Thelonious Monk on a Subway


I met Monk 
     on a subway, coming through the tunnel.
          His words fell out be-
     tween thick beard hairs,
          then lumbered toward me, paused and sighed.
               When the train jerked, his long 
                                           fingers reached out, 
          touched my pale shoulder:
                                           he wore a rust brown coat.


                                                      Intervals rode
     the track with us: E-flat, D,
          C and D. Harmonious fifths, and mismatched chords.
     He explained that the melodies 
                                                        were dots 
                      his hands wanted to connect. 
                                                       I didn’t understand 
                      so he invited me to his home. 
     We emerged from underground and 
               walked. Step, step, stop 
          over thin tones of San Juan Hill. The sun moved closer.
     Step, pause, 
     step. He smiled 
          that slow spreading smile, 
                                                            shook hands with a man 
                        he knew, mumbled 
                                        and moved on.
                                                                        Step, step.

          On West Sixty-Third, he found his door,
                             removed his hat,
                                               and knocked.

     Nellie took his hat.

                               Monk’s fingers lipped 
          the white keys, unlocked black ones. 
                                                                              He tapped, 
          crossed and banged again, 
                             rolled his ring into place.

     Evolving patterns    
                     clenched in a dance of abrupt
                                      imagination, infinite extrusion. 
                                                        Music didn’t pour out, 
                        didn’t puddle. 
          He wrung it
          from his palms, revived it, gathered it in again and
                                                played for hours – 
                      “Round Midnight” and “Blue Monk,” the angles 
          of lines             
     until my head was full of squares 
                                                                     and curves,
                                                      the truth of spheres.


     He drew silence on that piano 
                                                                   in his kitchen
                                                   until the sun came up.

          I drank another cup of tea 
          and left through the small door 
                                                                          to the city, the gray-
                             green emerging light 
          the same as any other day, but  

     the corners of his melodies 
                                                             kept opening and closing, 
                                     making infinite space 
        in the chunky dankness of the swilled avenue.

Photo by David Camp

Lauren Camp is the author of This Business of Wisdom (2010) and editor of the poetry blog Which Silk Shirt. Each Sunday, she hosts Audio Saucepan, a global music/poetry program on Santa Fe Public Radio. She guest edited WLT’s special section on international jazz poetry in the March 2011 issue. “Letter to Baghdad” begins her manuscript-in-progress, One Hundred Hungers. In 2012 she received the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award for another poem from this project.

To learn more, visit

World Literature Today
630 Parrington Oval, Suite 110
Norman, OK 73019-4037

Updated by World Literature Today: [email protected]