Tag Archives: history

pop culture seance

i have 2 poems here that are calling upon the ghosts of two major pop culture figures: james dean and bob dylan. i kind of think they represented a certain archetype of their time and age with which i am infatuated, so the tone and content of these 2 pieces is very similar.

For James

You glower ghostly from the projector shroud.
My planchette hands backlit black reach to you
in a cinema divination drawing me down Grapevine Road
at 70 mph, hurtling towards the specter spot at Cholame—
to hell with tickets and portends, angels and charms,
to hell with the red warnings blazing on that fateful day:
the sheen of the Porsche’s engine-hot hood, the collar
of your rebel coat, the label of your last Coke—you
ripped across that ribbon of concrete as the bloody
sunset stabbed your eyelids at skull-crushing speeds
and the Ford Sedan glared through the windshield—
better give me something, give me something fast—
I see you swiveling the steering wheel as you flick
the last cherry spark of your cigarette and battle
the demons twisted into the transmission, your eyes
fixed on the rangeline of dusk and day—a softness
like the final fade-out on the milk-wash screen.

Leaving Hibbing

You found the guitar arthritic in the attic, by
the mahogany Detrolla with an upside-down atlas
glowing on the face as Hank Williams quavered
airwaves and Odetta howled on the up-down strums:
50,000 watts voodooing through the atmosphere.

A country record in the cradle made you different,
deviated topography snagged on the compass rose.

There’s no room to rebel in this weather: a pastoral
purgatory of milk and lilies, snow-stiff flags
on the white-wash porches—what happens to these
nine square blocks when the iron mines shut down,
the fields dessicate and the red canvas awnings clap down
slow in the final autumn? Change your name
to anything, walk anyplace—Supertramp Napoleon,

get in our heads, pin us down. Seek the crossroads to séance
the folkster canon. With a dirt-thumbed copy of Bound for Glory,
you called upon the gospel according to Guthrie before
he boarded the crazy train. Stolen vinyl, shorn hair and hunger
as hard and hollow as your instrument—will you fill us,
make notes tone holy and speak something slanted radical?

Cinderella or Romeo, you can go everywhere
when you’re someone else, and you’re always
bygone and becoming, halloping to the horizon bevel
on the throstle and rise of rock-n-roll, the poetry
of the lemon crate in the gutter, the hum of a green
grain shoot stirred by Minnesota dew.

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lists

MORE BLUES POETRY. this is an earlier, unedited version.

How the Blues Die

Bessie Smith flew from her car like an angel
and broke open at the ribs and wrists, died
neglected on the white hospital stretcher.

Blind Lemon Jefferson froze to death on the streets
of Chicago, lost in the snow—a thing
he feared in the blank of his eternal whiteout.

Memphis Minnie stroked out, so they shoved
her into a nursing home til her expiration date,
aphasic save for the livid spittle laced to her lip.

Charley Patton became a sizzling collapse
of the heart’s infarction—an entropy of passion
as plaque bloomed like a lily in his ventricles.

Peg Leg Howell burned, corroded by the syrupy
sweet of diabetes that claimed his legs first—
bad sugar crystallizing slow along his thighs, crippling.

Pine Top Smith caught a stray bullet to the chest when
his boogie-woogie spun out of control—he lurched forward
over the bloodied ivories skewed by reckless shots.

Leadbelly escaped every prison except the one
as big as his body: the iron maiden of Lou Gherig’s
shackled his limbs from within and snuffed him out.

Robert Johnson played too far out of hand in Greenwood—
gutted by the barman’s jealous slip of arsenic over his
fifth whiskey, a milky swill of revenge in amber depths.

Big Bill Broonzy felt the cancer coagulate in his throat,
cutting off his vocal flow as he punched riffs into his guitar
and onto the pale, sunwashed porch after morning chemo.

Leroy Carr drowned in the depressive cloy of canned heat—
the crush of drinking to death, while Willie Johnson
suffocated on the icy ash of his burned-out home. Pneumonia

lying heavy in his chest, he hummed “Dark was the Night,
Cold was the Ground” to forgotten streets, careful to still
the chalk-grind of his bones as he sighed off mid-moan.

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blues is my muse

i don’t know what it is, but i love old country blues. I.LOVE.IT. one of my first pieces in college was an ode to robert johnson and one of my last pieces last semester was an ekphrasis of a blues banjoist.
and now i’m in a history of the blues class so i want to write a poem about every effing lecture. and i’ve also amassed over 500 blues songs from 1924 to the present.
weirdly enough, none of my poems have been [intentionally] in the blues poem form. just poems about blues. guess i should try that next, but it has been so well done by so much better poets that i don’t want to make something suck. TOO MUCH PRESSURE.
anyway.
so this first poem was a contemplated piece, but the second was a piece i edited a little after a 15 minute prompt in class, borrowing the line “let the devil use your head” from Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Blue Light Lounge Sutra For The Performance Poets At Harold Park Hotel.” BEAUTIFUL.

