Manhattan Noir

She played in a philharmonic; he was a handyman.
She was trained how to hold a cello by the neck
and draw a bow across its strings so that sound
made listeners leave this world and find themselves
in another that for most was impossible to express.
He strangled her to death backstage behind a curtain.

Her disappearance from others’ lives was like a curtain
suddenly being pulled across in front of them, a woman
who was so talented and alive. How do you express
what the loss of such a gift is, they asked. Her neck
was crushed. That’s what people repeated to themselves
when her murder was discovered, and without sound

they attended her memorial, and, except for the sound
of their own breathing, they stared at a stage curtain
with a large photograph of her which they themselves
recognized as if they had taken it of that young woman,
which showed her smiling, holding her cello by the neck.
Then they left, entered the subway, and took the express

uptown to parts of Manhattan—but even the express
could not take them away fast enough from a sound
that was only absence. He pressed down on her neck
with his thumbs as he knelt over her behind the curtain,
until her eyes almost burst out of her, a young woman
that he admitted not knowing. Family asked themselves,

why? Why did he have to kill her? They themselves
knew the answer—because he could. Because, to express
whatever was inside him, he strangled a young woman
he didn’t know but saw at times rehearsing in a sound-
proof rehearsal room. So he hid behind a thick curtain
hiding old lighting equipment. He grabbed her neck,

he admitted to police, and couldn’t believe that her neck
was actually between his fingers. His fingers themselves
seemed actually not to have any feeling, as if a curtain
had come between them and her. It was hard to express
what he felt at that moment, even as he heard the sound
coming from her throat as he choked that young woman.

In black dress, she holds the cello’s neck, trying to express
not only what great musicians themselves hear, but a sound
she believes lies waiting behind a curtain in every human.

— Stephen Gibson

Manhattan Noir is a depressing tale about the death of a talented cello player. She was a prodigy and those who attended her funeral truly felt a gift to the community was lost. The death of the skilled cellist was cause by a handyman who “strangled her to death backstage behind a curtain.” The cause of the murder was truly a mystery. The handyman had no connection with the girl and people did not understand why he killed her. Eventually, people concluded that he had done so simply. “because he could. Because to express whatever was inside him, he strangled a young woman he didn’t know but saw at times rehearsing in a soundproof rehearsal room.”

This poem is great on a technical level. Its pathos evokes sorrow within the reader for the cello player, as her life ended far too soon. The author also makes use of symbolism, connecting the grip on the neck of the cello and the grip of the handyman on the cello player’s neck. This allows the reader to truly envision the firm grasp on both necks and to understand how the cello player was killed. This is best shown in the final lines when the author says “she holds the cello’s neck, trying to express not what only what great musicians themselves hear, but a sound she believes lies waiting behind a curtain in every human.” The author also makes use of repetition: excluding the final paragraph, the last word of the final line of each paragraph is always the final word on the first line of the following paragraph.

This poem also struck me on a personal level, because it highlights how quickly life can end and how one’s life can end for an unjust reason. The woman was a young, talented cello player with a bright future playing on the big stage in Manhattan. Her death was entirely due to a maniac’s desire to hurt others. Deaths can be caused by unforeseen circumstances. There are countless people murdered everyday. There are some killed during wars, some killed in accidental situations such as car accidents, and some brutally murdered for unjust reasons.  This poem can influence a reader to live their life to the fullest.  It is the idea that one should truly make the most out of everyday.

I have always been advised by my family to make the most out of my time alive. It is even more important to spend as much time as possible with the people you care about, because you do not know how long they will be around. I recently came back from Thanksgiving break where I spent time with my ninety-year-old grandma. She is my only grandparent and I care for her greatly. Unfortunately, her memories are getting mixed up and she gets very confused at times about how to use her telephone, she struggles to hear the television, and doesn’t remember meeting certain people. I know one day, she will eventually die of old age, thus I want to make the most of the time I spend with her.

I feel sad for the family members and friend of the star cellist. She died at a young age and clearly before her time. In the end, they will remember the good times they had with her and always think of her in a positive way. I think about my friends in college who I adore greatly. I hope that they all live to an old age, make the most of their time on this planet, and are never placed in a situation like that of the cello player in New York. 

— Bryce Zaremby ’18

[This poem featured in Shenandoah Volume 64, Number 1. All selections from the issue can be found at this link: https://shenandoahliterary.org/641/ ]


“Kind of Blue” by Lynn Powell

Not Delft or 
delphinium, not Wedgewood
among the knickknacks, not wide-eyed chicory 
evangelizing in the devil strip—

      But way on down in the moonless 
      octave below midnight, honey,
      way down where you can’t tell cerulean from teal.

