The first lesson asks me to hold the cello well. To prop its top against my ribs beneath my breast and atop my breath. Knees I’ve scraped since I learned to walk should not knock or pinch or scrape against the cello’s hips. Instead the knees should steady the cello like two hands on your shoulders at graduation, two hands that have touched more than you have.
My teacher says I will feel the ghost of the scroll—that tidal wave where strings tighten and get right, pull of the ocean at peak—at the nape of my neck. Like your mother brushing fine hairs escaping your ponytail.
I am to practice holding the cello well without my arms. I am to extend my arms and wave them as if I am treading generous water.
I am to feel the way my back becomes a part of my front. Like the sides of me, neighbors, reach over the fence offering sugar or hyacinth bulbs. Or even cross the fence to clean up downed twigs and strewn blooms from the cherry tree straddling our property line.
My cello does not have legs. This is one difference between my cello’s body and mine. We are both forms, but I can move myself. I can imagine us moving together. And unless my feet trust the ground for two, the cello’s wobbly mahogany body will topple. Rooted, our bodies will lean together, travel in the air like branches in the wind.
This is the way I hope long love will feel. That in however many years I have left, my legs that have run will stay, stay and help my body say what it imagines.
Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert posits that our brains exist solely to control movement. He says that psychologists miss the mark when they study love, memory, or fear without thinking about the brain’s first and foremost goal: to move our bodies in the right ways to [End Page 38] survive long enough to reproduce our genetic material. These are elaborate byproducts: ornamental gardens, poetry, cello concertos.
I listen to Jacqueline du Pré play Edward Elgar’s “Cello Concerto in E Minor.” Du Pré plays like she holds in her body every tide and flood, every phase of the moon, every hung cloud and churning storm, every cherry blossom and its fruit.
I don’t know another way to say this.
Her husband says music poured out of her, as though from a source of nature.
Sometimes I squeeze the cello’s neck too hard. I don’t notice that my left thumb aches until my teacher calls attention to its strain. Imagine your thumb rests on a grape and you don’t want to pop the grape, my teacher says. I don’t pop the grape.
Make your arm a bird wing, she says.
In my mind, I see a crow above the cedars riding thermals, gliding high and higher. I see the crow flap. I imagine I am a crow, and I draw the bow out and in again. My arms are wings and that is right.
Some students, she tells me, think they need to know the exact name of the muscle to engage. They want technical direction. But for me, learning the cello requires magical thinking. I’m happy to rely on my teacher’s directions to become a bird, to keep a grape safe.
I tell my writing students that poets have the power to say something is something else. To transform and equate the world. This sentence: I am a poet. Voila. This sentence: My arm is a bird wing.
I imagine poets stitching the world together. Long silver threads of text. Lines prompting reading, dreaming minds not to see every thing by itself and separate, but to see the seams often unseen in the dark expanses across space and time.
This is, perhaps, a kind of sorcery. A power not to wield, but to hold. To practice holding.
In his mind, an amateur golfer played the course he knew best. He played each hole, each stroke every day as a prisoner...