You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
You do work the same piece
for years even –
until a groove forms:
and part habit,
source of friction and music,
the width of the
bow hair, no more
then one day,
in the soft clutch of
breaks into two
like the once-precious
of a flightless bird.
I had gone to Sleeping Giant to unwind my spool of days, playing this time not on the boulder, but on one of the picnic benches near the entrance. This was at the end of the semester and the back of my car was full of plastic coffee cups, the so called “graveyard” whose carbon footprint I am ashamed of, but when the commute is an hour both ways feels excusable. As I played, I was able to forget about the semester, which always starts on such a high note of optimism and even solidarity in the fabled institution of higher learning, the aristocrat’s garden, and by the end, like that line you might draw of your own life’s trajectory, meets a plushy guillotine wherein all of the same misconceptions about philosophy that were present at the beginning of the semester spill out into the red of evaluations… Sometimes acts of forgetting seem indistinguishable from acts of meditation, fingers finding familiar positions on the fingerboard, bow tensed in anticipation of a return to that same Bach melody, or a fragment of it, finished or unfinished. One then experiences a moment as something eternal, which is why it was all the more surprising and harsh when, as my eyes were closed focusing on the piece, I hear a crash on the picnic table. He was angry, furious, I could tell by his eyes as he slammed the plastic coffee cup down right next to me, saying, ‘This is yours!’ Jack Johnson doppelganger? Excon? Unhinged? I knew it was best not to react, and he stormed off. I looked at the cup, but not that closely, and yelled to him that I was sorry if it was mine, that I didn’t intend to litter. Maybe it had fallen out when I opened the backdoor to get my violin. I then resume playing, but the next thing I know, there is another large crash next to me – I somehow hadn’t heard him even come up, and this time it’s an enormous rock he’d found, and as he’s staring at me dead in the eyes I think to myself how the only weapon I have is a steel pen in my pocket. By this time I’m starting to shake and he says loudly, “You seem like a nice guy, real nice,” and walks away a bit and then yells, “Keep cutting that violin through the air.” I see him talk to/harass a couple other people before leaving. I couldn’t play anymore after the incident, so I walked back to my car. Upon closer inspection, the lid of the plastic cup he’d given me didn’t match any of those in the “graveyard”, it wasn’t mine. Perhaps he’d seen the cups in my backseat and drawn a hasty conclusion, perhaps he had just wanted to pick a fight. Would it have been better to say nothing? Is it a better way to live to say nothing?
It had been some days since playing in Wooster Square. I returned only to find my familiar log stump had been cleaved in half. I could have described the pattern of moss and lichen on that stump, but alas. So I proceeded to play on one of the many benches that dot the square. Just as it was on the verge of raining and I was going to pack up (the violin, I think, being wood, can tolerate some moisture, but not much, and eventually it affects the horsehair), two girls in traditional looking dresses come up and ask if they can listen. I play a bit – nothing pressing came to mind – and then one of them asks if she can see my shoulder rest, which I show her and explain some of the differences between it and a “Kun”, which I presume is the one with which she was familiar. I had gathered by this point from their general appearance and the fact that they travel in a pair that they were Mormon missionaries. I sympathized a bit, describing what I knew might be the typical “ugh” reaction they would receive in New Haven, reflecting on the numerous conversations I used to have as an undergrad in Missouri with Mormons and others about the existence of God, the nature of faith, the paradoxes of the trinity. I recommended along the way that they read Dante, and of course one of them had already and her eyes lit up when I mentioned it. There was the sense of wonder there, of youth and a kind of compassion that kindled the will to spread the word of what they genuinely believed was the gospel truth. How could I shut myself off from that? I told them how much I valued keeping an open mind about everything, and at that they offered to give me a copy of the book of Mormon with their contact information included, so that when I finished reading it I could “let them know what I think”. I accepted it but without the contact info, though the book has nothing like the literary quality of the Bible, for fear that if I did read it and contacted them it would only be out of some subconscious desire to find the sort of family or community which I lack here and which inspires the fruitless attempts at interaction and the vain pursuit of genuine conversation. Some weeks later my cat left a “present” on the cover.
