“Toccata” by Johnny Payne

Best played as encore, fast, light
hitting keys hard, like Yuja Wang
did, trounce, the queen of broken strings.
Fiendish, fleet, pristine clarity
accurate right-hand octaves, span
of her hand the toccata grasps.

Prokofiev would surely gasp
for her fury at speed of light
sailing over dropped bridge spans
because her hands are instead wings
merciless, without charity
a mad wasp whose softest touch stings.

How can I make each last word sing?
Can a poem simply have no gaps?
Must my craft outwit, charily
making lines break almost too late
or is the secret about Wang’s
force, how the note like a coin spins?

The left-hand octave fourths, keys spring
as if they will detach from the springs
like joy in the pain of birth pangs
first gasp and last gasp the same gasp.
Wang attacks, attacks and won’t let
sound loose from grasp, she’s too wary.

Spectators upright, none weary.
First chairs, conductor and unsung
stagehands watch cracks of light
peep between her fine, quick fingers
ones even the light can’t quite grasp.
Wood pegs pop while steel strings ping.

Toccata not four minutes long
for her a sprinter’s mile, clearly
the fastest on record. You gasp
though not because it’s fast. You’re stunned
because its beauty lingers
long after she’s gone in the night.

Wang’s strings, keys bring light, clarity.
Our attention span grows. We grasp
for the emotion, and it flees.




Johnny Payne is Director of the MFA in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He has published two books of poetry: Vassal  (Mouthfeel Press, 2014) and Heaven of Ashes  (Mouthfeel Press, 2017).

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