Musician’s Focal Dystonia Letters

by Joanna White

  1. Parts

My appendix, expendable

could definitely go.

We have two kidneys

do we not?

Surely I could manage

without one of those.

Do I hear gall bladder?

We hardly need them

I have heard.

What about the flute

playing part?

Is that one of the parts

that can be done without?


  1. Letter to Johann Sebastian Bach

I take my seat at the piano, set alight

the counterpoint, tight as needlepoint,

grand plan imagined by you. I curl

into the keys, hum along, but middle

and ring fingers move as if fused,

no auto-pilot kicking in to scuttle

my fingers like mice, up and down

the scales, depressing each key

equally. My left hand jumbles, a fist

with two thumbs. I was so sure your

“Goldberg Variations” was burned

into my brain like the spiraled vines

of a tattoo, symmetry true. But it

is not true. Your notes remain dots

on the staff, your marked coffin

in Leipzig only a rectangle of dust.


  1. To the Elephant at the Piano

What am I doing here?…

I’m a flutist, for crying-out-loud!

Gary Larson

Your squat log legs squeeze under the piano

just so. They could not reach the pedals

even if there were pedals. Your chunks

of arms dangle at his side;  they could not

even pretend to tickle the bones. Your pupils

swirl in their sockets. What are you doing

there on stage, audience a-twitter?

And the music…How will it begin?


  1. Letter to My Lips

Corkscrew curls of wind

to the rim. Send two

columns of air spinning,

to turn us dizzy

as a record, taking us all

back to before we could read

the notes on the staff, dance

our fingers on the keys, or feel

the beat––before our feet

could catch the rhythms, lift

us up. Focus the breath; coax

a silver tone. Be too busy

to tell my secrets.


  1. Note to Self

It’s not all Carnival of Venice, you know, its trills

like pearls escaping, its sixty-fourths bubbling up

to the chandelier. Today Hotteterre’s Tourtourelles,

plaintive as the doves in the eaves. Yesterday

Density 21.5, platinum shrieking. Vox Balanae

tomorrow, a green message from the deep,

or just as likely (if it is Brahms) the flute will blare

the horn call from the mountaintop. Next Wednesday

the Badinerie, perhaps, your tongue flicking

like a sparking wick. When the orchestra plays

Elgar’s “Nimrod” in memoriam, remember that once,

in despair, the composer received a friend, who sang

the Pathetique to plead his case that Beethoven

went on… and so must you.


Joanna White has works published in The Examined Life Journal, Ars Medica, Healing Muse, Abaton, American Journal of Nursing, The Intima, Earth’s Daughters, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, MacGuffin, Cape Rock, Chariton Review, Pulse, Temenos, Measure, Naugatuck River Review as a finalist in their poetry contest, and in the Poetry and Medicine column of JAMA. She gives poetry readings at conferences (including a full-session reading at the 2016 Examined Life Conference at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine) and performs and records as an orchestral and chamber music flutist.

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