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Music City

A Poetic Sequence

Issue 116, Spring 2022

Photos by Kristine Potter © The artist. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Projects.

Nashville Sonnet
Deconstructed on a Bed of Magnolia Blossoms

             In this city no one talks dialectical materialism
From high up the cranes speak an invincible language.
The trusses extend over pedal taverns and tractors,
joyriding flatbeds of dancing tourists, and it is like reading God’s lips.
En garde! she says.

             Today I am landscaping, staking light
across my wintergreen yard to get the worm’s perspective,
to beg his forgiveness.

             I am reaching fingers into darkest soil
pondering the afterlife. A house wren
flouts its surefire code to all this
achy breaky singing

             —such intricate phrasing like a compass
behind Giacomo da Lentini’s feathered quill pen.
Who doesn’t want to live in a city of acoustic martyrs
addicted to heartbreak?

Plus this: even the magnolias, vulnerable each
spring, court a delicious despair, and still burst their creamy
fat blossoms like spark plugs for the living.

Photos by Kristine Potter © The artist. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Projects.


It depends on the time of day
& how light flames the ash tree
which stands like a bell tower in our yard,
its backdrop the Harpeth Hills rolling
like muddy waves in the distance,
& instead of leaves, this tree drops
curled penny-colored prayers which I sweep
each day into the compost bin, sure
they are meant for someone else,
where they echo, rattle their song.
Fall is so close—I’ve begun
to consider the heat a weapon.
Summer seems to want to dig a cool spot
under some shade, pant herself into a new
season, only to find she’s pregnant,
her pups like hot stars burning for years
& years to come. How do I tell the tree
to stop praying? That the war might be over?
That we may have lost? The softest parts
of any body are cut out so easily—
think the eyes of the saints, their tongues,
their hearts. We do nothing with these parts
but throw them onto the fire. We like to see
them burn; we must like the flames.



This is what the heart knows: a ramekin
of warm peach cobbler crowned
with a splodge of vanilla whose slow melt
is the altering of the seasons, the coming
of autumn swirling in a mass of milky orange
sugar; Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in B Minor,
its opening movement, a sojourn reminiscent
of December rain or my grandfather, graveside,
alone, his frightened stare into a dirt hole
recalling his errors; the heart knows the spine
as the exquisite corridor to the senses, noodle-like
strands registering the tingling of beach
pebbles underfoot, or a courageous plunge into
an iron cold sea or the way you feel when she pulls
her favorite lichen green dress over her head,
rivering her body, a fabric waterfall across the heart
which also knows Orpheus’s frantic reach,
Bernini’s sculpture, Pluto’s ghost white fingers
clutching Proserpina’s thigh in the Borghese,
or Venus’s shattering tennis swing, her victorious
scream, but the heart does not know primordial
dangers, wildfires scattering a devil’s
dream, hurricane winds drowning castles to make
a sudden skeleton of us all, which is why we devour
and swallow earth like vultures on a highway,
standing around, waiting our turn.

Photos by Kristine Potter © The artist. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Projects.

Hidden Lake

On steady legs and with a low constant growl,
the storm comes close this afternoon.

We are at the lake and want to swim,
to escape the heat, the biting flies, to feel

our bodies petal on the glass
of water, to feel our bodies glide

across the wet tongue of the hills,
to feel ourselves glimmer like ghosts.

The woods hum electric
as the last summer days up the volume—

all metallic and flourish.
The ridgeline slips from deep

green to gold, mauve milkweed crowning
acre after acre. This is when

I don’t recognize my life.
My own father never learned to swim,

the least of his worries,
though I’ve known I need

a heavy coat in autumn and to be
submerged summer after summer.

How I wish he could have trusted
the fresh water around him, its buoyancy

and breath. Those of you with
fathers like physicists could never know

how many times he was held under.
Thunder beyond the hills warns us

not to give in to the cool sooty blue
of the water but to feel our frames

as something other than our own burden
just for a moment weightless and held up.


Radnor Lake

two days after the Christmas Day bombing in Nashville, TN

for Kate Daniels

Plastic bags tangle
like three netted robins
high at the peak of the day
topping the silver maple;
they fill and flatten with the breeze
billowing vox humana across the lake
that Kate and I edge slowly—
circumambulating the reeds and sterling-still sky.
Two days ago, on Christmas morning,
the city in which I live exploded.
A man wanted to be heard
so he shook the steely windows & iron rebar
of the tall buildings, sleepers shuddered
awake; it was a frantic sunrise. A bombed day
in which only he died. How it could have been
so different. In the South
robins stay all winter,
flit among the empty branches
like restless fingers, shuttle from tree to tree
caroling before dawn or as evening sets.
We are at the lake early this day, the soil
wet and smelling of char. The shaking
bodies of the bags above us
like small shrines to no one.

Photos by Kristine Potter © The artist. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Projects.


We’re at Cheekwood, entering a low-lit tunnel,
like switching subway trains at Canal Street,
only one arrives here like a pilgrim in Turrell’s
Blue Pesher whose circular chamber is retreat
and terminus of blue sky, whose pit of black sand
puts one in mind of Wooly Willy’s iron
filings and magnetic wand, a bald-faced man
transformed suddenly, all whiskers and mustache. I’m
letting this white cylindrical room and oculus
with the knee-high stone seat be my therapy
recalling my father’s cruel barbs. We never discussed,
as a child in Fairmount Park, sitting at one end
of the Whispering Bench, my nine o’clock to his
three, he said, I wish you were born a girl. Years
those words clung to ventricle walls and wended
their way to my parabolic heart. A father myself,
I forgave. Now I see the shallow disc of dark
gravel as pyre to imagine burning one’s shelf of slights,
which I do, then gaze up at a piercing blue sky.


