EDWARD BYRNE

 
 
LISTENING TO LESTER YOUNG 

        . . . regrets are always late, too late! 
                                —John Ashbery 
 

Late at night, I'm listening to one of Lester Young's 
        slower solos again, and although I know he's playing 

those same notes I've heard over and over, as the tone 
        of his tenor saxophone turns toward a lower register, 

even that patter of cold drizzle now pasting shadowy 
        leaves against my window seems to follow his lead. 

I wonder what you would be doing tonight and I want 
        to write a few lines in my notebook about how blue 

and ivory skies gave way to rain today after you left, 
        or how coming home from the train station, I thought 

I saw something, a large and ominous animal suddenly 
        outlined by lightning on that sparsely wooded hillside 

beside the deserted highway we always drive to save 
        a little bit of time.  As you travel farther away, hurrying 

through the muted darkness still surrounding everything, 
        so that you cannot even see the land tilting at the sea 

or the gulls slanting overhead when you approach 
        the coastline, I imagine you beginning a new book 

in the dim light of that passenger car, reading another 
        long novel about characters not so unlike ourselves, 

each chapter titled and numbered as if to indicate life 
        is merely a neat progression of unpredictable episodes. 

By tomorrow evening you will be at that old hotel 
        where we once stayed for days in a room overlooking 

plaza monuments deformed and whitened like marble 
        by a winter storm, while its foot of snowfall closed 

the city down as though no one there had ever known 
        such weather in their lives.  If you were still here, 

you'd be able to hear Lester backing Billie Holiday 
        on another ballad recorded more than six decades ago, 

but years before the two of them finally knew the truth 
        about that high cost of living they would have to pay. 

I'm beginning to believe their duets of lost love, 
        the ways they phrase each line of lyric or melody, 

create images in the mind as vivid as any photo 
        or poem we might have seen, evoke those places 

Prez and Lady Day played in their earlier days—
        Harlem cabarets and late-night cafés downtown, 

or those small neighborhood halls with bare walls 
        and a gray haze of smoke above the stage, the ebony 

and violet glow of an angled piano lid under indigo 
        lights, and a congregation of friendly faces gradually 

fading into the black background with a persistent 
        chatter and clatter of glasses that lets everyone know 

they are not alone.  In the half hour before your 
        departure, when we sat silently on that station 

platform bench, as though any attempt at conversation 
        would be hopeless and in fear someone around us 

might overhear what we had to say, I tried somehow 
        to take into account how far apart we already were: 

even then, I felt regrets are all we had left in common. 
 
 

[ First appeared in Crab Orchard Review


 
 

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