February Poem : “What Would You Say?”

What would you say of a man who could play
three instruments at once – saxophone,
manzello and stritch – but who can neither
tie his shoelace nor button his fly?

Who stumbles through basements,
fumbles open lacquered boxes,
a child’s set of drawers,
strews their contents across bare boards –
seeds, vestments, rabbit paws?

Whose favourite words are vertiginous,
found, dilate? Whose fantasy is snow?
Who can trace in the dirt the articular process
of the spine, the pulmonary action of the heart?

Would you say he was blind?

Would you say he was missing you?

I wrote this, the nucleus of it, in the early 1990s, when I was a participant in the Community of Writers Poetry Week at Squaw Valley in Northern California; a residential seven days in which we were set the task of writing a new poem every day, said poem to be collected in the early hours of the following morning, so as to be workshopped in the group sessions which began around eleven, eleven thirty, under the guidance of one of the tutors – Sharon Olds or Robert Hass, Lucille Clifton, perhaps, or Brenda Hillman. No lightweights at Squaw.

There was some discussion amongst the participants, I remember, about the fact that most of my poems were quite strongly tied to a narrative [not so surprising, given the day job] and why didn’t I take advantage of the situation and try to write something that, instead, centrally, of telling a story, was driven by language, words and the sounds of words?

I tried. Floundered and tried again. Finally managed, on my second visit to Squaw Valley, a five line poem called Out of Silence, which became the title poem in my New & Selected Poems some twenty years later. And before that, the poem above, which succeeds, I think, in being about sounds, about words; but which is also a kind of story. A mystery. A puzzle. A puzzle to which the answer, as anyone who follows jazz will know, is the blind, multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk.

You can hear me reading the poem here, along with the band Second Nature, and with some marvellous flute playing by Mel Thorpe, giving it his best Roland Kirk.

Hopefully, and with a little patience, here goes …

Author: John Harvey

Writer.

6 thoughts on “February Poem : “What Would You Say?””

  1. I love the poem, love the mystery and even though, not being a jazz aficionado, I didn’t know who it was about; and that surprise turn at the end when it’s suddenly about love or loss, suddenly about YOU rather than ONE, suddenly intimate. I’m wary of trying to learn how to write poetry because the poems I’ve always written are so personal and I wouldn’t want anyone else’s hand in them; although when I look at my poems years later, I can tell I need to change something, to make a line scan better or be enriched with a stronger image. Maybe I just need to be humble enough to listen to proper poets and learn from them!

  2. Hi John,

    Your poem “What Would You Say?” is one of my favourites in your collection ‘Out of Silence’, which I have a signed copy of. In fact I read it at a meeting of Cross-Border Poets in the Chapel at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, last month.

    Our task was to compare poems with song lyrics and I paired up “What Would You Say?” with Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” because both give me that same feeling of loss and longing. Must admit I got some funny looks, but this was probably because I’d just lost the crown to my upper front tooth!

    My partner Maureen Weldon and I listened to your recorded reading last night, and thoroughly enjoyed both your poem and the jazz. Terrific band, Second Nature. And, gosh, what a flautist Mel Thorpe is!

    My very best,

    Paul

  3. Paul …
    I’m very flattered to have my poem set alongside one of my favourite songs/recordings. Thank you for choosing it and reading it.
    And for a little coincidence – sort of – when I was in Nottingham a year or so ago, a launch reading for ‘Body & Soul’, I broke my denture on whatever i was eating and had to read with a slight but pronounced lisp.

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