Not Mason jars of moonshine, not 
waverings of silk, not the long-legged hunger 
of a heron or the peacock’s 
iridescent id—

      But Delilahs of darkness, darling,
      and the muscle of the mind
      giving in.

Not sullen snow slumped 
against the garden, not the first instinct of flame, 
not small, stoic ponds, or the cold derangement
of a jealous sea—

      But bluer than the lips of Lazarus, baby, 
      before Sweet Jesus himself could figure out 
      what else in the world to do but weep.

Moving through the atmospherics of "blue" by the via negativa, Lynn Powell conjures a jazz riff worthy of the master.
SEASON OF THE SECOND THOUGHT 
(University of Wisconsin Press, 2017)

Author of bavatuesdays.com

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers

Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.

Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.

When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.

— Adrienne Rich

 

Adrienne Rich penned “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” quite early in her career, and in so doing foreshadowed the vast majority of her other works. By Rich’s death in 2012 (approximately 60 years after the publication of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”), she was well known as an incredibly accomplished writer, and even more so as a relentless champion of women’s rights in her works. The tale of Aunt Jennifer and her needlepoint in this poem overlays (perhaps unsurprisingly) Rich’s complex critique of social inequality and disempowerment.

In the first quatrain, the speaker describes what exactly Aunt Jennifer’s tigers are. They are not some attraction in a safari park or circus; rather, they are the images on “a screen” – on Aunt Jennifer’s needlepoint. Rich’s imagery is surreal: the tigers are “bright topaz” in “a world of green”. They demand attention. In addition, they are dauntless and indomitable. They are fearless in the face of the “men beneath the tree”. They have “sleek chivalric certainty.”

Aunt Jennifer stands in sharp contrast to her tigers in the second quatrain. Her fingers barely flutter through the wool. Her hands are weighed down, almost stilled even, by the great weight of “Uncle’s wedding band.” This weight, of course, is metaphorical and, by that virtue, arguably even more oppressive. She is chained to one very special role in a marriage that the speaker refers to not even as her own, but as “Uncle’s”.

The third quatrain begins describing how Aunt Jennifer’s hands will “lie” when she dies “still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by”. The word ‘lie’ could have various interpretations. Perhaps her hands are finally lying still. Perhaps she is buried with her ring, and her hands portray a false image of her marriage. While these possibilities could be analyzed in greater detail, the final two lines of the poem hold greater significance.

In Rich’s last quatrain, the speaker concludes, “The tigers in the panel that she made will go on prancing, proud and unafraid”. These lines are often interpreted as a silver lining to the story, or as some sort of redemption. The speaker seems to indicate that Aunt Jennifer – the true, free Aunt Jennifer – lives on in her creations and finally finds expression in them. In some small way, they save her.

Despite this common interpretation of the significance of Aunt Jennifer’s tigers, I believe there is another way to understand this metaphor that drives home Rich’s concern with sexism and disempowerment even more. What if the tigers represented not Aunt Jennifer’s saving grace, but rather her oppressors? What if the tigers were not part of the redemption, but part of the problem? If the tigers represented men, or perhaps even a society governed by the patriarchy, the themes of the poem would come across even stronger. Unlike Aunt Jennifer, the tigers have nothing to fear from “the men beneath the tree” because they are men themselves. And they continue on oppressing others yet maintain in false certainty that their actions are “sleek” chivalry. When Aunt Jennifer is finally dead after years of oppression, the tigers “go on prancing, proud and unafraid”. They don’t care. They are proud, and unafraid that any power dynamics will change.

— Rachel Campbell ’18

 

Rich, Adrienne. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.” University of Pennsylvania, Web. http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/rich-jennifer-tiger.html

[For more by Adrienne Rich, her collected poems may be found for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Collected-Poems-1950-2012-Adrienne-Rich/dp/0393285111/ref=la_B000APH346_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1510543664&sr=1-2 ]


We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
         We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
        We wear the mask!

— Paul Laurence Dunbar

Though he remains known primarily as one of the most distinguished authors of African American dialect poetry around the turn of the 20th century, Paul Laurence Dunbar also penned noteworthy non-dialect pieces such as this one. Though short in length (just three stanzas) and relatively simple in construction (only two phonetic rhyme sounds repeated, with a non-rhyming refrain concluding the latter two stanzas), “We Wear the Mask” speaks illuminatingly to the complex emotional juggling act that black Americans were forced to engage in to cope with the prejudice and bigotry of their white neighbors in the post-bellum United States.

