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: ]