By Stephen Dunn

Featured Image: Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons) by Wassily Kandinsky

The music was fidgety, arch,

an orchestral version of a twang.

Welcome to atonal hell, welcome

to the execution

of a theory, I kept thinking,

thinking, thinking. I hadn’t felt

a thing. Was it old-fashioned

of me to want to? Or were feelings,

as usual, part of the problem?

The conductor seemed to flail

more than lead, his baton evidence

of something unresolved,

perhaps recent trouble at home.

And though I liked the cellist—

especially the way

she held her

instrument— unless you

had a taste

for unhappiness

you didn’t want to look at

the first violinist’s face.

My wife whispered to me,

This music is better than it sounds. I

reminded myself the world outside

might be a worse place

than where I was now,

though that seemed little reason

to take heart. Instead

I closed my eyes, thought about

a certain mezzo-soprano

who could gladden a sad day

anywhere, but one January night

in Milan went a full octave

into the beyond. Sometimes escape

can be an art, or a selfishness,

or just a gift you need

to give yourself. Whichever,

I disappeared for a while,

left my body behind to sit there, nod,

applaud at the appropriate time.

Stephen Dunn is the author of a new book, Pagan Virtues (poetry, Norton), and Degrees of Fidelity: Essays (Tiger Bark Press). You can find him online at

Originally appeared in NOR 4

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