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.
 

Cape Coast Castle

I made love to you, & it loomed there.
We sat on the small veranda of the cottage,
& listened hours to the sea talk.
I didn't have to look up to see if it was still there.
For days, it followed us along polluted beaches
where the boys herded cows 
& the girls danced for the boys,
to the moneychanger,
& then to the marketplace.
It went away when the ghost of my mother
found me sitting beneath a palm, 
but it was in the van with us on a road trip to the country
as we zoomed past thatch houses.
It was definitely there when a few dollars
exchanged hands & we were hurried
through customs, past the guards.
I was standing in the airport in Amsterdam,
sipping a glass of red wine, half lost in Van Gogh's
swarm of colors, & it was there, brooding in a corner.
I walked into the public toilet, thinking of W.E.B.
buried in a mausoleum, & all his books & papers
going to dust, & there it was, in that private moment,
the same image: obscene because it was built
to endure time, stronger than their houses & altars.
The seeds of melon. The seeds of okra in trade winds
headed to a new world. I walked back into the throng
of strangers, but it followed me. I could see the path
slaves traveled, & I knew when they first saw it
all their high gods knelt on the ground.
Why did I taste salt water in my mouth?
We stood in line for another plane, 
& when the plane rose over the city
I knew it was there, crossing the Atlantic.
Not a feeling, but a longing. I was in Accra
again, gazing up at the vaulted cathedral ceiling
of the compound. I could see the ships at dusk
rising out of the lull of "Amazing Grace," cresting 
the waves. The governor stood on his balcony,
holding a sword, pointing to a woman
in the courtyard, saying, That one.
Bring me that tall, ample wench.
Enslaved hands dragged her to the center,
then they threw buckets of water on her, 
but she tried to fight. They penned her to the ground.
She was crying. They prodded her up the stairs. One step,
& then another. Oh, yeah, she still had some fight in her,
but the governor's power was absolute. He said,
There's a tyranny of language in my fluted bones.
There's a poetry on every page of the good book.
There's God's work to be done in a forsaken land. 
There's a whole tribe in this one, but I'll break them
before they're in the womb, before they're conceived,
before they're even thought of. Come, up here, 
don't be afraid, up here to the governor's quarters,
up here where laws are made. I haven't delivered
the head of Pompey or John the Baptist
on a big silver tray, but I own your past, 
present, & future. You're special.
You're not like the others. Yes, 
I'll break you with fists & cat-o'-nine.
I'll thoroughly break you, head to feet, 
but sister I'll break you most dearly
with sweet words.

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.