By Sydney Lea

John Ore stood up his bass and Frankie Dunlop laid his sticks on the snare.

They walked offstage but Monk stayed on hunch-shouldered and with one finger

hit a note and stared at his keyboard a long long time, then another

and stared and another and stared, not rising to whirl as he often would do

when he played this club or any other. He didn’t smile as usual,

benign, whenever he danced like that. He wore his African beanie—

I mean no disrespect, Lord knows, just don’t know what you’d call it— his

face beneath it both blank and rapt. I was rapt myself as I’d been

for the whole first set and in fact for years even then, but for other reasons.

I believed he was speaking to me somehow, that he knew my inmost sorrows,

my expectations. Of course I guess a lot of people thought so.

I was looking for eloquent mystery in those odd plinkings, which may have

been there,

though if so, it wasn’t for me to fathom. With the noise of chatter and movement, I

couldn’t have heard my heart lubdub but did. The last set ended,

he sat the same way after, playing lone notes as if contemplating

just where each came from. Right there in front of you! I thought. Who knew

that in front of him too lay those interludes of speechlessness,

his piano hushed, till he died like anyone else? I don’t want to riff

on what I dreamed Monk meant to my life, so small and young, comprising

only things that any man that age is bound to go through.

I don’t want a poem all full of lyric triteness, smoke-softened light

that glanced off bottles behind the bar, the sorrowful looks of his sidemen

as they left him—which may have been only quizzical. It was 1963.

I won’t go into history today, or politics,

or whatever else might make something grander than they truly are of my


There was only Monk. There was sound then quiet.

Sydney Lea’s ninth collection of poems, Young of the Year, will appear in 2011.  A former Pulitzer Prize finalist, he teaches in the graduate faculty of Dartmouth College.

Originally appeared in NOR 8.

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