A Birthday Poem for Bob Dylan’s 80th

Bob Dylan’s Vocal Chords
           for Susan O.

By David Cappella

The speech pathologist sits on the icy aluminum bench
beside me, as we watch the hockey game, chilly
in the refrigerator cold of the skating rink.
Outside squats a New England heat wave,
one of those cursed Bermuda highs that plants its ass
right on the elbow of the Cape with a heat
that gathers up and stings every toe
of the foot that first sinks into scalding beach sand.
It’s a heavy heat that crams the air
back into the throat.  And when I clear mine,
just as the crack of her husband’s slap shot,
low and mean, snaps an echo to the ceiling,
I say, ” I’m going to hear Dylan this weekend.”
The speech pathologist shakes her head from side to side.

“How can you listen to him?” she asks me.
I think, oh no, another ‘Dylan’s voice’ discussion.
She tells me, “His voice needs some serious rest.”
And who can argue with that? The Minstrel is tireless
and I imagine the road must be a blanket party
on his throat. She says, “The problem is the vocal cord lining.”
The flying puck whizzes past, thuds against the far corner,
and drops lifeless as I picture The Minstrel after a gig
plopping down exhausted on his tour bus
contemplative, taking a scratchy swallow.

The speech pathologist informs me, without a doubt,
Dylan’s vocal cord linings are severely jagged and rough
like barbed wire, that scar tissue and nodules layer
his cords, a result from years of smoking, of drugs,
of attempts at trying to change the sound of his voice.
Dylan, the lion tamer with a whip and a chair, yelling
at his voice, commanding it to jump up and sit on its back legs.
She adds, “A laryngoscopy would show the simple truth.”
I learn that the vocal linings are smooth, moist, and supple.
I think of a quahog, but the speech pathologist notes
that if viewed from the mouth down, the linings
look like a vagina. Their folds close into a smooth seal,
but Dylan’s cords are so roughly coated
with layer upon layer of crud from years of abuse
and his throat muscles are so tensed up, as though
his larynx is continually being scratched by cat claws,
that Dylan has an imperfect seal and a weak vocal quality.
Perhaps this accounts for the infusion of ecstasy coursing
through my body every time I hear him sing “Desolation Row.”

The speech pathologist describes how, at Dylan’s concerts,
she used to sit with her fingers in her ears. She tells me
that this bothered her because she still cherishes every word,
every phrase written by The Minstrel. They sing to her
now, as she stares out at the skaters, her rhapsodic gaze,
beatific and stark under the glare of the rink lights.
It is one of those blessed instants, an odd moment
that Dylan himself might note in scribbled lines and then,
during a late set, in some out of the way venue
in the middle of the week, conjure those exact words in his throat
and with a long exhale cry them out, tremulous and whiny,
in a sweet new baby wail into the stale, blue air.


David Cappella is the co-author of two books (with Baron Wormser)  on the teaching of poetry: Teaching the Art of Poetry (Routledge) and A Surge of Language (Heinemann). He won the 2006 Bright Hill Press Poetry Chapbook Award. His book Gobbo: A Solitaire’s Opera will be published in Spring 2021 by Červená Barva Press and will be published as an Italian bi-lingual edition by puntoacapo Editrice in November 2021. Visit his university web site: http://webcapp.ccsu.edu/?fsdMember=249 

2 Responses to A Birthday Poem for Bob Dylan’s 80th

  1. David Daniel says:

    Hard to believe the cat is 80. I remember in 1971, as he approached 30, having a crisis of conscience over whether I could trust him any longer.

    I did, of course, and despite disappointments over the years (and, yes, his voice is one; along with his apparent disregard at times for his audience), I haven’t put my fingers in my ears.

    His words have been, and continue to be, an inspiration & a hope. Thanks for the poem!

  2. Jim Provencher says:

    Still averaging a hundred gigs a year at 80, Dylan’s much-maligned road-worn instrument’s become a desolate cri de coeur, one Jagger claims possesses a uniquely expressive timbre, one capable of infusing us with ecstasy as Cappella so well attests to here in his own time-honed phrasing.