The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Let the Last Thing Be Song

A person is a note in the mouth of probability hungry for song, reverberating with echoes of the impossible. To exist at all is as close as this universe of austere laws and inert matter gets to a miracle. At its most miraculous, life has a musical quality, harmonious and symphonic with meaning.

And Pipe the Little Songs that Are Inside of Bubbles by Dugald Stewart Walker, 1920. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

And yet this musicality is more than a metaphor — it is part of our material nature, our creaturely inheritance. “Matter delights in music, and became Bach,” wrote the poet Ronald Johnson. Music thrusts our neurobiology into transcendence. The poetic physicist Alan Lightman saw it as a language for the exhilaration of being alive. But it is also the language of mortality. “The use of music is to remind us how short a time we have a body,” Richard Powers wrote.

Poet, French horn player, and choral singer Hannah Fries (who is also the visionary editor behind the Universe in Verse book) celebrates this enlivening relationship between music, meaning, and mortality in her stunning poem “Let the Last Thing Be Song,” inspired by Radiolab’s episode Memory and Forgetting and read here by Hannah herself to the sound of her young son improvising on the piano:

by Hannah Fries


Memory is safest in someone with amnesia.
Behind locked doors
glow the unmarred pieces—
musical notes humming
in a jumble, only
waiting to be


What is left in one
who does not remember?
Love and music.

Not a name but the fullness.
Not the sequence of events
but order of rhythm and pitch,

a piece of time in which to exist.


A tone traveling through space has no referent,
and yet we infer, and yet it
finds its way between our cells
and shakes us.

Aren’t we all still quivering
like tuning forks
with the shock of being,
the shock of being seen?


When I die, I want to be sung across the threshold.
Don’t you? Doesn’t the universe,
with its loosening warp
and weft, still
unspool its symphony?

Sing to me — please —
and I will sing for you as all unravels,
as time continues past the final beat
of the stutter inside your chest.

Harmonize, at the edge of that horizon,
with the black hole’s
fathomless B-flat.

Couple with Marie Howe’s breathtaking “Hymn,” then revisit Nick Cave on music and transcendence in the age of AI and his reading of “But We Had Music.”

Published July 5, 2024




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