The Davydov

Donald Platt Click to read more...

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Donald Platt’s fifth book of poems, Tornadoesque, is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press.  His sixth, Man Praying, will appear in 2017.  .  His fourth book, Dirt Angels, was published in 2009 by New Issues Press.  In 2011 he was awarded a second fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a third Pushcart Prize.  His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Salmagundi, Prairie SchoonerNotre Dame ReviewCrazyhorse, Ecotone, Black Warrior Review, Seneca Review, Southern Review and Best American Poetry, 2015.  He is a professor of English and teaches in the MFA program at Purdue University.

An audio recording of Donald Platt reading “The Davydov

                          The sadness one millimeter
under my psychotherapist’s voice seems always about to break through
                          like the first strident notes

of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor.  Dave had to cancel
                          our last session.  He left me
a voicemail fifteen minutes before we were supposed to meet

                          to say that his wife,
Rebecca, “was at a work event and had started projectile
                          vomiting.”  He wanted

to go home and be with her.  “Again, I’m sorry, but I can’t . . . can’t
                          help it.”  One year
and three months ago Rebecca had been diagnosed

                          with a rare invasive
cervical cancer.  After her hysterectomy and chemo, she had started training
                          for a half-marathon

again.  The surgeon had removed most of Rebecca’s lymph nodes,
                          thought that she
“had got it all.”  A week before the race, Rebecca felt unwell.  “Probably

                          flu,” her local
doctor said.  “Your immune system has been compromised.”
                          Both Dave and I

know it’s either flu or a recurrence.  On YouTube
                          I keep watching
Jacqueline du Pré play the Elgar on the Davydov,

                          her Stradivarius cello.
In the silence after she tunes up, the conductor—her new husband,
                          24-year-old Daniel

Barenboim—raises his eyebrows to ask if she’s ready, then nods,
                          gazes over
the orchestra, and lifts his right arm.  On the downbeat of his baton

                          she bows
those first low virulent notes.  Her bow comes crashing down,
                          sawing through pain

like the thick trunk of an oak that lightning has struck and toppled.
                          Fallen, it must
now be cut up and carted away.  In 1918, after regaining

                          consciousness
from general anesthesia for a tonsillectomy, Elgar had asked
                          for paper and pen,

had written down the melody.  Dave once showed me the screensaver
                          on his computer—
a photo of Rebecca and him on their mountain bikes next to a felled

                          redwood as wide as they stood tall.
Red-brown hair, blue eyes, she wore a green jersey.  She smiled at Dave
                          as a friend snapped

their picture.  Du Pré flashes her nervy I-can’t-believe-
                          I-just-played-it
smile at Barenboim after she’s run through that headlong

                          hundred-yard dash
of a scherzo, sixteenth-note riffs, at the end of the second movement’s
                          allegro molto.

It’s the intimate smile of a woman playing the instrument
                          she loves
so that its soundboard vibrates with all her youth and exuberant

                          being.  Just so
Dave and Rebecca smiled at each other from the screensaver.
                          I can’t begin

to imagine the sorrow Dave lives with, though I’ve known him
                          twelve years
and he’s more older brother to me than therapist.

                          Maybe
his sadness unsaid is like a huge ungainly cello
                          that he must lug

in its blue, oversize, plastic case wherever he travels.
                          He must fly 80,000
miles per year, buy an extra ticket so it can sit

                          on the seat beside
him.  He straps it in with the seat belt.  He takes it out
                          of the plastic case,

practices with it, then plays it for total strangers, who applaud
                          how human
wooden sorrow sounds.  It is an old sorrow.  It is the Davydov.

                          It was made
in 1712 by Stradivarius—alpine spruce seasoned 25 years
                          for its belly;

for its back, neck, and ribs deeply flamed native maple
                          to give it
a bell’s bronze resonance.  He hollowed out back and belly

                          with a large gouge.
Finished them with thumb planes.  Cut the f-holes with flutings
                          in the lower wings.

Fitted, trimmed the bass bar.  Glued it to the belly, which he then
                          glued to the ribs.  Sound post
wedged tight.  Scrolled neck outlined on a block, sawn out.  Pegbox

                          and volutes carved.  Cut
the purfling channel.  Black inlay.  After the ground coat of varnish dried,
                          he applied the final

reddish oil varnish.  All so that this wood might speak, might lament
                          and grow angry
in a voice that cannot be forgotten.  Sorrow’s instrument

                          got passed down
from one generation of grief to the next.  It was given
                          in 1870

to Karl Davydov, whom Tchaikovsky called the “czar
                          of cellists,”
by his patron.  It was bought in 1964 for $90,000

                          by Ismena Holland who gave it
to her goddaughter, Jacqueline du Pré.  Jacqueline played it for nine years
                          until multiple sclerosis

froze the feeling in her fingertips.  She was 28.
                          Upon her death
at 42, it was sold and loaned indefinitely to Yo-Yo Ma.  He didn’t

                          like the way
she played it, thought that “Jacqueline’s unbridled dark qualities
                          went against

the Davydov.  You have to coax the instrument.  The more
                          you attack it,
the less it returns.”  Dave, Davydov, coax sorrow out

                          of a wooden box strung
with steel, synthetic, or goat-gut strings.  Do not attack it.  It will return
                          and return to you

your life in complex harmonics heard and unheard.  Do not
                          forget it,
as Yo-Yo Ma did his other Stradivarius, the Montagnana

                          cello, in a Manhattan
taxicab.  Three hours later, the taxi driver Dishashi Lukumwena
                          opened his trunk

and found the cello.  Sorrow will be returned to you, to all
                          of us, intact.
Dave, today in my therapy session, you told me, “Whether

                          Rebecca lives or dies,
I want all the more to be alive.”  O sing unto the LORD a new song.
                          Jacqueline du Pré

did not foresee her early death from MS or how for the last decade
                          and a half she wouldn’t
play.  Sing unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp, and the voice

                          of a psalm.  In 1967, after
the Six-Day War, she and Daniel got married in Jerusalem.  Let the floods
                           clap their hands: let the hills

be joyful together.  In a railway car, long blonde hair swaying
                          to the train’s motion,
TV documentary camera rolling, trees and buildings

                          passing the half-open
window, Jacqueline plays the Davydov, no bow.  Let the sea roar
                           and the fulness thereof;

the world, and they that dwell therein.  She plucks its strings
                          pizzicato, smiles
allegro con fuoco.  Wildly she sings a song of her own invention—Bar

                          baba bum . . .  New wedding ring
glints gold on her finger flying over the fretless black neck.  What noise
                          joy makes, keeps making!

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Discussion

2 Responses to The Davydov

  1. Christine says:

    Gorgeous! Just perfect.

  2. Daniel Corrie says:

    Donald Platt’s poems have long astonished me, as does this one. This poem’s quiet, conversational voice gathers like a whirlwind — a spiraling of seamless associations — vortex of history being dragged through moment-to-moment ephemerality’s actions and feelings and excellence and dailiness. Time feels large, but it also feels exquisitely detailed. The patient becomes the analyst becomes the brother becomes an everyman whose possibly dying wife becomes another woman already dead yet alive through the story of her talent’s brevity and the tragic replaying of her recorded music. This is such a poigant, smart poem.

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