Nick Goodall Wrestles the Angel on a Snowy Night in Watertown
JAMES COOK

or, a song
to get at the legend of him
before it pass from men’s minds, a man, 
& music, 
            sudden, 
            of snowy fields, 
imagined
music out of barest rock, emptiest air...

His hands swathed 
in bandages, 
little black case
demurely tucked
under his arm,

wandering dirt roads of Tug Hill country,
mid-19th-century,

Old Nick Goodall, Nicholas.

And stories moved between
Mohawk & St. Lawrence,
Ontario & Champlain,

of his violin, its make & model –

                       a breastbone fiddle…
                       with strings made 
                       from his drowned 
                       sister’s hair...

                                    (& some said he was 
                                    the bastard son 
                                    of a famous 
                                    orchestra leader
                                    & some says
                                    he was a half-breed drifted down
                                    from French Canada his people come
                                    to dig the canal
                                    & some maintain
                                    he was a phantom lived
                                    in a cave 
                                    on the banks of the river)

but he’d play for hours 
in the sitting rooms 
of the old farmhouses,
or inns,
or out along the frozen roads, a slow
soft moaning,

                     a weeping as if
                                from the woods them-
                                        selves,

or the story that comes down 
out of “Eben Holden”
that the elder of a certain church
chanced upon Nick one day
standing beneath
a big oak tree 
playing hymns and after
listening an hour insisted
he play that evening
a church social gathering
whereupon 
the evening arrived with 
a goodly crowd Nick 
sat solidly 
on a seat behind the altar
staring into space and after
he was introduced
a murmur of disapproval moved
through the room silenced 
by the minister’s hand
yet Nick sat unmoving
silent not even 
making reply 
when the elder 
whispered in his ear
and finally the crowd began
to stir and talk 
amongst themselves 
but suddenly Nick stood 
taut
drew his bow
across the strings
and pulled
“The Girl I Left Behind Me”
out of thin air
to the horrified gasps
of the Church Ladies
and after climbed down 
from the pulpit walked
into the shadowy green 
of the churchyard and played
hour after hour
wrestling something
out of the darkness
of a summer night
the very leaf and loam
of the deer-haunted forest
mossy shoulders
of glacierscraped hills
Paganini crossstitched with country hymn
sacred song Yankee
Doodle Dandy until 
dawn trickled in (a mandolin)
to the eastern sky
when he came back to himself
‘made his way
among the tombstones
to the highway’
and was last heard playing, was it,
‘The Drowsy 
Sleeper’ I think,

I’ll eat nothing but green willow
I’ll drink nothing but my tears

back when that song was still
carving out the cut 
of Kentucky hills
(the gory rages
of their birth)
back in the Dream-Time,
in the time 
when the wet
chords of stars 
ran straight
through our guts.

                                           his wandering
                                 to & fro was legendary, singing for his supper,
                                 to & fro, and how he muttered strange words,
                                            and the rags he dressed in
                                                       too big for his frame,

                                 the North Country,
                                 where my mother’s people 
                                                             come from…

or Nick Goodall 
as variation
on the archetype of the cartoon frog
when he stumbled by chance
into a concert
in a big hall, stood there
on stage, staring deeply
into nothing,
until most everyone had left, then, of course,
played until sunrise, played
until the next evening, until
Christmas, no, until
the building toppled down
around him, centuries now, still
playing, O until the Emperor’s
last few peacocks 
flit like ghosts 
amid the ruins
of the palace walls…


         (here again, the theme reemerges 
         of the blank mask of the face
         staring into empty space, 
         J. Edwards wailing
         a sermon in the Valley
         of Dry Bones, 1740,
         & staring, staring straight ahead
         ‘at the bell-rope’, the mask
         moves out on the waters,
         is also Henry Hudson 
         adrift in his little boat
         with son John
         and the carpenter was it?
         and the mathematician,
         a few others,
         truly alone
         over the face of the waters, the mask
         moves through
         these woods hereabouts
         O False Face 
         the woods behind
         my father’s house & not
         the dingy 3rd floor
         of the Science Center
         a few blocks away not
         a few wampum beads but,
         to forge a living
         body of song, the mask, it
         moves out of the forest, 
         is the gazing-upward-eyes 
         of the Revenant, it 
         is strange Uncle Cecil I met
         only once, when I was 12,
         a ramshackle trailer
         up in the hills around
         Bedford, his face
         like some cut
         form implied
         in live granite, the songs 
         he scraped
         from the edges 
         of his banjo
         right out of the Pennsylvania
         Book of the Dead,
         traces of Late Silurian
         in there, slight droning
         inflection
         of Run Shaker Life, Baudelaire, 
        Charley
        Patton…
        & I too young to care,
        my grandfather’s brother, 1993)


but the story takes the man, if you want
to get at the man, Nick
Goodall, its in that 
black case tucked 
so humanly under his arm,
near-naked trees on either side
of a thin line of country road,

or else,
cornfields,

(his bandaged hands)

the dark out beyond…

October frost 
in the rushes 
on the banks
of the Mohawk. 

                                                                       For two more years
                                                                       he roamed the roads
                                                                       of the North Country
                                                                       exchanging fiddle music
                                                                       for meals and lodging
                                                                       tramping the highways
                                                                       in all kinds of weather

& one winter morning
was picked up half-dead
from exposure

& lived out his days 
in the Jefferson 
County almshouse

‘and now lies buried
in the old cemetery
on Arsenal St.
in Watertown’

& of course,
in the end he was just
another crackpot

& in the end
it was just
an ordinary violin

          but to try at least
get at, to get down
here

the ghost of a man / gone into song– 

                              (the ache 
                       of the obliterated 
                       Self) to trace

the foothills 
where
he walked, one edge

of a circle they describe.








JAMES COOK has been published in several online and print journals, including The Cortland Review, Realpoetik, BlazeVOX, Lake Affect Magazine, Scissors and Spackle, Cobalt Review, Milk, and Jacket2.