They listen to something they can’t hear
until they open their mouths, skinny whistler
in a tuneless childhood where every scrape, every
skinned knee, every door slammed
on a spilled or misbegotten dream leans toward us
cloaked in smoky barlight or circled in stage light,
Amália Rodrigues singing the losses of fado
in a language we don’t understand
but can because no one was happy there
and neither were we. They tell us what we
want to know and what we don’t, static popping,
Bessie Smith singing to Clara Smith singing
it back, We don’t know why we are here. They’re
not asking why, they’re just saying that’s how it is,
earth turning, their voices spinning a thread
through the galaxy, life going on, every stray dog
howling at the moon. If they live long enough,
if the car doesn’t crash on a Mississippi backroad,
if Garland’s last pill isn’t one pill too many,
their voices thicken, their vocal cords scar
with the notes they keep reaching for because they know
we’ve been waiting, listening without knowing
why we were listening until we heard them,
our sirens, our chorus, their voices heard
for the first time in the honied voice
of someone we knew, the shot thrown back
at the kitchen table, the lipstick on the rim of the glass,
the first voice that told us sorrow was a well so deep
we’d never hear the rock hitting water, that song,
their song, never a song of ships so much as someone
going away, a lament, never a song sung around fires,
the one that keeps telling the endless march to victory,
but the other song, Hecuba’s wail, the song of junked cars
and roofs tarped against rain, song of the broken branch
we gave them, its fragrant blossoms, asking
please sing why it’s broken, sing why we broke it,
why do these blossoms fade?
Maxine Scates is the author of three books of poetry, Undone (New Issues
Black Loam (Cherry Grove), and Toluca Street (Pittsburgh); she is also co-
editor, with David Trinidad, of
Holding Our Own: The Selected Poems of Ann Stanford
(Copper Canyon). She lives in Eugene, Oregon.