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.