Unfinished Symphony


On my hospital window someone has painted

a circle of flower pots as a child would paint them

to hold a motto by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Trust Thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

I don’t mind Emerson’s self-help medicine,

but I have heard an iron string plucked all night

by the screaming man with dementia next door—

sometimes a siren building with each repetition,

sometimes the howl of an animal in the woods,

or the shriek of a child with a finger slammed in a door;

just once the scream of a roller coaster drop—

half terror and half joy—and then the siren again.

At Longfellow’s funeral, the elderly Emerson asked,

“Where are we? What house? Who is the sleeper?”


The monitor on the Vital Signs trolley

beeps twice for each temperature reading.

The sounds are precisely the opening notes

of the first theme from Schubert’s eighth symphony,

just after the dark warnings from the cellos and basses.

I hear the cart approaching, pausing next door,

then pealing the intervals

that lay for forty years in the dust

of Anselm Hüttenbrenner’s attic.

Schubert left the symphony unfinished,

and he was finished at thirty-two,

close to half my age.

Is there anyone on this corridor

who wants to conclude at any span?

The cart is rolling closer,

now turning into my room.

As the machine records my body’s heat, my mind

adds the rest of Schubert’s theme, the oboe and the clarinet

brightening the dark wanderings in the lower register.

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