The Grain of Sound

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In my tattered copy of a book simply titled Good Poems (selected by Garrison Keillor), this page is one of many that are dog-eared (gasp!). I think I remember a librarian in fifth grade telling me that this was the unpardonable sin, so each time I feel that crunch of paper fibers beneath my thumb, it thrills me. Renegade behavior, I know. There’s not much I need to say about this poem, except that I thought it appropriate that it be shared with my Rabbit Room friends.

banjoI dedicate this post to a one Mister Ron Block (cue the Casey Kasem Top 40 theme music). I’ll be aghast if he hasn’t already encountered this poem and all but committed the lines to memory, but just in case he hasn’t..

“The Grain of Sound” by Robert Morgan

A banjo maker in the mountains,
when looking out for wood to carve
an instrument, will walk among
the trees and knock on trunks. He’ll hit
the bark and listen for a note.
A hickory makes the brightest sound;
the poplar has a mellow ease.
But only straightest grain will keep
the purity of tone, the sought-
for depth that makes the licks sparkle.
A banjo has a shining shiver.
Its twangs will glitter like the light
on splashing water, even though
its face is just a drum of hide
of cow, or cat, or even skunk.
The hide will magnify the note,
the sad of honest pain, the chill
blood-song, lament, confession, haunt,
as tree will sing again from root
and vein and sap and twig in wind
and cat will moan as hand plucks nerve,
picks bone and skin and gut and pricks
the heart as blood will answer blood
and love begins to knock along the grain.


3 Comments

  1. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    That’s good stuff. When I was researching soundboard woods to make my violin I read somewhere that the old master luthiers of Italy would only use wood from the north facing side of a tree that grew on the north face of a mountain at an altitude of no less than like 3000 feet. And then from that tree, only wood growth between the ground and the first branch was considered usable. Really fascinating stuff.

    (I might remember the directions and altitude specifics wrong but the general idea is acccurate.)

  2. kevin

    Interesting poem, and Pete’s comments too.

    “its face is just a drum of hide
    of cow, or cat, or even skunk.
    The hide will magnify the note,
    the sad of honest pain, the chill
    blood-song, lament, confession, haunt,
    as tree will sing again from root
    and vein and sap and twig in wind
    and cat will moan as hand plucks nerve,
    picks bone and skin and gut and pricks
    the heart as blood will answer blood
    and love begins to knock along the grain.”

    Reminds me of how gritty life used to be- and how sterile it has become for us. Really, doesn’t the thought of stretching the skin of a skunk to make a musical instrument just sound barbaric? But most of us would probably shiver at the idea of killing our own lunch, too.

    Strings are made of wire, picks of plastic, and chicken breast comes wrapped in shrink wrap. Oh, how the world has changed…

  3. Joshua Gordon

    Gritty… good word choice, Kevin! It’s totally true isn’t it? There’s something about the raw authenticity of a master practicing her finely honed craft (props to me for gender equality) that cuts right through the mass-production values that typically define North American culture.

    That’s why I use a charcoal barbecue and grind my own coffee. I only wish I was man enough to build my own boat.

    – Josh

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