More Than You Know


Late summer, August 1998, standing in the trees at Lincoln Center’s
Damrosch Park
With Caroline watching, or trying to watch, Sonny Rollins,
Mostly just catching glimpses of him through the shifting heads and branches
And trying to be content to listen without seeing, after all
This was free, you couldn’t be too choosy
Your first summer in New York, everything that happened was good without
Though you didn’t know Rollins yet, only discovered him a year later
When you moved to Houston and began driving west on Westheimer
Listening to Rollins’s Way Out
, which seemed apropos, and then you’d think back to seeing him live in
New York,
Wishing you could’ve remembered more
Than just the shock of his white hair and honking, how he held the sax up
high over his head
And sort of waggled while soloing, somehow small
Under the horn huge: you didn’t know the tunes except for “More Than You
Which he dedicated to Monk, in homage to the long, slow,
Haunting version of the ballad they recorded for Prestige in October of 1954,
Which you told Caroline was one of your favorites but hadn’t even listened
When you finally did a year later in Houston, it killed you
That you hadn’t discovered it earlier, what wonders you could have heard
In Rollins’s new improvisation if you’d known the earlier one, what
You could’ve heard him unearthing: all you knew
Was Michelle Pfeiffer’s version from The Fabulous Baker Boys, Susie
Auditioning her voice for the Bridges brothers between some gorgeous gum
Great in its own way but nothing like Rollins & Monk’s:
Theirs like the autumn weekends you spent lingering alone through the city,
The sidewalks oppressive under your feet and sad,
Sticking to the big, touristy city centers because you didn’t know how to
Brooklyn or the Village, going to Union Square for the Strand
Or Midtown for Borders at 57th & Park, the city simplified into its
Bookstores you knew, megamusic stores like Tower Records
You knew, museums and movie theaters you knew, organized cities of
Within the larger city of unknowing, bars and restaurants, clubs and cafés a
SoHo a complete disaster, sweating through the Saturday throngs
Of shoppers without the slightest clue what store to go into to get the clothes
You thought you needed to make the image of something
You thought you wanted to look like, eventually giving up and going back to
To read or browse through books and CDs
For hours, a resting place, something you were good at, hoping to see Stella
And possibly, finally, meet her, how did you do that, just strike up a
While getting your coffee or maybe while she was roaming through the store
Stocking things?
Had to act natural, but of course you never seemed natural to her or the
Because you sat there almost every day, reading and waiting
By the windows, stopping in after work on the way home to Queens,
The store equidistant on the N train from Rockefeller Ctr to Astoria Blvd,
This was your happy hour, sitting there in the freedom of your young life
Surrounded by books and music and movies and strangers
On multiple floors, the city a stacked amplification, everything lit by Stella,
Who didn’t know your name and after a while didn’t seem to work there
Nights at Neptune Diner afterward
Underneath the Astoria Blvd stop, eating alone
In one of the small two-person booths, ordering the usual, hamburger platter
with fries
But no drink, settling for water to save money
And sometimes even skipping the fries, burger after burger
Alongside whatever book you were reading, left hand holding the book, right
Holding the burger, the burger
A burden, always a relief to get rid of into your stomach
So you could push the plate away and just have the book fully in front of you
For feasting: the best nights Saturday nights at 2 AM
Reading and having cheesecake and coffee while others clambered into
Back from the clubs, rowdy and stupid, making you feel a touch
Superior but also, thankfully, like a part of something, not a total loser for
On a Saturday night: one night a group of three girls
Sat in the booth next to you curious about what you were “studying,”
The leader and least attractive one asking you to join them, a simple matter
Of moving your body five feet to the left
To their booth, but nope, not you, you just sat there
Feeling exposed, the leader talking to you anyway, asking you questions,
Getting you to laugh, then asking you to join them again,
You again declining, then noticing that the quiet one next to her was pretty,
Maybe you should join them after all
But when the leader asked again, again you declined, eventually she gave up
And the three of them returned to their conversation
While you sat pretending to read but studying them, zeroing in
On the pretty one, and when they paid and got up to leave you left too
And walked next to them on the way home, not with them
But next to them, and what, crazy man, did you ask that girl to go home with
What was it you said to her? She said something about having to crash
And that was that, you were alone again, walking to the park
Under the Triborough Bridge and staring up at the lights, trying to come up
with metaphors
To describe the bridge, the best you could come up with
Was that it looked like a bed, the stars lying down on a giant bed,
And then you went home and put on some Puccini or Tom Waits and
What Stella was doing, probably not this.
