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  • Sheep May Safely Graze
  • Ralph Sneeden (bio)


A vast dark planet which revolves on its axisso slowly that it appears to be almost static... One critic wrestling with the gravity of Shostakovich evokes a sphere that seems to be my own; early winter like this grim movement, not a season within a season, but show trial for the infinite din.

    I switch to Fleisher’s Bach, the hummable “Sheep May Safely Graze,” recorded decades after his brain’s betrayal curled the pianist’s fingers to his palm, cruel blossom he reclaimed with this terrestrial melody, its shift to minor like a squall that rakes a pasture, or a raven’s diagonal resolution across ferns, gentle saber swipe.


Because our son was so small, we had to hand him sleeping to the surgeon. Two months old and going blind. The premise of glaucoma: tears aren’t reabsorbed, so idle fluid ruins the eye. Looking into his, nursing, my wife saw it first: a dimming, the pupils’ blackness not as deep. The blue around them, too, eclipsed, parenthood suddenly nothing like our own histories of mild corrective measures (braces, abiding lenses) muted, becoming rites. (How long I’d stowed the memory of being pigeon-toed enough to trip myself, wearing a bar between my legs at night—metallic red, bolted to boots that trained my ankles [End Page 156] outward. How many months or years it took I can’t remember, only that they cut the toes out to free my growing feet. My father swung me like a briefcase to my mattress; I couldn’t leave it unless I called him back, until I learned to pivot, walking like a compass on a map.)


    Guitarist Martino’s aneurism swept the landmarks from his art, paved his fingerboard’s familiar ruts into signless highways. And yet he found his way back to the razed kingdom, filled the air above foundations, ragged sills. Is it still improvisation when it’s all we’re capable of?

    The obliterated river cures its turbulence, and the trout, stalled, hovering in its eddy beneath the bank, noses from turbidity to.......what? The rapture, the dread of the divested element.


      Saturated, I’ve sat in an amphitheater, naive enough to imagine that freezing rain repaired the crumbling stonework of its empty tiers while the mountain out there behind the weather’s screen performed for no one. Once, I watched a flutist—shackled by the song’s duration to her flute, fighting for breath—almost convinced that note could last forever.

    Does song give away the story before the story ends? Is it safer to pry music from the increments unresolved? Whatever the musician protects us from includes ourselves, desperate herd that, once outside the concert’s immunity, might rip itself apart [End Page 157] worrying how the body becomes its own marauder.


    “The notes die out,” one virtuoso said of acoustic guitars. “A more tragic sound. So that in itself compels the player to modify, in some far reaching ways,

    what he’ll play.”


For my son’s sake, I’ve always resisted allegiance to whatever anthem animates those beach towels on the line, perverse banners that spur goldfinches to ransack settlements of thistle and sunflower, counteroffensive of one cicada’s bagpipe drone, pedal tone of its carapace clinging to the mildewed clothespin bag, luminous, green.

    Now, he can see. But twenty years ago, suspended in a measure of net between young elms, we sang to his bandaged eyes. I remember wondering if the trunk’s circumference would ever dilate enough to yield a broader sonata of sun and shadow, its bark incorporate our hammock’s rings.

Ralph Sneeden

ralph sneeden’s poems and essays appear most recently or are forthcoming in the Common, Harvard Review, the Southampton Review, and Southwest Review. Work from his first book, Evidence of the Journey, received the Friends of Literature Prize from Poetry magazine. He plays guitar and teaches English in New Hampshire.


“A vast dark planet . . .” —Robert Layton, liner notes for the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 53 (Decca, 1993).

“The notes die out . . .” —guitarist John...


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