I Have Seen a Sky

I have seen a sky
darken like a choir box,

a kingfisher’s wings glisten
blue like stained glass,

a fire’s flames purple themselves
like ripening fruit,

the hammer peck at the nail,
a dove gray lake stone become oracle

when polished in a pocket with fear.
I’ve seen whistling workers step into the blue,

moving scaffold to scaffold like pigeons.
From rooms of regret

I have found dozens of white receipts
discarded like dried snake skins.

I’ve tasted the call of the house wren
in my black tea at daybreak,

let steep the shaft of golden light
piercing the kitchen window,

and have added honey to sweeten the garbage
collector’s humming as he spins

giant plastic bins like dance partners.
I have seen the tarnished bronze leaves

of the alley join the clumsy waltz
until everything is the larghetto of my breath.

Sturnus vulgaris

for Robert Hayden

The stones on the path
behind our home
mimic the chords of the highway,
and the fabric of the honeysuckle
fills the edges enough
to muffle the grit of the alley
where days ago we walked
past the dead body of a starling,
stiff as a small bundle of branches,
eyes eaten and cored,
feet frozen gripping the clouds—
everyone hates the starlings
and I’m always surprised
at how people abhor that
which assimilates the best.
Plumage of the starry night sky,
beak of yellow whirs & rattles,
flight of a four-pointed star.
So many want them dead.
They thrive. The male
decorates nests with flowers
to attract his mate.
They are myna birds known
to imitate a ringing phone,
killdeer, a red-tailed hawk,
car alarms, the name Mortimer:
Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him,
To keep his anger still in motion.
Feathered bullets, dense chunks
of winged bark, shapeshifters, breathing
giants in the early evening sky.


Ten Album Covers

The future is a blind piano man

fingering some groove out

of ancient beats from the Roman Empire


This summer, I did my best to forget

the moon, pale-faced traveler

of the skies, yet remained a prisoner

to his dusty metaphors.

When I can’t sleep,

I count all my likes.

This morning I read Zagajewski

who recently vanished into a quantum

of light. I’m sure I treasure most his clarity

which like my belief in art seems endless.

On the kitchen counter, right now:

three sunflowers in a clear vase stretching

the day into a single filament of wonder.

No one knows why sometimes

when reading a book, the face contorts

into a golden wildfire at night,

thoughts smoldering

over a city.

What I am talking about is my funeral

where all the pallbearers are Yoruba priestesses passing

my body once again through a field of summer.

Our great tragedy is abandoning our accents,

surely, our first instruments. Then our great triumph

is returning home years later to retrieve them.

Tack me up on your wall.

I want you to feel this energy,

to which you say, “Piddly.”

A fox is a suffering creature

fossilized in the fingers

of a piano player, exploding

into a feverish rift,

drowning Zeus’s silence.

So many want them dead.

Photos by Kristine Potter © The artist. Courtesy Sasha Wolf Projects

January 7, 2021

How strange, absurd even, I started to random hum
Ray Charles’s “America the Beautiful” on Route 71
en route to Nashville, unbidden, over some
byway, his voice (my voice?) ribboning undulant
farmhouses and homespun meadows as lush
as the road’s rows of crops dopplering their harvest
and its invisible circuitry of rhizomatic speech,
resolute like church spires transmitting fervent
prayers through gray slabs of clouds, my solitary low
singing beside a stream of big rigs and tankers,
all part of this long strife, this exhilarating tableau
of a nation’s story of becoming. I felt anchored
behind a steering wheel driving past half-beaten
malls and political billboards whose sadness echoed
like neon crosses fading behind eyelids. My freedom
was the revery of his rendition and the ghettoes
from whence I journeyed, and like any good road
story, I hooked into the blue scream of spacious skies.
We all look for miracles until what follows
equal our country loved and mercy more than life.


A Lady More Brilliant than The Sun

Two days until June
and the hydrangea are already wilting
only to be full, almost resurrected

in the morning. The Blue Ridge Mountains
are over five hours away by car
on roads as crooked as my memory

or as the cursive many of the young
can no longer read with which
I signed a certificate of death and two years later

signed one for marriage. Those mountains
hunker like a row of giant
church bells—ring and ring a reminder

of my late husband’s last days.
Like his mind just before he took his life,
their song unravels across the state

until it lands here in Nashville where two
purple finches make their nest in my front porch ferns,
their fledglings taking up all that singing.

Hatching within thirteen days,
they scatter like heart break
or is it devotion? The closer the anniversary

of his death, the louder the toll.
He died on the 13th, my father born
on the 13th, I remarried in 2013.

In 1917 three shepherd children in Portugal
were visited by the Virgin Mary
on the 13th of each month

for six months. It was a miracle
to end the Great War. We all look
for miracles. The delicate movement

of the black elm becomes a manifestation
of mercy. On the last day
of The Lady’s visitation to the children,

they said the sun rolled and danced
in the sky. To what song did it sway?
I know I’ve heard it. Haven’t you?

Didi Jackson and Major Jackson

Didi Jackson is the author of Moon Jar (Red Hen Press, 2020). Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere, and have been selected for the Best American Poetry series and Poem-a-Day by the Academy of American Poets. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Vanderbilt University.

Major Jackson is the author of five volumes of poetry, most recently The Absurd Man (Norton, 2020). A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he lives in Nashville, where he is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. He serves as the poetry editor of the Harvard Review.