Anecdote of the Piano
Based on a photo, “Plethora of Pups,” of Heidi, a two and a half year
old black and tan coonhound and her thirteen pups, having whelped
them just twelve hours before, Greenville, Texas, February 28, 1971
They were going to abandon the piano
from the demolished house,
torn, as it was. Apart from music,
we are much less
than mouth. There was a hound
dog, I hear, trapped inside
the voice of a rabbit man
from Jonesboro who knew
how to repair. Tennessee,
they tell me, is a bumblebee
in the recesses of the throat.
I might be interrogating insomnia
in the resources of my mouth.
Listen: In the trapped-inside, these old keys
are a precursor to the Baby Grand.
Place a jar on the hill in Wallace Stevens’
throat. Any jar of fireflies
will do. Captured lightning
and all that birth. In the afterbirths
of shaved starlight, the coonhound bore
thirteen pups, forerunner to thirteen
howling lives. If I cut my thumb
on a poem, I might say, Excuse me, sir,
the Magistrate of the Day. A doctor
a day keeps apples on the tree. Paper-cut,
gin-sang, skunk cabbage, and muck. Backwoods wisdom
is a way to say the music most, to hansel
the winnering of coons and almost the mouth
of the most exact. Three keyboard notes. Natural.
Sharps and flats. Piano this, porcupine
that. My friends were planning
on pianoing the skin
once they brought the thing inside.
Place it in their parlor on Kiawah
where the body needs most. In steady
rouge-reach of music’s cheek. To touch the dirge
white bone and feel, a moment,
alive. The coonhound
in the photo looks stunned,
as if it whelped
thirteen tiny pianos,
or the black and white keys
posing themselves as tiny squirmering pups.
I said squirmering. It is good to expand
the given motes of the mouth. Just as it is good
to touch the hound mother’s broken
water in this photo, a willowy fiddle
from the Georgia hills buried
in a creek. Alive, now, in the black
and white keys of birth-bag release. The sound,
found in Georgia and restored in Tennessee
like a Texas litter in the later ways
of speech. In the letter sways lodged
in the poet’s throat. Wallace Stevens is said
to have been a lonely man. I am not
abandoning him nor the words
he abused. An abandoned piano,
he must have cried across the hall to his wife
sleeping in separate rooms. I am a jar
in Tennessee. In Jonesboro. In Greenville. In Kiawah.
Place me in Indiana, where the laws aren’t right.
We are all sound hounds, founding
our ground in coon-shiver
winnering of the wild, thirteen
ways of looking at thirteen black
and tan pups mouthing for milk.
The mother, stunned among the whimpering,
found in what, after weaning, she is
destined to lose. In what we are all destined to lose.
World Without Birds
I wonder what the world would be like
without birds? she asked. Bring me the soup—
make it hot. I tended to over-worry
about the next incarnation.
Would I have a hound? Could I
sleep through the night? With the night as if it were
a knife? I wonder about a tornado
without pale-anemic green. Without the small-flung
bodies of terrified ants. Let my blood into a cup.
The wind. Let the wind in my throat. The full-throated
howl of a hound treeing a coon. Full-bodied mirror
when I’ve eaten too much. When I’ve had too much
to bleed. I dreamt a world. I dreamt
a world without birds. All the setters
seemed confused. Irish setters. English setters.
Gordons. All the dogs that pointed birds.
All the spaniels forgave the rivers
without ducks. Can you spot the otter
in the picture of a left hand
trying to scoop soup? The bawl-mouthed
sound of a hound is enough to make me
want to give it all up and live in the woods
again and again. Life upon life
we come into our bodies, half-afraid
of salt. We look to the river. We bend
to the sky. We open our mouths for a cloud
of birds to enter. Half-afraid. Half-afraid
to show us their hollow-boned bodies.
I want to play them like a flute. Cull the air
they’ve gathered in their bones. The space
from all the wind they’ve stirred passing through.
Flush them from this crown of thickets and that.
To be so sure of the dark places. To cramp oneself
in a covey of starlight waiting out
the veritable washing of the womb. I wonder
what the world would be like
without setters to track birds. Without hounds
to continuously till the soil scents
of the ground. Blueticks. Treeing Walkers.
Redbones. Whose gangly pups have yet to have grown
into their skin. Old-man wrinkle around
a two-month snout, showing what’s young
to be impossibly old. Loose-faced yet smooth.
How we come into our bodies again
and again. Older than what we are.
Scenting the coon we hope to one day tree.
Looking to the sky full of dark
darting spots that show us the wingèd way
we came. The pull of our silken ears
holding us all the way down to the ground.
George Kalamaras, Poet Laureate of Indiana, is the author of seven books of poetry and seven chapbooks, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM chapbook contest, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Prize, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.