What Will You Do at the End of the World?

When I watch the video where the violinist plays
as surgeons cut the cancer from her brain,
my first impulse is to descend into metaphor—
to imagine the plaintive cry of her violin as a singular
silvery thread that leads the surgeons—sublimely,
tremulously—through the Minotaur’s maze,
so they can extract the tumor abutting the lobe
that controls her left hand, so they can navigate
the fleshy labyrinthine folds and electric shocks
that make a human mind. When I watch her bow
graze the ventilator tube again and again,
I want to recall the old story of Nero playing
as Rome burned, which is supposed to be a story
about callous cruelty and ineffectual leadership,
but which fails to hold up under historic scrutiny
for many reasons, including that the violin
was not invented until the 11th century.
Still, the fable lends him more humanity than not—
the notion that there was music inside him,
even if it took six days of burning to fan it out,
a music so powerful it forced itself to escape
his tyrant’s mouth. If art is only pleasure,
Nero’s act is selfish, loathsome, but if art is survival—
a violin’s siren might morph to beacon
against the smoky air. I keep asking my poems
what the world needs from me in these days
of quickening dread, of burgeoning conflagration,
what they want me to do. In the comments section
below the hospital video, no one can agree
on what they’re seeing: Creepy, incredible,
horrifying, beautiful. Afterward, the violinist recalls,
I kept thinking, Get out of my way. I need to play louder.

Reprinted from the American Poet Laureate Series (Edition 2 of 5) by Green Mountains Review. Copyright © 2023 Julia BouwsmaUsed with permission of the author.