Tunesmith poems by Al Basile

picture of Al Basile
Photograph by Meghan Sepe  

In his newest book, Tonesmith, poet-musician Al Basile gifts us with beautifully wrought poems whose music rings clearly in every line and whose energy causes them to all but leap off the page. About the book, Rhina P. Espaillat has written as follows: “Al Basile has wrought poems that are almost holographic in their insistence on bringing their author into the reader’s space, where he, his tone of voice, body language and facial expressions, constitute an uncanny presence. The very title of the book identifies the author as a music-maker determined to be heard, and as a poet whose first concern is achieving the tone in which he wants to be heard by the reader. Almost wholly blank verse, except for a few very fine pieces in rhymed tetrameter and some persona poems that reveal a strong flair for dramatic writing, these poems include autobiographical rites of passage, regrets and celebrations, personal and family memories, immigrant folklore, travel impressions, encounters with revered musicians and sports figures, and ambiguous lessons learned. Everything about them comes to the reader bearing the unique stamp of the teller, just as the musical notes that emerge from his horn are the literal product of his breath. This is poetry, not for the timid, but for those willing to contend with the “close-grained” nature of a highly individual artist.  The good news is that the reading experience is more than worth the effort, and rich for the poet’s uncompromising presence in every line.”     
  tonesmith cover image
  Mixed media cover: Stephanie Gehring

Al Basile is a poet, singer/songwriter, and cornetist; he was the first recipient of a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Brown University in 1970. He began his career as a cornet player with Roomful of Blues in 1973, and has worked with the Duke Robillard Band since 1990. He has fourteen solo CDs under his own name, which regularly reach the top 15 on the Living Blues airplay charts. He has six Blues Music Award nominations as best horn player, and his 2016 release Mid-Century Modern was nominated as Best Contemporary Blues Album. He also spent 25 years as a private school teacher. His poetry and fiction have been published regularly since he left teaching in 2005. His first poetry collection, A Lit House, was published in 2012, and in 2015 he was co-winner of the Meringoff Award for poetry, given by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers. The author’s reading of the poems in this book may be accessed at

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ISBN 978-1-943826-30-8

First Edition 2017

6" x 9" paperback, 164 pages

This book can be ordered from all bookstores, including Amazon.



Copyright © 2017 by Alfred C. Basile

A Straw in the Wind

When they reach the river they all find
a clearing where the current seems to slow,
but heavy lying mists obscure their sight.
No judging distance to the farther bank,
and anyone who steps into the flow
immediately disappears, enveloped.

These souls submit to many difficulties.
They find themselves in such a weakened state
that progress is well-nigh impossible.
Their reason is confounded; they can make
no sense of what their eyes and ears reveal.
At first their limbs cannot obey their will;
their tongues are loose and inarticulate,
and as they make their way they presently
forget the feel of solid ground, the clear-
eyed sight of that bright world where everything
appears exactly as it is, the rest
untroubled of the still place they have left.

How terrifying it must be, to labor
uncertainly in swift and plunging currents
ceaseless except for change, often deceived
by shapes that loom nearby and disappear
again into the dim, unsettling mist.
Not one can see the hand before his face,
or guess how far to reach the other side,
though they tell many stories of that place
to urge each other on. No one recalls
his former state; confusion rules, and keeps
each separated from his neighbor, though
they often drift into another’s path,
supposing greater distances from some
nearby, and close proximities to others
far away. Collisions can’t be helped
but few can see them for the comedies
they are. Though limited by ignorance,
most are deadly serious about themselves.

Their greatest fear is to be swept away
and lost forever in the surging waters,
shrouded in mist, never to know a clear
moment of peace and the relief of landfall.
Some hesitate before they step into
that current, draw back from its scudding edge,
troubled by the unfamiliar, sensing
consequences, holding for the most
propitious moment, pausing at the thought
of all they must abandon to begin

the solitary trial they call life.



Big as a baby’s head, ribbed as a bubbled cloud,
its amber chalcedony shell conceals
transparent quartz or purple amethyst.
Years in its making number in the millions
as buried deep in sediment it ripened,
ground water trickling its contribution.

It’s bored a bullet’s path for fifty years
straight through the quiet haven of my life;
its secret colors hid in darkness still
will go on undisturbed when I am dust.

It’s safe with me; I raise no hammer to
its mystery, imagining inside
a host of tinted possibilities.
I’d rather keep them all alive at once

than break it open, killing all but one.


How I Learned About Signs from Above


Along the first base line, over the rail,
I’d lingered talking by the welcome tent
after the game began. A foul ball twisted
slowly, shallow, just above my head
and settled on the crushed stone just behind
me. Tracking after it a dozen steps,
I bent to snatch it up, exclaiming “got it!”

I saw out of the corner of my eye
a kid of ten in shorts and a team jersey,
running, just too late, his glove in hand.
“Want it?” I said. His face lit up. I flipped
it to him, straightened, and went back to finish
my conversation. A few minutes later,
it was time to find my seat. I had to walk
out of the park, around behind, and through
a parking lot to reach the gate. Mid-way
a ball sailed down and bounced in front of me,
and disappeared into the rows of cars.

