How to Read a Poem

Sharon H. Nelson

"How to Read a Poem" appeared in Packaging, Metonymy Productions, 2000.

How To Read A Poem

MOSES RECEIVED THE TORAH ON SINAI, AND HANDED IT DOWN TO JOSHUA; JOSHUA TO THE ELDERS; THE ELDERS TO THE PROPHETS; AND THE PROPHETS HANDED IT DOWN . . . .     PIRKE AVOTH 1: 1-3

YO YO MA RECEIVED THE CELLO THAT HAD BEEN PLAYED BY PIERRE FOURNIER, AND THEN HE RECEIVED THE CELLO THAT HAD BEEN PLAYED BY JACQUELINE DU PRE. THESE OLD INSTRUMENTS ARE DELICATE AND REQUIRE CARE IN HANDLING.

I am grateful to Pierre Fournier, Maurice Gendron, and Heinrich Schiff for enabling me to hear the Bach Cello Suites and to Alfred Brendel and Claudio Arrau from whose performances I learned to distinguish between text and performance, notation and music.

Language
like a cello
is an instrument
passed
from hand to hand,
from body to body,
marked with use;
fingers leave
their marks on wood,
a particular gloss,
an elegant sheen,
a wearing thin
where bodies rub
against each other
over years,
through centuries.

The mind,
flexible as catgut,
applies energy
to the tension in a string
as both are stretched
towards resonance,
bodies combined
by each stroke of a bow,
each finger's touch;
cello and cellist paired
to voice
a text.

We stretch ourselves
to the body of language,
with the body of language;
each separate text
a particular notation
in search of voice,
in search of resonance,
each sound a choice
between warmth and conflagration.

When your eyes touch
the body of a text,
touch gently,
move your mouth
with gentleness,
your tongue lightly
on this body,
another incarnation
of the same old and battered body
poets struggle
to restring, resuscitate, revive.

Without respect
and cherishing
no instrument
is kept
alive.

The Woman I Am?

We had been talking for a while about the day, about what we do on Sundays, and I said I wanted to finish a poem on which I'd been working. I'll read you the opening stanza, I said.

Language
like a cello
is an instrument
passed
from hand to hand,
from body to body,
marked with use;
fingers leave
their marks on wood,
a particular gloss,
an elegant sheen,
a wearing thin
where bodies rub
against each other
over years,
through centuries.

You're such a pig, he said, and no one who didn't grow up kosher, as we both did, and no one who isn't over forty, as we both are, could know what that means. The mafioso would love you, he said, with your bodies rubbing together over years, through centuries, the whole business with the cello.

Pig: an animal notoriously indiscriminate in its appetites and indelicate in its responses; an animal that wallows in filth; an animal equally impure in all its parts; an animal essentially insatiable in its nature; an animal that contaminates by the touch of its flesh. . . .

Sharon H. Nelson. 23 May 2000.