Collage is a mystic’s medium.—Charles Simic
Place two violins in opposite corners of a large,
high-ceilinged room. Leave one of them
unattended. On the other, play an E#. The other
too will tone an E#.
This is your
This morning there is fog, or rain that, from this
distance, oscillates, coupling the atmosphere—
— the motion
motion of the
Cumulus as pendulums, and my daughter’s
eyelids, barely clasped, as pendulums. She swings
closed her fists, startles toward surrender—
comes from to
relinquish, to give
back. To deliver.
The length of her—infinite at this hour.
light takes the
name given it.
this light you’ll
The word symphony, from the Greek symphonia
or symphōnos, means “agreement or concord
of sound,” “a concert of vocal or
instrumental music,” and “harmonious.”
used, in late
Having pulled the jade from the pot—the roots
like your hair and the blanket that covers you.
thirty times a
lasts only a
god, says my
Clouds are backlit when something fails
to fill them: altitude, reflection, water, light.
The fade of months like all plants have roots,
like I read my Gnostics at recess.
Holy creatures and wheels: the difficulty of
gladdening. Nothing’s written in blood, really—
this pot that’s faced the window all winter has
faded from earth-tone to the-wonder-creeping-
behind-me, and for a long time you’ve confided
a coffee mug
in your dirtied
hands to ease
our wait for
She tells me she lost her leg in an accident, her
tongue in a keyhole. A dream, she says.
At the corner gas station a local MC gives away
mix-tapes and sells hand-rolled cigars. He asks
what I do. I tell him I’m a professor, a writer, a
—it’s always a
gets me there,
to poet. He
says, Mista poet,
this’ll get ya so
high your wings’ll
I dream I’m
flying, the lake
below and the
lowers the lake
She dreams she birthed a puddle, a scarf knit of
silk and driftwood. She draws flowers on the
back of her hand like a grade-schooler, colored
ink for the blooms, black for the stems, and tells
me, I’ll trace a pattern now, stem to petal and around,
petal back to leaf.
She sways into
She sways into
an attic, her
What does it
you stab your
wife in your
don’t wake up
yet jolt easily
Yesterday I ran over a turtle. The tire stuttered,
then dropped—the resetting of a dislocated
joint. The reverberation through the car made
my wife gasp, say, oh my god, and I just shook my
head, couldn’t believe the noise escaping my
There’s something about the deck at twilight: the
mosquitoes just visible in the half-shadows—
now as the
above the tree-
I want to take
hunt like my
just feel the
tension in my
fingers as I
take aim, and
let the arrow
go to the bats
hanging on the
the fir trees,
their black, their peared bodies, their silence.
Snow piles up outside the kitchen window.
Olive oil. Pita.
Get on a
once to be
I emailed my doctor this morning. My left ankle
swells at night. Doesn’t throb though.
Ibuprofen. Some water. Lukewarm. I might
have married once if not for bells and cellos and
leashes. And affairs.
forty times a
Everything turns up straw. How much I want
you. How much a boat. How much a box, a
How much I eat when I close my eyes. How
much you are gone now and I’m not. How
much bread I really need. A blue pillow where I
rest my head.
And in the
think how I’ll
sell my blood
to pay the
rent, how I’ll
pull my hair
and trade it to
I knew a girl who closed her eyes every time she
heard a car horn, drew koi on the knees of her
jeans, knew what it meant to be anonymous in a
crowd, and now I close my eyes, step into the street—
of the people
—and know that koi—
—can live two-hundred years, but I can’t
manage long without a window,
the patterns of
every city has
or white or
the sorrow we
The shadows when we clench our eyes match
our ground-shadows pushing forward home.
Watched a man search for Atlantis off the coast
of Anna Maria Island: thigh-deep in the surf, he
waded only yards from my umbrella, chanting,
“It’s here, it’s here, you know. I found it
in ‘66 before my tour.” And when he came
ashore naked with his metal detector, he
muttered, “Damn things don’t work well in the
I met this
same man last
year on a
that time he
breakers to ask
if I’d seen his
sun, his waist
pockets full of
“If you see
her, tell her I
It starts like a joke, one I may have written
myself, but I’m not much of a traveler, and the
last time I was in Death Valley was the last time
I was in Death Valley, and while there, the
the dry lake
as if being
there are no
point to a
they are wind-
blown to sand.
The man: “How much for an acre here?”
“I’m not sure
this land’s sold
“In my last
lifetime, I was
this surf, right
off Bean Point
there. I was a
a tarpon, a stone
Every time I go swimming, every time.
