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February 8, 2018


Dearest, note how these two are alike:
This harpsichord pavane by Purcell
And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

The machinery of grace is always simple.
This chrome trapezoid, one wheel connected
To another of concentric gears,
Which Ptolemy dreamt of and Schwinn perfected,
Is gone. The cyclist, not the cycle steers.
And in the playing, Purcell’s chords are played away.

So this talk, or touch, if I were there,
Should work its effortless gadgetry of love,
Like Dante’s heaven, and melt into the air.

If it doesn’t, of course, I’ve fallen. So much is chance,
So much agility, desire, and feverish care,
As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove

Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.

–Michael Donneghy,1988

COMMENTARY: The first poem in Michael Donnegy’s 1988 book Shibboleth, “Machines” asks us to imagine the overlap between two seemingly dissimilar things: a dance and a bicycle, both of which stand, it is understood, for the mechanism of words, the poem, which in its own balance (of rhyme, of word choice, of image) creates movement, and by its movement creates balance. The idea of “playing” and “playing away”–i.e. of disappearing in the act of performing–conjures Robert Frost’s dictum that poetry is like a cube of ice that “rides its own melting.” This is maybe a tricky way of saying “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” I like this poem for the surprise of the comparison and the lovely description of the interlocking gears of the bike which manages to capture both the suggestion of planetary orbs and the intricate and overlooked complexity of an everyday object.

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