The Music || Suzanne Cleary

You’ve got to face the music, Sweetie, my father would say,
this refrain of my childhood chiming surer than Sunday’s 
church bells, than the neighbor’s pug barking at every car. 

He’d say it, and then say nothing else, as if he trusted
that I already understood this, my first metaphor. He knew
that time would soon enough teach me the music 

of the broken arm, the weak eye, the eyepatch, 
the music of swimming lessons in the cold lake,
my teeth chattering as dark fish pin-wheeled against my legs.

Already there had been the music of screeching tires
and the final yelp of Jill Ruben’s beagle, Jill sobbing
on her porch, pausing only to call her dog’s name.  

Already there must have been the music of a small lump 
in my grandmother’s breast, years before the bed
in the living room, the silver tree with ten-dollar bills 

clothes-pinned to it, sent by her friends at the factory.
There must have been the music of the first cell 
missing its cue in my mother’s brain, adding a beat 

to the time it took her to recognize us. Already 
I had seen TV news: helicopters like quarter-notes 
lifting from jungles, palm trees shredding in updraft, 

years before I knew the acapella of second-hand sorrow, 
the strained harmony of making a living 
from a steady job that works you into the ground.

This was years before I had to face the music of time passing,
face that, without time, there could be no music at all—
no Mozart, no Motown, no voice of the one you most love, leaning close.

There could be no labored music of the high school band 
in which the deaf boy plays the triangle, 
thanks to the conductor’s deep and timely nod, 

nor the music of the boy’s face as he strikes his note,
nor as he places his hand on the shivering silver 
to cue the inevitable silence.

Now I think that, with his silence, my father 
was teaching me the music of silence, and to face it, too,
as if with the deaf boy’s stubborn love 

for what he cannot hear, which sings to him 
as if he were its brother, its son, 
as if he were its father.

Suzanne Cleary’s most recent poetry books are Crude Angel, published in 2018 by BkMk Press (U of Missouri-Kansas City), and Beauty Mark (BkMk Press 2013), winner of the John Ciardi Prize. Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, her other awards include the Cecil Hemley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America, the Troubadour International Poetry Prize (2 nd Prize), and fellowships from MacDowell and Yaddo. Her poems appear on PBS and PoetryDaily, in anthologies including Best American Poetry and The Forward Book of Poetry 2022, and in journals including The Atlantic, Southern Review, Poetry International, and Poetry London. She is Core Faculty in the MFA in Creative Writing Program of Converse University and also teaches at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. Her poem “The Music” is included in her recently completed book manuscript, Worry Stone. Her website is


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