We drive on County A until it becomes County
Z until it becomes County B, and like the
Wisconsin highways themselves—
huts and brat
—we sink into
spins our radio
dial to jazz,
then she’s in
front of us, a
We’re still in our seats, the engine idling. She
doesn’t flinch, waxen, opossumed on four legs. I
want to remember her forever.
A car horn behind us, and then she pistons her
legs and her head in flight while her body—
—seems to ride on one eternal level, carries the
horizon beside it, and she’s gone and we’re left
with talk radio, a sleeping baby, our held breaths
to the moon if we could just remember our
next door, and
air is for ideas.
Pre-dawn thirst and laughter as we pull the
windows closed and crawl back nude under the
covers. This is before the welcoming.
thought of tall,
birds, bells on
Mom out and
When I think
now, I think
of a whispered
and the latest
dark, the flake
the cooing of
On the highway this morning, a man stepped in
front of a semi. He flew gracefully—
tucked to his
sides, his legs
—like a bowling pin, as if his spirit, clutching
faith and prayer, left his body untethered, no
time for a proper separation. And in the end—
—a worship, a litany: all the feeling I’d ever
need. When he hit the ground, the semi’s brakes
broke the morning’s dark, the highway was loud
again with the wind, with the stretched orange of
almost-dawn, and people parked their cars where
they were and got out, stunned by the silence,
the flattened and unnamable defeat.
Look at the
sun sweep the
deck as your
The strawberries peek through the holes in their
pot, not yet red but green like immature blades
of grass, and the sawgrass, thick enough to cut
thumbs, shadows the bottom of the basil bush.
You scar easily. When you tried to cut open a
rock to see what was inside—it was more rock.
stick with a
boat white of
When you lay on your back tossing a baseball
toward the ceiling. You swallowed blood in the
dark, counted to twenty slowly to still the sting.
the waiting for
The neighbor starts his edger, pulls the cord two,
three, four times until it comes to life. He
waves. You nod back and kneel curbside, tend to
the snapdragons at the base of the mailbox:
with clay. You
small ear into
more like here
is where your
so you hold on, close your eyes, and you have to
tell yourself every time that scars don’t itch.
air. The flash
spider web on
this still night
floats by the
force of the
under it alone.
Something calls or screeches or mates or dies. A
bird or an insect: I can’t tell. It’s what I mistrust
most about the South.
On every street corner, a church. A man in a
suit, a tie tight round his neck, a bead of sweat.
No parking but in the grass. In the pews, we
speak two keys for the same map: danger,
flowers blooming backwards, empty nights of
calm petals in our palms.
fierce hours of
ABOUT “SYMPHONY: A (RE)PHRASING”:
“Symphony: A (Re)Phrasing” started as an experiment in the truest sense of the word. I simply wanted to know what I could create given zero limitations. The result is a collage, an essai (from the French, “an attempt”), a long poem, an inquiry. I’d been teaching an advanced poetry workshop here at Belmont University, and we’d been talking about Sandburg’s quote: poetry is “the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.” It got me thinking. Why not make something that uncategorizable? I’d been reading the work of Ander Monson and T Fleischmann and Carole Maso, essayists who push form and structure, and I wanted to try my hand at doing the same.Combine hyacinths, biscuits, a dash of experimental indulgence, and excerpts from my notebooks. Stir profusely.
Pour into three columns. Bake at 98.6 degrees for several weeks. Voila!
Initially I thought I’d written a poem. Then I thought maybe it was an essay. Either way, it was untitled. That is, until I started to think about why I’d chosen to write it using the three columns. I started researching triptychs and the use of “threes” in artwork. I stumbled into reading about symphonies and how they are often structured, at least classically. The bell, as it were, dinged, and the title stuck. Then it was a matter of recasting the piece toward that overarching idea. It was a blast to write because I had no expectations. My only goals: to be playful, have fun, essai.—GM
Gary L. McDowell is the author of five collections of poetry, including, most recently, Mysteries in a World that Thinks There Are None (Burnside Review Press, 2016), winner of the 2014 Burnside Review Press Book Award, and Weeping at a Stranger’s Funeral (Dream Horse Press, 2014). He’s also the co-editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (Rose Metal Press, 2010). His poems and essays have appeared in journals such as American Poetry Review, The Nation, and Gulf Coast. He lives in Nashville, TN with his family where he’s an assistant professor of English at Belmont University.