On the Superiority of Music to Prayer

“The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.”
— Wallace Stevens

At the end of Chinatown, the great Polanski film,
Evelyn Mulwray, killed by a shot from a policeman’s pistol,
slumps against the horn of her roadster,
while her daughter, who is also her sister,
shrieks and is passed to her grandfather,
Noah Cross, who is also her father
and, in whatever way we might imagine will be chosen, her future.

In that final scene, there are the pale lights of Chinatown,
and they don’t play or flicker or illuminate
anything that isn’t already clear
to everyone. Except what? That it’s not fair somehow?
Not that Noah Cross owns the police. This like so much else
we already knew. Not that the theater ushers
stationed by the exit doors, one ready to bring up the lights

and bring us partway back from our desolations,
could see that night on our faces the same light
that illuminated the face of Jake Gittes,
who didn’t know anything we didn’t know by then,
except our roles were played by ourselves,
we were not skilled, we weren’t acting, it was there
for those ushers to see and know, that dreamed of and immersed in

fiction that made us feel as though our souls were dying
inside us, which they were, weren’t they?
And yet they did not. They were rescued
not so much by the lights coming up or the roll of the credits
or the camera panning up and back,
not so much by the walk to the car and the drive home
in silence,

as by the trumpet of Uan Rasey,
a voice without words, but of an immensity that dwarfed
the city and its myths and degradations,
and more articulate also than any poem. That’s not fair either,
that a music made of syllables, tainted by its affiliations
with human congress and exchange, should be so hard
to sing, as though each word were not meant to redeem.

“Oh, my, Oh, my,” says Noah Cross, as he gathers to him
the flesh of his flesh
and his flesh: oh my — God or goodness left elliptically off —
oh, my, exclamation and genitive form
of the first person pronoun, which signifies
belonging, having, ownership, and, by any city’s lights
or words, possession. It’s just a movie, imagined.

It’s not the end of the world, and not the trumpet of Gabriel,
but for days thereafter the horn of Uan Rasey, who was born in
Glasgow, Montana, almost the end of the earth, played on and on
in our minds. See how, deserving or not,
the world continues, propelled, held up,
aloft, its everywheres and its nowheres, by only music sometimes,
when there are, for some reason, no words that will suffice.

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