Open-Backed Banjo

This entry is part 18 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


I am untroubled by serpents
or the marinated feet of pigs.
I bear no antipathy toward bears
or the bees they bedevil,
& the devil never tempts me
to any evil I can’t invent on my own
(forgive me if I don’t delve into the details).
What makes me break down is a banjo,
lonesome as our only god the clock
but with two hands, both of them fast.
Looking in its open back
can be disconcerting: What makes it go?
There’s nothing but a bare rod
& the smell of rain.
Where’s the balance wheel?
The escapement?
The gear train?
It calls to me, the ghost in its machine.
Play it, son!
Make it ring like a hammer on steel
& rattle like a Gatling gun
until it smokes.

Series Navigation← Medicine Show (2)Banjo vs. Guitar →

6 Replies to “Open-Backed Banjo”

  1. I’ve been back to this a couple of times — I find it very moving and significant, although I also find it hard to say anything intelligible about it. I know nothing about instruments and have no idea what an “escapement” is (besides a word that cries out to have poems built around it :->)

    There’s nothing but a bare rod
    & the smell of rain.

    — feels biblical in its brevity and certainty and vividness.

    1. Thanks, Dale. Balance wheel, escapement, and gear train are all things found in a mechanical timepiece. The bare rod is of course the extention of the neck that ends in a tailpiece on the bottom of the head. I had to resist the strong temptation to refer to it as the spine, which would’ve mixed metaphors with the clock image.

  2. The banjo poems need a much wider readership than even your well-subscribed blog can provide. Do you ever submit stuff for publication? How about a guest-edited qarrtsiluni on the theme ‘Lost In Music’?

    1. Oh, Beth and I never submit our own stuff for publication in qarrtsiluni, but if you’re volunteering to edit an issue on music, I think we’d be very interested in that. I’ll email you.

      (Thanks for liking these poems, and in answer to your question, no, I rarely send stuff out.)

    1. Thanks. Finding “the smell of rain” took much longer than it should’ve but as soon as I had that image, I pushed the Publish button.

      One peculiarity of this series so far is that in every case, the title has been the first thing I’ve written — the opposite of my usual procedure.

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