“KGB Orchestra at the High School Prom” by John Herschel

John Herschel


for Terry


I’m beginning to write anonymous letters with my left hand.
The conclusion of such a letter should not conclude.
Why are people always getting in the way of a good sentence?

Like a line of shopping carts telescoped into each other,
you never know who is using your voice
or who is occupying this foggy parenthesis.

When I close my eyes for a second,
it’s as if I were being interrogated
by the secret police of a very small country.



I remember most of 1957 as a string between two radios
and high school girls in tight shorts washing cars for some demented cause
in the Safeway parking lot.

The ocean was always on the verge of doing something,
and you knew Richard Nixon would end up like a saguaro cactus
struck by lightning, burning for hours in the rain.



The unthinkable always happens;
the unthinkable is never thinkable until it happens.

My friend Ork said, “Nothing is beneath you,
wriggling for a healing gaze.”

But whatever happened to the future?
Why is the present so embarrassing?
Why is the past always turning us into pillars of salt?

It’s as if the things that happen
are a dopey substitute for the things that don’t,
or the things that don’t are being held in reserve for some other time,
like a box of kitchen matches,
with their little red heads tucked together in the same direction.



Everybody’s always trying to get in or out of institutions
and hoarding piles and piles of used books
they’re planning to read in eternity.

How many people go crazy without being Delmore Schwartz?
It takes a lifetime to ruin a happy childhood.

After standing for 2,000 years, my Platonic leg is asleep.
Everyone who ever confided in me said they peaked in 1975.

And money is always a disappointment.
It breaks your heart how many things it can’t buy,
and how many things it can buy that should be free.



Newspapers say onlooker, but nobody says onlooker anymore.

In 5,000 million years the sun will expand to the orbit of Mars,
putting an end to all talk about sunsets.

Yes, the dead outnumber the living, but they’re counted differently.
In this country, if you’re not selling something, you barely exist.

In the meantime, my cranium is spreading its cracks into the sidewalk,
my pants are on the point of leaving me for another man.

The tide goes out and never comes back.
But all the waiting around we do is not wasted; it’s just time subtracted
from the necessity of always seeming to be doing something.

from Rattle #47, Spring 2015


John Herschel: “In the final days of the Soviet Union, a rumor in Moscow was claiming that anyone with a hundred rubles could hire the KGB orchestra. An official KGB orchestra? It didn’t seem likely. And it sounded like an insult. Maybe the KGB had made up the rumor to see who would actually show up with the hundred rubles. But what if it was true? And would they go anywhere? Eventually, I put the story out of mind. But a trace remained, and after a couple of decades, it became this poem.”

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