I went there to see the terns’
tight formations, the alternating currents
of their flight and the aspen-
like changes of their color in the wind
from shadow-white to mica to white
as if one bird were amplified
and reproduced ten times in the sun
so exactly did they move in unison
like the notes of Chopin
I heard over the radio
in the car driving over, a piano
ten times removed from its composer
and his passion. Against this the gestures
of the boats on the ocean were
from a mindless little movie. On Route One
I thought of money
and how I would spread it
around if I had it.
First for bread, then for its antidote,
which is what? Chopin or the talk,
the ersatz strings, and the rock
which is what I hear when I pore over
the frequencies for a remedy. The Contours
sing, Do you love me? Do you love me,
now that I can dance…from 1963.
In 1968 I sang, Why dance
when you can rock and roll? the slogan
of my brother’s infantry division
their M-16’s on fully automatic—that’s
what rock and roll was,
the deafening electric buzz
and rush, the song and dance
of conscience. I was grateful for the trance
it put me in. My father let me fire
a gun once in New Hampshire
after the shadow of a ruffled grouse
and I didn’t miss. I thought
of murder then, and the idiots
and simpletons men elected and what
they removed from me . . .
if that was murder
it was also an answer.
If it was an answer
then every man and woman
is an Abraham with his knife drawn
above the only Isaac
whom we must lose to get back
and suck some kind of sense
from the paradox. The paradox sucks
what’s left of my love
should I have another one,
a hostage to oblivion,
or should the thrashing
around me be a sign of something
animal caught in the bush,
the faithful payoff, or just
more trouble under the hood.
Someone’s pet is dead in the road.
I brake and accelerate too late
to avoid its murmur
under my tires, but that’s not murder
being already dead, and to hate
the sight of it—the fur grey
and clotted, the feet splayed—
is not to love less. And if
I gnaw my arm at the prospect of
suffering, is that love?
I love less than I hate.
If that’s the case
then I have what men have
who have never bled; I have speed,
destination, and the aftermath of murder
which is murder of a different order,
all answer and eloquent report,
something of consolation, something of worth.
Don’t you think the striking
of the hammers on the strings
is not another way of asking,
Do you love me? each note cradling
power and pleasure, the putting
it to you and the tender,
the noun and the verb?
At the extent of my reception
I hear that same inflected question
played in variations on station
after station like devotions
at the stations of the cross.
And I hear voices
long after I stop the car
and shut the motor
off. I hear the voices
of the love sick and the sociopathic.
I hear the strains of the classics, static,
all those anthems, and the friction
I could lubricate with money. I’ve driven
myself to distraction when
what I came for was to give in
to the merely graceful.
In the echo chamber of my skull
I hear the news that Jo Jones, the drummer,
has become insensible.
I hear a passage from Isaiah,
on rapture. We will be depressed
by the slow cyclone of a storm. Terrorist
gunmen continue their war,
a righteous war with many martyrs—
that’s what I keep receiving here.
It’s as if the lid of the jar
of miseries were lifted, the gift
that Pandora carried down to earth.
The air is full of her influence.
There’s no such thing as silence
as you can hear if you’re still.
There’s the nerves’ thrill
and the heart’s dull gulp and swallow
after the diminuendo
of the broadcasts of the world.
Into this the grace note of the bird,
the slightest embellishment of air
that’s the support, I believe,
of our immediate future.
Not the backlash of boredom
and accident, not the American
slash and burn, not the uncalled for.
I’m speaking for the amateur
when I say I love the terns
I disturbed from their nests,
their lack of manliness
and their flight
faithfully wed to the elements
of the infinite,
although they’re nobody’s wife.
This is the afterlife.
Bruce Smith was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the author of six books of poems: The Common Wages; Silver and Information (National Poetry Series, selected by Hayden Carruth); Mercy Seat; The Other Lover (University of Chicago), which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; Songs for Two Voices (Chicago, 2005); and most recently, Devotions, a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and winner of the William Carlos Williams Prize. He teaches at Syracuse University. (updated 10/2021)
Smith’s book The Mercy Seat was reviewed in AGNI 42 by Don Share.