Al Maginnes: “The Wax Cylinder: Whitman Reading”


No human voice could hold in such black clay, even allowing for the passage of time, the breath-shortened hills and gravel-floored valleys of the human voice needled into soft wax and saved. What you hear is the dust-crackle and white noise hiss, the span of years collapsing between our vigil here and Whitman, a quilt over his lap, a cat rolling in the parallelograms of light slanting through the windows while Whitman reads or recites “America” into the unnamed and unlistening void we call time.

When I was young, still too green to be one of the young men whose bathing Whitman celebrates, my sister and I cut cardboard discs from the backs of cereal boxes and played them on the boxy record player we shared, pretending we did not hear the static, the crunch of the needle grinding the shallow grooves, so we could hear The Archies or The Honey Bees singing through a moment when music seemed ready to take over the world.

However recording has changed, the sound of the voice and our fascination with capturing it has not changed. We love hearing what is said or sung, whether it is carved like a hieroglyph into wax or pressed into a scrap of memory deep in the wiring of a computer, where Whitman’s voice is one click of information, poor vessel for the going-away words of a man who believed language could unite or at least name all the breaking apart fragments of a universe still beautiful in its mystery.

Al Maginnes’s collections are Ghost Alphabet (White Pine Press, 2008), winner of the White Pine Poetry Prize, and two chapbooks published in 2010, Between States (Maine Street Rag Press) and Greatest Hits 1987-2010 (Pudding House Publications). He has published widely in journals, most recently in Terminus, Harpur Palate, Grist, Brilliant Corners, Baltimore Review, Verdad, Hampden Sydney Poetry Review, and elsewhere.

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