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  • The Silence of Thelonious Monk*
  • John Edgar Wideman (bio)

One night years ago in Paris trying to read myself to sleep, I discovered that Verlaine loved Rimbaud. And in his fashion Rimbaud loved Verlaine. Which led to a hip-hop farce in the rain at a train station. The Gare du Midi I think. The two poets exchanging angry words. And like flies to buttermilk a crowd attracted to the quarrel till Verlaine pulls a pistol. People scatter and Rimbaud, wounded before, hollers for a cop. Just about then, at the moment I begin mixing up their story with mine, with the little I recall of Verlaine’s poetry—Il pleure dans mon coeur/Comme il pleut sur la ville—lines I recited to impress you, lifetimes ago, didn’t I, the first time we met—just then with the poets on hold in the silence and rain buffeting the train station’s iron-roofed platform, I heard the music of Thelonious Monk playing somewhere. So softly it might have been present all along as I read about the sorry-assed ending of the poets’ love affair—love offered, consumed, spit out, two people shocked speechless, lurching away like drunks, like sleepwalkers, from the mess they’d made. Monk’s music just below my threshold of awareness, scoring the movie I was imagining, a soundtrack inseparable from what the actors were feeling, from what I felt watching them pantomime their melodrama.

Someone playing a Monk record in Paris in the middle of the night many years ago and the scratchy music seeping through ancient boardinghouse walls a kind of silence, a ground against which the figure of pitta-pattering rain was displayed, rain in the city, rain Verlaine claimed he could hear echoing in his heart, then background and ground reversed and Monk the only sound reaching me through night’s quiet.

Listening to Monk, I closed the book. Let the star-crossed poets rest in peace. Gave up on sleep. Decided to devote some quality time to feeling sorry for myself. Imagining unhappy ghosts, wondering which sad stories had trailed me across the ocean ready to barge into the space sleep definitely had no intention of filling. Then you arrived. Silently at first. You playing so faintly in the background it would have taken the surprise of someone whispering your name in my ear to alert me to your presence. But your name, once heard, I’d have to confess you’d been there all along.

In a way it could end there, in a place as close to silence as silence gets, the moment before silence becomes what it must be next, what’s been there the whole time patiently waiting, part of the silence, what makes silence speak always, even when you can’t hear it. End with me wanting to tell you everything about Monk, how strange and fitting his piano solo sounded in that foreign place and you not there to [End Page 550] tell so it could/did end except, then as now, you lurk in the silence. I can’t pretend not to hear you. So I pretend you hear me telling you what I need to tell, pretend silence is you listening, your presence confirmed word by word, the ones I say, the unspoken ones I see your lips form, that form you.

Two years before Monk’s death, eight years into what critic and record producer Orrin Keepnews characterized as Monk’s “final retreat into total inactivity and seclusion,” the following phone conversation between Monk and Keepnews occurred:

Thelonious, are you touching the piano at all these days?

No, I’m not.

Do you want to get back to playing?

No, I don’t.

I’m only in town for a few days. Would you like to come and visit, to talk about the old days?

No, I wouldn’t.

Silence one of Monk’s languages, everything he says laced with it. Silence a thick brogue anybody hears when Monk speaks the other tongues he’s mastered. It marks Monk as being from somewhere other than wherever he happens to be, his offbeat accent, the odd way he puts something different...

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pp. 550-557
Launched on MUSE
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