Beale Street Blues

Today I could buy some Greyhound tickets to Memphis
for eleven dollars, but then I’d only get as far as present-day
Beale Street and I’d rather go all the way back
to 1928 when the Sheiks played the Monarch Club
and I could groan along with them about the trauma
of travel and the betrayal of love, a bruise on the throat creeping
along the scale to the deepest blue. Why was every Deep South griot
blind? Why did they all choose the hardest ways to die?
Snorting, stamping, roaming wild with their twelve-strings
and bottleneck slides, they piece together broken folk
and hum gospel til the people move, fingers fumbling frets
for a scrap of cash large enough for the next swig.
I’ll climb aboard that bus, the exhaust like Eucharist
on my lips as I’m christened by the ghosts of rail hobos
and piney top performers, whose rhythmic strumming still
keeps time with the desperate rattle of steel wheels
on blackgum tracks. You won’t know me in the reverb
of hot-drink vision and slack-key tones, but
in the bellow of a bar measure, fluid like the emptying
of the Yazoo to the Mississippi, but strong like cotton
stalks on a hill, nursing a blood-scrawled Delta sunset.

Muse

Let the devil use your head
for a while. Fall down

on windblown crossroads,
your sense swallowed in the slide

of a broken bowie knife scraping
the steel-string fretboard spine,

Notes folding into a space between
scales, spiritual shakes and prison wails.

let the devil use your head
to knock questions against

rotted boxcar walls, blues cries
fertilizing the fields. You don’t recognize

the bones dug up from this silt, the black
grin of a ghost with a story wedged

in his molar made for the groove
of shellac records: a voice of empty

moaning, no place to go—
let the devil use your head,

shave a shank from your tongue
to swipe and swing free of the lumber yards,

and crop rows, no bars to block you,
a rolling strum with time and no tempo

like the rain re-sculpting the furrows—
a banshee loose on the delta-lands.

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dat old school sheeyit

if anything, i’ll be a firm believer in the mutually inspirational exchange between music and poetry at the end of this semester, as i am constantly forced to use music as a means of creative expression and artistic embellishment. rap music–but music in general, really–converses nicely with the poetic form,especially because of the importance of sonic harmony explicit in music and implicit in poetry.
anyways, here’s an ode to dj kool herc, the father of hip hop.
at this point, i’m also going to have a large collection of hip-hop poetry. weird.

Herc

You were a demigod in the dancehalls
and on the gym floors. Like the hero they saw,
you ruled the ashy blacktop growing weeds
and aluminum posts, surveyed the cliffs and valleys
of Sedgwick Avenue where projects rose and fell.
You were a pack runner with the graffiti renegades
that earned you your ice-cold name—KOOL, with a K.
The sound cuts harder and sharper than that soft C
nonsense other DJs kissed. First it was you and the gray-black
shoe-scuff of two turntables, a dual channel amp
and PA speakers at your sister’s party, your fingers
frightened by the fresh touch of soaked vinyl—
you rinsed each body like a lover’s, peeling the labels
from black-shined faces so no monster could find your flow.
You scratched smoother, soared higher and lower,
owned all over and under the midrange: treble screams
and bass beats, the drowning moment when the vocals
broke and you dropped in like a swimmer, submerged
in the blue-red pulse-flash of rec-room aquariums.
B-boys and B-girls turn and twist together and apart,
like warped chain-links you scale in flight, the fuzz
from choked speakers roaring in your ears. Soon,
landlords will light the fires to clear out the Bronx,
but you already had the heat in you, a flame furled
in your ribs like the new notes of rap that would find
their way inside—you felt the trudge of that melody
bound beneath funk tones and disco, you
needed to turn it up, help some people listen.

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ekphrasis–my faaaave.

here are a couple of ekphrastic pieces for class. one is an ekphrastic piece based on henry ossawa tanner’s the banjo lesson, which is BEAUTIFUL.
the second is based on the life and work of david foster wallace. his 2006 commencement speech has been mentioned elsewhere as the inspiration for some of my recent work…i thought delving into his life a little would be interesting as well. i was not disappointed, but i hope my poem does him a little justice.

The Banjo
Inspired by the painting The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner

In this body there is so much pain,
can you hear it? Carried over from far-off
sea-coasts, its name dreaming of a lost lingual
land, the banjo leans into your lap, remembering
its polyrhythmic history. Your fingers find
the long paths of gut and copper, learning
to clawhammer and dropthumb, to strum
the arpeggio notes of knock-down rag ditties,
to pluck tones of the cooleset blues.
What are words to you, what is this song
you stumble to pump through your young lungs?
Against me, you are so small—a warm, beating
body as alive as the too-big organ in your arms.
Steadying the neck like a tiller, my hands
are scuffed leather and weathered wood,
resolute granite nobly crumbling back
into the land that bore me. I will guide you
over heaving seas and rolling drones,
deliver you to the truest tunes. My baby,
open your ears to the yowl yawning
through the stretched-hide drum face,
an echo resonating beyond our circling
of elbows, wrists and thighs—
to that trembling note singing deeper
than the dull twang of age and land,
bowed faces and broken hearts.

