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
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.