Books·CBC Literary Prizes

"String Theory" by Mark Wagenaar

Mark Wagenaar won the 2015 CBC Poetry Prize for "String Theory."
Mark Wagenaar won the 2015 CBC Poetry Prize for "String Theory." (Danielle Walker)

You should know how to jump a car,

& how to change a tire, my father once told me.

To that I'd add where to buy the best shine

in town, which is always out of someone's trunk.

In Oxford, look for an '89 Cherokee,

rust-mottled white, & tinted dark as ink,

because a woman named Chaz will sell a jelly jar

with hardly a charcoal speck. She's an adherent

of string theory - not the one that says strings

send their 2-D worldsheet through spacetime,

one candidate for The Theory of Everything —

but the shine version: she plays an old violin

in a barn to the sealed jars, & a horse, Bill.

They don't have ears, she says, maybe the vibrations

soften the shine some. She's got her own set

of must-knows: how to make an easy grand

hauling cigarettes across state lines, how to grow

your own blue corn for the stuff. How to kick

the other stuff, blue flame, burn spoon, dying horse

or heroin, the appetite goes first, she says.

You should know what it's like to bury

a horse, to spend a morning digging a piano-size

grave, for twenty cents. Three jars in, she tells me

something. We wrapped chains around one

that got stuck in a drinking hole. Her rump in the air,

chunks of horse flesh missing: the coyotes

we'd hear at night as we drifted off to sleep.

When the chains tightened as the tractor heaved

the mare's belly gave, & her body was pulled

from a womb-wet colt. You should know

some things stay with you the rest of your life.

I even saw that colt as I held up the ultrasound

the first time, she says. The birth of your first-born

will wreck every part of you. And I know this.

I've held that picture in my hands. I've even heard

that heart, that stunning wingbeat on the speaker,

that otherworldly whistling, an ambulance passing

by you, if you're stretchered out in the back

at the same time. Like hearing a helicopter

underwater, or talking to a friend on the phone

when he's in freefall. I should know by now I'll never

know all the strings that pull me this way or that.

I mean thirst, & history, mistakes & all, I mean

the way we become our parents, so I know enough

to know I don't know shit, but that heartbeat,

that heartbeat did to me what the late train horn

does to the empty plains, what the blood moon does

to midnight. This week of her first dreams, fingerprints

spiral galaxied into place. Her body in Golden Mean

proportions already, like Chaz's violin — even in her

impossibly small foot, four philines fall at the arch,

ball & base of the toes. Zeising once divided the body

into four zones, & found 3/2 proportion in length,

which is a Perfect Fifth on a scale. So who sang us

into being, who first struck our hearts into rivering

with a few slides along the strings? And this beauty

is an eyelash next to the end we share, so all I see,

& all I hope to see, is a length of days beyond

my own when I look hard at the ultrasound clouds,

at the face upon the waters. The way Chaz looks

at the sun too long sometimes, so the burnspots dance,

then coalesce, until a blueblack colt walks out of the sun.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.