Hibernation
For David Foster Wallace

A boy from Ithaca, you knew the white walls
of snow ridges and ranges, heavy quilts
of frozen water weighing you down
as you scissored angels into the drift sides.
You were the best of them, hurling hunks
of ice from rusted car bumpers in the farthest
arcs to the point of exhaustion—burning
deltoids, numb fingers, collapsed lungs.

You followed your father to his alma mater
and aced modal logic, philosophy, mathematics—
they worshipped you. Summa cum laude,
postmodern novelist, they diagnosed you
‘a brilliant ironist,’ ‘the voice of a generation,’
earnest, intelligent, clinically depressed.

Your brain enslaves you while drugs fight
to free you: Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil,
in combination with unilateral ECT
(during a two-week voluntary in-patient course),
Parnate both with and without lithium salts,
Nardil both with and without Xanax. What

goes on inside is too fast and huge
and all interconnected for words to do more
than sketch the outlines. You want to stop
moving through your rounds: booking tours
and deadlines, bills and banking—your default
setting of solitude in a sea of humans.

From your window in Claremont, severed
from the manic pull of verbal calisthenics
and the avant-garde—of topping your keystone
with another crown—you have a vision
of a blue hole in a northeastern snowbank
where your body can rest; sleep off the hardest part,
dream, awaken later to tackle reality.

In the sling of your homemade noose, you slipped off
every fear of failure like icepacks pressing
into your skull, hard, cold, too heavy to bear.
It was easier to drift into deeper sleep than
stay awake in the winter of a writer in demand.
In your chest, the language was so barren, so tired.
You saw so little left. You had to conserve.

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enJAMbment

Class assignment: 20 enjambed lines.
This is inspired by the stuff I have to read for my Quranic studies class…based on the miracle of the cleansing of the heart of the Prophet, in combo with my favorite surah…just a real quick blurb, nothing super fancy.
I think that religion and mythology provide the best fodder for poetic inspiration. The stories told are always sincere and a little crazy…the metaphors, narrative and allusion are all built in–I don’t have to do much work. Heh.

Sura 94

From the trachea and through the sternum
they cut, slow and deliberate, and reached
into the soft, red cavern where the heavy
curves of your organs slept. In the light
of the Most Holy, they saw the black
cysts, the twisted puckers of your faults and
plumbed you out: liver, stomach, heart
unwound, washed and replaced
with belief. They flooded your veins
with the icy stab of faith and sent you
back, weightless. Are you not free
from your sins? And yet by the dawn
you feel yourself starving, wondering
about the clots they took from you—how
something so small could have caused so much
pain. You relay their voices in synonyms
and metaphors, every word an opening
door, a new prayer. Your people breathe
the name of those saviors and you sing with them
despite your missing lungs. But in silences,
the wound still suffocates, a different burden to bear.

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first class prompt: REVOLUTIONS

My craft of fiction class is about the role of rap in the poetic context. Thus, we’re listening to Sugarhill Gang and Run DMC, our reading material consists of Jay-Z’s autobiography, and contemplating the metric validity of profanity. HILARIOUS.
But today we studied Gil Scott Heron, a more poetic figure in the hip-hop/rap movement; he’s kind of the godfather of rap (although a lot of his interviews indicate he didn’t like that much). He’s a SUPER COOL DUDE, though. His cover of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil” is AMAZING. And I love his reading voice. WHAT A COOL CAT.
His most famous piece is “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and we were to write a poem completing the line “The Revolution __________.” I love writing about the backstory of the artist (Robert Johnson, Amy Winehouse, Justin Vernon, and so on…), so I decided to uphold that trend with such a prominent figure in American history in both poetry and music.
BLAH. My poem is kind of forced, I feel. I needed to include 5 allusions and 3 similes. I was distracted by a large stack of Oreos and plotting tomorrow’s run. But here’s the first draft:

The Revolution Begins

Jackson, Tennesse, 1960: you ran out of tears
under your mother’s piano, wringing them out
on your grandmother’s Chicago Defender
like Langston’s prosodic streams:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

You heard the music in Jackson. From Shannon Street
to South Cumberland the blues came howling
like a lost griot’s chant, kicking up the stench
of rusted red gullies and corn whiskey, of sweat-soaked
youths ducking nervously on southern stoops.
With a six-transistor under your pillow
you’d tune in to WDIA Memphis and your bones
would melt into blues, blues, blues. You rode
the dispatch to the South Bronx, Lady Day
and Coltrane blending backbeats into your words
as a black teen felt the bullets bite his lungs and
a black reverend climbed white marble steps,
fingering the wrinkled pages of his dream.
At 125th and Lenox, you talked back to jazz because
there was no going back home—that land had cut down
the reverend and you, staring into the red mouth
rumbling of insurrection and crying of discontent,
tripped along the lines of black and white
keys and dropped your pulse into conga drums.
History got to you like a punch in the diaphragm
and tried to dry you out, made you scream neo-soul.
Like a preacher at his pulpit, you stood before smoldering
mikes and trashed televisions and relayed riot rhythms,
anaphoric anthems asking over and over
Who’ll pay reparations on my soul?
Who’ll pay reparations on my soul?
Who’ll pay reparations on my soul?

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