I took it as a sign, but with a test.
I thought back to the knock of ball on asphalt,
wove my way in its direction, stepped
between the cars, along the memory,
after a minute thought of giving up;
accepted I must trust the moment. And
there it was, pure white with one dark scuff.

Until you do the work, it’s not a sign.


Learning the Wall


When Dent hit the ball, I looked at Yaz,
patrolling left field as he had before,
spelling an injured Rice. From my six dollar
walk up bleacher seat I saw the wall
at my right hand, and knew how well he played it:
years had taught him all the dings and angles,
wind direction factored against height,
all the tricks the wall would use to lead
the fielder in too close or too far back.
Yaz would know; no need to watch the ball.
I saw him take a few steps to his right,
look up, and suddenly he crumpled down
into a one-knee crouch. The ball was gone.

A Mozart lifetime later, as I watch
a Youtube doc on Fenway history,
I see Dent’s swing again, from closer up,
and suddenly the camera cuts away;
the face of one fan fills the screen, to stand
for universal dismay. It is mine.

The expression on my youthful face,
not sad so much as marveling at what
the Irish call “the music of what happens,”
looks at me through time as if to say
that gain and loss are not the point, as they
will come. My job must be to look away,
not waiting for the outcomes; rather, live
so as to learn the wall so well that I
can see, before it happens, what will be.

Not the Thing Itself


He was a widower, my mother said.
He lived a long time, didn’t touch a thing
after his wife died, all her clothes still hanging
in their bedroom closet, in the dresser
drawers, he left things as they were. He met
my mother’s high school friend a few years later.
They went out, eventually got married,
went on their honeymoon, with everything
still left untouched at home. She’d never seen
the bedroom. While they were away, it burned.
Not everything; the fire was selective.

The wife’s half of the closet burned, her clothes
destroyed, his left undamaged. All the dresser
drawers were burned that held her things, not his.
Her half of the bed was charred, and in
their portrait the first wife neatly effaced;
smiling, his remained. Now this might sound
to you like a ghost story, but the second
wife, my mother’s friend, thought otherwise.
She saw it as a blessing on her marriage,
the first wife bowing out dramatically.

I knew that couple. Old friends of my parents,
they used to visit with their daughter, who
was older than I was. Our folks would talk
and we’d play chess. You wouldn’t think to sit
with them that something extraordinary
ever happened. They were regular,
it seemed to me, like anybody else.

My mother used to like to tell their story.
It’s not the thing itself, it’s how you take it


Piu Forte


My Nana Basile, born Maria Forte,
was just as strong by nature as by name.
Tall for her time, erect and spare, she lived
up to her nickname of Sunflower as
a girl, but grew to be a pillar to
her family of six. Her life got harder
in merciless old age, and she fought back
with unimaginable force, first as
a widow in her seventies, a brick
hot from the oven, wrapped in fresh newspaper,
placed at her feet to warm the empty bed.

A badly broken hip at eighty left
her stranded in a white hospital bed
compared to which Heine’s Matratzengruft
was rosy-petalled. She was not to leave
it once over the sixteen years that followed,
though change came with a stroke at eighty-five.

She’d stare up at me when we visited,
and call me first my older cousin’s name,
and then my father’s, never mine, and reach
up to pinch my cheek, her good right hand
gripping me as she did life itself,
lopsided grin across her ruined face
lit up by those eyes that never flinched,
and grumbled “facce brutta!” pinning me
in place, and somehow squeezing even harder.

Now nearing seventy myself, as I
inspect my body for the early signs
of which part will betray me at the end,
I hope I have inherited the gene

that confers such stark tenacity.


The Poisoned Pawn


She was, it seemed, alone and unprotected,
hoping to be lifted from the board
and swept off to a place of safety on
the sidelines, set far from the clash of play.
She appealed to you, her would-be knight,
uniquely gifted as deliverer:
to save her was your common destiny.

Drunk on your secret wish to be a hero
you reeled into the action, heedless of
the unseen forces underfoot, until
the ground fell off beneath, and you were left
the one in need of saving, powerless
to make a move, knowing the game had changed,
feeling another’s hand had made advances,
another’s mind had planned the line of play.

This is your test: to see it is your grip
alone that holds you. Players must agree
to keep the game alive, so get up from
the board and walk away. Where rescue is
illusion, heroes lose themselves in action.

Well-lit Corridors


I learned to crawl, then walk, playing the blues,
the goal to move with ease through all the keys.
The chords were darkened corridors at first;
I felt my way by steps, and found my footing
as similarity became familiar.

But standards were forbidding structures; strange
and unexpected chords surprised me with
their twists and funhouse turns, baffled my steps;
reaching the bridge of “Have You Met Miss Jones?”
I’d tilt the wrong way, stumbling in the dark.

I made every mistake I couldn’t help
and played through, getting used to new directions.
Accustomed now, each standard is a chance
to move another way, the halls well lit
in time for me to saunter, skip, or dance.