I Was Startled It Was Death

By David O’Connell

Featured Art: Figure with Guitar II by Henry Fitch Taylor

I was startled it was death
I’d been singing all morning
under my breath, scrambling
the eggs, steeping Earl Grey
for breakfast with my wife, death
I’d been carrying like a jingle
or Top 40 chorus, its melody
infinitely catchy, insistent,
vaguely parasitic, its lyrics
surfing rhythm, slotted into
rhyme, over and over, a half
hour or more, all Saturday
ahead of us, the morning sun
shining when Julie protested
with a quick laugh, though
wincing too—no, please,
I just got that out of my head

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The Wild Barnacle

By Billy Collins

Featured Art by Karolina Grabowska

“Do not speak, wild barnacle, passing over this mountain.”
                                                                     — Patrick Pearse

In a lullaby by the Irish poet Patrick Pearse,
a woman of the mountain begins
singing her baby to sleep
by asking Mary to kiss her baby’s mouth
and Christ to touch its cheek,
then she gets busy quieting the world around her.

All the gray mice must be still
as well as the moths fluttering
at the cottage window lit by the child’s golden head.

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From the Archive: Jazz and the Blues in Poetry


by Robert Pinsky

Originally published in New Ohio Review Issue #7

This is the golden trophy. The true addiction.
Steel springs, pearl facings, fibers and leathers, all
Mounted on the body tarnished from neck to bell.

The master, a Legend, a “righteous addict,” pauses
While walking past a bar, to listen, says: Listen—
Listen what that cat in there is doing. Some figure,

Some hook, breathy honk, sharp nine or weird
Rhythm this one hack journeyman hornman had going.
Listen, says the Dante of bop, to what he’s working.

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You Are My Sunshine

by Bobbie Jean Huff

Let me begin by offering my condolences, I said,
holding out my hand. She shook out her umbrella
and placed it open, just beside the altar. They thought
it was an ulcer, she said. They gave him some tablets.
Did he have any special requests? I asked. Favorite
hymns? Or something for Communion, like maybe
Water Music? He was worse by Christmas, she said.
He couldn’t manage the pumpkin pie. He always loved
my pumpkin pie. The King of Love is nice, I said. I
opened the book to page 64. As an alternate to Crimond,
you know. Most people don’t recognize it as the 23rd
Psalm. In January his feet turned black, she said. Toe by
toe. It took exactly ten days. The shadow of a branch
moved slowly back and forth behind the stained glass.
I thought: When I get home I’ll check my toes. Will
there be Communion? I asked, finally.

The last three days he started to hiccup, she said.
He wouldn’t take any water. It never stopped, the
hiccupping. Not once, not one minute until he went. I
could play Pachelbel’s Canon. That’s very popular now.
There’s no reason it can’t work at funerals as well as
weddings. At the very end, she said—then stopped, her
eyes squeezed shut behind her glasses—as if the
rejected water, each wretched hiccup, and every
blackened toe formed a chain she could use to haul
herself back to September, when she would claim
him, finally whole again.
She reached for her umbrella and frowned. Play
what you like, she said. He was never fond of music.
Not hymns, anyhow. Only once in fifty-three years
did I catch him singing. You are My Sunshine, I
believe it was.

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Meditation On My 44th Birthday

By Jason Irwin

Before going for a walk, I open the day’s newspaper.
NASA releases detailed photos of Charon,
Pluto’s largest moon. In a marketplace in Diyala Province, Iraq,
a suicide bomber kills one hundred and twenty.
On this day in 1959, Billie Holiday died
handcuffed to her hospital bed. My horoscope
tells me I will be extremely serious and earnest
in my emotions, that I will suffer
from the ailments of birds.

                                        Hard to believe half of my life
is just some thing that used to be.

On my walk I stop at the corner of Maple
and Elm, watch the sun sink behind the station,
I think about Charon, orbiting Pluto, and the Charon
who ferried the souls of the dead to the underworld. Maybe
he delivered the people killed in the marketplace,
or Lady Day. Instead of a coin for passage
she sang Baby why stop and cling to some fading
thing that used to be. Her lilting voice trailing off
as they reached the far shore.

