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Texts: The Music of Tom Cipullo

If I Were the Smartest Man on Earth from Mayo

Text by Tom Cipullo


If I were the smartest man on earth

And by some accident of birth

 I was sent to a home, or an institution, or some such place,

I would escape I think,

vanish without a trace,

my face never to be seen again  

in a home, in an institution, or in any such place.

 

If I were the wisest man in the world,

I’d fly this coop, I’d disappear into thin air,

And let them look, let them look both far and near,

They’d find neither hide nor hair.

Yes, I’d be off in a heartbeat, in a second, in a wink,

And they might think I’m gone for only a moment, 

But if I were the wisest man in the world.

They’d never ever find me when I ran away.

 

And where might I go, you ask?

Well, I would have to think,

No rash decisions, I would have to think.

Though off the top of my head

I think Lindbergh was right,

To fly over an ocean for all of a day and a night,

But I won’t be flying alone on my plane,

I’ll take all of you with me

to France, or better to England,

even better to Spain.

If I were the wisest,

wiliest, wittiest, cleverest, craftiest,

smartest man in the world!

The sharpest of pencils, the most astute,

Imagine this enormous brain

illuming this darkling Iowa plain,

(but I’m taking my giant brain to Spain)

 

I’d be gone as quick as a whip,

on a coach or a trolley, sedan chair, or ship,

I’d vanish from this awful place,

I disappear without a trace,

My face never to be seen again

in a home, in an institution, or in any such place.

In a shelter, in a workhouse, in a poorhouse,

In reform school, in a juvenile ward, in a halfway house

At the Iowa Home for Feeble-Minded Children,

Or in any such place.

And I’d be gone,… I’d be gone as quick as a whip from this place,

That’s what I’d too,

You’d do it too, wouldn’t you,

If you were the smartest man on Earth?

 

Desire from Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House

Text by Billy Collins

 

It would be easier to compile an encyclopedia
for you than to write these longhand letters
whose ink blackens the night.  I write
until dawn saying I think the world of you

but they are always too short
like those two-page schoolboy essays
with The History of Mankind
underlined on the front in crayon.

My encyclopedia will ignore the research
of others and rely on personal experience.

I will walk out the front door now
with my winter hat and coat,
with my spectacles and my knotty cane.
I will describe in a clear, nimble style
everything in the world beginning with A.

 

Valeria’s Aria from Mayo

Text by Tom Cipullo

 

I never thought a boy would love me,          

Never dreamed, never hoped a boy would love me.

Who am I?

I’m not pretty or funny, and I’m certainly not smart.

I’m just a girl with no family, no home but here,

A girl in hand-me-down clothes,

A girl with only one friend.

And Heaven knows where I’ll wind up in this life,

 

I’m not frightened of this,

I’m not frightened one bit

Though people say I’m simple and call me dumb.

I’m something now.

I’m someone who is loved,

Until he loved me, even my dreams were less.

I never dreamed a boy would love me,

But now I do, and now he does.

 

May he bring you safely through this day.

 

Fugitive from Of a Certain Age

Text by Lisel Mueller

 

My life is running away with me;

the two of us are in cahoots.

I hold still while it paints

dark circles under my eyes,

streaks my hair gray, stuffs pillows

under my dress.  In each new room

the mirror reassures me

I’ll not be recognized.

I’m learning to travel light,

like the juice in the powerline.

My baggage, swallowed by memory,

weighs almost nothing.  No one suspects

its value.  When they knock on my door,

badges flashing, I open up:

I don’t match their description.

Wrong room, they say, and apologize.

My life in the corner winks

and wipes off my fingerprints.

 

Coranto (Forbidden Fruit) from A Visit with Emily

Text by Emily Dickinson

 

Forbidden Fruit a flavor has

That lawful Orchards mocks—

How luscious lies within the Pod

The Pea that Duty locks.

 

 

The Crane at Gibbs’ Pond from Long Island Songs

Text by William Heyen

 

The boy stood by the darkening pond

watching the other shore.

