from “The Last Bohemian of Avenue A”

- 1947-

Here’s the End of the World
mobile with its shiny bullhorn
& platitudes among drawings
tattooed across the beige hood
big as a mammoth broken out
of ice, bellyful of buttercups.
Doomsday has come & gone,
& now the sluggish van rolls
toward the snowy East River
at a quarter past midnight,
& I wonder how it is to quit
a job one week earlier
& return on blue Monday,
begging the foreman
for a chance to stoke
the brimstone furnace.

Changes stumble into my life
sometimes, like last Sunday
when I sat at the dining table
of an old friend of a thousand
stories, a glare falling into my left
eye, her daughter watching
TV in a side room, & I heard
this Foley guy sawing a maple
cross with a horse-hair bow.
I can’t help but walk over
& lean into the doorway,
& then raise a phantom alto
to my lips. The cat’s young too,
rocking his upright at the foot
of Babel, speaking pain & joy
in the most beautiful way
I’ve heard in a long time,
& say to myself, Rabbas,
you could run the table
with this guy at Small’s,
could teach the shadows
to walk on their hands
& dance with alley cats.

I’ve been here a long time
working this hunk of brass,
& knew Mingus in the days
when he’d strike a righteous
pose up on the bandstand
& bring down the house,
talking jive & rave, jabbing
below the belt, where it hurts.
Can you imagine him up there
today, playing a new version
of “Fables of Faubus,” big
as thunder at dawn rocking
hundred-year-old hanging trees
out of memory, can you dig?

The guy on the corner
jingling coins in a Dixie cup
pulls on his blind-man’s shades
as March runs down Delancey,
woozy as a rush-up of sparrows
over Chinatown. One small thing
seems almost holy, & lightheaded
hues settle over the architecture
& a handkerchief dance unfolds
into some jostle of bumper balls.
This is the hour paradise is not
only for itself, & one doesn’t feel
stupid picking up a dull penny
from a sidewalk. A tremble goes
through cloth, tugging bodies
into a new world, & by ten-thirty
the wind rolls on past the Hudson,
headed upstate. I want to jump
up & down, to shout as March
ambushes the last antiheroes
this scatterbrain side of town.
 

More by Yusef Komunyakaa

The Whistle

1

The seven o'clock whistle
Made the morning air fulvous
With a metallic syncopation,
A key to a door in the sky---opening
& closing flesh.  The melody
Men & women built lives around,
Sonorous as the queen bee's fat
Hum drawing workers from flowers,
Back to the colonized heart.
A titanous puff of steam rose
From the dragon trapped below
Iron, bricks, & wood.
The whole black machine 
Shuddered: blue jays & redbirds
Wove light through leaves
& something dead under the foundation
Brought worms to life.
Men capped their thermoses,
Switched off Loretta Lynn,
& slid from trucks & cars.
The rip saws throttled
& swung out over logs
On conveyer belts.
Daddy lifted the tongs
To his right shoulder . . . a winch
Uncoiled the steel cable
From its oily scrotum;
He waved to the winchman
& iron teeth bit into the pine.
Yellow forklifts darted 
With lumber to boxcars
Marked for distant cities.
At noon, Daddy would walk
Across the field of goldenrod
& mustard weeds, the pollen
Bright & sullen on his overalls.
He'd eat on our screened-in
Back porch---red beans & rice
With hamhocks & cornbread.
Lemonade & peach Jello.

The one o'clock bleat
Burned sweat & salt into afternoon
& the wheels within wheels
Unlocked again, pulling rough boards
Into the plane's pneumatic grip.
Wild geese moved like a wedge
Between sky & sagebrush,
As Daddy pulled the cable
To the edge of the millpond
& sleepwalked cypress logs.
The day turned on its axle
& pyramids of russet sawdust
Formed under corrugated 
Blowpipes fifty feet high.
The five o'clock whistle 
Bellowed like a bull, controlling
Clocks on kitchen walls;
Women dabbed loud perfume
Behind their ears & set tables
Covered with flowered oilcloth.

2

When my father was kicked by the foreman,
He booted him back,
& his dreams slouched into an aftershock
Of dark women whispering
To each other.  Like petals of a black rose
In one of Busby Berkeley's
Oscillating dances in a broken room.  Shadows,
Runagates & Marys.
The steel-gray evening was a canvas
Zigzagged with questions
Curling up from smokestacks, as dusky birds
Brushed blues into a montage
Traced back to L'Amistad & the psychosis
Behind Birth of a Nation.
With eyes against glass & ears to diaphanous doors,
I heard a cornered prayer.

Car lights rubbed against our windows,
Ravenous as snow wolves.
A brick fell into the livingroom like a black body,
& a riot of drunk curses
Left the gladioli & zinnias
Maimed.  Double dares
Took root in night soil.
The whistle boiled
Gutbucket underneath silence
& burned with wrath.
But by then Daddy was with Uncle James
Outside The Crossroad,
Their calloused fingers caressing the .38
On the seat of the pickup;
Maybe it was the pine-scented moonglow
That made him look so young
& faceless, wearing his mother's powder blue
Sunday dress & veiled hat.

Jasmine

I sit beside two women, kitty-corner 
to the stage, as Elvin's sticks blur 
the club into a blue fantasia.
I thought my body had forgotten the Deep 
South, how I'd cross the street
if a woman like these two walked 
towards me, as if a cat traversed 
my path beneath the evening star. 
Which one is wearing jasmine? 
If my grandmothers saw me now 
they'd say, Boy, the devil never sleeps. 
My mind is lost among November 
cotton flowers, a soft rain on my face 
as Richard Davis plucks the fat notes 
of chance on his upright
leaning into the future. 
The blonde, the brunette—
which one is scented with jasmine? 
I can hear Duke in the right hand 
& Basie in the left
as the young piano player 
nudges us into the past. 
The trumpet's almost kissed
by enough pain. Give him a few more years, 
a few more ghosts to embrace—Clifford's 
shadow on the edge of the stage.
The sign says, No Talking. 
Elvin's guardian angel lingers 
at the top of the stairs, 
counting each drop of sweat 
paid in tribute. The blonde 
has her eyes closed, & the brunette 
is looking at me. Our bodies 
sway to each riff, the jasmine 
rising from a valley somewhere 
in Egypt, a white moon 
opening countless false mouths 
of laughter. The midnight 
gatherers are boys & girls 
with the headlights of trucks 
aimed at their backs, because 
their small hands refuse to wound 
the knowing scent hidden in each bloom.

Related Poems

From the Peninsula

The old trees shake out medals at midday
to the ship paused for a meteor’s blunting
glimpse in the windy yellow of the water,

partway to inventing another world.
Through the window’s tiger slats,
the bakery pumps smoke, years between

her irretrievable shawl, which crimsons
what I see, watching further and further,
until canisters shatter into nitrate stars,

late at night, saluting an unforgiving song.
I tilt down on her iron bed and cluster
haunted basil, the scent rifts morning open

to argon of cobwebs, the dim cargo, the bent
hills, the black gold, her hands, clasped
shut her children, long gone, under the sea.