Ghost Notes (An Excerpt) - Poem by Ralph Burns
I.Call and Response
Plumbline of disaster, shadow storage
of the way thought travels, the opinion,
the sentiment, only assertion following silence,
only a way of everlasting breathing,
a verb searching for grammar too devoted
to making sense so that the self interrupts
with a final pitch. From stop to stop the mouth
makes music by holding sound in a razz
mixed with spit, air pushing through idea
to a new phrase, followed by a chill,
then riding on the other air. So the moment might live
outside itself, lips vibrate against
the mouthpiece of the horn, the face blooms
in concentration, the idea of interval.
Anoint the valves, they stick -- my
it is bright when you bring out your trumpet
William, standing there, tapping your right
foot, bent like a cricket at the knee, slouching.
Whoever hears your Ode to Joyhears your knocking
then setting down of carrying
case, cradling of brass. Dizzy said it took
his whole life to learn what not
to play but in one month you deny nothing,
not even the feel of your embouchere,
who'd been in school all day.Lubricate the valves,
once neighbors lifted up their heads
like lilies in the field, and wind rolled over
the need to stay away.
It's beauty people fear, bright
rose riding on Aunt Billie's forehead,
the way light makes green everything
after her pickled okra, stubble
in the hands of day labor, callouses
of a parade of things and
touching them without seeing
or hearing without knowledge,
dumbstruck by a brooding need to define
or look without a place
to grieve, beauty and not faith
in truth in the light of justice --
just reach and nothing's there
but what's there already.
William -- where -- is -- your -- horn,
did you leave it in math class again
with Fibonacci's sequence, flaring
bell, flex and curve in sunlight leaning
at a forty-five degree angle,
your teacher Mr. Fletcher having cranked
open the classroom window with an allen wrench,
merged with sunlight so a horsefly wheeled
blue-green in its own wingbeat
by a rote it answered to in music,
lesser to the greater as the greater
to the whole, tube twice bent
on itself, Sin curve on the line of displacement,
sending sound backwards until it's now?
William, when thirty kids try out for basketball
calculate the odds, the tendency of mind
to see itself in transition -- feminine green light
like call waiting -- you might be playing trumpet
into the speaker, your girlfriend Corrine might
be listening, exhausting her telephone allotment
of fifteen minutes, holding her ear inches away, glint
of a clipboard watching you both. You might move out of
the paint. The yellow squeak of rubber on oak
wakes rivers of grain -- what does it matter
that this matter jumps back or breaks for open court --
sometimes you only stand and scream,
wave both arms, put it on the floor and drive,
lay it up, put it down, take it home.
Let me find the keys says Candace
let's go says William the water
nibbles at the bank sunlight shafts
the fogwait says Candace
clouds back off the water
what else the boat suspended
glint gray along the gunnels
here they are I've found them
the washing machine idles in its cycle
sun shattered in water slaps
let's go says Williamthe legs follow
the surface tensionthe door closes
the car starts the green wave slides
under the boata day begins.
Slow it down, bring it down, bring it
on home, tympanum of the trumpet-
flower, raised hood, swollen yellow face,
pathological woe standing
in rank grass against the Hurricane fence,
half a brick bewildered, half
carried through slatted shadows, cracked
bell shrouded by buildings, doorways
listening, patiently waiting for someone to open
a paper bag and bring out the horn
and this one time it sounds exactly like
laughter, wind blows in your face,
from a high window in metallic light
long green trumpets beat back rain.
When the instruments linger in the band room,
snare leaning into itself,
tuba beached against green cinderblock,
do they riff where a fault opens,
make a crazy line in space, does brass
lie in bronze alloy, does longing
breathe in acoustic energy? Notes hang
to the skirt of the bell
like a city of light for a moment.
A tire spooks the gravel, you hear talk
about the weather, the leaning toward
and then away. Pierce the blind
to better hear the music, the fall
of each sound and pause between.
It damages people when they do not understand
the healing power of friendship.
