The Lyre

They say Nero fiddled while Rome burned, though
of course there were no fiddles, and the violin
was still curled like a secret inside the trees, waiting to be
cesareaned by Amati, carved from ebony, maple, and spruce,
the most famous and oldest among them, the most
pristine, being the “Le Messie” or the “Salabue”
made by Antonio Stradivari in 1716, and never used,
hung like a cadaver in the Ashmolean Museum.

It was April 20th, 2010, when the oil began pumping
into the Gulf of Mexico. We watched the news
on our flat screens and iPads. We watched
ripe beds of kelp wash up on the beige sand,
the gloved hands scrubbing the blackened beaks
of pelicans, that collapsible bird that’s been around
for thirty thousand years. We watched the last
great buckets of gray shrimp poured and weighed

like grain, and the faces of fishermen give way.
We saw the trawlers head out, dragging
their long booms, capturing little acres of oil,
we saw the sheen, like an old silver mirror,
we saw fire on the water — it was so real
we could almost smell the sweet black plumes.
Some of us sang. Some of us stood racked
with fear. Most of us went about the business

of our day, discussing the price of gas, buying
lottery tickets at the supermarket, a bag of chips.
Mostly, we didn’t think about it. Who could?
Because it was so deep under the water, out of view.
It’s not like the city itself was burning or even
the forest around the city. Therefore we woke
and worked or looked for work, so many of us
out of work by then, and after work we walked

to the park with our children and friends, barbecued
through the long weekend, Memorial Day, the day
we set aside to commemorate the Union dead
in the Civil War, though now we try not to think of it
as the Civil War because it’s too confusing —
The Greys, The Blues. Just the war dead in general
was how we took care of that. If this was the end
of the world as we knew it, we didn’t know it.

We were a large country, a country that ran on luck,
and the year had been both unseasonably warm
and unreasonably cool. We didn’t know
what to do. But yes, some of us sang.

Dorianne Laux’s fourth book of poems, Facts about the Moon, is recipient of the Oregon Book Award. Her collection The Book of Men will be published by W.W. Norton. She teaches poetry at North Carolina State University.