Ivan I met at Prospect Hill on a cool summer’s evening. I had been playing for quite some time, and vaguely thinking to myself that if loneliness doesn’t kill you then perhaps, if you are sufficiently imaginative, it can be a blessing. As it was nearly dark, and by this time of year (October) my fingers would become too cold to continue to play, I had packed up my things and began the slow descent down the uneven knoll, when I heard a voice asking if I had been the one playing. Indeed, I said, and expected it to be one of those curt, polished conversations, perhaps touching on the weather, perhaps ending in one of those lilted rises distinctive of a New Haven accent, a blunt assertion. But in the night air, Ivan raised his bottle and invited me to join him. He had been drinking something like fernet and studying a pocket edition of a Beethoven piano score, which, he was convinced, contained a motif for one of the themes in the 9th symphony. Looking over the music, I thought he made a pretty compelling case, but it was the sort of thing that you would not have noticed unless pointed out to you. Though “just” an undergrad who’d recently graduated from the music program at Yale with a specialization in piano performance, he struck me as someone who was incredibly well read, who could have thrived no matter which university he’d attended. He reminded me of a teacher I’d had in grad school, who emphasized focusing on an image of a butterfly flying away as I played one of the passages from Saint-Saëns’ Rondo Capriccioso. I mentioned to him that someone ought to take all those blue masks littering sidewalks, launder them, then craft them into an enormous butterfly whose wingspan, like the dread of catching Covid, itself would be immense enough to cast a shadow over all of East Rock. As the evening wore on, we talked poetry, about the importance of focusing on an image when shaping some musical or poetic phrase, the universality of the arts, and finally I did take a swig of his vermouth, even though this was near the height of the pandemic. Bitter. He never did Facebook friend me.
Do It Again
I was sitting on my stump (really just a log) in Wooster Square playing the violin, unwinding my spool of days as I usually do, where the spool is my lifetime and the days are the thread wound around the spool. Then a man approached, a sketchy guy on a bicycle who reeked of beer. He asked if he could listen and I said I didn’t mind. So he listened for a bit, then explained how his daughter LJ wanted to learn the violin, then asked if he could record a song on his phone, which he did, then asked if I could record a message for her: “LJ, you can accomplish anything you want in life”. I agreed, but changed this to ‘LJ, you can do anything in life you want, as long as you put your mind to it’, which was closer to what I believe. But I must have spoken too softly, as he advanced with his phone, saying, “Do it again”. I’ve known when to withdraw from a situation about to turn bad, and when to keep on, so I said, “LJ you can do anything in life”, which despite his ‘God bless’ struck me as lacking certain riders: if you stay in school, if you put your mind to it, if you practice, if circumstances don’t intervene. All these things I wanted to proclaim, not as qualifications, but in the spirit of a toast like my father used to give, conjuring up smiles all around, if not grace. Mostly I wanted to add that her father loves her.
“John Cameron has again his wife Lizzie Steel”
I stuttered, my friend, on those four notes
belonging, I realized, to that time and place
which would never come again: we three:
bride, groom, and my violin piercing within
the circular rosebush where I stood blank
and stuttered the one wedding song I knew
by heart – playing an A, A – the first notes
a beginner learns to play on an open string,
which have a kind of pure sound not un-
musical, which mark the beginning of finer,
subtler ideas, harmonies to be explored
together in a chamber ensemble. Perhaps I
(in trying in cool moments to make a virtue
out of a mistake)
had broken the piece into shards which,
like the glass you broke, were more difficult
to put together than a marriage split apart.
Perhaps you knew this, as I began to play
from the top, as you turned to your wife
and smiled in the fall wind.
