hand as though to caress the mother. Everything in you thinks he’s going to make a pass, but instead, he says, “Can I hold her?” He wants to hold her child—it’s that simple, that sweet, and it hits a whole lot harder than anything the reader might have anticipated.

My poem isn’t about murder or sex—well, it’s a little sexy, maybe. But the idea is the same, which is that sometimes an artist can accomplish more by doing less, even nothing.

 

The Beautiful Theremin Player

I’m really liking a story called “The Numbers Man” by Michael
Byers when I remember that my New Year’s resolution is to
send more fan mail to authors whose work I really like, so I look
him up on the internet and, sure enough, he’s as easy to find as
the rest of us, so I write to say how much I love his story about
a fifteen year-old boy who’s going fishing with the twenty-five
year-old sister of his father’s new wife, and of course the boy

 

looks at her longingly after a few hours of fishing, and at one point
she even asks him what he wants, that is, what he really wants,
but he isn’t sure, because it’s not as though the idea of kissing
her hasn’t danced across his mind even though he knows he
shouldn’t and doesn’t have much experience in that department in
the first place, and besides, it doesn’t seem as though the step-aunt
is getting fresh with him or is doing anything other than asking

 

a question that’s totally existential in nature—what do you really
want—so he doesn’t do anything, and she doesn’t, either, making
what happens in the story something that doesn’t happen
at all, because it’s a story that illustrates the power of restraint,
as I say to Mr. Byers, who writes back quickly to thank and even
have a little chat with me about how, for example, the painting
of Adam reaching for God’s hand on the Sistine Chapel ceiling

 

is all the more alluring because their fingers haven’t touched,
or at least not yet, but instead have floated an inch or two apart
for the last five hundred years, in which position they seem
destined to float for the next five hundred, I’m sure,
and it’s in the middle of this exchange with Mr. Byers that
I think of the party I went to in Kansas City last year where
a woman who is stacked out to here is playing a theremin:

 

this is at a party with maybe sixty art students in a house that’d
comfortably hold twenty; the food disappeared long ago, but
the vodka and box wine are still flowing, and in the middle
of it all, this zaftig redhead is playing an instrument invented
by Russian physicist Lev Sergeevich Theremin in October 1920,
that is, just after the outbreak of the Russian civil war.
The theremin is rare among musical instruments in that it is

 

played without physical contact, since the musician stands
in front of the instrument and moves his or her hands in
the vicinity of two metal antennas, one determining frequency
or pitch and the other volume, and half the art students are saying,
“Sounds like the Beach Boys!” and the other half are saying,
“Sounds like a horror movie!” but all I can think is, man,
is that woman ever built, and one of the party-goers says,

 

I saw her play at a party in February, and I say, Oh, yeah?
and he says, Yeah, and at one point she said that if nobody looked,
she’d take off her top and play the theremin with, you know,
her chest, and I say, Wait, you mean she played that thing naked
from the waist up? For how long? and he says, For as
long as it took, and I say, And nobody looked? and he says, No, he could
see the other people from where he stood, and nobody looked,

 

and while I’m remembering this and thinking how beautiful
the woman looked and how much more beautiful she would
have looked with her top off, I’m trying to pay attention
to my rather more refined e-mail exchange with Mr. Byers
on why you get more out of an audience by holding back—
how an actor who is fighting tears is much more moving than
one who is crying, say—and also trying to think of an unobvious

 

way to ask him why he called his excellent story “The Numbers
Man,” a question I answer on my own when I remember that
the boy in the story is only fifteen, which means he’s a year
away from driving, that is, a year away from freedom.
No restraints! Nothing between him and the open road except
a tank of gas! Off he’ll go, the kid thinks, even though it doesn’t
say so in Mr. Byers’ story, and he’ll never stop until he’s done

 

everything he’s ever wanted to, everything he’s ever dreamed
of doing, and he, the kid, knows his new life will be amazing,
whereas we, the readers, know a certain amount of his new life
will be stomach-churning and most of it will be tedious beyond
belief but a little piece of it will not only be amazing
but a hundred times more amazing than he, with his cramped
fifteen year-old’s powers of imagination, could possibly

 

realize at this point in his life, but all this time I’m thinking
as well of the conversation I’m having with the guy at the party
in Kansas City about the earlier party where the woman took
her top off and played the theremin and nobody looked,
and I say, You’ve got to be kidding—I mean, there were
young guys there, right? and he says, Yeah, but we promised
we wouldn’t, and besides, nobody wanted her to stop.

 

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