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About this poet

Ralph Burns was born in Norman, Oklahoma in 1949, and received an MFA from the University of Montana. He has published six books of poems: Ghost Notes (Oberlin College Press, 2001), winner of the Field Poetry Prize; Swamp Candles (1996); Mozart's Starling (1990); Any Given Day (1985); Windy Tuesday Nights (1984); and US (1983).

About his work, the poet Mark Jarman has said, "If Albert Camus wanted to know what was American in our poetry right now, what showed the breadth of our language and the honesty of its utterance, what was the best of American langue et parole, I'd show him Ralph Burns's poems."

Burns has published in many magazines including The Atlantic, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, and Field. He has won a number of awards including the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges Award for the Best First Book in Poetry, and received two fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts.

He edited Crazyhorse and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Ghost Notes [excerpt]

Ralph Burns

for Danny Fletcher

          I.  Call and Response
		
                    1
			
Plumbline of disaster, shadow storage
    of the way thought travels, the opinion,
the sentiment, only assertion following silence,
    only a way of everlasting breathing,
a verb searching for grammar too devoted 
    to making sense so that the self interrupts 
with a final pitch. From stop to stop the mouth 
    makes music by holding sound in a razz
mixed with spit, air pushing through idea
    to a new phrase, followed by a chill, 
then riding on the other air. So the moment might live
    outside itself, lips vibrate against
the mouthpiece of the horn, the face blooms
    in concentration, the idea of interval.
	
                    2

Anoint the valves, they stick -- my
    it is bright when you bring out your trumpet 
William, standing there, tapping your right 
    foot, bent like a cricket at the knee, slouching.
Whoever hears your Ode to Joy  hears your knocking
    then setting down of carrying
case, cradling of brass. Dizzy said it took 
    his whole life to learn what not 
to play but in one month you deny nothing, 
    not even the feel of your embouchere, 
who'd been in school all day.  Lubricate the valves, 
    once neighbors lifted up their heads
like lilies in the field, and wind rolled over 
    the need to stay away. 

                    3

It's beauty people fear, bright
    rose riding on Aunt Billie's forehead,
the way light makes green everything
    after her pickled okra, stubble
in the hands of day labor, callouses
    of a parade of things and
touching them without seeing
    or hearing without knowledge,
dumbstruck by a brooding need to define 
    or look without a place 
to grieve, beauty and not faith 
    in truth in the light of justice -- 
just reach and nothing's there 
    but what's there already. 

                    4

William -- where -- is -- your -- horn,
    did you leave it in math class again
with Fibonacci's sequence, flaring
    bell, flex and curve in sunlight leaning 
at a forty-five degree angle, 
    your teacher Mr. Fletcher having cranked
open the classroom window with an allen wrench,
    merged with sunlight so a horsefly wheeled
blue-green in its own wingbeat
    by a rote it answered to in music,
lesser to the greater as the greater
    to the whole, tube twice bent
on itself, Sin curve on the line of displacement,
    sending sound backwards until it's now?
	
                    5

William, when thirty kids try out for basketball
    calculate the odds, the tendency of mind
to see itself in transition -- feminine green light 
    like call waiting -- you might be playing trumpet
into the speaker, your girlfriend Corrine might 
    be listening, exhausting her telephone allotment 
of fifteen minutes, holding her ear inches away, glint 
    of a clipboard watching you both. You might move out of
the paint. The yellow squeak of rubber on oak
    wakes rivers of grain -- what does it matter 
that this matter jumps back or breaks for open court --
    sometimes you only stand and scream,
wave both arms, put it on the floor and drive,
    lay it up, put it down, take it home.
	
                    6

Let me find the keys says Candace 
    let's go says William the water
nibbles at the bank sunlight shafts
    the fog      wait says Candace
clouds back off the water
    what else the boat suspended
glint gray along the gunnels
    here they are I've found them
the washing machine idles in its cycle
    sun shattered in water slaps
let's go says William      the legs follow
    the surface tension      the door closes
the car starts the green wave slides
    under the boat      a day begins.
	
                    7

Slow it down, bring it down, bring it
    on home, tympanum of the trumpet-
flower, raised hood, swollen yellow face,
    pathological woe standing
in rank grass against the Hurricane fence,
    half a brick bewildered, half
carried through slatted shadows, cracked
    bell shrouded by buildings, doorways
listening, patiently waiting for someone to open
    a paper bag and bring out the horn
and this one time it sounds exactly like
    laughter, wind blows in your face,
from a high window in metallic light
    long green trumpets beat back rain. 
	
                     8

When the instruments linger in the band room,
    snare leaning into itself,
tuba beached against green cinderblock,
    do they riff where a fault opens,
make a crazy line in space, does brass 
    lie in bronze alloy, does longing
breathe in acoustic energy? Notes hang 
    to the skirt of the bell 
like a city of light for a moment.
    A tire spooks the gravel, you hear talk
about the weather, the leaning toward
    and then away. Pierce the blind
to better hear the music, the fall 
    of each sound and pause between.
	
