Literature » Poetry

“Thelonious Monk” — a poem by Stephen Dobyns




Thelonious Monk


For Michael Thomas


A record store on Wabash was where
I bought my first album. I was a freshman
in college and played the record in my room

over and over. I was caught by how he took
the musical phrase and seemed to find a new
way out, the next note was never the note

you thought would turn up and yet seemed
correct. Surprise in ‘Round Midnight
or Sweet and Lovely. I bought the album

for Mulligan but stayed for Monk. I was
eighteen and between my present and future
was a wall so big that not even sunlight

crossed over. I felt surrounded by all
I couldn’t do, as if my hopes to write,
to love, to have children, even to exist

with slight contentment were like ghosts
with the faces found on Japanese masks:
sheer mockery! I would sit on the carpet

and listen to Monk twist the scale into kinks
and curlicues. The gooseneck lamp on my desk
had a blue bulb which I thought artistic and

tinted the stacks of unread books: if Thomas
Mann depressed me, Freud depressed me more.
It seemed that Monk played with sticks attached

to his fingertips as he careened through the tune,
counting unlike any metronome. He was exotic,
his playing was hypnotic. I wish I could say

that hearing him, I grabbed my pack and soldiered
forward. Not quite. It was the surprise I liked,
the discordance and fretful change of beat,

as in Straight No Chaser, where he hammers together
a papier-mâché skyscraper, then pops seagulls
with golf balls. Racket, racket, but all of it.

music. What Monk banged out was the conviction
of innumerable directions. Years later
I felt he’s been blueprint, map and education:

no streets, we bushwhacked through the underbrush;
not timid, why open your mouth if not to shout?
not scared, the only road lay straight in front;

not polite, the notes themselves were sneak attacks;
not quiet—look, can’t you see the sky will soon
collapse and we must keep dancing till it cracks?


From Common Carnage, by Stephen Dobyns (Penguin)





Stephen J. Dobyns (born February 19, 1941) is an American poet and novelist born in Orange, New Jersey, and residing in Westerly, RI.

He has taught at various academic institutions, including Sarah Lawrence College, the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, the University of Iowa, Syracuse University, and Boston University.

He has published several poetry collections and novels, including:

Concurring Beasts (1972)
Griffon: Poems (1976)
Heat Death (1980)
The Balthus Poems (1982)
Black Dog, Red Dog (1984)
Cemetery Nights (1987)
Body Traffic (1990)
Velocities: New and Selected Poems, 1966-1992 (1994)
Common Carnage (1996)
Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides (1999)
The Porcupine’s Kisses (2002)
Mystery, So Long (2005)
Winter’s Journey (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)
Fiction A Man of Little Evils (1973)
Dancer With One Leg (1983)
Cold Dog Soup (1985)
A Boat Off the Coast (1987)
The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini (1988)
The House on Alexandrine (1990)
After Shocks/Near Escapes (1991)
The Wrestler’s Cruel Study (1993)
The Church of Dead Girls (1997)
Boy in the Water (1999)
Eating Naked [SS] (2000)
The Burn Palace (2013)

For more information, visit his Wikipedia page

More poems by Stephen Dobyns


Stephen Dobyns reads selections of his poetry

Thelonious Monk plays “Don’t Blame Me”