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

an audience.

-----

His debut at the Phillips Gallery, Washington, D.C., January 2, 1955

Two years

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.

Begins.

-----

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.

-----

The Superintendent

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.

-----

North

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.

Purple fugues,

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

gods.

Listen.

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.