Offcourse Literary Journal

Poems by Robert Klein Engler.


Three by Seven, Poems for voice and cello.

there was a noise, and behold a rattling;
and the bones came together
Ezequiel 37:7


The Infants in Limbo

The voice in limbo is the cello's voice.
It hangs on melodies like a midnight moon.
Imagination makes the child in limbo real,
to soak within the juice of possibility, patient,
not to know this world, but the world to come.
Some say there is a mist of shelter there,
whose only light is love, and that is rarified.

Would they have grown rather in a time of war,
or be tossed like a dry leaf in winds of politics?
That dead baby the Afghans throw like a rag
doll into the back of a pickup truck, or the boy
whose hands were chopped off in Sierra Leone
by drug crazed revolutionaries, they may wish
to join these infants in the syrup dark.

The babes in limbo billow in a foam,
floating without care, no work to lose,
nor trumpet flesh that sounds the night.
They need not give an offering without stain.
Perhaps when we are called with them to live
again it will be like the blind who see for
once the waving trees but think them men.

All men have names. It is their knot untied.
We make our name stand out by deeds and
warp our spirit on the way—those in limbo
never savor this or the pepper of philosophy.
They cannot say the word that draws them
down nor do they know the other name
that is the nameless want within our heart.

Even on the busy street in broad daylight
he hears that long ago name return.
They would have shot him, too, if they could.
Others were shot because their life did not fit
a theory, like weeding the gardens of Babylon.
Little girls were killed, with just a rifle butt
to the face that compressed it like a pillow.

Every murderer believes this is the only world.
Yet we are all brave today, stepping head first
into the faithful autumn light. That man who
carries the blister of names and robes of smoke
will always love who would abandon him.
Try to understand the mystery of his hand—
the promise to be numberless as grains of sand.



Out on the porch he sees the boiling clouds.
Lightning on the horizon cracks open the sky.
The gnarled tree leaps into a silhouette,
as a gravel rain drums on the tile roof.
It was a dry year farming, then heat came
to choke what barely could reach above the soil.
Now, this rain that rakes the land comes too late.

He gave away his youth to work the wilderness.
His neighbor, rich in livestock and families,
tends his bulls, heifers, corn, and orchards.
He walked next to him once to hear the bells
of the eternal and saw the abyss of eyes.
Listen to the rain fall like the tingling of steel.
Listen to the wind rove like the rush of wings.

There is such a puzzle in our field of bones.
Whose hand was this, whose thigh, whose rib,
and knuckle wrapped with a rusted ring?
This skull may have worn mink, that one straw.
They thought they saw out there history's horizon,
but it was fire and horsemen and flashing swords.
The flesh blows away like smoke from a window.

"Music is my life. I bent my bones old for it,"
says the cellist. "Music is a rose perfume,
or the invisible vapor of beauty that burns
blood from the soil with flames of silk."
How late it is for the marriage of duets,
like two blooms before the eye. Which one?
A wind will strip the petals from them all.

The river surges with its argument of mud.
A melody cascades across the strings
and gathers up the dross, to flush away.
Our hope remains a hallow point, the void
we carry even when full, a gift of nothing
that sent Abraham out into a foreign land,
then on to Mount Mariah with a load of wood.

Long drapes of night draw out across the sky.
Sometime, way in the dark future, he may hold
his hands open like a vessel around the fog
of November and say by twilight, "He held me
with his bulk and loved me, and now, these leaves
are trailed on the walk by the angel of death,
who kisses with autumn incense on his breath."



You may look up and west from Argyle Street
and see the dark bellies of the jets as they
follow a glide path to land at O'Hare Field.
They are far enough away to be silent,
sliding down on the oil of wind, coming in
low with their human weight and cargos.
Engines lift them from winter to wasteland.

Dmitri Shostakovich said his many symphonies
were tombstones, a testimony to those
silent dead sacrificed to all the ideologies
let loose in the world like mysterious storms.
Stalin signs papers and men fall into graves.
Love did not rescue them and love does not turn
the heart of one we miss in flight as far as China.