This time I had gone down to the river that flows slowly to the reservoir in East Rock park. The color, the muddiness, the gentle shimmering in the sunlight by which half the canopy seems to hang in the water on still days, reminds me of the Neckar in Tubingen, not far from the tower where Hölderlin lived out his final years. Long after he had written of the swans that dunk their heads in the sobering, holy water. Here, petty complaints about the fundamental difficulties of existence fade into the distance, give way to footfalls of runners passing on the trail, the occasional beat of a car stereo turned up too loud by the driver’s attempt to silence all the noise around him, coinciding with my attempt for silence to silence all the noise around me, except when I play, on this occasion muted with a concert mute, creating a rhythm beside the water not unlike the water. The end of summer elapses with the quickness of a child’s smile, the pink of a calloused heel, and although it’s summer I’m reminded of a kid and his grandmother I met at this spot last winter, when my fingers were freezing and there was still snow on the ground. He had noticed a giant pile of poop that was in the bushes not far from my bench; like the blue masks littered everywhere, like the trash on the green, the omnipresent plastic shopping bags, chip bags, needles, it took fresh eyes to even notice it. But once pointed out, it even struck the grandmother as strange – why was it so large, what sort of beast had left that? Suddenly his eyes grew big and he called out that it must be dinosaur poop. Yeah, I said, a pterodactyl, or a T-rex, or unicorn, I rejoined.
Not having children of my own (too poor), I’ve always wondered whether it could be observed as a gradual process, or whether it happens quite suddenly, perhaps with the onset of puberty: the loss of wonder and awe that results in the inevitably dull, bovine (is that an insult to cows?) adult. Or is wonder stamped out sometime later in life, or through the ‘rigors’ of higher education? Perhaps it’s somehow related to the fact that older people, especially elderly people, have little tolerance for bullshit. They are “no nonsense”. A student once told me a funny story about his grandmother who had once been at a party, this was after she had retired from being a voice teacher, and when asked how she occupies her time, what does she do – does she spend time with the grandchildren, go to concerts, teach voice lessons occasionally – she replied flatly: “nothing”.
When I asked my partner/roommate why she figures there is less tolerance for bullshit as one ages, she said very confidently that it’s because older people realize how little time they have left, so they don’t want to waste it listening to others’ bullshit. But couldn’t there be some kinds of bullshit that are part of that vast, ill-defined realm of the ephemera of life, which undergird life’s important moments – like an artful performance of a late Beethoven quartet, or the apogee of a Hölderlin hymn, or the glint of sunlight on the water, or a child’s delightful gibberish? What would a no-nonsense answer have consisted in that day, that if it wasn’t dog shit it was likely human shit, and if it was human shit that is because a homeless person had wandered into East Rock and had to go and there were no toilets nearby, that there were homeless people with drug problems the state could not provide for; in short, without the occasional bullshit, wasn’t it impossible to hide the cruelty of the world? Later that summer, I’d see him and his grandmother again and play them the happy birthday song.
I didn’t think about it carefully then, but it emerges clearly to me now: he had discovered the perfect question. A question as unintelligible as it was innocent, as inviting as it was fool-hardly, as unanswerable as it was habitually asked.
The reason, I think, why he singled me out, is that he’d heard me play on one occasion. The one and only occasion I played outside P and M as I sat with some friends who have since moved off, and after drink after drink from Casanova I got out my fiddle and played an old Scottish tune called “Rothiemurcus’ Rant”. The tune I imagine had the harsh open E quarter notes falling on the beat as a way of depicting an argument. I always imagined it less as a rant and more as a domestic dispute. That was what he had heard that day outside P and M as the sun was shining, people had gathered with their friends.
I speak of the village idiot whose only question ever to any East Rock dweller is, ‘How are you?’ And by the way, this isn’t an insult, as I regard myself as something of a village idiot as well. Perhaps that’s why I get the question more often than others; whenever he sees me it boils up within him, his eyes grow large, and just before the question is blurted out, he carefully precedes it with a loud, monotone ‘Da-Da-Da-Da, Da-Da-Da-Da’. I believe this string of sounds is meant to evoke music, in some sense, or what he takes a song to sound like, or perhaps the memory of my song (the matter is somewhat impenetrable).
