Two Poems • Paul Hostovsky

Dueling Banjos

He was a finger-picker, and I was a frailer,
and she was this beautiful dark-haired guitar
with this forthright mischief in her eyes,
this clef tattooed above her sacrum,
this mother-of-pearl shiver she sent up

my 15-year-old spine. I was in love with her,
me, a masturbater in God's eyes as I locked
the door, closed my eyes, and my mouth
sang mute accompaniment to my own flailing
hand: traditional enough, but back then

I thought I'd go blind if I kept it up. Then Doc
Watson came to town with that happy guileless
Tennessee voice, that flat-picking style as clean
as a ringing bell, and his son Merle on banjo.
We both bought tickets and asked her to go.

You know how this story ends. She goes with him,
the finger-picker. And I can't stop crying.
And I can't stop frailing. And six months later
Merle dies in a tragic tractor accident,
and Doc stops singing for a long, long time.


Rebound Banjo

She left him for her ex
who played the 5-string banjo
in a bluegrass band and whom
she'd left for him--and not
three months before--for a short

sweet-smelling spring,
wound him like a string around
the tuning peg of her index,
touched him and he stiffened,
and he sang. And he broke

down and wept when she went back
to her banjo-playing ex
like a second thought about
a second fiddle, a repeating
chorus or refrain. So he went out west

to forget her. But he couldn't forget--
he saw her everywhere, saw her hands
in the hands of strangers, saw her hair
on the heads of strangers, saw her breasts
in the shapes of the Grand Tetons

high against the big Wyoming sky
at twilight. And on a side street
in Jackson, he saw it in the window
of the pawn shop, its slender neck adorned
with mother-of-pearl inlay,

its fifth tuning peg indented like
a new paragraph, a new chapter,
its pale full-moon face a blank
slate. And he bought it for fifty bucks
which included the case, capo, strap, three

fingerpicks and a Mel Bay's Learn to Play
the Five-String Banjo book. He was
motivated. To win her back, of course.
And of course he didn't win her back.
But he did learn to play in a frailing way

"Cripple Creek" and "Old Joe Clark"
and "Sail Away Ladies Sail Away."


Paul Hostovsky is the author of five books of poetry, 
most recently Naming Names (2013, Main Street Rag). 
His poems have won a Puschart Prize and he has been 
featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer's Almanac.
Visit him at