Five Sarabandes

Poems by David Wright


Pau Cassals (Paris, June 1938)

Recovered score, boy with a gourd

become exile, with a broken chord.

One-two-three, one-two-three.

Nothing tucked under your arm

Bow and trill as free as desire,

Free as the Catalan, your Catalan

home, were it mended, the broken chord.

A vibrato, slow at first, fills

space until the ear must imagine

Vibrato again, what it expects, trills, more

than fingertips, cadence drawn down.

Beneath you, the ground of home has moved.

You know Franco cares little for Bach,

Cares less about this dance, though seduction

he knows, so this dance in triple meter

he has banned, this movement, and you, your borrowed

Catalan song of the birds.


Yo-Yo Ma (New York 1983 and Illinois 2004)

Breathe—and forget all you’ve read

about period tempo

about antique cellos

about Cassals and Rostropovich

Breathe—and begin wherever you like

this sound is no one’s sound

this sound is sound, strung

together in memory, pressed to vinyl

Breathe—then worry or regret each pitch

or trill you’ve practiced

or pitch you slide into

or pause you forget

To play—it’s just me in the car,

twenty years later,

twenty miles later,

holding my breath for us both.


Yo Yo Ma (During a Master Class on the Power of Suggestion, 1998)

It is breath you suggest—before you bow a single

breath—note, touch the string and begin

held—someone’s breath—the sarabande.

You are bowing, not quite, a whole chord—released

inviting someone else to finish—release

the harmony themselves—at last.

This dance—banned in Spain

obscene and sublime—

Mexia, Cervantes, zarabanda

believed not obscene but serene

Breath after breath—sacred or spare

breath upon breath—as you arrive

at the last implicated

third—your partner, too,

becomes aware that the air is fickle,

and full of what you almost suggest: be still.


Stephen Isserlis (After the World Appears to Explode, BBC, September 2001)

Not only the small birds but the great, ungrounded

eagle, her slow curve from height, her slow curve

from depths again.

I am not a believer in birds of war

but in this lark of the finger on string,

this singed g-minor made hymn.


Josef Luptak (Schloss Mittersill, Austria, June 2003)

The sarabande ends in birdsong,

clipped then clipped again. No legato air.

Bach belongs, here, in the spring

to the stone, crumbled and under repair,

To the bodies in this chapel, to our hands

on the wooden pews, to Josef, who cradles

his cello to his chest and waits—lets the birds

and Bach and his own full breast, settle,

in this chapel where you must kneel

on at least one knee to see the fog

enfold the mountains like a hand.

About the Author

David Wright

David Wright's most recent collection of poems is A Liturgy for Stones (Cascadia, 2003). Earlier work also appeared in the anthology A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (U of Iowa Press, 2003). His Bach poems have appeared in Poetry East, Mennonite Life and many other publications. He resides in Champaign, Illinois, and is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois. In 2003 he was awarded an Illinois Arts Council Artist’s Fellowship for Poetry. At Wheaton College, Wright has taught a course in “Ekphrastic Excursions,” the syllabus for which is accessible on the Web.