Named for the melody that is the basis to which other parts are added in polyphonic music, Christopher Kondrich’s Canto Fermo is a long, ornate poem in which the elements of voice—tone and texture—are beautifully and elegantly sustained. Moreover—and what’s unusual for a work of this length—the poem never permits our attention to wander. In Canto Fermo Kondrich has created a drama of the subtle transactions between both self and self and self and other, presenting two distinct but overlapping narratives. One is allegorical, in which a piano-playing guru named Tim, a pharmaceutical cure-all called “T,” and the laboratory where it’s produced are all elements in the formation of a self (the speaker) seeking unity. The other thread concerns a past self and a present self who overcome various vicissitudes in order to merge in the voice of the poet. Canto Fermo is rich in many ways, not the least of which is in its periodic mimicry of legal and scientific language. It is also humorous, as in this brief, parodistic meditation on selfhood: “I spoke about how you / were another person / entirely which made me / think that there was / someone else who / might want to be me / as much as I did.” Its candor is unsentimental; its intelligence is never ponderous or pretentious. It is full of vitality, constantly propelling itself forward with admirable energy, even as it dismantles the taken-for-granted wholeness of life to create the wholeness of art: “Sometimes we need to dash / ourselves on the rocks, because in reassembling / we discover what we were composed of. Without first / breaking . . . we cannot be whole.”
—Mark Strand


from Canto Fermo

Lying awake

I heard two voices

both of which were mine.

I was always afraid they

would remove what I held

in my invisible hands

and then came the hour

I had to accept 

because living meant 

accepting the loss 

of one hour after another 

or what felt like an hour, 

which could be two, 

which could be none, 

a mere few minutes 

compressed into a rock 

the size of a thumb. 

I spent part of the night 

on the couch another part 

at the kitchen table— 

I would like some tea 

said one of my voices.


Tim was over, 

saying he’d move 

his fingers over the keys 

with more agility 

and emotion 

in a body he created.

What if this body

is just a projection

of a weak mind?

What if my fingers

are where the 

weakness resides? 

He handed me 

a bottle of pills

and I told him 

I’ve had my hands 

on those for a while. 

I was packing, 

and Tim and I 

were suspended 

just like the mobiles 

in my suitcase. 
Why several mobiles? 

Because, I said, 

what if I encounter 

several trees?


I prepared for the recital

by clearing the path of stray rocks.

I did whatever I thought to do,

following my mind like a nose

from one room to the next.

At times, I imagined

my suit walking around

without a body inside it,

just the suit by the window

trying to adjust its tie.


Since the future
is full of music,

Tim said, we need
to find a way to

bring it closer,
to brush our end

against its end,
but we must remain

organized, our aim
at this time must be

to get a clear picture
of our auditory field. 

If you sit where I can see you
and I sit at the piano,

we can coordinate our ideas
and thoughts and memories

so they fit together
even though they are 

completely separate 
and meaningful in their 

own right, which is to say
that whatever is inside us

can be threaded outside us
into something wonderful

and this is called counterpoint,
this is how I get up in the morning

and how I go to sleep at night
knowing that I will be there

when I awake. If you sit here
and I sit by the piano

without touching the piano
as you have requested,

we can listen to our elements
we can project them in such a way

that they undergo as many
changes as possible in form 

and scope and we’ll change as well
into people we no longer recognize

but know we must have met
along the way. I consider

my chair a closer companion
than anyone I know—

how am I supposed to 
go about loving someone

more than this chair
even though its legs wobble

and falling through it
is always on my mind

and the keys receive this worry 
with every touch.


And while I have your attention,
Tim continued, sometimes I am struck

with such overwhelming joy and sadness 
for this strange instrument that I’m glad

I live alone and that I’ve shored up my house
with all the things I had lying around, 

so no one, not even the wind, could destroy it 
and even if I wanted it destroyed, 

I would have to do it myself, 
with my own hands, with a bat 

or pipe or match, and I’d have to decide
beforehand to do it and even if this decision

was made rashly, I would’ve made it
with some manner of intent.

The thrashing or burning would rid
the next day of having to decide 

whether or not to thrash or burn it. 
Every day I have to make this decision,

and regardless if I am satisfied with it, 
I have to abide by the metronome

and hope that it will allow me 
the mistakes I know I will make.


I knew I had to leave 

because it had occurred to me

that it was the only thing left to do. 

We have a greater capacity 

for knowledge and a greater 

capacity for pain, I said to Tim,

a capacity that is awkward

and cumbersome and never full

even when it’s bored out of its mind.

I wish I could say more 

so I could ensure you’d 

always have someone 

around who’d listen but 

I have to go. I wasn’t going 

to say it again and then 

I did, I said it and saw the air 

outside wafting against 

the window like the breath 

of a dog waiting for me, waiting 

for something I would do 

to make us both so certain 

that the trees and sky 

were there, were ours.


So I take my hand, 

and even though I know my hand, 

I know I know it, 

it feels like your hand. 

I take it but I’m tired. 

I know I’m tired because I squeeze

what I see between my eyelids. 

Then I dream that your mind is mine.

I dream that I secure it

with my end of the rope. 

I wake while saying

that what I say is the truth,

that you should believe me

because I say it.