Friday Poem

The Invention of the Saxophone

It was Adolph Sax, remember,
not Saxo Grammaticus, who gets the ovation.
And by the time he had brought all the components
together—the serpentine shape, the single reed,
the fit of the fingers,
the upward tilt of the golden bell—
it was already 1842, and one gets the feeling
that it was also very late at night.

There is something nocturnal about the sound,
something literally horny,
as some may have noticed on the historic date
when the first odd notes wobbled out of his studio
into the small, darkened town,

summoning the insomniacs (who were up
waiting for the invention of jazz) to their windows,
but leaving sleepers undisturbed,
even deepening and warming the waters of their dreams.

For this is not the valved instrument of waking,
more the smoky voice of longing and loss,
the porpoise cry of the unconscious.
No one would ever think of blowing reveille
on a tenor without irony.
The men would only lie in their metal bunks,
fingers twined behind their heads,
afloat in pools of memory and desire.

And when the time has come to rouse the dead,
you will not see Gabriel clipping an alto
around his numinous neck.
An angel playing the world’s last song
on a glistening saxophone might be enough
to lift them back into the light of earth,
but really no further.

Once resurrected, they would only lie down
in the long cemetery grass
or lean alone against a lugubrious yew
and let the music do the ascending—
curling snakes charmed from their baskets—
while they wait for the shrill trumpet solo,
that will blow them all to kingdom come.

by Billy Collins
The Art of Drowning
University of Pittsburg Press, 1995