Steven Cramer

The Look
April 25, 2020 Cramer Steven




I’ll never tell Ethan I listen to him sing
in the shower.  It might make him stop.
I like whoever’s singing to keep singing.
I pause at the door until the water shuts.


To some, singing’s a sin, a capital crime.
Some, to brighten their afterlives, pack
mirror shards into a pipe, thus boosting
their radius of kills, in song, at prayer.


Have you ever tried talking to a guitarist
as they play?  Not on stage, of course,
but in a room where their strumming
consorts with the gossip. There’s a look


I’ll call The Look.  My brother (1945-1990),
had it; my nephew—who, for a living,
bivouacs north of the Muir Woods,
making fire with a spindle, hearth-board,


bow, and bearing block—has it too:
a stare aimed through you, blank as sheets
of still-reamed paper, so anything you say
leaves no mark; a mindful mindlessness


where the work of play gets done.  Ethan
grudgingly began on a Yamaha acoustic—
cheapest guitar you can buy that’s not a toy—
thirty daily minutes of fretfully gripped chords.


Feeling his parents’ mute cheerleading
from the living room—we feigned reading—
he retreated to the basement from the den.
We eavesdropped through the cellar door.


“English speakers know that cellar door
is among the loveliest phrases in our tongue,
especially if detached from its sense,”
said Tolkien—not the first to say it, but


“I have a hatred of apartheid in my bones”
belongs to him alone.  Ethan’s milestone
was a trademark lick: House of the Rising Sun.
Work made play?  Not quite. Songs still groped


to a halt.  Dad to the marrow, I’ve hyped
his steps from chords to chord progressions
aspiring up the stairs. The ones he coined
he called noodlings—tunes stitched from bits


his hand happened on.  Three years plus
our language blown to atoms:  losers, fake,
haters, failing, fire and fury, and those two
so barefaced they spit:  excuse me; believe me . . .


When Ethan finally added his own lyrics,
when what he wrote he sang, we listened
even closer through the cellar door—not
to a novice, but to a master, of the look.

Steven Cramers seventh collection of poetry, Departures from Rilkewill be published by Arrowsmith Press in October 2023. His previous book, Listen, was published in 2020 by MadHat Press and named a “must read” poetry collection by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. His other books are The Eye that Desires to Look Upward (Galileo Press, 1987), The World Book (Copper Beech Press, 1992), Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand (Lumen Editions/Brookline Books, 1997), Goodbye to the Orchard (Sarabande Books, 2004)—winner of the Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club and an Honor Book in Poetry from the Massachusetts Center for the Book—and Clangings (Sarabande Books, 2012).  His poems and criticism have appeared in numerous journals, including AGNI, The Atlantic Monthly, Field, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New England Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry.  Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and two fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, he founded and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University.