by Steve McOrmond
Glenn Gould recording the Goldberg Variations in New York, 1955
To coax the bird to fly
in the narrow corridors of its cage
and woo some meaning, however fugitive,
from this nothingness of tones. To bring us closer,
exquisite creatures of logic
and emotion. To reach the end
of all human possibilities, ashes and dust,
and begin again. Repetition
with variation. To find the key
that opens the sky
and demand of the gods
His debut at the Phillips Gallery, Washington, D.C., January 2, 1955
cloistered in the cottage
at Uptergrove. Only the dogs
his piano and a tape recorder.
After the lessons and his falling-out
with Guerrero. The real work
as yet undone. You can take a bird into the house,
mend its wing, feed and sing to it,
and it may never fly. Two years
of warm-up, sore fingers
as he tested himself
again and again. The results
satisfactory, he sits
low in the improvised
bridge chair, coughs.
Glenn Gould playing Brahms Concerto No 1 in D Minor at extraordinarily slow tempi, 1962
Adagissimo. The tempo of stars.
Hovering over the Steinway, ghostly
white hands frozen above the keyboard—wait,
wait. Only silence
holds anything together. The razor’s edge,
a kind of rapture.
These fingers that strike the keys
can't wait to leave them.
Meeting for the first time in the elevator,
Gould covers his mouth with a handkerchief,
refuses to shake hands. She’s been briefed
about the tenant on the top floor, otherwise
she might be inclined to stick him in the ribs
with the mop handle. Later he calls to explain
that someone is buzzing up, would she mind
going downstairs and telling whoever it is
to go away? When somebody tries to pry
open his mailbox and steal his letters,
she realizes he must really be important.
From the beginning, theirs is a cold war, curt
pleasantries and palaver about the weather.
One night after her cleaning is done,
she decides to get some air, climbs the stairs
to the roof and is standing near his open window
when the playing begins. She leans against the ledge,
prepared to be bored stiff. The music makes her feel cradled
like a small child again, her mother singing her off
to sleep. She can think of nothing else she needs.
Almost every night now, she steals onto the rooftop.
He can play for hours without stopping.
Where a winter’s night can be measured in years,
the distance between stars. Where breath
turns solid and the mind's never been
more fragile, drifting with the pack ice in a skin boat.
Where bright colours and the shiny
useless things that distract us
are sheared away, flesh from bone,
thought chipped to a spear point.
The economy of gesture, his voice
whispering: follow me.
Glenn Gould recording the Goldberg Variations in New York, 1981
After twenty-five years,
what did they expect to hear?
They will have to settle, as he has, for the windswept
coastline of Newfoundland, outports
approachable only by the sea.
Farther north: glacial slowness,
the possibility of perfection.
Months of darkness, then
the extravagant light of a summer day.
A herd of caribou
fording a river swollen with melt water.
the tiny flowers of Arctic Rhododendron
last no more than two weeks a year.
The blind alleys and hairpin turns
of the mind—how little these structures have changed
since the Stone Age. Creatures of distance
and desire, no longer
animals and not quite
He is threading his way through the score
with an awl carved from polar bear bone.
About the author:
Steve McOrmond’s most recent book of poetry is The Good News about Armageddon (Brick Books 2010). His previous collection Primer on the Hereafter (Wolsak and Wynn 2006) was awarded the 2007 Atlantic Poetry Prize. His first collection Lean Days, from which the Glenn Gould poems are excerpted, was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, which recognizes the best first book of poetry published by a Canadian. Originally from Prince Edward Island, Steve now lives in Toronto.