Thursday, April 12, 2007

"Thelonious Monk," by Stephen Dobyns

A record store on Wabash was where
I bought my first album. I was a freshman
in college and played the record in my room

over and over. I was caught by how he took
the musical phrase and seemed to find a new
way out, the next note was never the note

you thought would turn up and yet seemed
correct. Surprise in 'Round Midnight
or Sweet and Lovely. I bought the album

for Mulligan but stayed for Monk. I was
eighteen and between my present and future
was a wall so big that not even sunlight

crossed over. I felt surrounded by all
I couldn't do, as if my hopes to write,
to love, to have children, even to exist

with slight contentment were like ghosts
with the faces found on Japanese masks:
sheer mockery! I would sit on the carpet

and listen to Monk twist the scale into kinks
and curlicues. The gooseneck lamp on my desk
had a blue bulb which I thought artistic and

tinted the stacks of unread books: if Thomas
Mann depressed me, Freud depressed me more.
It seemed that Monk played with sticks attached

to his fingertips as he careened through the tune,
counting unlike any metronome. He was exotic,
his playing was hypnotic. I wish I could say

that hearing him, I grabbed my pack and soldiered
forward. Not quite. It was the surprise I liked,
the discordance and fretful change of beat,

as in Straight No Chaser, where he hammers together
a papier-mâché skyscraper, then pops seagulls
with golf balls. Racket, racket, but all of it

music. What Monk banged out was the conviction
of innumerable directions. Years later
I felt he'd been blueprint, map and education:

no streets, we bushwhacked through the underbrush;
not timid, why open your mouth if not to shout?
not scared, the only road lay straight in front;

not polite, the notes themselves were sneak attacks;
not quiet—look, can't you see the sky will soon
collapse and we must keep dancing till it cracks?


  1. Thank you, for this one in particular.

  2. Dang, I enjoyed this poem!

    "...between my present and future was a wall so big that not even sunlight crossed over"

    What a wonderful string of words. College is such a "vegetable" time. I wish I could do it over... without all the stupid bits.

    Did I mention that I'm looking forward to your picture book talk like Christmas morning? Well, yes, yes I am!

    Oh boy!


  3. Shoot, I wrote a short story based on "Misterioso" and now after reading this poem I'll have trash the story and start over. But I kind of suspected that would happen.

  4. Oh, Melinda, do you know Chris Raschka's "Mysterious Thelonious"? One of the oddest and most beautiful picture books ever -- the colors are set to the twelve-tone scale, just like "Misterioso," so by the end of the book, it's almost pure abstraction, with this hipster Monk climbing up and down the color scales. It's weird and wonderful.

    And I love "Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop" so much I would marry it.

  5. Sophie likes "Charlie Parker" too. I haven't gotten "Misterioso" yet, though I was really interested when I saw it in a Horn Book article. But I'd better pop over to Amazon while I'm thinking about it. I really like Raschka's stuff.