William Appling Singers & Orchestra

Elegy with Mistakes All through It

How the crash took weeks of planning—a dwarfing
Ringling Brothers wind-snared tent, the soon-to-be-junked
engines fresh-painted with lime-green trim, miles of track
veering from the main Katy line & freshly-dug wells
for the tens of thousands who watched The Crush Collision,
an arranged wreck to scrap two trains already doomed
in order to make a buck. The way the whistle-locked
engines plunged the track, howling for nothing before
pummeling head-on, & when the boilers ruptured,
shrapnel pelted down like rain & even though a few
were killed in the stampede, the crowd sprinted back
to the still-hot metal, prying up souvenirs. Scott Joplin,
we think, also looked on, concocting a song in aftermath,
no matter the distance between the piano’s syncopated clack
& that still-steaming ruin. This is guess work, of course—
nearly all the traces of Joplin’s roundabout path turned
long ago to char. Which didn’t stop my grappling after
those empty scraps while you played for me that last time.
How long before I wandered off into my scattered thoughts
about an earth-trembling roar Joplin maybe heard, or how
in a smoke-clogged brothel on Battle Row, the pasties
on a girl named Bubbie grazed the man’s neck as he burned
through the refrain? I want that day back. To listen again
to the soft-shoe rhythms you found in the backbeat
of Joplin & Bach, to hear you work even a few notes
of those partitas & rags which consumed your last years.
Was it even the Crush Collision March you played?
I heard Bethena, I think, a near-dirge written just after
his second wife died a few weeks past their wedding,
although some think that song trawls another loss
altogether. To be honest, I can’t remember much
except the wind & your walker’s scrape as you limped
to the bench—which would be, I know, the last thing
you’d want me to say. Let me try again. This piece,
this piece,
you once began, beaming, clutching
the B Minor Mass score to your chest before drifting
into silence, as if everything you meant was clear.
Making me, at fourteen, gangly, acne-pocked, slumped
at the keys, insist all the more that the jangle-slurred
chords of Sweet Jane were the sole worthwhile thing.
What did I know? Precisely jackshit, you made it clear,
especially about Bach, who had twenty kids, you told me
during my first lesson, so you know he loved fucking.
Which didn’t stop me griping each week about trills,
finely-wrought fugues, the harpsichord’s frail plucking.
Or, later, the leapfrogging left hand of ’S Wonderful
I botched until you slammed the keyboard shut & asked,
Kid, why do you waste my time? Any chance it’s because
I’m black?
Who knows what I stammered back, sweating
in silence, October light tumbling the room? Or why
you humored me all those years, even as I butchered
scale after scale & my still-cracking voice hacked up
the Halleluiah Chorus before you ordered me
to just mouth every goddamn word. Please. It was easy
enough to move my lips, following along, pretending
to exalt the stretched-to-breaking syllables of forever,
a word repeated & made slack until it seemed to collapse,
meaning it began to mean again. Ragtime, Joplin said,
because the time is ragged. Old friend, might it be
more so. Might time break from its metronome tick
that carries me further from the days you were here,
from the wind’s caterwaul & the mackerel sky
that last time I half-heard you play. Without music,
I’d die,
you told me once matter of fact, & for a time
we both pretended the correlate was true: you’d live
as long as there was song. Why can’t there be one thing
that seems enough just now? Watch how my monkey-mind
leaves melody behind for a riff on John Taylor, eye-surgeon,
chevalier, Don Juan who blinded both Handel & Bach
with his straying incisions & useless hodgepodge
of balms made from pigeon blood, sugar, baked salt.
What am I doing, now that you’re gone, starting this piece
with a train wreck, or any disaster held at arm’s length?
If all I’m trying to say, while bounding through pimples,
Gershwin, Lou Reed, is something we already know
about failure & grief, just how far am I from Taylor
the Quack’s smoke-&-mirror cures, his trademark carriage
covered with blind, wide-open, embroidered eyes
wild-gawking in every direction? Do you remember
once, out of nowhere, stopping the class & making us
listen to Coltrane’s Alabama? No one said a thing
as the words from the eulogy for the four girls killed
in the Birmingham church were translated into breath
driven through a tenor sax, & we heard that lament
unfastened from threadbare words, prayer turned wholly
to song. Are you shitting me, I can almost hear you say,
using, of all things, that piece as a bridge, a means?
Forgive me, as always, my bungling. My false starts
& how the loss of you seems to trump everything today,
derailing all other loss. All I mean to evoke is language
becoming a disconsolate wail. Unearthly, resolute.
Or even the single note McCoy Tyner plays chant-like
for nearly the entire song, hammering the same key
as if unable to stop, or knowing it was the sole thing
sufficient. Enough, enough, I know you’d say. Stop.
For fuck’s sake. Listen.

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Poet Matt Donovan was a student of William Appling’s at Western Reserve Academy and Vassar College.  “Elegy with Mistakes All through It” appeared in Boston University’s 2010 “AGNI” (#71).

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