'Now, Heart' - Some Of What I Remember When I Listen
A river is a process through time, and the river stages are its momentary parts.
—Willard Van Orman Quine
From early poems,1970s, youthful indiscretions/attempts to vocally/poetically arrive at/derive a worthwhile writer's voice. Some explication might serve or enhance these under serving, undeserving though 'striving-after' poems hidden in old journals understandably unpublished but now so with apologies which are these expiatory explanations. Recently rediscovering these early arrivals, derivative yet aspiring I recognized and reembraced an enduring self maturing, arriving into late middle age:
Obsessed newly by jazz, mad about the many miraculous lady singers, entranced all too easily as youth are wont to be by sorrows and sexual infatuations which feel, emphasis on 'feel', like love, here are two of many 'songs' as tributes and life markers to jazz singers who provided soundtrack and felt expression to my angst and easily inflated/deflated sense of self, of beloved others, and of that new territory, independent life away from parental home and childhood community discovering, blundering into the fray of separate hearts and minds, irresponsible genitals and insouciant jouissance ('juiciness', in French) , discovering then and again and again that like Walt Whitman I 'contain worlds' and many disparate selves poorly formed, most of them collective projections and expectations of who or what I wanted to be, what others wanted and expected me to be, resulting in much confusion, tumult and multitudes of momentary throw-away selves. Thus singers like Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington became anchors, warm contexts and containers, for my daily fragmentation and re-formation.
I lived on 3rd street in downtown Chattanooga, a refugee from zealous, politically conservative white evangelicals and the vestigial yet still viral Southern Confederacy. Just a block or two from where Bessie Smith was born, I used to watch from my upstairs porch the steep hilly street's comings and goings with a glimpse of the Tennessee River between tenements across the street, its persistent rich aroma heavy in the air. I imagined Bessie Smith as a little girl playing up and down the street like the kids I saw then - once, two of them gleefully chasing a frighteningly large and confused looking rat.
William—he insisted on 'Willie'—an old man down the street who knew Bessie as a little girl, used to come up to my porch after one day hearing Bessie from my phonograph singing blues onto the always busy but attentive street. One of the first and permanent things I learned from my porch is that a city street has keen, observant eyes, acute ears, omnivorously seeing/hearing everything, indifferently, perhaps, but nothing escapes it, a roving, all-knowing urban Eye of God.
Extremely green and eager as green always is though stutteringly, and without apology, I enjoyed Willie's many stories and back pocket bottles of Old Mr. Boston Apricot Brandy, both of which—story and spirits/spirited story —dissolved or appeared to, age, racial, cultural, and sociological differences, along with those catalysts/cata-lusts, the forever alchemical Bessie and other jazz singers, Billie! Dinah! Ella! Sassy! Lil Ester Phillips! Nina Simone! to name only a few of the sensuous solutio chanteuses resolving sexual confoundaries by Miss-ambiguating sins' plethera with loose lilt and will- o-the-lisp whisper tongues.
One night Willie, much 'in the pocket'—an expression for being well onto tipsy which I've never heard from anyone but him—wanted to dance to a Bessie tune playing, 'Back Water Blues', him recalling nights as a young man in rural Tennessee where he'd worked hard days in oppressive vegetable fields then hit the after hours juke joints for 'colored, twas segregation days, ' he explained, where he would go to drink, dance then dive/delve, as it were, into the sensual mysteries of moist skin, hot breath, mutually open mouths with their commodious moans and mumbles, venial hands, always vital parts, private hearts mutually pounding ancient known rhythms, odors and tastes of gin and those slender, forbidden, now greedily stolen bites in those all too short nights with their damned intrusive dawns.
'Dawnus interuptus, ' I quipped, us both slapping knees, passing the narrative bottle fore and aft hefting moments re-grasped between us, offerings to the equally narrative river, the all-knowing hungry street.
Jumping to his feet, Willie described 'powder dancin'' (pronounced marvelously, 'powdah') which I had never heard of. Talcum powder would be copiously scattered onto the dance floor where couples in stocking or bare feet would ecstatically dance, gliding and sliding sweetly scented, muskily bent toward later glides and slides in the slippery joy of momentary allure and amour on dimmed porches or surrounding woods often enough and gratis upon delicate slabs of moonlight gratuitously dewy providing cushion for Passion's out and in, honoring and dignifying deities of skin wanting more making more skin, headlong Nature's frictional algo-rhythms indelibly scored in every/each his/her yawing yen.
Willie shouted, 'YOU GOT ANY TALC POWDER? ! '
...The jazz us trembled...
'NO! ' I bellowed, curious.