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And Another Thing

By Gregory Djanikian

Featured art: Still Life with Violin by William Harnett

Such dislike for the woman who’s come late
to the concert making our whole row rise just
as the tenor sax hits its high E-flat and now
she’s sitting next to me and texting—my god!—
during the drummer’s lithe percussive
rhythms which are not my rhythms judging
by my heavy foot beats and my fingers
bending into little arcs of stone and I’m thinking
of some way to annihilate her phone invisibly
maybe with a squint of my eye and how lovely
to imagine the stark O of her mouth
her pretty hands holding nothing but the air
I allow her to breathe O most merciful zapper
that I’ve become father-confessor for all her sins
committed impending unthought-of
her stubborn knees bent to the spectacle
of my very unblind justice which I’d like to take
on tour now-and-then accosting scofflaws
speedsters unholy maître d’s smug
people of all sorts and let’s not forget
the dry cleaner who’s ruined my favorite shirt
through some occult chemical mishap
and of course this woman sitting next to me
whose soft knit-covered ribs I’m trying hard
not to jab my elbow into but she’s smiling now
as if she’d rather be here than anywhere else
riffing with the pianist moving her hips in time
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Borges’s Farewell to Meadville, Pennsylvania

By Stephen Myers

Featured art brown leather arm chair by Markus Spiske

By then, old age had laid siege to Borges
for many years. That evening, two handlers
one at each elbow, guided him, bent
like a question mark, up a short staircase
to his seat before the assemblage.
His voice, at first, was an ancient raven’s.
But finally, out of the brain’s dark nest,
he brought forth two lines from Virgil’s Georgics.
They glittered before him. His tongue loosened.
The night heat pressed in. A fragment of
Sappho. Erato beat the blackness back.

His listeners perceived her as wanderers
hear wings among pyrocanthus branches
under a thin moon. A couplet from Dryden,
a silver chain. “Ulalume” a small chalice.
He shifted more easily. One of his men
stepped forward with a glass of water.
Outside, sudden thunder, intermittent
flashes. After he’d spoken, they brought on
the musicians. He sat tapping his cane
to “St. James Infirmary,” smiling,
leaning forward toward the low-lit stage
as if in submission, he who had loved
the Goddess, and she him, letting himself
be lifted and carried off on the shoulders
of Milt Hinton’s gold-greaved bass. Read More


By Craig van Rooyen

Featured art by Mike Lewinski

It was dark, sure, but the city’s halo
whitewashed the stars.
We drank good bourbon from Dixie cups
to mock our sophistication.
Two black men and a white one
who needed a brother.
We drank to Ghana advancing,
not so naïve to believe
they had a chance against England.
We toasted our wives of many colors
and our barefoot children chasing fireflies
like the first night in Eden.
But it was Oakland.
So when the boy climbed the porch steps
cupping a winged and glowing offering,
I called him by the wrong name, as if
I did not know him, as if his father
was not my friend.
The brothers exchanged their look,
too polite to call me out
on a summer night in paradise.
And we all pretended not to notice
the bats that let go their roosts
to flap old patterns in our chests.

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A Box of Records

By James Haug

Someone placed a box of records by the curb because it was hoped that someone would want to take them away. They’re records no one wants but maybe someone will want them. Someone driving will stop. Someone walking will stop. That is the pleasure of looking through records. Then the sun clears the tree across the street and shines on the records and makes the colors of the record jackets festive even as it robs them of their pigments. Someone will stop and rescue them from the sun. Someone will look up at the empty house behind the box of records at the curb to see if someone is watching. The people on the jackets smile and smile with their best hair, maintaining resolve all night in a box by the curb. Someone will stop and bring them home and listen to what they have to sing. Someone will carry them off out of the rain. Someone will spread them on the grass to dry.

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By Donald Platt

Featured Art: Garden Flowers by Edna Boies Hopkins

                               Each person is
a solar system, the bits of birth’s Big Bang orbiting
                               some sun that both attracts

and repels. Elliptically, my mother orbits her own death,
                               that great shining
ball of fire I cannot look directly at. She draws closer to it,

                              then pulls away. She rotates
as she revolves. Together we write her obituary. Born.
                              Schooled. Worked as. Read More

Open Mic

By Jesse Wallis

Featured Art: Dancers by Edgar Degas

I don’t know how, but I knew as soon as he said it, he would get lost
after the bridge. “I’m still working on this one,” he began, tightening
the strings. “Hope I make it through.” It was the third song the young
man played. He was really quite good, if new. His tenor voice earnest,
fingers deliberate in finding the chords along the neck of the acoustic.

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By Robert Pinsky

Featured Image: Music by Thomas Wilmer Dewing 1895

This is the golden trophy. The true addiction. 
Steel springs, pearl facings, fibers and leathers, all
Mounted on the body tarnished from neck to bell.