                    9

It damages people when they do not understand
    the healing power of friendship.
I am damaged. The left front light of my transport
    is out. A day doesn't pass. An hour
does not go by. There are minutes that glow
    in human flesh. A trumpet has a voice.
A place lives in music of people and time.
    These are not things I know.
Things of the air are also not thought of
    in time of need. That is why the passive
voice is so active in distortion, and well 
    to note that a slur is more expressive
than a sharp note timed to surface admiration,
    though the fool in me shines to perfection. 
	
                    10

Soft percussive no-look pass of summer,
    flexion of bell, white seed
of longing and forgetfulness -- I remember
    stopping on the way home from school
at a car showroom, perching on vinyl I could smell
    thinking I don't belong here
and the place about to close. I hold the page
    of music so you can see it, William,
your face reddens, your foot taps eight times 
    to push breath past unbelievable seconds,
a dandelion head floats out of sight
    senseless and alive, full of feather
and plume, empty to itself wherever
    it flies, drifting from its own heart. 
	
                    11

The dog growls, a low unearthed intent stands
    up on back of the neck -- I am here and
somewhere else -- back in time maybe, fingers
    tap the valves. Make two trumpets
of silver Yahweh said to Moses --
    and make them play flat and sharp notes
at the same time said Ornette Coleman,
    no loose lipping. Wake the memory.
Wake the present tense. The tongue wicks the mouthpiece.
    Horripilates the cause. Lights up the argument.
A column of air moving through an empty place,
    three stops, an opening outward
toward no purpose or proof beyond the time
    when people will not hear it. 
	
                    12

My father's there. Like fugitive dust
    seeping through cracks and keyholes in Oklahoma
in the early 30's. What happens when I try
    to hold him is my arms pass through air.
Goodbye   goodbye    to the river and to
    green metallic leaves.  I leave
the darkness which sat on my shoulders
    for love talk and grace of music.
Still, there are strains of darkness
    dear to light.  I found a photograph
under the couch.  My father barbecuing
    chicken with his shirt off, skin brown
as a berry.  Grinning from the other side.
    Into the lens.  Of light and song. 
	
	
          II. Shout Trumpet

                    1

When passing the Trumpet in Zion Church,
    red brick soaked with morning rain,
four cars parked on slickened blacktop,
    marked yellow lines, redbud clusters,
heart-shaped lavender pods, I keep hearing
    my own minor key. Even so,
a person puts a thumb out, an awning
    cantilevers, traffic comes
to a rolling stop. Through an open window
    high bright notes clarify the air
back to March wind, locked doors, to those who
    have lost their love, decided
to go and not come back: the high C
    of incalculable motion. 
	
                     2

At the Trumpet in Zion they do the laying
    on of hands -- your long hair
passes over me, the purpose of
    the body hidden in the word.
Thinking nothing.  Resembling an eighth note.
    If the rapture taketh then where 
does the body go when hands lie down on air?
    A flag dragged through the iris
upside down.  Desire runs through its stops --
    the dance rises to water level.
What happens inside music to make it run
    over arms and legs like a squirrel?
Toot toot go to the water to the river
    of folded wings,
	
                    3

where catalpa shade holds a body of gnats 
    just the shape of smoke and water 
saturates yellow air and a water moccasin
    displaces the imagination --
not away from but toward where the world 
    reaches and a song carries across water,
one they've been singing all along, 
    the same notes and fears,
the sound of pure tones. I wouldn't know it
    if I heard it. I might not
know if it were only mine.
    I would like to think I could clearly hear
the music as it calls across so 
    I could know what you know. 
	
                    4

Bats are back. Looping the Mulberry. Concentric 
    gravitational waves. I think I notice 
my own radar. I loll in a yellow chair 
    with two ear plugs connected to Art Porter.
Art Porter Junior in background on clarinet.
    Little Rock's own. Follow the ogive turns
past Maybelline to Telegraph Road, past
    Jimmy Doyle's and the white birches,
signs for Alltel and Jesus, SunCom,
    and Ruby Lube. Are you a holy roller
William asks his grandmother. No but I'm
    spirit-filled. Her sisters' faces 
ghost across her own face as it is -- Jean, 
    Billie in her garden, pious Lucille.
	
                    5

I ask myself riddles in sleep and part of me
    thinks it knows the answers. My
body leaks, my ignorance, my desire. I keep a
    gold tooth which is not the trumpet, 
wood landing over water knock, photon locked 
    in early light wrapped around 
a cove, people in a boat, not much talking 
    but it echoes, love is there, when
will I ever believe, fill the body up and sing.
    A wireless chip with beams of light carries 
itself in your eye. Who sleeps upside down
    on a ledge with toes turned in, dreams of making 
love mid-air, only you and me in water? Bats are back. 
    I feel a scarf of air rush past.
	