I am damaged. The left front light of my transport
is out. A day doesn't pass. An hour
does not go by. There are minutes that glow
in human flesh. A trumpet has a voice.
A place lives in music of people and time.
These are not things I know.
Things of the air are also not thought of
in time of need. That is why the passive
voice is so active in distortion, and well
to note that a slur is more expressive
than a sharp note timed to surface admiration,
though the fool in me shines to perfection.
Soft percussive no-look pass of summer,
flexion of bell, white seed
of longing and forgetfulness -- I remember
stopping on the way home from school
at a car showroom, perching on vinyl I could smell
thinking I don't belong here
and the place about to close. I hold the page
of music so you can see it, William,
your face reddens, your foot taps eight times
to push breath past unbelievable seconds,
a dandelion head floats out of sight
senseless and alive, full of feather
and plume, empty to itself wherever
it flies, drifting from its own heart.
The dog growls, a low unearthed intent stands
up on back of the neck -- I am here and
somewhere else -- back in time maybe, fingers
tap the valves. Make two trumpets
of silver Yahweh said to Moses --
and make them play flat and sharp notes
at the same time said Ornette Coleman,
no loose lipping. Wake the memory.
Wake the present tense. The tongue wicks the mouthpiece.
Horripilates the cause. Lights up the argument.
A column of air moving through an empty place,
three stops, an opening outward
toward no purpose or proof beyond the time
when people will not hear it.
My father's there. Like fugitive dust
seeping through cracks and keyholes in Oklahoma
in the early 30's. What happens when I try
to hold him is my arms pass through air.
Goodbye goodbyeto the river and to
green metallic leaves.I leave
the darkness which sat on my shoulders
for love talk and grace of music.
Still, there are strains of darkness
dear to light.I found a photograph
under the couch.My father barbecuing
chicken with his shirt off, skin brown
as a berry.Grinning from the other side.
Into the lens.Of light and song.
II. Shout Trumpet
When passing the Trumpet in Zion Church,
red brick soaked with morning rain,
four cars parked on slickened blacktop,
marked yellow lines, redbud clusters,
heart-shaped lavender pods, I keep hearing
my own minor key. Even so,
a person puts a thumb out, an awning
cantilevers, traffic comes
to a rolling stop. Through an open window
high bright notes clarify the air
back to March wind, locked doors, to those who
have lost their love, decided
to go and not come back: the high C
of incalculable motion.
At the Trumpet in Zion they do the laying
on of hands -- your long hair
passes over me, the purpose of
the body hidden in the word.
Thinking nothing.Resembling an eighth note.
If the rapture taketh then where
does the body go when hands lie down on air?
A flag dragged through the iris
upside down.Desire runs through its stops --
the dance rises to water level.
What happens inside music to make it run
over arms and legs like a squirrel?
Toot toot go to the water to the river
of folded wings,
where catalpa shade holds a body of gnats
just the shape of smoke and water
saturates yellow air and a water moccasin
displaces the imagination --
not away from but toward where the world
reaches and a song carries across water,
one they've been singing all along,
the same notes and fears,
the sound of pure tones. I wouldn't know it
if I heard it. I might not
know if it were only mine.
I would like to think I could clearly hear
the music as it calls across so
I could know what you know.
Bats are back. Looping the Mulberry. Concentric
gravitational waves. I think I notice
my own radar. I loll in a yellow chair
with two ear plugs connected to Art Porter.
Art Porter Junior in background on clarinet.
Little Rock's own. Follow the ogive turns
past Maybelline to Telegraph Road, past
Jimmy Doyle's and the white birches,
signs for Alltel and Jesus, SunCom,
and Ruby Lube. Are you a holy roller
William asks his grandmother. No but I'm
spirit-filled. Her sisters' faces
ghost across her own face as it is -- Jean,
Billie in her garden, pious Lucille.
I ask myself riddles in sleep and part of me
thinks it knows the answers. My
body leaks, my ignorance, my desire. I keep a
gold tooth which is not the trumpet,
wood landing over water knock, photon locked
in early light wrapped around
a cove, people in a boat, not much talking
but it echoes, love is there, when
will I ever believe, fill the body up and sing.
