Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Chorus" by Katharine Whitcomb

At Bear River I got to work with Dorianne Laux (who has been one of my favorite poets ever since I met her at the Walloon Lake Writer's Retreat in, I think, 2002) and completely disregard her instructions (not willfully, mind you), like when she asked us to bring a "memorable poem" to workshop. I totally meant to do this, but failed. But I was planning on bringing "Chorus" by Katharine Whitcomb, which I may have posted here before, but it's worth posting again.


a man in Canada has the aurora borealis all rigged up

he tells the radio reporter that he engineers

and records sound in the universe

the northern lights clamor down at him

they hurl what he calls "hissing whistlers" at the earth

he says the chorus always sings to him in the wilderness

a cacophony of swooping colored wings

and maybe you do have to be in the right place

at the right time to hear what is being sung to you

for my painter friend Werner that was his bedroom

the night his apartment building in New York City burned

in those slowed-down moments when the smoke was thick as Jell-O

he knelt on the floor to get more air

but the smoke was coming up from between the boards

and he could not breathe

he said he heard a voice tell him

he could lie down then with his pet cat in his arms

there was nothing to fear and dying would be all right

or said the voice he could stand on his cold windowsill

five stories up from the street and dive across an eight-foot gap

headfirst through a plate glass window

dive into a lit portal in the building next door still holding his cat

and that is what he did

he jumped across back into our world

where he can tell us this story

and show us his shoulders scarred with his choice to live

and mostly we do want to live

it may be that no one is truly safe but it does not matter

the chorus is singing

and the songs they sizzled and hummed over the radio

brought the deep calm of Quetico to me again

when the sky rippled with lines of phosphorescent laundry

and voices on the wind sang arias so beautifully

voices of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers before them

when they reached over to me singing don't be afraid

and all those hosannas swam together

into the one music that sounds within everything

(Katharine Whitcomb, from Saints of South Dakota, 2000 Bluestem Press)

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