Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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The world’s first drum was nothing we would call
a drum. Nothing, that is, until we heard it,

the heartwood gutted by knives, I imagine,
or the slow sure violence of time

eating through the center. To hear it now,
the hollow core and the force that strikes it,

to give the vessel its signature timbre,
its live sound, and feel that sound decay,

we need a little of the spirit that found
us, making something out of nothing,

as kids do and certain habits of unease.
We need a silence to displace, a past

to bleed through, as the unheard in the heard,
or wounds that redden the cloth that binds them.

It skins them, like a drum. We are born out
of this, our world, but also into it.

Out of the wilderness, the sound of drums.
Out of nothing a child’s choice to listen.

Out of the dark, the voice that says, what
I really need is time. I learned to hurry

when my steps were smaller than the others’.
I leaned a step ahead of my body,

and my father stopped, waited, and still
I never arrived. Out of nothing, the gallop,

the fist, the thunder, the language saying, now, now,
at intervals that measured not time alone,

but our path in it, our sense of please God, not
yet, and remember, love, and sometime soon.

Our drums keep time, we say, but we know better.
We know music as neither time

nor its keeper, neither mastery nor dread.
No bridling of the scarred behemoth,

no crumpling of winter widows into streams.
It is a language for no language, a pulse

beneath the skin of words, the compulsory
insistence of a chisel breaking stone.

What music makes, it unmakes. It moves, we move.
Hair slips from its ribbons. And the head

that rocks in its cradle has a child in it,
slipping off to where the measures end,

ocean begins. In the gutted body
we leave behind, the breathing of the shore.

Long ago suns rose and fell in the great
clock of skies that would never fall,

the great phonograph with its axis,
its great observers who measured every move.

The music of the spheres was, for them,
a sphere. The sympathetic shiver from star

to star gave off the aura of one star,
one pulsing zero in a tally of debts.

The more the great observers measured the more
they fell asleep facedown on their charts.

For they were believers and so possessed
and followed a ghost of song that believes

nothing, and is no one, and pours its cup
of stars each night into a frozen sea.

The great observers were the first to admit.
They heard no tune. Because they always heard it.

Music came, if it came, in the flesh of an idea,
a ghost, a mostly hollow place, lost

as any paradise and those we leave there.
So it is with interiors that have no skin,

no meat, no interior. This god, this O,
who has no center, no wall of stars to knock,

no door to leave the pilgrim of our bones.
I have been to a house like that. I stood

to sing in an old stone church, to offer
hymns whose words return because I sang them.

Beside me, the father who never talked
of what we sang to whom, wherever, and why.

But there he was, faithful as a watch,
the practical half singing to the other.

We sang together, badly, the hidden valves
and bellows of our bodies joined in time.

I never saw him take the invisible
as gospel, but more as one takes a breath,

a moment, a matter more lightly, and then,
invisibly, to change the conversation.

What I do know is our suns continued
to rise and fall and the morning to pour

its pitcher of light. Give us this day, we said
as we were told, as those before us said

and so bore the same gold torch across
the threshold of their passing. It got old.

Forgotten. And now and then new again.
The world’s first drum was the animal heart.

It must have known something we did not,
that a body needs a suitcase with a sea

inside. It needs to carry ashore the salt
and tide of some obscurity it crawled from.

It needs blood and closure and some time
in the wilderness. Some place to hide.

The world’s first instrument was time. Then
the ghost stepping out of the body

and in and out again, the ocean pulse
that says, the infinite is coming and then

it never does. When my father died,
he stopped cold. Like a watch. He waited.

Most of what I touch is missing. So says
the science of small things, child steps,

particle shards, whose tally comes up short.
Most of what a mind touches is lost

the moment that we reach it. When I was small,
I nearly drowned. Night after night

God’s ocean beats its measures in the dark.
It’s still there. The hammer as the father

of the nail. Lightning a stride before the thunder.
For all I know, the world’s first voice was wind

as atoms are and hearts when you break them.
Everywhere you look, the whirr of small fears

we do not hear because we always hear them.
We who were born of violence. None recalls.

These days the greater measure of rhythm
is silence; of language, air; of the day to day,

the passing expectation. There is a note
of panic in the higher resonance of praise,

a quiet violence in the joy that breaks.
And the drummer, in the heated sections,

sends a gallop through the wilderness.
Most of what I know I forget. I hear it,

the ghost of it, in this. I hear the father
I knew in one I never will. A believer

then and so a head full of chaos laid down
in Eden like a child. The greater measure

of flesh is blood turned muscle that beats the door
it cannot open. And then, at rest, it does.  

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