Against pines,

a ghostly crane floated

from side to side,

crooning.  Maybe

its mate had drowned.  Maybe

its song lamented

the failing sun.  Maybe

its plaint was joy,

heart-stricken praise

for its place of perfect loneliness. Maybe,

hearing its own echoing,

taking its own phantom gliding

the sky mirror of the pond

for its lost mother

in her other world,

it tried to reach her

in the only way it could.  Maybe,

as night diminished

all but the pond’s black radiance,

the boy standing there

knew he would someday sing

of the crane, the crane’s song,

and the soulful water.

 

Love Duet from Mayo

Text by Tom Cipullo

 

Mayo:              That was a long service.

Valeria:           They always are.

Mayo:              It’s so quiet in here now, peaceful…

Valeria:           Too peaceful.  It makes me nervous.

Mayo:              I’ve been thinking about you all day.

Valeria:           And what have you been thinking?

Mayo:              I’ve been thinking what were you doing each and every moment of the day.

Valeria:           That’s a lot of thinking.  You must be exhausted.

Mayo:              Yes, I’ll need to nap later.

Valeria:           Well, don’t let me keep you up.

Mayo:              Don’t send me away, … please.

Valeria:           Oh, I’d never do that.

Mayo:              Have you been thinking? 

Valeria:           I don’t do a lot of thinking, as you may have heard.
What was that?

Mayo:              Don’t be scared, it was just a mouse.

Valeria:           Well I don’t like mice.

Mayo:              He probably has a nest around here somewhere.

Valeria:           How do you know it’s a he?

Mayo:              Okay, she probably has a nest.

Valeria:           Mice don’t make nests.

Mayo:              Of course, they do. 

Valeria:           That’s nice of them.  I thought only birds made nests.

Mayo:              Lots of animals make nests.

Valeria:           They do?

Mayo:              Sure, though sometimes the nests are called different names.
When a beaver makes a nest, it’s called a lodge. And a badger’s nest is a sett.  A squirrel’s is a drey, a possum’s is a form, and woodchuck makes a burrow.  A wasp’s nest is called a vespiary.

Valeria:           Well of course, I know about a wasp’s nest – unfortunately.

Mayo:              What about our nest, Valeria?

Valeria:           Tell me about our nest, Mayo.

Mayo:              Our nest, our home,
Our roof, our rooms,
Our doors, our floors, 
Our home.

Valeria:          Our kitchen, our stove,
Our swing on our front porch,
Our crowded closets,

Mayo:              Our empty cupboards,

M & V:             Our fireplace,

Mayo:              My chair,

V.:                    My bathtub,

M.:                   I think we should share the bathtub.

V.:                    Agreed.

M & V.:            Our place, our space, our home.

Mayo:              Our musty attic filled with their old toys,
Her dolls, his sled,

V.:                    But please no mice in the attic,
No more mouths to feed
And I think they should share the sled

M.:                   Agreed! Agreed!

V.:                    My son.

M.:                   My daughter, just like you.

V.:                    Oh no, not like me.

M.:                   Nothing else will do.

M & V.:            Our children.

 And when they grow up and leave us
Our memories, our joys will fill
Every corner of our home.

M.:                   Every hallway, every landing,

V.:                    Every cupboard, every crawlway,
from the cellar to the chimney, from the front door to the garden,
No garden!  I’m not working in any garden.

M.:                   Our fragrant garden, which of course will unfortunately have a vespiary.

V.:                    No!  No garden!

M.:                   And you’ll keep a light burning in the window
when I’m out working late,

V.:                    And you’ll rise early to stoke the furnace and warm the rooms of

V & M.:            Our house,
Our nest, our home,
Our roof, our rooms,
Our door, our floors,
Our life, our love,
Our home.         

M.:                   Valeria, …

V.:                    Mayo, …

V & M.:            God bless our home,
May God bless our home.

 

The Pocketbook

Text by Marilyn Kallet

 

“Fluid Italian suede

in garnet,”

the copy croons. 

I memorize

The Bergdorf Goodman

catalogue.

the blonde with garnet lips

carrying my pocketbook

against her slim hip.

970 dollars.

Half a rent check,

one chunk of my daughter’s

college.

