There was a cobra in the third row, but Segovia played on

ONE day as I sat on our rickety balcony high on Telegraph Hill overlooking San Francisco Bay, unintentionally singing to my brand-new firstborn, Kirk, over the radio came a Bach chaconne played by a guitarist named Andr'es Segovia. A coup de foudre, a lightning flash, of instantaneous love. I bought what few of his records were available, found more when we moved to Washington, have played them all thin. As soon as the children turned 3 or 4, they began to read music and play the piano. Kirk went on to play the trumpet like a bull moose, but Cameron and Alexander tackled the guitar, working with a young guitarist named Richard Walker, who had studied with Segovia and found some of his simpler transcriptions for them. At least the children learned something about making music, even if they didn't keep it up, even if their current tastes are all too current for mine and the guitars they prefer trail electric umbilical cords.

The first time I remember Segovia coming to Washington, tickets were sold out immediately. The box office manager offered a dozen of us folding chairs right on stage, flanking the performer. My seat was on the end of the first row: When Segovia came out to perform he brushed by me, his guitar grazed my arm. How he played and played.... So close.... When he passed by after his final encore, he paused to shake my hand and smile.

``I've discovered this fantastic new guitarist!'' I wrote to my parents. ``His name is Segovia - ''

``New?'' My mother wrote back; I could imagine one light brown eyebrow rising. ``Why, we knew Segovia when he was a young man, and your Daddy and I were just married, in the Philippines. Segovia was on a Far Eastern tour - must have been 1927-28 - and played a concert in Manila. It was monsoon season, and rain beat so loudly on the tin roof of the Quonset hut we could hardly hear. Midway through, a cobra came out of the third row and a woman fainted. But Segovia played on.''

Mothers sometimes have a way of putting one down, don't they ... I, too.... But one principle she passed on, perhaps unwittingly: The show must go on, cobras notwithstanding. I've remembered this on several occasions.

One of my first public appearances involved reading my poems to guitar music which Richard Walker had composed for them. The performance took place, not in a cool, hushed auditorium, but outside, in a park located between a lake and old railroad tracks, on a broiling September Saturday in northern Virginia.

Our ``concert hall'' had a roof (tin) but no walls, and only a few trees, and from all sides people wandered in with picnic baskets, and sometimes out again. Children and dogs, squirrels and birds and bugs, also traipsed through. Shouts of boaters and basketball players down the hill, the noise of cars and motorcycles, all added to the - informality.

WALKER was used to playing before audiences, beautifully, but my knees never entirely stopped shaking as I tried to keep up something contrapuntal between my words and his notes. Every picnic bench was full, and people seemed to be listening as they ate.

Suddenly we heard the blast of a train whistle, then mighty rumblings. A locomotive roared along the tracks beyond the sparse trees. The main north-south railroad line turned out to be very much in use. The locomotive was followed by 118 cars - Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, Chesapeake & Ohio, Wabash, United Fruit, and how many more companies and kinds of freight, flatbed, refrigerator, tanker, and boxcar stormed past. They had not yet picked up their full speed, and took a dreadfully long time.

What to do? No way to make ourselves heard. Sit there dumbly through the din and look stupid?

Walker looked chagrined but had played background music for receptions where some people tended to consider him background. He did not miss a note now, but kept on strumming. You could see his fingers moving faster-than-sight across the strings.

Remembering Segovia, I continued to recite verse after verse, over and over again, certain of being unheard, until the caboose was finally out of sight and earshot. The train, like a typhoon, had passed.

Walker and I picked up the concert at the point of its interruption, almost as if nothing had intervened.

How many other times, during poetry readings around the world, when monsoons beat on roofs, dogs chased cats through the audience, fire engines screamed close by, and in many another nonpoetic predicament, invisible guitars have strummed through my disconcerted head. Play on, play on.

Over the years I have heard more of Segovia's concerts and records. I mourn his recent passing. Yet in my solipsistic memory, he will always play on and on in extra and extraordinary ways.

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