Kelly Cherry has published ten books, including God's Loud Hand, her most recent book of poetry, a novel entitled My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers, and a book of essays entitled Writing the World, which is excerpted in this issue. Prizes and titles don't tell the story; the poems do, as this moving tribute to a friend from her first book, Lovers and Agnostics from Carnegie Mellon Press. If you'd like to buy this book from Amazon, click on the highlighted title.
Elaine Shaffer, flutist, died 1973. Was married to Efrem Kurtz, conductor of the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra. She studied with William Kincaid and inherited his platinum flute. My sister, Ann Cherry, also a flute soloist, was Kincaid's last protegee.
They lie -- all those who, so smartly, insist
That any correlation can exist
Between meaning and music. There is none.
Only a point at which the audience
For both stands and reveals itself as one.
I was robbed of poetry and sense.
Skewed by false spring, a bright recrudescence
Had rouged the cover of Time that lay
On the kitchen table, and shielding my eyes
From glare, I closed them tight against the way
The world reclaimed its weather, its winter skies
And left me with my spindly pieties
Uprooted, ugly, mean, spotted and bare,
Inadequate. No wreath of these would do
For her who once wore laurel in her hair,
And had the seasons, and their changes too,
At her fingertips, and nonetheless knew
That neither perfect pitch nor intonation
Could revise that calendar of discord
Keeping time, in invisible notation,
To the beat of the Bach on which she soared
Above inconstant earth moving toward
A harmony of the heavenly spheres,
A union of celestial sound and light,
That now must add, to forty-seven years,
The last, by which the rest reduce to tears.
The afternoon has turned to ash and night
Wraps me in sackcloth. And so I set my Time
Aside. Asleep, I hide from unnamed fears
But dream of music rich with sense and rhyme.
These are among the few who do survive
In the subconscious: Sappho, fathomless
Still, Heloise and Helen, antithesis
Each to each, Elizabeth, and the incisive
Curie, fanning her radioactive
Fire into ash of lead with relentless
Logic. In the science of sleep, the rest
Are fuel for dreams in which some come alive.
Now, music enters myth and takes her place,
Eternal, central, and accompanied
By all the arts and learning of these dead
Women whom we symbolically embrace,
As another of our sex, forever freed,
Wakes from life to this lament of the unliberated.
Why not I instead of her?
Answer that! But there's no answer
To injustice nor any anger
Sufficient to the day of death --
The concert in the blood, beneath
The bland appearance of the breath
Designed to modulate deceit.
Becalmed, but drifting in my seat
From aisle to aisle, I too may meet
That ancient music, blown ashore,
The suspiration of a score
So strange only Shaffer could explore
Its most difficult passages.
When she played, she traversed ages
Just by standing still on stages
From Kansas City to Europe's
Capitals, and lifting to her lips
The platinum prize among Pan's pipes
While blue and silver spotlights played
Tricks upon the eyes, to persuade
Her listeners of aural shade.
But what bold audience follows
The frenzy of a flute that knows
Its embouchure is Apollo's?
And as we plunge deeper into
That wise and weakened heart, the true
Terror advances into view:
Too soon! Too soon! Ms. Kurtz -- she dead!
Tear out this tongue, I should have said,
Let my life be hers instead ---
But all around, the far country
Holds itself apart from me.
Elaine alone penetrated this mystery.
The obvious solution is, to say
What she did, without words, with her dying
Breath. But the syntax of a sonata
Allows no possibility for lying,
Unlike poetry, which must, if the truth
Is to mean anything beyond the jar
In the wilderness, a wheelbarrow,
A redundant rendering of facts which are
Plain enough even in Little Gidding.
And still, music is more than the timeless
Present, and much more than mere emotion,
Is mathematics, movement and gladness
Of noise. How could I hope to embody
Pure intention, song in speech, or her soul?
My own soul, such as it is, has consumed
My time and interest. Reading my work
In private, I prepare to lay siege to
My own stage, such as it is: an unnamed
Local college, as tame and green a field
As any poet ever ran wild in.
No savage grace, no exploration of
The farthest reachest of the mortal heart,
No appreciation of art as rape
Grows up here: Hydrangea of the brain,
A common disease of showy magazines
And ambitious academia,
Is proudly cultivated, while fever
Weeds wave their subtle, bright and terrible blossoms
Out of sight in an unseen wind.
Elaine, I am light years away from you.
Examining my syllables and stops
Under a new moon, and smiling at deans,
And hushing up the nerves that interrupt
This concentration of intelligence
Upon illusion, matter over mind.
I think an auditorium transports
Even the grave to ecstasy, bringing
Together polar opposites: The sleeping night,
All reawakening, the explosion
Of birth, daring, sense and music arise
From our leaden earth in a harmony
As magical as alchemical gold
O Elaine, Elaine
In that progression toward the plane of spirit
You and I, however unalike, move
Hand in hand, the poet and the musician,
Behind the curtain's formal bow, and know
That when it closes for the final time
Our audience has always been the same
Demanding dream, the shadowy critic
Whose fearful standard fathers us, sisters
In sound, related through our haunting chorus:
The silence in the wings that waits for us,
The silence in the wings that waits for us.
Don't miss Kelly Cherry's essay essay on writing in this issue. And, as noted above, if this poem inspired you to want to read more of Kelly Cherry's work, click on the following highlighted title to go to Amazon Books, the online bookstore: Lovers and Agnostics.