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They All Sang


1.

Even the cast iron skillet sang
of grease, and heat, and bloodied meat,
summoned the reaching flame,
gladsome despite its heavy skin.

Even the well bucket rang like a Baptist choir
or a man toppling down a stair who laughs,
denying the frailty that his child has witnessed.

They all sang: the saw, the hound,
the clamoring crow, the cow's shofar,
the tooth against the dipper's rim,
the whetstone, and the kudzu's hem.

Only the persimmons did not sing,
choosing instead to cinch pressing
lips and draw them tight with discontent.
But the bed sang, with the body's
oar and chantey, its springs singing:

Jordan is wide, boys, Jordan is wide.
Heave away, Jordan, heave away.
Find no rest 'til the other side,
Heave away, Jordan, heave away.

And the screen door above the back step sang,
why when going in and why when going out,
though no one answered.

And the wasps above the outhouse stench
sang angrily, angrily, all day long, all day long.


2.

Hands washed in a pan of well water sing
of soil and soap and splash and splintery light,
sing abundance and probity,
sing of palms and bodies embracing
in the darkness of a cast iron bed.

And the hands sodden with well water
are the hands that will raise a pine switch
to whip a child: which! which! which!
Listen, beloved, listen — in each nick, a note
of blood and a child singing, oh, and oh.


3.

Beneath the eaves of loblolly and yella pine
children sing Little Sally Walker,
sittin' in a saucer. Rise, Sally, rise.
Wipe your weepin' eyes. Put your hands
on your hips. Let your backbone slip . . .

and London Bridge is falling down,
falling down, falling down . . .

Children who know before their sixth year
four synonyms for sorrow — cry, weep,
bawl, and all gone, baby, all gone —
sway and shimmy, standing
on bright earth, dark dancers:

O shake it to the East.
O shake it to the West. Shake it
to the very one that you love the best!

Children who know the falling
down of things and know the hands
that lock you in and knock you
back and forth, zeal's violent theater,
they know the tightened fists and linked limbs
that hold us imprisoned between two towers
and chant in the stunning light, falling
down, falling down
. Falling

down, two brown-legged girls in cotton dresses,
girl-towers, brow facing brow,
hands raised in an arch above their heads,
sunlight in sooty hair, terrible fire:
they will be the towers
beneath an inconceivable sky,
their arms falling, falling.

Rusty knees and ashy elbows,
children singing, singing,
until one of them is chosen.
Take the key and lock her up!
Lock her up! Lock her up!
Take the key and lock her up,
my fair lady.

And you know they are not singing of death,
            my fair lady,

or towers falling,
            my fair lady,

or brutality's warders,
            my fair lady,

but of vast loveliness,
            my fair lady,

brought for safe-keeping into these small hands,
into the spanning arms that make the human cradle,
O my fair lady.


4.

In the night,
                        she lies awake listening
                                                below sleep, below
the sound of her husband's molted breath,
to the city's distant engine,
the wash of leaves and wind-lashed maples.

Three a.m. Early October. Colder than expected.
In the distance, the mournful bay of a coal train,
Illinois Power's phlegmy stacks
and steel rails berating the darkness.

But it is the wind chime that draws her,
on naked tiptoe beneath the magnolia,
muting the metal tongues with a rubber band.

At this hour, memory also rises, like a crone
with an anxious bladder, and memory sings
psalms and blues, dirges and rounds, rounds,
rounds endlessly repeating.

Who would hear me, asked Rilke,
if I cried out among the hierarchies of angels?

Who hears the heart's holler at the end
of the row?

Not long to be here, not long, not long.
Goin' over Jordan one day, one day.
Goin' over Jordan one day soon.

What listens, only listens — nothing more.

Yet still we sing, as if to rise
                                    like Little Sally Walker

compelled from grieving and dust,
                                                    in a ring of space
given articulate flesh —

O shake it to the East,
O shake it to the West —

so that we can choose: delight.


Janice N. Harrington
Harvard Review
Number 28, 2005


Copyright © 2005 by the President and Fellows
of Harvard College
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.

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