Galway Kinnell

(1 February 1927 / Providence, Rhode Island)

The Cellist


At intermission I find her backstage
still practicing the piece coming up next.
She calls it the "solo in high dreary."
Her bow niggles at the string like a hand
stroking skin it never wanted to touch.
Probably under her scorn she is sick
that she can't do better by it. As I am,
at the dreary in me, such as the disparity
between all the tenderness I've received
and the amount I've given, and the way
I used to shrug off the imbalance
simply as how things are, as if the male
were constituted like those coffeemakers
that produce less black bitter than the quantity
of sweet clear you poured in--forgetting about
how much I spilled through unsteady walking,
and that lot I threw on the ground
in suspicion, and for fear I wasn't worthy,
and all I poured out for reasons I don't understand yet.
"Break a leg!" somebody tells her.
Back in my seat, I can see she is nervous
when she comes out; her hand shakes as she
re-dog-ears the top corners of the big pages
that look about to flop over on their own.
Now she raises the bow--its flat bundle of hair
harvested from the rear ends of horses--like a whetted
scimitar she is about to draw across a throat,
and attacks. In a back alley a cat opens
her pink-ceilinged mouth, gets netted
in full yowl, clubbed, bagged, bicycled off, haggled open,
gutted, the gut squeezed down to its highest pitch,
washed, sliced into cello strings, which bring
an ancient screaming into this duet of hair and gut.
Now she is flying--tossing back the goblets
of Saint-Amour standing empty,
half-empty, or full on the tablecloth-
like sheet music. Her knees tighten
and loosen around the big-hipped creature
wailing and groaning between them
as if in elemental amplexus.
The music seems to rise from the crater left
when heaven was torn up and taken off the earth;
more likely it comes up through her priest's dress,
up from that clump of hair which by now
may be so wet with its waters, like the waters
the fishes multiplied in at Galilee, that
each wick draws a portion all the way out
to its tip and fattens a droplet on the bush
of half notes now glittering in that dark.
At last she lifts off the bow and sits back.
Her face shines with the unselfconsciousness of a cat
screaming at night and the teary radiance of one
who gives everything no matter what has been given.

Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003

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  • Richard Stivelman (11/26/2006 11:04:00 AM)

    Cora dear,
    Perhaps you have to be a fan of Kinnell's, or a weirdo like me, to find this poem not only worthwhile, but quite nice. Anyway, I couldn't resist sending it to you. If you hate it, please do not be angry with me.
    Love,
    Dick (Report) Reply

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