New Orleans, Louisiana

Ladies and gentlemen, this
is a glass harmonica. Running
moistened fingers around these goblets’ rims
fashions music nearly vocal
and with the echoes of a rung bell.
This instrument goes by many names:
seraphim, ghost fiddle, and finally,
roughly translated, harmonica music
for the soul by dipping fingers
in water.  Mesmer used it to test his theories
of animal magnetism.  Benjamin Franklin
designed one with rims colored
according to pitch.  Some musicians
were rumored to have been poisoned
by playing the lead-coated glass.
A German musicologist noted
the glass harmonica excessively stimulates
the nerves, plunges the player into
a nagging depression and hence
into a dark and melancholy mood
that is apt for slow self-annihilation.

My friends, how about a wager:
what happens to the sound when I remove
water from the glass?  Does the pitch
increase or decrease?  In the Mississippi delta,
a string of islands has been obliterated,
a lighthouse toppled; sand and sediment
will not be restored.  In the French Quarter,
gutters pump rain into the streets,
and ferns drip from balconies.
On Magazine Street, a family’s century-old
house is collapsing—rooms filled with mazes
of paper-filled boxes and rusted furniture.
Just one cigarette, and the house could go up
like kindling, ignite the entire block.
The siblings are elderly and mentally ill.
They must move.  In the aquatic gardens,
a groundskeeper wades into the ponds,
holds up water lilies; last year’s plantings
have flourished.  With his hands,
he cleans anacharis grass
from the water beds.  And now
ladies and gentlemen, let us return to the glass.
You will notice when water is removed,
the pitch increases.  Encyclopedias of musicology
have these facts all wrong.  But the circles
my hands make tell no lies.
As your airplane circled for landing
over Lake Pontchartrain, you saw from your window
the world’s longest bridge, cars driving
into fog.  Tell me, what happens
when the clouds over the lake swallow you up?

About the author

Chad Heltzel has lived in many states, but now lives in Chicago. His poems have appeared in In Other Words, Faultline, and Hamilton Stone…

Read the full bio

Issue 05 · June 2009

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