It doesn’t matter what I may be doing, if he spots me. My head might be down sleeping on my violin case, I might be under a sun umbrella engrossed in writing, my face might be buried in a sandwich, I might simply be attempting to enjoy the calm of day and the warmth of the sun before rush hour or a micro-penis on a quad destroys it; in any event, the question follows with its absurd regularity, as though this man had been written into the Waiting for Godot of my life as a side character who has only to deliver one line, but from whose method-acting perspective that one line, even if in reality it is trivial, ties together not only the play, but carries such a momentous weight as to entrain together all of the monologues of dramatic theater: “How are you?”
Obviously once the question is issued, it can’t be avoided, anymore that a person can choose to form a belief based on an immediate perception. Of course, one could say the proper course is to ‘not interact’ but so much interaction goes on anyway within oneself. There are a few times I attempted to trot out an answer as equally absurd as the question. I tried, in response, ‘the same’. If this seemed pleasing to him it presumably is not on account of the response being informative (as that is precisely the point, as in a Beckett play, to have my own role cohere with his, such that it transfers no information at all).
But of course this is life, not theater, and I bored quickly of this response and reverted to simply ignoring him until he left. A more capitulating response might be to say “good” or “bad”, as the case may be, but this seems vague if not downright disingenuous. In fact, his line of questioning has made me suspicious of the import of the question, that there is anything factual that could be reported in response to his question. For that would seem to imply that there is such a thing as a state of oneself whose condition at any given time can be positively or negatively evaluated in some determinate fashion. But what state would that be – the “body”, “the self”, as regarding one’s capacities? And if “good” and “bad” are not to be found anywhere?
All that mutually shared contextual information which makes the question intelligible enough in ordinary situations – like between friends meeting up, between spouses, etc. – in this case is missing. But unlike the other sort of artificial settings in which the question occurs (first dates, dentist’s office, at the cashier, etc.), in which there no shared knowledge upon which to base a meaningful response, nor can the question – especially on account of its repeatability – be chocked up to etiquette or small talk. Even the most straightforwardly true response I have provided on at least one occasion – “I was attempting to concentrate until you disturbed my peace”, which does accurately report an event, would seem to fall short and represent a kind of avoidance of the matter. What conversational contribution could be built upon it?
Occasionally I have thought to misdirect the question, as a means of salvaging some small peace; what if I said in response, gesturing towards others at another table – “what about them, how are they?” I could even say it with the accentuated rising tone of the question: “How are they??” After all, if the question is directed at me for no apparent reason, then by the same token He ought to see others as equally worthy of being asked the same question. Perhaps we could learn, then, to see each other as He sees us, as equally capable of introspecting upon the totality of our own bodily and mental states, and at each moment creating an accurate assessment which can then be reported to all the others which belong to the same system, creating a sort of feedback loop which then prompts at the next moment the same question, which then updates the total state of the system, so that, in the end, we would be like the array of monads which Leibniz describes, which, while each of us is windowless, every one of us is like a mirror which reflects, and is reflected in, the various parts of the whole.
Where does our shared light then finally cascade in this brief infinity of mirrors if it is not reflected back into ourselves? What are the questions we ought to be asking each other if there are any questions to be asked on a daily basis, as a matter of “habit” if not compulsion? Would there be a need to ask such questions if we could understand each other?
There are days when I carry its case like the coffin of my life: the cloth covering worn down so that the wood and staple are exposed in places as if it were a pine box that contained so much potential, or I should say, so many: novel sounds, dreams I used to have of playing the Tchaikovsky concerto, of being a great violinist, a great anything. I’ve often thought it would be a useful exercise to make precise the “trajectory” of one’s life. You might draw an x and y axis on a sheet of paper, where the x axis represents the years of your life, marked in say, five year intervals; the y axis represents your overall level of contentment, with ground zero being sadness and the top of the page being those ecstatic moments so sparsely distributed you could count them on one hand.
When I met Brook, it was at the time of year just past the height of the cherry blossom festival in Wooster square. This is an event everyone comes out to: families, couples, wedding parties, dog walkers, random violinists so tired of the pandemic that they bask in the sunlight playing their Scottish dances, vividly trying to imagine a different time, a simpler existence where people could look each other in the face and smile and laugh and forgive each other’s faults. But no matter how vividly I’d imagined it, it always fell short, or my fingers would freeze up, or the mosquitoes would come at dusk and drive me away.