After weeks of foreplay

I sell out my family,

Dial the toll-free number.

It’s miraculously

easy, just “ten working-days”

and here it is, nestled

in a silk carrying-case.

For days I hide it

behind the recliner

playing peek-aboo,

trying it out when my husband’s

not at home.

Nothing else in my life’s

this beautiful.

To keep it

I would have to buy

silk suits, tweed coats,

a silver Porsche,

house on Park Avenue.

My shoulders are unworthy

of the strap

in wine-red suede,

I would have to have inches

surgically added to my height.

“American women carry

their souls

in their pocketbooks,”

Edgar Allen poe said.

Not just my soul,

my money,

my identity,

my credit cards.

This pocketbook soft and redlike a womb,

room where I would

carry myself in comfort, be my own mother, be drunk with color.

970 dollars.

I could sell my

wedding ring,

break into neighbor’s

houses,

after two years

in the women’s

correctional facility

there it would be

waiting for me,

fluid Italian suede

in garnet,

big enough to carry

the collected works of Poe,

o my fair sister, o my soul.

 

Epilogue from A Visit with Emily

Text by Emily Dickinson

Nature – the Gentlest Mother is,

Impatient of no Child –

The feeblest – or the waywardest

Her admonition mild-

 

In Forest – and the Hill

By Traveler – be heard –

Restraining Rampant Squirrel –

Or too impetuous Bird –

 

How fair Her Conversation –

A Summer Afternoon –

Her Household – Her Assembly –

And when the Sun go down –

 

Her voice among the Aisles

Incite the timid prayer

Of the minutest Cricket –

The most unworthy Flower –

 

When all the Children sleep –

She turns as long away

As will suffice to light Her lamps –

Then bending from the Sky –

 

With infinite Affection –

And infiniter Care –

Her Golden finger on Her lip

Will silence – everywhere.

 

The Garden from Of a Certain Age

Text by Lisel Mueller

 

I bring my mother back to life,

her eyes still green, still laughing. 

She is still not fashionably thin.

 

She looks past me

for the girl

she left her old age to.

She does not recognize her

in me, a graying woman

older than she will ever be.

 

How strange that in the garden

of memory where she lives

nothing ever changes;

the heavy fruit

cannot pull the branches

any closer to the ground.

 

Cancer from Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House

Text by Billy Collins

 

When you need to say the word,
It cowers in back of your vocabulary
behind some outdated slang.

And if you try forcing it into the mouth
it lodges in the throat like a fishbone.

My father cannot say it yet.
The old man cannot even hear it.
He pretends I am saying “campfire.”

 

A Death in the Family from The Land of Nod

Text by Alice Wirth Gray

 

I dreamed last night I murdered Mother

Something with poison in it, I think,

although I was determined, had she refused to drink,

if no luck with one method to try another.

 

It’s for sure, one thing we could all agree:

she had it coming.  What a nasty character,

needlessly obnoxious.  Egregiously

unloving, always unfortunate with children.

 

Quarrelsome, hostile, insistently unattractive,

not pleasant, no way.  And so

(snarling, twisted, jealous, plain mean)

two cups on the kitchen counter are the way to go.

 

There were no guilt feelings involved.

I left the two glasses on the sideboard:

one plain, one in which poison was dissolved,

and she, always greedy, drank up both and died.

 

I was perfectly safe, no one suspected me.

But nothing’s easy:  I had attitudinal problems.

I worried I would betray myself unnecessarily.

Perhaps I’d get drunk and blurt out everything.

 

I reasoned,

I wouldn’t like prison.

I saw a gray, lonely cell and myself

like Mrs. Harris, looking irritably at my watch

to see how long till I got out.

 

I reasoned

I could write a lot in there.

I would manage, but I would not like it.

I reasoned

if I lived an exemplary life

from then on, never did anything naughty again,

no one would turn me in.

No one wanted me punished or put in jail.

 

I just have to keep calm, be careful,

keep my psyche under control,

watch my little quirks,

not go confessing for the excitement of it,

and life will go on as usual.

That’s what I’ll do.

           

What a peculiar person I am. 

It’s a wonder my life has gone

as well as it has. 

