- "Gonna Die with My Hammer in My Hand", and: Spirit in the Dark, and: Museum Pieces, and: Widower, and: Key to the Highway
"Gonna Die with My Hammer in My Hand"
Anthology of American Folk Music
I heard it first during the folk revival, The Williamson Brothers and Curry With their version of "John Henry,"
That high ethyl edge to their voices Where the notes frayed off into time, The failure of the early acetates
To fully capture the music they miked. Whatever the title, steel drivin' man Is the phrase that told me, growing up,
That he was one of our own. Steel was coal raised up, I'd thought, Or broken back down, something
You turned into song. A river below us The ferrous of rust. A city that rose From a scrap pile. Those nights [End Page 23]
I'd lie awake listening to the trains In Homestead and the way they dopplered Back against their passage,
Billowing the distances with sound. Monday morning on the Eastbound train … I'd range along both sets of tracks
After school, kicking up bent spikes, The glisters fallen off the coal cars, Any of the rubble lying hedged in place
Between the creosote-soaked ties. Down there at ear level I could hear it— That first faint freight-train popping
Like a knife on a slide guitar, Sparks struck the length of the track bed till the hammer caught on fire.
Spirit in the Dark
What to make of the night we sat up late,Listening to Beethoven's Ninth
In that otherwise darkened apartment?The New York Philharmonic
Was gathering together the fragmentsAt the fourth movement's start— [End Page 24]
Momentum they'd ride like a waveThrough the fanfare and final chorus—
When we felt something else enter the air,A front in the weather of the room.
It sat us upright on the edge of our chairsWhile it tracked toward the record
And hung suspended for a measure or twoAbove the still point of the stylus.
Then, just as steadily, it withdrew,A patch of fog that had been burned off …
The look the dead raised on your faceMust have been the same on my own.
"What was that?" our expressions asked.Decades later, I'd still like to know.
And what changes, if any, were playedUpon us? And did any of them take?
"Be embraced," the chorus sang,And then the crescendo and kettledrums,
The whole Ninth welling before usBefore fading as well from the room. [End Page 25]
1. Aztec Calendar Stone
The Face of the Sun, concentric with orbitsAnd boxed glyphs worked into stone—Twenty-four tons worth, trussed uprightIn the center of the cloistered roomI'd just walked into when it stopped me cold,Like hands pressed flat against my chest.My flesh was all attention, turned to the auraThe plume-headed planets threw off,And the days, constellated in totemsOf Wind and Flower and Flint.And then that pressure-chamber densityIncreasing its hold all around me.I was being siphoned into the centuriesOf saturated stone, or so it seemed,On the brink of the marvelous, whereThe rooms I'd stepped from ceased to exist,And the rest of the city's polished levels.A wheel on the rim of its heavens,Basalt like gravity's black hole …And then that sudden disruptionWhen my friend came bustling into the room,Seeing nothing out of the ordinaryIn which he'd just found me,The current now gone from the stone.
2. Peregrine Falcon Eggs, C. 1939
A clutch of mottled granite or grayLapis lazuli eggs, nestled in cotton battingAs if in down, and planetary,Though more the color of storm clouds. [End Page 26] You can see what Brancusi saw in that form—His Sculpture for the Blind—And wanted us to see as a kind of Braille,Hands-on like a sculptor. These, though,Being fragile and riddled with ddt,Can't be touched or hatched. Intact instead,They're massed in their carton as if composedAnd lovely...