We Buy, Sell, Trade

By Betsy Sholl

Featured Image: A Farm in the Sunlight by Meindert Hobbema, 1668
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Ideas are one thing and what happens is another.
—John Cage

Weather or axe—who neglected or hacked
to make this bag of piano keys, this

clatter of loose scales in a paper sack,
fifty-two whites, the yellow of stained teeth,

a few of them chipped: some upright or grand,
its music collapsed in a racket of chainsaws

cutting up belly and legs for scrap.
Warped wood, the thunk of stuck notes—

what undid that instrument, till it became
a jalopy of sound put up on blocks,

eye sore, ear sore, cat perch, wooden elephant
in a drafty room, its strings turned to rust,

felts crumbled, until under its lid
Mozart was mute, Bach battered and gagged,

Handel held captive?
Nothing to do but burn that jail down,

all the way to this set of keys
minus instrument, keys minus door,

minus locket or house, left in a dusty shop.
It hurts to think that before these keys

were pulled out like teeth, they were teeth,
to think of those marvelous creatures

with big leafy ears who swayed in grasslands
far from our drawing rooms—how hunters

must have heard the pitiful cry when one fell,
and still they sawed off its tusks.

Now the instrument its dying made
has been undone, reduced to a junk shop find,

for someone to turn into earrings or pins,
or just carry around like the eyetooth,

knucklebone of a saint, asking,
What isn’t made from another’s breaking?


Betsy Sholl’s ninth collection of poetry is House of Sparrows: New and Selected Poems (University of Wisconsin, 2019), winner of the Four Lakes Prize. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts and served as Poet Laureate of Maine from 2006 to 2011.

Originally appeared in NOR 17

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s