The Cellist’s Disorientation

by Posted on March 17th, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Cover of Cave Wall 6.

Along with Jennifer Atkinson’s poem, “A Leaf from the Book of Cities”—discussed on this site last month—Stephen Frech’s similarly ekphrastic poem “The Near Tender” caught my attention in the most recent issue of Cave Wall, so I wrote to Frech and asked if he would give me 50 or so words on the piece. Here’s what he said:

“The Near Tender” began as an effort to understand the title, which came to me as a misreading of a newspaper headline. When I realized my mistake, I wondered about its meaning. I would like to believe that in the midst of loneliness and worry (the anxious, questioning voice at the end) the world feels perfectly made for us and that we assist in its making. In the cellist’s disorientation, he hears a marvelous music that he is the likely source of. I was heartened to learn that over the beautiful French horn section of his 5th Symphony Tchaikovsky wrote on his draft “O, how I love you!  O, my love!”, a mysterious reference, but a beautiful, aching music now a part of the tenderness that’s made for us.

Below is Frech’s poem from the issue.

The Near Tender

Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, conducted by Paavo Järvi


Tonight at the symphony, the cellist collapses

to the stage: he and his instrument lie face-down

like children through the summer

counting while their friends hide.

The cello’s hollow body hums from the fall,

and the french horn—as if its brass pipings

were the tangled burrow of small animals—

still speaks of little griefs that bury us.

The instrument cases wait:

abandoned seashells and their hard mathematics

of tenderness.  The french horn’s nautilus,

open clam shells, the moth wings of mussel shells,

a container built by the self and so a model

of how the self wishes to be held,

so exactly you feel you’re not really being held at all—

the way being itself should feel.

We drift unprotected.


Musicians warm from playing.

Their lungs fit so neatly in the cavity of the chest

as if they were poured in.

Let the heart be a depth chamber in that sea

or a ladle in the chest’s deep barrel.

The near tender.

The french horn has three valves.

How many the human heart?

Don’t assume sleepwalkers want to return to their beds.

Wandered into strange houses,

waking in rooms they’ve no idea how they entered,

they might wish to stay.

When the cops arrive and it’s time to go,

snow begins to fall and soften the edge of the world.

“Let’s stand here and watch it come down,” you’ll ask,

knowing what’s coming and wanting to postpone it.

The kitchen window has a view of pines and a hill.

That snow, I remember, that stillness.

How did I get there?

Why did I leave?

The cellist wakes to a speechless house.

Even his cello’s dumb and unresponsive.

What then was this humming in the night?

That music was perfect.

Everything now a lessening, a sorrow.


Small spaces open in the night

and we return to them

with desire like a train’s arrival:

growing out of distances.

Wait.  Wait.

What, dear?

The train is coming.

Which one of us rides

and which one stays?

The train is for both of us.

But we have only one bag.

We have everything we need.

We go together then?

We go.  Together is the best way.

Small spaces. Made for us.