 

Unsaid from An Earth to Walk Upon

Text by Dana Gioia

 

So much of what we live goes on inside—

The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches

Of unacknowledged love are no less real

For having passed unsaid.  What we conceal

Is always more than what we dare confide.

Think of the letters that we write our dead.

 

My Darling Jim from Glory Denied

Text by Tom Philpott

 

My darling Jim,

Today was gorgeous outside,

Temp’rature in the forties, not real cold.

All the snow melted, except in the front where the sun never hits.

The girls talk to your picture ev’ryday, and at night in their prayers they say,

“Please keep our Daddy safe. Please keep our Daddy safe.”

My darling Jim,

Today was gorgeous outside,

Not real cold.

All the snow melted, except in the front where the sun never hits.

 

Touch Me from Late Summer

Text by Stanley Kunitz


Summer is late, my heart.

Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am. 

 

Progress Report from from An Earth to Walk Upon

Text by Dana Gioia

 

It’s time to admit I’m irresponsible.

I lack ambition.  I get nothing done.

 

I spend the morning walking up the fire road.

I know every tree along the ridge.

 

Reaching the end, I turn around. There’s no point

to my pilgrimage except the coming and the going.

 

Then I sit and listen to the woodpecker

tapping away.  He works too hard.

 

Tonight I will go out to watch the moon rise.

If only I could move that slowly.

 

I have no plans.  No one visits me.

No need to change my clothes.

 

What a blessing just to sit still–

a luxury only the lazy can afford.

 

Let the dusk settle on my desk.

No one needs to hear from me today.

 

Cavatina (If I Read a Book) from A Visit with Emily

Text by Emily Dickinson

 

If I read a book [and]

it makes my whole body so cold

no fire ever could warm me,

I know that is poetry.

If I feel physically as if

the top of my head was coming off,

I know that is poetry.

These are the only ways I know it.

Is there any other way?

 

The Husbands

Text by William Carpenter

 

I watch the New England Foliage bus tour stop

in Bar Harbor, and they are all old women, who

descend from the bus to the Acadia diner, talking

about lobster salad and about their husbands, who

were pilots, lawyers, distributors of fine meats,

but are now deceased. They take over the Acadia.

They leave a space between each seat and order

two meals apiece, as if their tour guide had been

starving them. I wonder who will occupy those seats,

who will eat those extra lobsters, when a door

opens and the husbands appear, one after another,

out of the men’s room, fastening their clothes,

looking at their hands and feet as if they were

seeing them for the first time.  The wives tell them

about their children and their children’s children;

but the husbands only want to learn what cars

they drive, what cars their children drive. They

stare into the street, hoping a Studebaker will

drive past, a new DeSoto, a Hudson Hornet, but

their wives force them to eat, thinking if they eat

they will become physical again, they will return

to beds so empty that the women spend their lives

on buses: the Covered Bridge tour, the Grand Circuit

of the Finger Lakes. After they eat, after the bus

carries the women back to their motel, the husbands

play poker and cribbage late into the night, talking

about the War, for they were all soldiers, and they

pull up their trouser legs to show their wounds, some

mortal, some superficial. One of the husbands finds

a set of antlers and dances among the tables, for

they are happy to be together; and as the horned man

dances, they sing about the seasons passing, about

enormous pheasants and women with grey fur like wolves.

In the motel, the wives hear snow brushing the windows;

they smell something like dry snow as their husbands

enter and undress. All their married lives, they were

afraid at just this moment, but it now seems natural

to have another body in the bed, to have familiar hands

finding their waists and breasts, finding their hearts,

which skip and speed up like the small hearts of girls

watching their first movie, when a star appears

for whom they would do anything, if he were only real

and sitting beside them in the dark. They feel a draft,

as if a door had been left open, so they move closer

to their husbands, thinking of how it was, how it would

be if be if they could only have new bodies and could feel

what they feel now, seeing the faces of their husbands

in the light of the no vacancy sign beyond the window

as the snow drifts around the bus, burying its wheels,

its windshield, so that the tour will not be going

anywhere tomorrow, and they can sleep forever.

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