A mutant violin, the poet Adam Zagajewski calls it, in the poem named for the instrument. It’s been kicked out of the chorus, he says, its low tones not quite right, too close to a sob. Sitting here in the dark-wooded reading room of the local public library, where thick shades blot out the light that should be heralding morning, I am struck by my need for the poem. Last night I leaned over a wooden table in a darkened bar to tell a poet she must read it. Many years had passed since I had read the poem, and I could not say why it came to mind just then. Perhaps I was too distracted by the effort suddenly required not to take her hands in mine. Her hands are small and white and look as though they would be cool as marble, but I have not held them and do not think I will. She already has a lover; I do not. This difference defines the space between us. Still we met at the bar, our glances taut as tuned strings, our conversation intimate as whispers. In the end all I could say was, read the poem.
Now, in the library, I open my planner flat on the table and survey the first pages of the new year. My pen hovers over blank squares; I carry already in my head some idea of the deadlines to come, some shape of what must be accomplished. But my mind goes only to her, to last night, to the forgotten poem. I find it on the second floor of the library, shelved in a bath of spilled sunlight. The edition is the same one I own, with the same black-and-white cover, and I am surprised that my fingers go right to page 252. They have held the space of the poem all these years. But I know less than they do, less than my body holds, for I have forgotten the poem’s ending: “I’m lonely / I can’t sleep.”
My first lover was a cellist, an older Ukrainian man, and when I could not sleep he would steady his hand flat against my chest, not on my breasts but between them, in the crook held blank for breath, and tell me to breathe in. The weight of his hand cantilevered against the air I drew into my lungs: by his hand’s rise I could measure that space inside me. Sleep becalmed, says another poet. In the cellist’s arms, I did.
As a child I sat at my wooden school desk when the older students came around to my classroom, lugging their instruments behind them like unwieldy overgrown appendages. They’d been asked to introduce us to the sounds of the orchestra, to its each component part, and they took to their task dutifully: the winds screeching one day, the horns squawking the next. I waited, impatient. It has always only been the strings for me. It has always only been the cello. Perhaps I knew what Zagajewski did: that in the school sea of children lifting their half-sized violins to play the Suzuki method, I would always prefer to sit the mutant, the long and low sort on the end.
My fingers could not hold the vibrato shape; that was why I gave it up. I have always quietly liked my hands, imagining my fingers to be long and elegant, but once when I was entering my teenage years a female doctor with a stern face and a trim figure asked my mother if my fingers were always so swollen. I have remembered this and think that perhaps my hands do not seem to others the way they do to me. Older now, I have learned to add other things to this list: my hair, my hips, my heart. After the doctor’s words, my hands stayed stiff and cloddish on the long, slim neck of the instrument, as though they had just then learned what they all along were. I heard what beauty arose only from others. I gave up making my sad sounds.
The body of the cello is made from wood that has been polished smooth and then bent into a curve by heat and pressure so unrelenting the wood can do nothing but acquiesce, ceding its straight line. I imagine that moment as an exhalation, the relief of giving up anything so rigidly held. When the tree was young, it bent in the wind. Sound is carried in those same air currents, and it seems to me that in the instrument we have returned the wood to this original purpose: to take on the weight of empty space, to understand that in absence there is force.
Hush now, go back to work, if you are grieving it is not for this never-been love, I tell myself. I can hold this sadness for as long as it lasts. I can hold it longer. But that night, when I have left the library for the soft white den of my bed, the poem returns, again unbidden. “Not everything,” it reminds me, “turns into song.” I borrow the words I need to answer: I am lonely, I say. I cannot sleep.