Pulling the Organ Stops

Rita Dove Click to

ritaRita Dove is a playwright, fiction writer, ballroom dancer, musician, editor, professor and poet, most widely known as a Pulitzer Prize winning poet (for Thomas and Beulah (Carnegie Mellon, 1987) and Poet Laureate of both the United States and Virginia. Her other honors include the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Art and the Carole Weinstein Prize in poetry. The most recent of her poetry collections is Sonata Mulattica (Norton, 2009).  “Pulling the Organ Stops” was first published in Shenandoah 58/3.

1791: St. Paul’s Cathedral

Dressed for rejoicing in red jackets,
we climb the sides of the organ
to reach the knobs. I yank out a note,
mix in a fifth, an octave, add eerie flutes
and a buzzing multitude of strings.
George grins, tugging the bass flute
like a helmsman on the Thames.
I prefer the celestes, but reeds are best
for angelic trumpet blasts.

It’s like dancing with thunder,
scrabbling over the groaning deck
of a pitching ark to scale the mast,
Jacob climbing his ladder of light.
No reason for Franz to put on
that somber face. Look at Papa, who is –
how could he help it? – smiling
as we scoot along, poised for his nod
to release God’s glory into the air.

Understand, all music is physical.
Bassoons rattle bones; a violin tweedles –
and like a tooth biting down on a sweet,
pierces the brain. But the organ
climbs into your chest, squeezing
as it shudders – a great lung
hauling its grief through the void
until we can hear how profoundly
the world has failed us.