The master, a Legend, a “righteous addict,” pauses
While walking past a bar, to listen, says: Listen—
Listen what that cat in there is doing. Some figure,

Some hook, breathy honk, sharp nine or weird
Rhythm this one hack journeyman hornman had going
Listen, says the Dante of bop, to what he’s working.

Breath tempered in its chamber by hide pads
As desires and demands swarm through the deft axe
In the fixed attention of that one practitioner:

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Piano Lesson

By Gregory Djanikian

Featured Image: Ella at the Piano by Donald Shaw MacLaughlan 1876

My teacher is looking at me sadly
as if with the large droopy eyes 
of a basset hound.

I’m stumbling through “Naima”
transcribed for piano,
my fingers tripping badly over
the minor 3rds, the flat nines.

On his face, such longing,
as if it’s the end of jazz,
we’re saying farewell.

I’m ready to start from the top 
playing all the changes, the repeats,
and he’s holding his head in his hands,
swiveling slowly in his chair.

The song is full of smoke and aching,
like a woman in a shiny dress
walking through a dark hallway
haunting the man she’s loved.

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Homer and Jazz

By Ralph M. Rosen

Featured Image: George Gershwin Self-portrait by George Gershwin 1934

Homer enjoys an unquestionably privileged status in our own time as one of the grand cultural legacies of antiquity, so it can come as a surprise to realize that his greatness was not always unchallenged. Even in antiquity there were signs that Homeric poetry did not suit all tastes and aesthetic standards, and some readers today still find various features of Homeric style jarring. His great works, the Iliad and Odyssey, often feel “different” from other literature—a bit “primitive,” perhaps, less self-consciously “literary” or “literate” (whatever we mean by these terms exactly), with roots in folk and mythological traditions that complicate, at least, their stature as icons of high culture.

In American cultural history of the past century, we can trace a curiously parallel aesthetic dilemma in the case of jazz music, which, to this day, occupies an unstable, culturally fraught position between the high and low, the “serious” and “popular.” I’d like to suggest that the aesthetic “problems” ascribed to each art form, Homeric epic and jazz, have much to do with the compositional and stylistic techniques idiosyncratic to each genre—techniques that rely first and foremost on memory, and only secondarily, if at all, on literacy (whether verbal or musical). Poetry or music that is essentially composed during the course of a performance, as is the case for the Homeric epics and many forms of jazz, simply look and sound different from poetry and music composed in advance and fixed as text before a performance. It is not surprising, therefore, that such art forms will sit uncomfortably in a culture such as ours which has come to privilege the literate and literary over the spontaneous and improvisational.

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“The Accompanist” by Anita Desai

By Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Featured Art: Female performer with tanpura by Unknown

For a short story to linger in the mind as long and as tenaciously as “The Accompanist” has in mine, it must hit a sensitive nerve. So in revisiting the story, which I first came upon years ago in Anita Desai’s early collection, Games at Twilight, I looked for what had struck me so keenly in this first-person account of an Indian musician from a poor background who dedicates his life to the most humble of accompanying instruments, the tanpura.

The narrator’s father makes musical instruments and music is “the chief household deity.” Soon after Bhaiyya’s lessons begin at the age of four, his talent is obvious: “My father could see it clearly—I was a musician . . ., a performer of music, that is what he saw. He taught me all the ragas, the raginis, and tested my knowledge with rapid, persistent questioning in his unmusical, grating voice.” The father is stern and rough, never offering praise or encouragement, only calling his son a “stupid, backward boy.”

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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.

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In Memory of the Rock Band Breaking Circus

By Stephanie Burt

Featured Art: Fight by Ján Novák

You were whiny and socially unacceptable even
to loud young men whose first criterion
for rock and roll was that it strike someone else
as awful and repulsive and you told
grim stories about such obscure affairs
as a man-killing Zamboni and a grudge-
laden marathon runner from Zanzibar

who knifed a man after finishing sixteenth

Each tale sped from you at such anxious rate
sarcastic showtunes abject similes
feel like a piece of burnt black toast
for example threaded on a rusty wire followed
up by spitting too much time to think
by fusillades from rivetguns by cold
and awkward bronze reverberant church bells

percussive monotones 4/4 all for

the five or six consumers who enjoyed
both the impatience of youth
and the pissiness of middle age
as if you knew you had to get across
your warnings against all our lives as fast
as practicable before roommate or friend
could get up from a couch to turn them off

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