With these bodies, men will always be human.
Would you rather have your life back or a song?
The music of our machines drowns out the music
of tenderness, or the silence before the bullet
smacks. The black scrawl of signatures swirl
and then the past evaporates. Stones flake to soil.
We weigh so much until we weightlessly fall.

The boys in rehab, lounging along the sidewalk
of Argyle talk and talk and talk, yet the lull
that fills their wanting is seldom spoken.
Who tells how they are linked to the high jets
the way quick fingers make the cello sing?
They just get up and move on, muffled as snails,
leaving blank the tombstones of cold cement.

While he waits, the hours deepen and he feels
that peace in the heart moves like the silence
of reading. Even today the wind of ideology
ushers in dry baptisms, and when longing tosses
the leaves of the soul, or a thistle wind rages,
letters grow into the vacancy. To carry our
body upward is to carry the stone of its pain.

The absent lover leaves behind a ghostly shape
like clouds the jets fly beyond. He remembers,
together in his room, they talked, then assassins
came. Now, there is a symphony that fills the air
and a hush, too, then the silence of God drafting
our furious story above the world—with white
wings like paper and black wings like words.




The relationship between music and words, and the arts that come from these two human endeavors presents the poet and the musician with some artistic challenges. These poems are a product of an attempt to meet those challenges. I have concluded that music is primarily an expression of emotion, and words are an expression of ideas. Yet there is also a place and a season where emotions and ideas overlap, and that is the place and season I want to inhabit when we say and play together. Let's call that season autumn, when the bloom of summer and the blank of winter are suspended together in a few brilliant months. Let's call the name of that place Limbo.

When music expresses an emotion, it is not specific in that expression. Music does not name names. Music can express what it is like to feel love or hate or excitement, but it has no specific content. Music does not say what or who is loved or what makes for excitement. Music is unspecified emotion. The music that comes from a cello seems to me to be the perfect way that the ambiguous voice in limbo can be expressed. Suspended between the violin and the bass, the cello has the perfect ambiguous tone.

Unlike the cello, words are specific. Words name names. In a sense, words carry meaning the way our body carries our identity. Words are also practical, and often worn thin by their practical use. We use words to give directions about how to drive to Phoenix, for example, but I know of no way we can give those directions using music alone.

Now, when the two art forms of music and poetry collaborate, some interesting difficulties arise. I suppose the German Lieder or the opera may be a perfect blend of words and music. I am trying for something else, however, in my series 3 by 7. I want an effect different from the effects of opera or art song. This something else may be akin to the union of lyric poetry and chamber music. In this work we are taking turns, one plays and then the other recites. This means there has to be a certain common ground, or meaning or theme to what is said and what is played.

I tried to reach that common ground by introducing an element of ambiguity into this series of poems. Although I am conscious of the sounds my words make and the iambic patterns they set up, along with some specific images of brutality in various sections of the poems, I wanted to keep some meaning ambiguous so that the listener could find common ground with what is played on the cello and what is read aloud. Perhaps reoccurring images in a long poem work like reoccurring melodies in a piece of music. Likewise, ambiguity in a poem may be similar to harmony in music. It is this harmony that draws together meaning and emotion.

My other intent is to use poetic ambiguity so that the poems move from the realm of the particular to that of the universal, or from specific to general. Verbal ambiguity may also overcome some of the limitations of my own time and place and make a claim upon the future. We could be wrong about some small things, but hope to be right about the one, big thing. Likewise, we may be politically incorrect but morally correct. We could be mistaken, too, in who or how we love, but saved by the realization that it is better to love than to hate. Such ambiguity is for me the music of a voice and a cello in limbo.


Robert Klein Engler lives in Chicago and New Orleans. To find his work online, just google his name or visit the links below.

"Interview""The Approach to Pilottown"

"Red Beans and Rice""A Trip Up River""Justin the Pirate""One Sentence"

"Every Good Boy Does Fine"

"Poetry and Art in Chicago"
"Some Poems"
"Art Work"



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