Fidelity and the Dead Singer

for Michael Donaghy

Fidelity and the Dead Singer
for Michael Donaghy

If I set a new stylus on an old record—
my mother’s teenage single of Roy Head and the Traits,
a second-hand Howlin’ Wolf, the B-side of Hey Jude
I played until I couldn’t hear it—it’s the same catch,
same scratch, same scratch again, same clouds
of static subsiding into soft focus. The first beat
brings it all back home, the dead singer’s voice
alive like a recurring dream, or like a ritual
as a ritual wishes it could be, unreeling perfectly
over rhythms cherished to the point of sanctity.

Not so for poems. The blank before the words
has no voice of its own, and when the verbs
unfurl they change a little every time
—not in errors of transcription but in changes
of the throat the poem courses through:
grown lazy, gruff, impatient through the years,
or passing from your mouth to mine like a flu
then passing limply through a stranger’s lips
incognito, stumbling, in strange accents.

If only you were in the words, or between them.
I want to hear them again the way you said them:
the pauses, in accordance with your wishes;
the full stops, rough with markings for your breath.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Isaac Cates teaches in the English department at the University of Vermont. His poems have appeared in Southern Poetry Review, Southwest Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and other publications.


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