She said she was cold, and to be fair there was a biting wind, when she shouldered up to me at the intersection and together we crossed the street that leads through the “little Italy” section of town with brownstones that remind me of Brooklyn, on the way to Wooster square. She said she had seen me months ago, always in the same places, and I said that’s how it was, how I unwind my spool of days (which is the truth). I thought that was the end of it when she wandered away and I took my seat on the bench and began my practice session.
When she came back it was with a to-go cup filled with god knows what, she was clearly tipsy and chain-smoking. When she invited me back to her apartment for “take out” I knew where it could lead, and instead – like in every situation – I compromised. The conversation went well enough that we settled on Thai, ordering full entrees at the restaurant and finishing none of it. We proceeded then to a bar for drinks and by this time I had confessed that I was in a relationship, dashing any plans for a one-night-stand on the day before she would leave, with just her cat and belongings, for an unending road trip to Alaska where she would serve just as she had in New Haven for the previous months, as a medical technician.
Against my better judgment (we were both very drunk at this point and it was dark outside) I decided to walk her back to her apartment, passing through Wooster square on the way. There she fell into a dazed slump on the grass and, doing what I do, I unpacked the violin and proceeded to play the saddest lament that I knew, “Neil Gow’s Lament for the death of his brother”, as the cherry blossoms fell all around us as if clouds in a gathering storm, with darkened sweet gum trees in the distance, and she said it couldn’t be more beautiful – I told her just to look up and we saw the swaying, moonlit branches loaded with blossoms to a breaking point of unbelievable grace.
She fell twice on the three steps that led to the door of her apartment building, but I caught her the second time. She lived like I do: sparse, a cat, organized. As we sat on the couch she was nearly falling asleep, I was already in massive trouble for staying out, so we hugged and said our goodbyes. I might have kissed her, but it’s hard to remember. I did and didn’t want to commit an infidelity. I said I’d wish I had met her before the day she had to leave, but that’s how it goes. A few days later I’d get an apologetic email (somehow I managed to spill the Thai food on the floor on my way out – did the cat eat it?) that concluded with asking me to tell her a story. I took the easy route and sent a link to an essay I’d written about cuteness.
But what story could I have told? Would it have been a fairytale that begins with a sad violinist leaving everything to embark for Alaska? Would it have been about that brief moment where at the restaurant she softly admitted she was an alcoholic and, in denial myself, I replied that at least she has youth on her side? Would it have been that other brief moment in our conversation when our eyes finally met when I spoke the word “possibility” and although it had seemed to her that I was for the most part both “there” and “not there”, this word “possibility” held within itself both the locking mechanism which enclosed it, and the key?
Once Upon a Time Everything Ended
It had just finished raining hard and the sky was still overcast. I decided to go practice my violin, scales and arpeggios but also some bits from Hans Ignaz Franz von Biber, aka “the other Biber”, in the pavilion at Sleeping Giant. This is how I unwind my spool of days. Five minutes into playing a young man comes over to me and says that he’d rather not hear it, that he was focusing on a term paper he was working on. So I tell him I’m an agreeable sort, and that if I can sense that his level of dis-ease at my playing outweighs my own level of enjoyment from practicing, then given that there is nothing special about my own interests that privilege them over his, I will move off.
By this time it had stopped raining so I did move off to a picnic table no longer within earshot of the pavilion. The birds were singing, the sun had begun to emerge from the sky, a micropenis on a motorcycle went revving by. Practice, practice: whether in music or virtue, it isn’t just a metaphor. But again, about five minutes into practicing a young lady comes over to me and politely suggests that I use a mute, as she was trying to have lunch with her grandmother who was already a bit hard of hearing. I tell her that I understand, but that I had forgotten my mute, but judging the merits of her filial devotion to carry far more weight than whatever I might glean through practicing, I agree to find a different place to play.
