Anthrow Circus

Sonatina: A Poem in Three Parts


but no one listens to the scales,
no one listens to their mother.
—Billy Collins


We sit in the studio on a black-lacquered bench,
puzzling over Spindler,
a sonatina symmetrical and bouncy.
Two movements instead of three.
We break apart the allegro,
crack it open, spill each phrase,
circle sequences and the
tonic ostinato.
Student James, a professor of pharmacology,
fingers the left-hand counterpoint
when I pause for air.

It’s a hand-me-down worn thin from my teens,
an inability to inhale.
When he died, Mom had needed
touching, holding, kneading.
One night, I finally smothered.
Time paused on an exhale and
I couldn’t seem to get going again.

I think of it as a caesura,
a rough stop.
But I can breathe when I play.
Call it a distraction or maybe
I remember a Billy Collins poem on
piano lessons, printed on ochre cardstock
and stapled to a bulletin board
in the practice rooms.

D is a vase with two handles.
E has the legs of a bird.

At the piano, we are mechanics or
rather I am a machine
which requires no expansion.
I have spent thousands—and thousands—
of hours pushing
levers black white black white.
I have pressed and pressed;
it is arithmetic.

Mom is breathing on her own now;
I remind myself to go steady.
Diaphragm, down;
lungs, out.
Then: in reverse.


The bell to her parlor rang
like a candy storefront,
a glass menagerie scattered reflections on
the portrait of Clara Schumann.
In a dusty room off Route 58 I studied
with her for years.
Her nails were painted nude,
a long beige streak settled into the keys
over an octave’s expanse.

She taught English for thirty years,
filled the afternoons with music under
the low ceiling of her parlor.
In retirement the lessons began at 6 a.m.,
after which she drove students to school
in a white sedan whose plate read
“If only the police played music,” she said,
“they would know that I was speeding.”

The shelves in the den had
accumulated organically but not
in parallel lines.
They wrapped around three walls
at odd angles, comically
tipped under the weight of
hundreds of books.

When my father died, she told me
about her father,
her husband.
She told me about winters in Michigan,
climbing out her second-story window
onto an eight-foot
bank of snow.


Today I sit with Ava as she
negotiates her scales.
[Crack them open]
She is eight and
a constant wiggler.
I tell her that a tenuto means to press into
to hold on to breathe to not cheat the note out of its length
From the same word we have tendrils and
To hold on with both hands
until we have it,
until it belongs to us,
all the black white,
in all the ways that we should
listen to our mothers.
We finish in A and
begin in E.
The one with the feet?
I think I’ve misunderstood.
The one from the poem         
she bounces
Ah. The legs of a bird?
Yes, she says
the one with the feet.

more from this author

EJ Bowman was recently named a finalist for both the DiBiase Poetry Prize and the Florida Review Editor’s Choice Award. She is currently enrolled with The Writers Studio at the University of Chicago and the Community Literature Initiative out of the University of Southern California. EJ lives in Laguna, California, with her husband, gecko, and numerous neglected houseplants.

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