The ballad lays down such facts
as we need, each stress struck
on downbeat like the tired steps
of a brick mason who never wrote
a single line, but emitted this tale
with a slow whistling breath, his
whiskeyed sweat gleaming as he glared
at a skinny singer, until the kid
just had to get it down, set
to an old chord progression but sung
slower to match the stride of a guy
leaving a pub after a slow pint,
after countless courses of brick.
It matters little, a century gone,
if her eyes were black, if she split
in Dublin or Detroit. But with this
gait he walked his dark street
and only soft human sounds
remain as women shine or sway
on a dance floor and men recall
things they haven’t done but might.
Outside the bar she hands a bill
to an old man. He’s drunk
and says little, but she’s gone
quick anyway and it’s done
almost without thought, an act
leaking out like olive oil
from a cask, like sweat
from the bald trumpet player,
as he opens his spit valve
and shakes the horn, smiling
at a kid sitting-in on bass,
as if to say, it’s OK–
you’re not as bad as you
think. No one is. Outside
the old man’s drowsing again,
having given up the line of chat
he was making before a sweet
girl squeezed a ten into his hand
–her light, smooth touch–
one corner of the dry bill still
sticking up between fingers, a line
from the horn sliding past the noise
in the bar to him on the step and
to anyone just now walking past.
Blown into a downtown street, as kids
and families troupe toward a first pitch,
one note proffers this is all I’ve got,
this breathy tone, and what’s song but
breath counted and broken over a beat.
Then, when it seems a man might expire
like a meter, a borrowed book, a blown tire,
or worse, become a sappy bit of schtick,
he slides into Harold Arlen’s bleak rainbow.
Music breathes and bleeds, but doesn’t eat.
It needs no hook for its hat and no
pillow. It’s blown from a sax into a game-
bound throng in tight jeans, into ears
of women and men who don’t want
its soft secret: longing will outlast us,
spoken, or not, and love won’t sate it,
but will lurk anyway offered as a riff
on a tune we’ve never really known.
Michael Lauchlan’s poems have appeared in many publications including New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The North American Review, English Journal, The Cortland Review and Innisfree. Lauchlan’s collection, Trumbull Ave., is forthcoming from WSU Press.