~This poem was previously published in Gargoyle (2014).
How you would swing me up onto
your shoulders, my big big brother,
making us two-in-one, sky-slung,
a four-armed creature singing
about the country we’d never seen,
except in pictures. Che bella cosa
è na giornata e sole. My knees the wings
of your shoulders, Mom at the piano,
her voice — the highest of high
sopranos — weaving over us. No one
can say we didn’t love each other
then, that we weren’t happy. Now,
you’re two years gone, and nobody
dances on anyone’s shoulders
in that earth-dark place where I think
what’s left of you must swim. Adio,
del passato. And that country? I went
at last last year — all the gold-wine light
of history, and songs cheap on the streets.
Your face was everywhere.
~This poem was previously published in Poetry Northwest (2011)
Myself When I Was There
(after Charles Mingus, “Myself When I Am Real”)
Something to do with distance,
an empty space
after obligation and sorrow. Something to do
with silence as opportunity,
an opening field,
all green. Something I could not say for I
hadn’t felt it yet — your cheek against
my palm, you saying
the wind, the bike, despite the scarf.
Despite the scarf, the boots, the cold
sank deep, had to be
soaked out. Memory comes to the surface
that way, warmed by triggers.
Even now, the taste
of Cointreau and cigarette papers
summons a dirt field behind the stage,
you uncoiling the ball
in a spiral, the loose swing back —as if
you were half-in, half-beyond the body,
as if you’d already seen
the chart where our days are reckoned, and this
was too far from the last to even count.
~This poem was previously published in Poet Lore (2008).
after Frank O’Hara, in memoriam Shirley Horn,
I was on my way to give a poetry reading
with Reuben and Nancy and some people
I didn’t know, and I was running late, and
on the car radio WPFW was playing
Shirley Horn’s version of “Green” — a song
I used to think was silly, until she made me
hear it — and I thought, this is a good omen, I’ll
make it on time. Then the DJ played “You
Won’t Forget Me,” and I remembered the first
time I heard it, how she’d turned me to putty
before the opening verse, a luminous eternity,
She was beginning “Here’s
to Life,” when I thought, oh.
When I got
to the reading, Reuben had already heard
the news, and we talked about her and D.C.,
about her and Miles, about how she never
in her lifetime got the fame that she deserved,
how it should have been different. And I
don’t recall just what was playing on the way
home — “Fever?” “But Beautiful?” — when I
started crying, seeing her walk into One Step Down
on the arm of her bassist, beautiful Charles,
on New Year’s Eve, late, of course, which was
the whole point —
how she kept us
waiting, while she shrugged off her mink
and settled herself at the keyboard, lifting
her face up and into the circle of light
at the mike as if she could taste it, and nodding
once, slowly, at Charles, while we held our breath.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
These three poems are all rooted in my relationship with music. After my brother died, I was going through some old photos when I ran across one of us as young adults in our parents’ living room. Mom was at the piano singing and playing, and he and I were laughing, trying to sing along while he balanced me on his shoulders. This became the basis for “Another Country.” Our mother was a tremendously gifted pianist and singer, and her music — opera arias, Italian folk songs, some jazz and pop standards – was the soundtrack for our growing up. She opened my ears to many kinds of music, and as I formed my own tastes, I fell in love with modern, improvisational jazz, which I often write to. “Myself, When I Was There” was written to the title piece of the great Charles Mingus piano improvisation album, “Myself When I Am Real.” I tried to capture some of Mingus’s disciplined freedom in both content and form.
The story of “That Day,” an elegy for jazz singer and pianist Shirley Horn, is all there in its lines. I was lucky enough to see her perform several times, and when I heard of her death, I immediately thought of Frank O’Hara’s poem on the death of Billie Holiday, “The Day Lady Died,” and I took the plainness of O’Hara’s language as my model. When I read the poem, I sometimes talk about the power of Horn’s unique slow-motion style, the way she could keep you deliciously waiting for the next word, the next note. She was somehow at once both fierce and ladylike — a description, I realize, that would also apply to my mother.
ABOUT ROSE SOLARI
Rose Solari is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, The Last Girl, Orpheus in the Park, and Difficult Weather, the one-act play, Looking for Guenevere, and the novel, A Secret Woman. She has lectured and taught writing workshops at many institutions, including the University of Maryland, College Park; St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland; and the Kellogg College Centre for Creative Writing, University of Oxford, where she currently serves on the advisory panel. Her awards include the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, The Columbia Book Award, and an EMMA for excellence in journalism.