But in looking around, I see that many of the tables are occupied, so I determine that it may be best just to go back to my apartment to play there. So I do. By this time it is mid afternoon so I didn’t think that my neighbors would be bothered (we have thin walls). Yet again I was not playing for long when there is a banging at my door. It was my neighbor. He was visibly irritated and explained that he had just come from working the night shift and I was interrupting his sleep. I told him that I understood: if the right to silence is an absolute right, on the grounds that it is necessary for thought, and hence necessary to every other right, then so much more is it incumbent upon me to respect his right to the particular savory variety of silence that accompanies sleep.
By this time the afternoon had turned to early evening, and I decided to head to the park to practice. I took with me some sheet music from Biber and sat on a bench overlooking the rippling sun-glint river, the dipping willow tree. Yet there by the rock two teenagers having a love spat (minor, but apparently all the more exaggerated on account of their age) gave me such a look that I sensed my presence could be a hindrance to their articulations of relationship norms; and since love is, after all, one of the – if not the – highest goods in life, I decided it would be best to close my case and move off. Perhaps they had been the ones responsible for all the nasty graffiti (not the ones resembling ancient fertility idols) on the bench, the ones that prompted my own graffiti to say (surrounded with arrows): I apologize on behalf of your own dormant human dignity. No matter.
There was the studio, but my roommate would be back soon; there were the practice rooms at the university where I taught, but they would be closed or it would be a major inconvenience for security to have to let me in, so I decided that what might work is if I play in my car. I happen to drive a station wagon just spacious enough to sit comfortably in back, facing the rear window. This was going swimmingly well until a parking attendant arrived and told me that even if I was in the car I couldn’t be parked there. He didn’t give any particular reasons, but I can only assume that that was because he was so busy – this was a Friday night and parking violations were rampant – it takes energy and hence time to dally on giving reasons, and who was I to not take his authority at face value and in the course of arguing disrespect the duties of his office? In any case, I presume he had good reasons for his lack of reasons.
I derived some consolation from the thought that later on that night, sleeping under the auspices of the fan’s white noise, I might imagine myself playing in a medieval cathedral, like the one that features my favorite performance of Biber’s Passacaglia, and if anyone should protest it would be of no consequence as they would only be figments of my unconscious. But before heading home I went to the bar where I ran into an old colleague. As it turned out his marriage had ended recently. From the look on his face I felt like he was in a better spot in life, or least he would eventually be. He drank whiskey neat while I slugged beer after beer. He didn’t go into much detail but I think I remember asking him how it is even possible for a marriage to end.
How is it possible; what a word that is, “possible” when it locks one person’s eyes to another’s, even someone you barely know, when it speaks of the future like the stuff of intuition, when it rises within the unresolved dissonance of a chord… had I stayed on longer, I would have sung the praises of H.I.F. Biber, how everything he wrote he wrote as a way of exploring our relation to God, the finite and infinite, through the intricacies of his harmonies: The Rosary, The Mystery Sonatas, I would have poked and prodded my way through the indelible solitude of it all until I slurred my words or finally came to some point, but I didn’t want to be a bore.
It makes no difference that you say you are willing to sacrifice the divine for love, as this just shows that love is your God. Are you equally willing to sacrifice love for itself? When the highest good, the only good, must be sacrificed for itself, are you then willing? Eventually I closed out, stumbled home, and immediately fell asleep.
In the dream I am witnessing the destruction of the earth by deluge; I am in a fortified city behind thick glass walls but it is only hours before complete destruction; there is an atmosphere of heavyheartedness throughout the compound; my father has managed to smuggle a note to me that says if the earth dies by deluge, then each raindrop is a gesture of mourning.
In the dream the violin’s name was autumn night.
I don’t know how long I worked its scroll. On walks in autumn
the mountain grew, boulders became trees lodged at a slant
a luthier tapped the hollowest sounds, which thousands
of years of glaciation had carried to a deer’s pass, halted
leaflessly. Their roots grasp soul, or soil, nourished by water,
or eroded, under the cover of autumn night. Who can say
which ones grow into flared ribs, whose dawn will join together
deer and antler, luthier and dreamer, the whole mountain forest
resonates, singing your embrace.
Acknowlegements: “Rosin” was first published as “poem of the month” in THAT Literary Review; “Do It Again” was first published in NiftyLit, Issue 3.