In your bedroom, the bed frame of the bridge was just visible above the tree
Outside your window, you looked at it unable to get beyond the bed,
Lying in bed and looking at a bed, your imagination seemed incapable of
But bed, Tom Waits was growling about rain dogs or blue ruin
And your brain had just bed: you got up one night feeling full of imagination
And stared down the tree shaking in the wind thinking, Jostle, jostle,
Then going to the kitchen and setting up your laptop on the counter and
beginning a poem
That stopped after three lines.
Sometimes lying in bed you’d hear roaches in the kitchen
Scurrying around on the floor, legs stiff, massive, and when you got irritated
You’d jump out of bed, turn on the lights and try to smash them with an
available shoe:
You had to hit them with force or the shoe would just bounce off
Their armor-plated backs and they’d carry on trying to escape out of the light.
Hard to imagine Stella coming here, sharing your bed.
That year not a single girl in your bed, you thought you were alone, not lonely,
A distinction Robert De Niro made in Heat, but you were lonelier
Than you knew, everything in the city was more than you knew, when you
met Stella
For the first time (without, of course, introducing yourself),
You’d stopped at Borders exhausted after a Saturday afternoon spent
shopping for a toilet seat,
Yes, a toilet seat,
Somehow you’d rented a place with a toilet
But no seat, your landlord explained that everyone had to buy their own seat
And you bought it, literally, spending hours trying to match
The shit to light shit brown toilet seats at Bed Bath & Beyond to the shit
You had in your head of the toilet bowl at home.
So you showed up at Borders with toilet seat in tow,
And when this starry wonder behind the coffee counter suddenly turned
And asked you what you wanted, whose name, you heard, was Stella,
What were you supposed to do, what did you know?
You were holding a light shit brown toilet seat and sweating.
Sprite, you said, barely. What? she said,
Eyes glinting a little, again you said Sprite and again she didn’t hear,
Her kindness diminished with each repetition
Until you managed to say it loud enough and her eyes widened as if to say
While she rang up the order.
After that simple, stupid exchange, a whole year of longing, riding up the
At Borders hoping to see Stella at the top
Working in the café, riding down hoping to see her on the way out
If she wasn’t up there that day, always seeing the New York
Section of books on display at the bottom of the escalator, Gotham in blue
the largest one,
Holding knowledge you didn’t have:
But you would never buy that book, no, not you, you wouldn’t be that guy
Reading about the city within the city, you were too cool for that.
Instead you hung out in Midtown, where all the cool people were,
For sure, shunting back and forth between Borders, the MoMA and the
Lincoln Center,
Reading, looking at art, attending operas, concerts and films,
Listening to intricate mix tapes on your yellow Sony Walkman,
Spending whole weekends alone
So that you were surprised, come Monday, to hear yourself talking again,
Already inside the song Monk and Rollins recorded
Without knowing, drifting through its hallways and chambers, sidewalks and
Everything colored with the concrete and the leaves.
When you listen to it now you don’t remember the time you first listened to
But the time that time remembered,
Sixteen years ago, stumbling around soloing under the city huge, everything
More that needed to be carried, more made music
Slowly through memory but only staggering sounds back then.
What you wanted was to be here, formed, knowing the city,
Known by the city, your knowledge not self-conscious
But part of you, the past of you, even your unknowing claimed, converted
into song:
But now you somehow long
For that dumb time and its dreams, coming out of the concert
With Caroline not knowing what to do, where to go, needing her to say, I
know a place,
Taking you to a little café around the corner,
A wonderful spot, all the charm and magic of New York held inside there,
You a citizen of it, with a woman who knew it, whom you knew:
But you refused her knowledge, wanting to make your own city, not catching
a cab
Home with her but turning and leaving her under the Lincoln Center lights,
Walking alone to the subway,  waiting in the dank underground on the
scarred, decrepit benches,
Claiming a window seat on the N to see the city in reverse, your soundtrack
Emerging onto the dark mass of the Queensboro Bridge
Into Astoria, your story, yeah? looking into the distance toward the huge
unknown cemetery,
The millions of mysteries, the small, unending graves.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jason Koo is the author of two collections of poetry, America’s Favorite Poem and Man on Extremely Small Island. He is an assistant teaching professor of English at Quinnipiac University and the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets.


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