'YOU GOT ANY FLOUR? ! '
Even more curious, 'YEAH! ! '
'GO GIT IT! QUICK! ! '
He grinned an Old Mr. Boston juke-joint night-memories quaff-again grin.
Martha White, a brand of flour sold down South, has never been put to better use. Willie threw handfuls of 'Martha' over the tenement-planked living room floor as I half protested at the mess it (and me and Willie) was and would become. Completely gripped by his present-in-the-past brandy trance, a much younger man now, he suddenly grabbed me, brandied and tranced, too, my long hair flying, and danced me all over the floor the night through with swigs of Old But Now Spry 'n' Sprightly Mr. Boston with pauses to change record albums on the phonograph, 'catching up our breaths, ' he panted.
Next morning (more likely early afternoon) , Willie long gone, I awakened sprawled on the penitent porch—a cool concrete floor my sinner's bench—sweaty and thick as pan gravy, mosquito bitten, marinaded in Tennessee night mists. I staggered into the living room onto the ghostly floor powdery white, 'stroked' with two attached, or close to, sets of foot prints, heel slides and smears, a kind of 'Jackson Pollock meets Tibetan sand painting 'yazzed' yantra'**' with cigarette ashes flicked into the flickering impermanent mix. I've not powder danced since when we drank discovering oral history's joys, opened eager ears and fraternal arms forgetting fears of race and religion, age and expressed/ espressed Desire's multilingual disseminations.
I know that wheat is anciently sacred but now even more so for flour, the sight and feel of it, its unbaked smell, turns me again toward a Chattanooga 3rd street, its compass river swelling like bread nearby bearing witness still for one cannot say too much about rivers—their irreverence of edges scored, spilling themselves, proclaiming natural gods deeper than memory yet dependent upon it for traced they must be in every human activity, no matter the breech, for something there is to teach even deity though it may be wrong to do so, or hearsay to say it or sing, but the song is there for those whose ears are broken onto bottoms from which cry urgencies of Being and between, dutiful banks barely containing the straining Word.
**From Tibetan Buddhism. Visual meditation devices,
Yantras function as revelatory conduits of cosmic truths.
1. To Bessie Smith,3rd Street Chattanooga (circa 1971)
Already the river begins its sweat.
April to September I'll be on the porch
Come sunsets listening to cars in the
Dark and you, remembering the flour
On the floor and me and Willie in
Stocking feet dancing till dawn,
An old man down the street come
To drink on my porch sometime.
You were singing one night
While we drank and he just
Had to dance and pulled me,
Reluctant, skinny ass kid
All over the floor that night.
But my feet did dance.
And the flour stayed down
The whole summer long.
Now, Karen E. and Dinah Washington are still too painful 'o' dirges to give but only the skinniest details about. Karen, skinny, too, like this account where the devil is, indeed, in the details; Karen, young, vibrant, brilliant, German literature Thomas Mann scholar, once a patient in a mental hospital I worked the night shift at, committed suicide. We both loved the divine divas of jazz, Dinah Washington in particular.
I used to read William Blake out loud, the voices of the school children on the playground out our window and in the nearby park so loud that I had to shout out his 'Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience' to be heard. Karen would almost always cry when she heard me quote/shout now by heart, mistakes and all, holding her sad face in my hands, 'And we are put on earth a little space, That we may learn to bear the beams of love And these black bodies and this sunburnt face Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove, For when our souls have learn'd the heat to bear, The cloud will vanish, we shall hear His voice, Saying, 'Come out from the grove, my love and care And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice'...'
By then gin had replaced Old Mr. Boston, and thin Karen had replaced some earnest yet fleeting others for in youth there are ne'er too many, from Willie nights to other momentary eternities of lovers. We lived Blake's songs, and Dinah's. Karen died them. The gods and Thomas Mann love her. I still do. Die of them, that is. And love her, do.
Dinah Washington, All Alone On The Street Of Regret (circa 1977)
It was sunrise, October.
Karen had just done herself in.
I suffered it through with
William Blake and gin.
Over the fence across the street
Children ran to class and Blake,
Too, chased those kids fast through
Leaves in the chill school yard.
I thought - the ground's already hard over
You, Karen. To Charon, then, and keep
Yourself warm. My arms no longer can.
You left no note in the dawn.
Out of lime and song at 7 a.m.
I dress, spin down the steps like then
In this morning now thin with Spring.
There's green over you now.
I cannot help but see a thin mildew
Form around your fingers in the dark.
Blake's still down playing in the park.
I'll play some Dinah when I get back in.
Now, Heart, don't you
Start that singing again.
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