Robert Farnsworth


Sometimes hearing new music,
the kind that thrills the triceps,
starts a cool cascade in the nape,
I wonder what if I'd heard this

back at twenty? Would my life have
turned, prompted by this beauty,
for good or ill, elsewhere? What if
then this something-like-a-door

had swung open inside of me?  
But no, this melody could not have
existed then, at least not just this
way, and something in my body seems

fit for it only now.  Now come May
I crank the skylights open, let
a slow freight train's trundle pour
in on evening air, and spend uncertain

morning light replacing the world
with testimony.  The exterminator
waves his brass wand gently along
the brick foundations of my neighbor's

house. A circular saw suffers through
fresh lumber, behind doubled hammer
blows at work on a distant roof.  More
efficiency, durability . . . .  And this more

comprehensively gorgeous music
I play again, again, avid for the taste
it gives of experienced, jubilant sorrow,
from which derives an old premise

even journalists would dismiss—
the world is growing, growing up;
a world that makes such music,
where every fervency of yes and no
admits a gentle irony, but where
honest admiration of the sky is still
required, that world must be growing
more complex, more aware. It isn't.

It is not. Suffering, pleasure, or
awareness of old suffering, old pleasure
simply come to seem more layered
and acute, like this changeable

spring sky.  The floater in my left
eye veers across humid air that coils
from the street in a blast of sun, which
then diminuendos as the piano starts

battering the room with strange chords.  
And if I know the simple hunger that
makes me confuse coincidence with
design, complexity with growth, music

makes me know, insists upon my
knowing. And insists as well, tenderly,
terribly, upon another knowing,
undulantly rising in the distance.


Shape the mind so as to have it, among
the hours, repeatedly assailed, as if by
some demand imperfectly remembered,

and north light will say, answer this,  
after a long July day has sunk through
the refuge you've made of memory's

holdings: mismatched windows, a floor's
vague slope, furniture long since sold off
or burned, smells you wait, unaware,

to recognize again, answer this big tent's
evening air.  Beneath the PA speakers
the drummer stamps his high hat,

tightens up the bass skin. The guitarist,
squinting as if peering into how it
should sound, twists a string toward E,

and the canvas walls belly in around
a hundred chatting voices. Imagine you
have to explain a flow of insinuations,
to descant for them a comprehension—
that child you saw today, staring at herself
in a hubcap, then, sudden, strong, just

as they all sling on their instruments,
the strained, beloved face in the coffin
arrives: no more, no more evenings,                           

chords, or clouds.  She was tired, tired
of the brook's vague laving of stones,
emerald and nickel, of all the vast and

elaborate world's complicity with
itself. Then the music begins its loud,
ravishing accusation of the dark.


For my money, the sound board guy
is screwing up: more sonic energy
than the hall's air can hold, so much
you can't even hear what key the chords
belong in. The runway into the crowd
is the Raft of the Medusa, adrift in
a maelstrom of imploring arms.
The singer grimaces and gyrates there,
while guitarists take brisk walks
to the edge of the stage, knock-kneed,
ecstatically fingering their axes,
they then leap up and bound back
to the blank wall of speakers, like
some manic backfield, or garage hands
in a frantic tire shop. Bird or dragon
logos, like the personal badges
of Great War fighter pilots, strobe
on a screen, while swinging spots
swim as from guard-towers over us.
I don't want to be skeptical, but
between numbers I do want to tell
my son and his birthday buddies
what a monster Jimmy Page created.
I keep it to myself, watch instead his
gentle refusal of the sweet-smelling
joint approaching down our row.
Something feels scripted about all
of this, lacking in the frenzied joy
or political rage or Dionysian
communion I seem to remember,
or maybe I just can't detect it anymore.
Maybe it's beyond me. It's a bit
troubling to realize the only way out
of the mosh pit would be on the hands
of the dancers. Of course, the doctor
told me just a week later, the main
problems here you can't do anything
about: you're male and you're aging.
That is indeed so, but so ripe for,
yet impervious to riposte. I'd never
tell her, of course, how studiedly I'd
sidled away from the first condition,
and what could my denial of the second
matter now?  The past, as my son
later told me over supper, was just
the past. Inert, you mean, I said,
though I was smiling too.  He had
a point, but valid only so long as
his will obscured the other, shifting  
points accruing as his past. Things
can creep back up on you, I said, but I
didn’t say—you'll see. It wasn't long
before, inscrutably, he began asking
about his adopted friend's origins
in Bombay, saying that never knowing
where he came from would trouble him.
Well there you are, I didn't say,
funny how the past might not stay still.
And the doctor's vague exasperation came
back to seize me then, just as that evening,
out of a little echoey string-picking came
the sudden, ghastly blast of power chords.


To watch people manage enabling
devices—braces, walkers,
wheelchairs—always spells up
uncertainly in me, striking
all the minor notes of knowing,
or supposing what's denied them—

distances, the means to wander
there, to saunter toward hard
purposes, to shape the air
and light with a casual dance,
to devour sumptuous textures
bodily. All that. But then a mild vow

seems woven through the delicate
spokes, glistening either side
of the chair, as it unfolds
beside the car. My looking
becomes listening. To melody
still heard, in the small, achieved

space of evening, soon to be lit
with lamps and gentle speech—
cooking, talking, reading. Shelter.
Fragile, miniature, made-believe.  
And outside, still to come again,
all that fiery, unfathomable dark.

                for J.G.F.

Midnight alone.  I could have made
my house my own with saxophones
or cellos, but hear those guitars?
They're still what gets me and they've
got to be loud, loud as these big
chords belled down the years. There!
There! They're how we'll be history,
how we'll be quaint, how we'll swing
ourselves up the long fish ladder
of middle age, how we'd like to believe
we might become someone’s idea
of romance. How the blood can still
be blasted across provinces the careful
mind forgot, still know this pleasure that
makes that mind love its own defeat.
Once just some adrenal trigger maybe,
now they're how we'd hear the lost
(beside ourselves & baffled but
still thrilled) hopes in which we met
ourselves those years ago. Nobody
home, nobody wants me now, no
calls, no one to meet in the country
of old men, so I can crank it up and doze
here in the gale of guitars, mysterious
storms that love once strangely brewed
in my bloodstream. I can see them
lightning in the distance.  I remember
how I followed them across state lines,
through all the bridges' narrowed eyes,
how in open cars we wore the brazen
chords like quicksilver breastplates.
Loud sun, loud rain poured all over me
and those I loved.  Elders said you'll
use it up, use up all that devotional
passion, those verge-of-weeping smiles,
that sexual simmer—don't do it,
don't. I had to, as they did. And now
into the distances that music makes,
that music flings around my shoulders
like a cape whirling up in some old
wind, out of the here-take-this,
the won't-stay-done, the repose,
reprise, the run-around, out of my
sing-in-those-chains days I'm
sauntering with a smile. Listen
to those guitars. We were
as foolish and brave and certain
as anyone before us. What we knew
the young will never know.

Recent poems of Robert Farnsworth's have appeared in The Southern Review, Antioch Review, Smiths Knoll (U.K.), Malahat Review (Canada), Triquarterly, and Ploughsares. Wesleyan University Press brought out his two collections, Three Or Four Hills And A Cloud, and Honest Water.  He teaches at Bates College in Lewiston, ME, where he lives with his wife and two sons.



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