A wireless chip with beams of light carries
itself in your eye. Who sleeps upside down
on a ledge with toes turned in, dreams of making
love mid-air, only you and me in water? Bats are back.
I feel a scarf of air rush past.
Some mean ass little red bug just bit the shit out of me!
So why does it grease the room with soulless
nasal noise, no antennae for opposites,
alighting on the trumpet case?Seven years
of mending, leaving and coming back through you,
I think I can hear syncopation
in the last half of the beat, cancellation
too, but I only want to touch the button
on your blouse.The hi-hat clears the moment.
Out of nowhere you came to me.
Where is memory with its leaning sideways solo
under a stone weight?Out of nowhere
you came back.Today and today an old wind blows,
music flares above the grasstips.
When the moon stares from its forehead
and sound waves and particles
knock on tiny hairs in the inner ear,
information travels -- how can one not know
the only pressure occurs at a molecular
level?A channel forms in the flow of ions.
When one whacks at a cloud of flies,
one clarifies that insects don't know where
the hell they are -- they can't hear
right so spend their remaining days
complaining that music by itself is trivial.
Their bristles get bent, ions
flow in to trumpet the brain, but still
no hard high note, no upward rip.
Plumbline of the asters, music caught inside
the throat, the implacability, the fluted crescent
of the body, the temple, the infarcted heart,
the age of reason, the tap tap tap of the baton:
one time one steps off the porch two stories high,
next the song sings itself:
the air, the ambient glue, the tongue
in mid-salute, the coup de langue,
the nation at war, the wormhole connecting nothing
to nothing, the creak of heaven over
the creek, the flat speckled rock, the event
horizon, the accretion disk, the no
which means no, the wide swing under stars,
the water, the verb, the hidden grammar.
Not long ago a fly landed in the butter.
The buzz stumbled, the the stared out
from the portable computer, the astral light
combined with the high speed line
to toot back an unheard, unseen opinion
so popular here in the South.
I reach for you and nothing, not anything
from all the days of walking, breathing
in and out, waking to change and resemblance,
quickened to the task of words,
time and timing unsung -- belly to belly,
keyboard to hyperthought, one wing
gleaming on a salt sweet brick like a face
in the screen, increased singularity.
I hear the neighbors talking over the fence --
"He came driving up in that turd-colored
convertible and didn't even open the door
when he saw his stuff all flayed out
in the bushes and grass, his shirt with the sleeve
drooping over the hostas . . ."The glass doors
screech, the monarch glisses over standing water,
the ego in its drifting boat interminably waits.
We have no ideas but why should we say goodbye?
The signature and sign don't mean
the end of it.White azalea blossom stuck to mud.
That is the end of winter, this
a preoccupation with weather which has nothing
more than last night on its mind.
Thunder and rain all day like the drumming
of Zutty Singleton.Ivy gropes
the fern, a sprig of oak pollen navigates
over two bar breaks.One or two
octaves over, like a ghost flattened out, down
the basement, up one flight
to the dirty silver door with Judas hole, to a few
tables and wicker chairs, late afternoon -- that's
where to hear a phrase turn.The upright
shakes the floor, and when
however fast the falling torrent flows --
stop that please thinks management if people
stand too long and listen -- the whole world knows
in wind when self assured, the roses blow.
You know that silo in Oklahoma, the one with
chipped tooth on the way to Grandma's house
where apple blossoms lit the way to certain hell?
Well, it's gone now.The leaping light
and silence.Through channels of urgent voluntary
sing-song, passing tones in the hallway
mirror, tension through the saunter of water cooled
air, all is gone.You don't have to remember.
Only that violation in the upper registers which
sounded and does sound in houses
just a few blocks over, and in fact, in this house
which is hot at night and cunning,
waits for a future. Slap-tongue's gone.The mouth
meets and notches the music.
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