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The Conductor by Jacqueline Berger

Writers almanac recently featured a poem about an elderly conductor. A brief snapshot of many things we don’t typically think about when attending a concert.

The Conductor
by Jacqueline Berger
There’s no mention, of course, in the program
that the conductor has Parkinson’s.
He enters the stage, stands for a moment
facing the audience,
his hands by his sides, tapping air.
Then he holds them together, an act of gratitude
—we are gathered, we can do this—
and of firmness, each hand forcing
the other to be still.
His expression, darkly bemused,
the good news/bad news:
I’ve lived long enough to lose so much.
Or maybe he’s staving off our sympathy,
don’t clap because of this.
Then he turns his back to us, begins his work.
Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.
No baton, and from behind
his body is jerky as a boy’s,
jumpy with excitement.
His hands shake when they scoop
the sections of the orchestra,
as though pulling a weighted net
from the sea. Still, I wonder if this work
is easier than taking on the ordinary
objects of a day—
buttons, keys, and pens.
I am an old man
he must think when he looks
in the mirror,
briefly naked before trading
the bathrobe for the tie and tails.
And when he turns to us again
after the last movement, he looks both
old and young, his face washed
of the expression in the program photograph,
clearly taken years before,
one eyebrow slightly raised,
his smile more satisfied than happy.
Now he shows us his innocence,
if innocence is what the face
unconstructed can be called.
What else can he do,
while his fingers tap their useless code,
while the audience, in rows, rises from their seats,
still clapping, what can he do
but show us who he is,
a man standing too close to the edge,
edge no one can call him back from.

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