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.

Lauren Camp is the author of four books, most recently Turquoise Door. She is the recipient of the Dorset Prize, a fellowship from Black Earth Institute, and a finalist citation for the Arab American Book Award. Her work has been translated into Mandarin, Turkish, Spanish, and Arabic.