Tchaikovsky at the Trinity Site: A Dance of Sorts in Three Acts

What could be worse I’d asked & meant it, steeling myself
for those endless nights, seersucker suit crammed with peppermints
filched from our perennial Chez Moi meal, knowing whole-hog
what I was in for: barely in-synch candy-cane twirls, snowflakes

tottering as they pirouette & everything meant to dazzle
merely something to endure. Even the latex-rope-rigged pine,
cued by the glockenspiel’s midnight chimes, which spread, loomed,
grew with the quivering ascent of strings until it almost touched

the mock-clouds cruising the theater’s star-dappled dark
& the prop walls of the house fell slowly away, breaking apart
as we knew they would, disassembling into nightmare
for the girl on stage. I couldn’t have cared less, & each year

all through the staged battle between mice & toys was snared
only by a thirst for the wrapped things back home. That is, until
the night the Mouse King lunged, tripped & tumbled into
the orchestra pit, taking out a cellist & the woodwinds’ back row.

Pure gravy, of course, to seize even a glimpse of those bodies
untangling, to witness that silence, pause, the eternity
of the movable pit’s descent to the labyrinth of rooms below
as the light-struck dancers wandered adrift in what looked like horror,

shame, the thought they couldn’t go on. When a voice proclaimed
the Mouse King is unhurt, we knew it was a lie but no matter:
before long we were plunged into the Kingdom of Sweets
as if the war had never happened, as if we’d always been

in a world of florescent teeming & tin-foiled thrones
with the Sugar Plum Fairy tiptoeing in chiffon to music
Tchaikovsky knew was confectionary froth yet couldn’t stopper
his delight. That had churned in his mind while lost in New York,

weeping on Broadway, grieving for his sister’s death. That,
while dining on turtle-gravy oysters in a Pullman car en route
to Niagara’s unending roar, he doodled on & off. For nothing.
For a commission. Because he was told to do so & paid well.

Because he’d solved the riddle of the sugar plum dance,
long before it was used to pawn detergent & Fords,
by discovering in Paris the celesta, a hammered instrument
he called divine, with as-of-yet untold effects. Not far from here,

in the Journado del Muerto, the world’s first countdown began.
Even if today we know what happens in that predawn
darkness, the men gathered there guessed. And wagered,

some said, that the air might ignite & destroy—how else
to say this?—everything. Who knew seconds could be
so long, one wrote, & must have felt time altogether stop

as he turned from the site miles away, covered his head, & heard,
as a radio station crossed bands with the army’s broadcast,
that voice flirt with static before it disappeared into

the gauze of violins which opens The Nutcracker Suite.
It didn’t last long, but there it was, tumbling across
the greasewood, yucca & stones to the men crouching

with sunscreen & welder’s glass to see what had never been.
Is there much to say about this fluke, the random convergence
of faiths & worlds, other than it means as little as

the thunderous noise some of them heard near the salt grass
a few hours before The Gadget went off: frogs mating
in the monsoon puddles. They watched them glisten for a while

in a flashlight’s beam, trying to describe their sounds—
a chorus of nails scraping a comb, hundreds of saws, footsteps
pacing a bridge—before they trudged back to their night sweats

& cots, nickel-ante poker & rye, to wait for hours for the clock
to begin & at least until the next dawn came didn’t listen
to the night again. Who hasn’t wanted melody to mean more?

To make at least something happen as it flares across
the arid earth, then disappears? As it ricochets through
the hockey ring’s rafters during The Nutcracker on Ice

or in the basement of a Milwaukee church before the ballet’s lead
half-stumbles, half-glides, half-imitates Munch’s Scream
by clasping her palms to her cheeks. Are we meant to care

this girl weeps for a broken toy & couldn’t dance to save her life?
To watch her gangly legs for grace we know won’t come? Still,
afterwards, over heaps of ham salad at the postdance buffet,

I lie & tell her she was beautiful & she is. As is the bomb
when it comes at last, igniting that rising fire which seems
to never stop, a luminous boiling which bores its way into

all who watch, a charring flash of scarlet & green which pounces
across miles ahead of the roar, blazing every peak with light.
As is the desert afterwards when they find it seared

a translucent jade. And clusters of emerald beads in its crater
which, one wrote, we danced across, raising bourbon
to the sun now truly beginning to rise, wailing like wolves

& weaving in a snakeline because it worked. Of all things,

there’s a jazz ballad I think of whenever I stumble across
the words of those who stood in the desert, watching the light
of what they’d made. The flame of it
                                                         may dwindle to an ember

& the stars forget to shine. Or do I think of those men each time
I hear Midnight Sun? No matter, since nothing denotes

only itself but instead gives off a far-flung glare, making
the endless sea
                          between two things, without hope, without
a chance it might mean more, become—what? A bridge of sorts?

Some instantly-appearing, rain-pocked shore? Not likely, & still
what could be easier than to step from what seemed like the work

of a thousand suns to a tune about the pleasure of bodies
moving long ago. Even if
                                       Badaboom is all Johnny Mercer said
after he scribbled its lyrics on a napkin while locked in LA traffic,

needing only licensing fees & a rhyme for aurora borealis
before it tumbled into place. The band blistered with indifference

the night I heard it in a Philly jazz dive, phoning in songs
as we sank deeper into
                                      our separate silences & whatever waited
at the bottom of each glass. I’d be lying if I said the room came alive

on that last piece the glassy-eyed singer slurred through, & yet
something happened by the second verse as she let the melody

abruptly collapse, unhinge
                                          from the chords & some of us looked up
& found ourselves strapped to a stillness we could do nothing about.
Warmer than, warmer than, she started to sing, & for a while

repeated just that phrase. As if rapturous, as if unable
to allow the poor pennies that will be the next words drop,

even if all she wanted to conjure were anonymous lips
from a one night stand, what the body felt
                                                                    as flame. By now
there was nothing but brush-stroked snare & the woman wailing

she can’t explain & the one syllable I became a fevered shriek,
in flux across so many disintegrating bars, crumbling, a long ride

from the background slog
                                         she’d been paid cash to make
& soon, although all she & the band had to do was churn through
what would be the night’s last words—I could see the Midnight Sun

& we could all, thank god, go home, instead she let loose a cascade
of indecipherable sounds & we stood more or less stock-still

except for the bass player checking his watch & that guy
in a tank-top screaming for ice in his screwdriver again
& her voice couldn’t stop saying
                                                   what by then we knew before

she staggered back from the mike & slumped on her stool,
unaware, I’d guess, what she’d done. Which was what, exactly?

How to explain what quickened the air & gripped us
despite ourselves? To name
                                             what hurled through the crowd
& made us want nothing else just then, made her want to shred

the melody she began, the sole reason that night means anything at all.
In the end what is there to say? When Tchaikovsky spoke

for the first time on the phone just after
                                                                the wires were installed,
he heard his friend’s voice carried over unthinkable miles
& managed only a few words before blurting out it shouldn’t be

possible, that expanse, those human sounds, & hung up
trembling, unable to endure it, heart thrashing wildly in its cage.