                    6 
 
Some mean ass little red bug just bit the shit out of me!
    So why does it grease the room with soulless
nasal noise, no antennae for opposites,
    alighting on the trumpet case?  Seven years
of mending, leaving and coming back through you,
    I think I can hear syncopation
in the last half of the beat, cancellation
    too, but I only want to touch the button
on your blouse.  The hi-hat clears the moment.
    Out of nowhere you came to me.
Where is memory with its leaning sideways solo
    under a stone weight?  Out of nowhere
you came back.  Today and today an old wind blows,
    music flares above the grasstips.
	
                     7

When the moon stares from its forehead 
    and sound waves and particles
knock on tiny hairs in the inner ear, 
    information travels -- how can one not know
the only pressure occurs at a molecular
    level?  A channel forms in the flow of ions.
When one whacks at a cloud of flies,
    one clarifies that insects don't know where
the hell they are -- they can't hear
    right so spend their remaining days
complaining that music by itself is trivial.
    Their bristles get bent, ions 
flow in to trumpet the brain, but still
    no hard high note, no upward rip.
	
                     8
					 
Plumbline of the asters, music caught inside
    the throat, the implacability, the fluted crescent
of the body, the temple, the infarcted heart,
    the age of reason, the tap tap tap of the baton:
one time one steps off the porch two stories high,
    next the song sings itself:
the air, the ambient glue, the tongue
    in mid-salute, the coup de langue,
the nation at war, the wormhole connecting nothing
    to nothing, the creak of heaven over
the creek, the flat speckled rock, the event
    horizon, the accretion disk, the no
which means no, the wide swing under stars,
    the water, the verb, the hidden grammar.
	
                    9

Not long ago a fly landed in the butter.
    The buzz stumbled, the the stared out
from the portable computer, the astral light
    combined with the high speed line
to toot back an unheard, unseen opinion
    so popular here in the South.
I reach for you and nothing, not anything
    from all the days of walking, breathing
in and out, waking to change and resemblance,
    quickened to the task of words,
time and timing unsung -- belly to belly,
    keyboard to hyperthought, one wing
gleaming on a salt sweet brick like a face
    in the screen, increased singularity.
	
                    10

I hear the neighbors talking over the fence --
    "He came driving up in that turd-colored
convertible and didn't even open the door
    when he saw his stuff all flayed out
in the bushes and grass, his shirt with the sleeve
    drooping over the hostas . . ."  The glass doors
screech, the monarch glisses over standing water,
    the ego in its drifting boat interminably waits.
We have no ideas but why should we say goodbye?
    The signature and sign don't mean
the end of it.  White azalea blossom stuck to mud.
    That is the end of winter, this
a preoccupation with weather which has nothing
    more than last night on its mind.
	
                    11

Thunder and rain all day like the drumming 
    of Zutty Singleton.  Ivy gropes
the fern, a sprig of oak pollen navigates 
    over two bar breaks.  One or two
octaves over, like a ghost flattened out, down
    the basement, up one flight
to the dirty silver door with Judas hole, to a few
    tables and wicker chairs, late afternoon -- that's
where to hear a phrase turn.  The upright
    shakes the floor, and when
however fast the falling torrent flows --
    stop that please thinks management if people 
stand too long and listen -- the whole world knows
    in wind when self assured, the roses blow.

                    12

You know that silo in Oklahoma, the one with
    chipped tooth on the way to Grandma's house
where apple blossoms lit the way to certain hell?
    Well, it's gone now.  The leaping light
and silence.  Through channels of urgent voluntary
    sing-song, passing tones in the hallway
mirror, tension through the saunter of water cooled
    air, all is gone.  You don't have to remember.
Only that violation in the upper registers which
    sounded and does sound in houses
just a few blocks over, and in fact, in this house
    which is hot at night and cunning,
waits for a future.   Slap-tongue's gone.  The mouth
    meets and notches the music.

Originally published in Brilliant Corners. From Ghost Notes (Oberlin College Press, 2001). © Copyright 2000 by Ralph Burns. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Originally published in Brilliant Corners. From Ghost Notes (Oberlin College Press, 2001). © Copyright 2000 by Ralph Burns. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Ralph Burns

Ralph Burns

Ralph Burns was born in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1949, and received an

by this poet

poem
He continues to ponder
	And his wife moves next to him.
She looks.  They look at themselves 
	Looking through the fog.
She has a meeting she says in about
	Thirty minutes, he has
Something too.  But still she has
	Just stepped out of the bath
And a single drop of water
	Has curved along her breast
Down her
poem
--after Simone Weil
After my student went to the doctor to
Check out the rash speckling his
Right hand and found out he had
Leukemia, that the cancer had spread
Into his lungs, then where did he go?
I've called his number several times.
Flat-bottom boats light in water.
Brown brack and
poem
Two or more strands twisted together,
Oxides and baser salts, admixture
Of carbon, metal of lash and scourge,
Strung like a virus, barbed intervals,

Stapled by hand to bois d'arc poles,
Woven by machine, "devil's rope"
Of vast interior plains,
Of meadows bruised by their own

Amplitude, barbed wire of a