The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Christopher Buckley

Music Appreciation

 

My father took a degree in communication

back before every other person serving coffee had a B.A. 

He always wore his college ring and despite being

politically to the right of Hammurabi, believed in

 a “liberal arts” education—the only time he used the word

“liberal” outside of corrupt liberal media, wild-eyed liberals,

or liberal communist dupes. . .

                                                                He built an FM station

that broadcast far-right, reactionary cant along with

101 Strings, Montovani, Andre Kostelanetz

and The Ray Conniff Singers—elevator music,

that Muzak you’d half hear drifting behind

broccoli, cabbages, or aisle-end displays

of detergent in a grocery store. So, ridiculous

as it seemed, he insisted I take Music Appreciation

in college to mark me as a member

of the refined middle class, though he had no idea

what we’d really be listening to—“long-haired music”

he guessed, that’s what he called it as a kid in the ‘30s,

meaning Arturo Toscanini and symphonies

his parents tuned the radio to on Sundays in Ohio

As a young man he was swing and Big Bands

all the way—Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey,

Artie Shaw, so it was hard to figure out

his thinking there?

                                          In high school I’d acquired

the minimal sophistications of five chord

folk guitar . . . monaural repetitions of “500 Miles,”

“Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” and “It takes A Worried Man”

by the clean-cut Kingston Trio.  So essentially,

I knew from nothing. . . . 

                                                      As an underclassman

I participated in music appreciation each Friday

after class—a bunch of us bouncing on our beds

boilermakers in hand, Rolling Stones on the record player

thumping down the dorm room halls with the high

and immediate message of hedonism—our philosophy

papers on the Presocratics, Ayer, Wittgenstein

and Logical Positivism put off until the dead silence

of Sunday night. . . .

                                            Then in my senior year,

with electives needed for my degree, I signed up

for the last Music Appreciation course offered

in the western hemisphere. None of us musicians,

we called Verdi and Puccini “Strangle the Cat

in Costumes Music.”  Yet something a level or two up

from The Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd,

and The Quick Silver Messenger Service

sunk into my grey cells and snapped a synapse or two

on line, and so I arm-wrestled 2 of my roommates

into also taking the course so we’d have at least 5

students to make the class go. 

                                                                Monroe Kanuse,

a thin, serious young man with a dark

close-cropped beard taught us, so to speak. 

With an M.A. in music from Berkeley,

he got by teaching part-time and playing requests

in a North Beach operatic bar.  He said if he had to play

“Un bel di . . .” one more time—every punter on a 2nd martini

putting $1 in the bowl to request the only aria they knew—

he’d jump off the Golden Gate. . . .  But at least we were exposed

to opera—Italian, not Wagner—something we might

come back to in 20 years. . . . 

                                                            But soon, we had to choose

a piece of music and write a ten page midterm detailing

its orchestral virtues. My pals stared daggers at me

as I’d convinced them to sign up by saying, “It’s easy,

you just listen to music.”  And when I chose Tchaikovsky’s

“Nutcracker Suite” and John selected Ferde Grofe’s

“Grand Canyon Suite” Kanuse visibly cringed—

despite his best efforts we’d scraped the bottom

of the middle-brow barrel of sensibility. Nevertheless,

he must have needed the money, and was there on time

the next week to collect our predictable papers.

 

Yet before the end he had us following the score

of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and though we winced

at Shostakovich’s ambivalent thematics

they soon seemed as unvaried as Mitch Miller’s

humming and whistling choruses on The Ed Sullivan Show

once we were introduced to Schoenberg and

Anton Wybern’s twelve-note atonality

that to us sounded like someone spilling

an entire drawer of silverware into a trash can.

Kanuse was realistic enough to know that a gang

of un-talented 20 year olds had no shot at abstruse

composition, but we had to sit there and listen

to a little of what had happened out there beyond

Lawrence Welk, Led Zeppelin, and The Who.

We were 5 kids out of a 1,000 in our college

who had some hint at what we didn’t know,

who might, long after the ‘60s were gone

and the ’80s’ conspicuous consumption was consumed—

and if we were still using our brains—go back

to the free arts as we got older and found ourselves

drawing closer to the music of the spheres.

 

 

Christopher Buckley

Poem at 69

 

Godwits and curlews side-step

my shadow, plovers skitter

along the tide.  I skip a stone

across the waves for no reason

beyond my father showing me how

when I was 5 . . .  I try to keep it

going for whatever momentary

and empty-headed joy

it brings.

                    That was childhood,

lying back on a boulder, thinking

there was a chance I could sprout wings

and sail on the salt air . . .  that was

long before I saw there was no way

to keep the clouds in place

or shake the overcast following me

through the streets like a lame brother

dragging his bad foot home. . . . 

 

And I had no idea how happy I was

being miserable throughout my teenage years,

idling on a motor bike before the sea,

the scrawl of surf, the phosphorus

rising off spindrift, off dreams,

as uninterpretable then as now. . . .

 

                                          *

 

Flaming through our early 30s,

the light and air still clear

in the far republics of Fresno,

our neoclassical period was brief.

Part-time teaching, copy writing,

tending the mad on weekends—

but there we were, lighthearted

as we’d ever be.

                                  I wonder now

which avenue of abstract thinking

might have me at the Basque Hotel,

a glass raised with Ernesto, Omar,

Larry, or Phil, with Jon before the counter

at Hestbeck’s or Piemonte’s ordering

dinner franks, liver paste, or logs of salami,

driving out to Fowler, Selma, or Malaga,

to just outside where the ash trees

intersect the night? But guessing gets you

nowhere, buys no drinks . . . so I put my hands

in my pockets, empty of suppositions,

and appeal to the unappeasable stars.

 

Exiled to the feudal provinces

of academia, I missed as many meetings

of the committee on insignificance

as I could.  And as for investments,

good Pablo reminds me that the dark

accumulates in our mouths, and

though beneath January’s stars,

my hands hold more now

than they’ve ever held, it doesn’t come

to much and will finally come to less—

each blind atom not carrying the slightest

reflection of my childhood running

before the surf, of my compañeros

and I with clip boards, folders, forms

in triplicate blunting the heart—

lunch bags, pull tab beers and cigarettes

our brief rewards. You could,

of course, complain—you could spit

into that wind.  But no one’s

going to give you two bits

for a neatly arranged portfolio

of regrets. Get in line.

 

So I’m not going anywhere

at this point—no one to feed my cat,

see enough objections are raised,

carry on the continuing exercises

in civic futility.  I’m waiting now

for the sea ink in my veins to spell out

a link to any essential memory

I can call out of the fog, out the past—

waiting to see if there’s a chance

light and matter might meet again

with whatever remains of us.

 

 

 

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY's Star Journal: Selected Poems is published by the Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.  His 20th book of poetry, Back Room at the Philosophers’ Club won the 2015 Lascaux Prize in Poetry from the Lascaux Review. Among several critical collections and anthologies of contemporary poetry, he has edited: Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems and Poetics from California, 2008, and One for the Money: The Sentence as a Poetic Form, from Lynx House Press, 2012, both with Gary Young.  He has also edited On the Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger to Nothing, Univ. of Michigan Press 1991, and Messenger to the Stars: a Luis Omar Salinas New Selected Poems & Reader for Tebot Bach’s Ash Tree Poetry Series. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, two NEA grants, a Fulbright Award in Creative Writing, and four Pushcart Prizes.  He was awarded the James Dickey Prize for 2008 from Five Points Magazine, the William Stafford Prize in Poetry for 2012 from Rosebud, and he was the 2013 winner of the Campbell Corner Poetry Contest.

 

 

Previous | Next