If it happens, it must be by chance, the one bum note
the slight misstep that leads toward an “ageless wisdom that outlasts
all things else,” by which Augustine means his god
and his god only, and not the Peavey amps, the wires coiled into a snare
in the practice room adjoining a neighbor’s summer home,
where Rowan unwraps the extension cord and plugs it in
while his brother screws the high-hat into place. If Jesus
was the lead singer, then Saint Paul played the bass,
the school chaplain told me once at a retreat, staring at the shocks
of dyed black hair I’d spiked with egg whites and a pinch of icing sugar—
the same priest who, a month later, would rent Flashdance
to show us during Holy Week since The Ten Commandments
was already out on loan. And so, like the apostle in no other way,
I stub out my cigarette and strap it on, the instrument
I play left-handed, upside down, fingers feeling for the torque
in each fat string, as Adam stamps to trigger the kick drum
and his brother rings the neck of his guitar. Something deeper in us
than we are in ourselves is how Augustine describes his addressee,
and so it is, I think, at the soft and feckless center of a song,
that space we enter eyes closed and heads down,
mystical only in that we’re neither bathed nor shaved.
It all seems holy, although the singer’s late again, although
the tune is one I can no longer name, and even if I could
I might not say for fear of what others might say of me.
Think purl of metal, crank and grind of grunge, think
of the way my fingers move all on their own, following the beat
the drummer lays down, and you’ll begin to get a sense
of what I mean. What’s that painting by Caravaggio,
the one that hangs up somewhere in the Metropolitan Museum,
where a group of boys—one retuning his lute, another
setting down his horn—stare out of the canvas stoned
on nothing but the slew of notes they’ve plucked for hours
from hollow reeds and strings, a kind of knowing lingering
here in a mouth slightly ajar, there in a pair of eyes that stare
past the painter even before he gets to brush them in?
It’s not the same as what they seem to sense, nor is it quite
the same as the lawless thrill Augustine recalls in slipping
over a stone wall to steal a neighbor’s pears, a feeling that stays
with him in Thagaste and in Rome, just as this feeling
stays with me like a ghost limb, or the image of the priest
that March morning in the library running toward the TV
to cover the dancer’s exposed breasts with his black coat. Perhaps
it’s better not to put a name on it, although it feels like prayer.
And here’s the singer again, drunk or hung over, about to take
the mike and turn wine into water like a backwards Christ.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.