Dunbar begins and ends his piece with the title-phrase, “We wear the mask,” as well as concluding the middle stanza with it. The mask that “grins and lies” refers not to an actual piece of costuming, but to the face people put forth when they feel the need to act content and happy even though their true emotional state falls far short of carefree bliss; in fact, the poet states that it is “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.” This duplicitousness derives not from a desire to deceive maliciously, but rather simply to maintain mental stability. Dunbar asks “Why should the world be over-wise / In counting all our tears and sighs?” because the world he speaks of often views him and others of his skin color through the distorted lens of racism, and would not look sympathetically on his genuine frustrations and concerns. As a result, he remains content to “let them only see us, while / We wear the mask.”

At the same time, Dunbar stresses at various points how this practice of wearing a mask of false-positivity is only done out of utter necessity, and the very fact that such masks are required for African American people to sustain themselves is inherently perverse and damaging. When he writes, “We sing, but oh the clay is vile / Beneath our feet and long the mile,” the soil he speaks of is American, yet some of his fellow Americans choose to let bigotry and racial-hatred fuel their conduct. The American “clay is vile” because not all Americans are abiding by the mantra that ‘all men are created equal.’ Dunbar describes the mask and its significance to highlight the bigger problem: the need of such masks in the first place.

Efficacious in its emotion and keen in its brevity, “We Wear the Mask” has the potential to be glossed over as a work merely commenting on the social pressure to appear happy. We all tend to smile to those we see at the grocery store and at dinner parties, hoping to avoid giving any glimpse of our true, less-composed mental state, lest we get drawn into unpleasant conversation. But to reduce Dunbar’s poem to just a ‘be true to yourself’ slogan would be missing the message entirely. He writes of the mask not to criticize its implementation, but to give voice to the “tortured souls” of black Americans that lie shrouded beneath masks, to articulate their longing for the day when disguising real feelings about their second-class treatment will no longer be necessary.

— Lucas Morel ’18

Dunbar, Paul.  “We Wear the Mask.”  Poetry Foundation, Web.  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44203/we-wear-the-mask

[For more by Paul Laurence Dunbar, his collected poetry can be found for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Collected-Poetry-Paul-Laurence-Dunbar/dp/0813914388/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1509944960&sr=8-2&keywords=paul+laurence+dunbar&dpID=41KM124WHJL&preST=_SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch ]


I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

— William Wordsworth

In this poem, William Wordsworth goes on a journey to see the beauty of the world. He ventures alone and truly immerses himself in his surroundings. This is a kind of journey that William has to go on alone. If he was with others, he would not take the time to enjoy the beauty. William may feel pressured to engage in a conversation, he may be pressured to move through the scenery at a faster pace in order to satisfy the companions on the journey with him. Through solitude he is able to wander as a cloud, strolling along through life and enjoying its seemingly endless wonders.

The setting around William gives him golden writing material as a poet. The calming atmosphere allows him to be one with his thoughts. He is able to think about the golden daffodils in such an elaborate manner as they are his companion on his journey outdoors. The rhyming is consistent with every line or every other line. I enjoy this poem because I can truly envision the picture William paints within his poetry. This poem does a great job of highlighting the little things in life such as daffodils; the speaker goes into great detail analyzing the beauty of daffodils. If someone wants to get the most out of life, then they should take the time to admire the little things and get the most out of them.

I would argue the themes of the poem are nature and the writer’s memory of it. He highlights the beauty of the outside world. The happiness of his life has increased due to exploring nature, laying in the daffodils, and taking in his surroundings. William’s poem presents his detailed memory of his adventure wandering lonely as a cloud. His memories are vivid and truly showcase his descriptive abilities as a writer. The plot is simple but that is what makes the poem great. He is able to make something so simple as daffodils into a once in a lifetime beauty that fills his heart with pleasure and allowed him to truly enjoy the bliss of solitude.

In my opinion, the poem stands out because of the playful descriptions of the daffodils. An example is when he says “Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance”. In this quote, the reader can envision thousands of little flowers swirling in the wind. The pedals dancing in a multitude of directions without a care in the world. It seems as if the flowers are celebrating the beauty of nature and thus continuing William’s journey of being one with the outdoors. Overall, I would recommend this poem as a way to encourage people to adventure outside, take solo journeys, and embrace the little things such as the daffodils around them.

— Bryce Zaremby ’18

 

Wordsworth, William. “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Poetry Foundation.  Web.  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45521/i-wandered-lonely-as-a-cloud

[For more by Wiliam Wordsworth, his collected poetry can be found for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Collected-William-Wordsworth-Poetry-Library/dp/1853264016]