Itzhak Perlman was riding shotgun when the October moon slid out onto the horizon. The soloist’s strokes teased from the slimmest strings the opening notes of Beethoven’s violin concerto. Other players followed and a rumble rose from deep in the bouts of cello and bass, swelling to a roar and thundering through my ribs, pressing out the tears. The stoplight was seconds from green so I pressed back. It took some effort. It took my breath.
The moon lay herself down in a hammock of treetops and followed us with her sleepy gaze.
Across town, a young writer of mysteries saw her too. What echoed across the dusk to his ears was Don McLean’s “Vincent,” at least the opening verse. His song reached in through the passenger side window and wound around the Berlin Philharmonic. I pulled into a jammed parking lot. They grabbed their instruments by the neck and careened off together, streaking light across the purple sky.
It is still a marvel that I can see or hear something twelve dozen times or more and still not really take it in.
Now the moon has long abandoned her nest down close to the earth. She’s on the move, rolling through the distant black hollow, only her taillight leaving a trace. I am perched on the edge of my bed when I track down the song my friend heard, trying to remember. Of course, it is one I know. Don McLean tunneled into a groove of memory back when I lay in my fetal curl, a sponge absorbing sound through the walls of my mother’s skin. The tune and its refrain are as familiar to me as her voice, as American Pie, as the Beethoven that ran from our family taps. All music was a symphony my father conducted in a flushed frenzy in our tiny living room. His unblemished vinyl turned under the needle. His invisible baton drew like a bow across five hundred strings.
Nevertheless, tonight may as well be the first time. I decipher “Vincent,” and understand that this title is the name of a legend and not just a song. A knot falls loose, freeing the garment of story beneath. All the years of my life it’s played in the background yet I’ve never unfurled it and let it cascade around me.
Warm and shivering both, I climb from the bed and pull from behind my dresser a framed print of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” It’s gone muddy under its skin of dust so I wipe clear the glass and look at (see) it as I listen to (hear) McLean’s ode and elegy.
Description jostles for control. Beautiful? That word is as flat as a whimper and barely captures a single strand of this convergence. The moment far exceeds my meager vocabulary, these feeble senses. My chest aches for want of language. That’s what I imagine, anyway.
A passage from Joseph Campbell edges in around the notes, a recollection from a book that arrived at my door last month. The volume now resting on my bedside table was a gift from another dear one, a scholar of presidents who also reads the Tao Te Ching.
The sublime in contrast to beauty? That which is beautiful does not threaten you. Even the terror of tragedy is not as threatening as something that blows you to pieces. The sublime is rendered by prodigious power or by enormous space: when you reach a mountaintop, for instance, and the world breaks open… It’s strange: the less there is of you, the more you experience the sublime.
What if the ache thrumming in these veins has nothing to do with articulation or capture? What if it is a longing to split free from the confines of form, to expand past me? Maybe the world is breaking open right here, and through it I go, shattering into pieces light enough to soar on this shared current.
The ones who carry me to the brink are the same ones who drive me back. My fall into everything will have to wait. This assortment of men crowds in, filling the bedroom with their gallium voices, their gravel jaws, their strokes of sable. Perlman and Beethoven. McLean and VanGogh. Campbell. My father. The professor who fills my shelves. The novice who reveres G. K. Chesterton and keeps one eye trained on the sky.
These brothers forge a thrill of craft. Each immerses himself in the rapture of creation, riffing off the others across continents and centuries. They hammer and draw, fire and quench, until drunk on this conversation with the divine and mighty Art.
Here in the gathering dark, a frame takes shape around my senses. I wrap myself in the iron cocoon. Oblivious to the effects on me, they wrangle on in tortured ecstasy. I luxuriate in the vigor of their company and surrender to the illusion that tonight, they play for me.
For a moment, I enjoy the chilling honor of being the only woman in the room.
Then, of course, I remember the moon. She has returned, whispering in through the slats, bending past the clang and spark of the men’s frenzied smithing. As she slides in next to me, the leaf-robed limbs shift under our shared weight. What I’d thought was a cage may be something else entirely. It rocks like a hammock, like the one she left draped here on the edge of night.
We spill in around each other. In a cradle of treetop and shadow, we sway to a softer beat. Up from below, our brothers’ fire and verse splash against branches and stain our thighs. They add color to the song we sing into the hush between chords. It’s a piece we’ve only just begun to compose. We make it up as we go, matching our beat to crickets, to constellations, to tradewind and batwing and blood.
– Image: “Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh at Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain.