Chet Baker, Amsterdam, 1988 A single spot slides the trumpet’s flare then stops at that face, the extraordinary ruins thumb-marked with the hollows of heroin, the rest chiaroscuroed. Amsterdam, the final gig, canals & countless stone bridges arc, glimmered in lamps. Later this week his Badlands face, handsome in a print from thirty years ago, will follow me from the obituary page insistent as windblown papers by the black cathedral of St. Nicholas standing closed today: pigeon shit & feathers, posters swathing tarnished doors, a litter of syringes. Junkies cloud the gutted railway station blocks & dealers from doorways call coca, heroina, some throaty foaming harmony. A measured inhalation, again the sweet embouchure, metallic, wet stem. Ghostly, the horn’s improvisations purl & murmur the narrow strasses of Rosse Buurt, the district rife with purse-snatchers, women alluring, desolate, poised in blue windows, Michelangelo boys, hair spilling fluent running chords, mares’ tails in the sky green & violet. So easy to get lost, these cavernous brown cafés. Amsterdam, & its spectral fogs, its bars & softly shifting tugboats. He builds once more the dense harmonic structure, the gabled houses. Let’s get lost. Why court the brink & then step back? After surviving, what arrives? So what’s the point when there are so many women, creamy callas with single furled petals turning in & upon themselves like variation, nights when the horn’s coming genius riffs, metal & spit, that rich consuming rush of good dope, a brief languor burnishing the groin, better than any sex. Fuck Death. In the audience, there’s always this gaunt man, cigarette in hand, black Maserati at the curb, waiting, the fast ride through mountain passes, descending with no rails between asphalt & precipice. Inside, magnetic whispering take me there, take me. April, the lindens & horse chestnuts flowering, cold white blossoms on the canal. He’s lost as he hears those inner voicings, a slurred veneer of chords, molten, fingering articulate. His glance below Dutch headlines, the fall "accidental" from a hotel sill. Too loaded. What do you do at the brink? Stepping back in time, I can only imagine the last hit, lilies insinuating themselves up your arms, leaves around your face, one hand vanishing sabled to shadow. The newsprint photo & I’m trying to recall names, songs, the sinuous figures, but facts don’t matter, what counts is out of pained dissonance, the sick vivid green of backstage bathrooms, out of broken rhythms—and I’ve never forgotten, never— this is the tied-off vein, this is 3 a.m. terror thrumming, this is the carnation of blood clouding the syringe, you shaped summer rains across the quays of Paris, flame suffusing jade against a girl’s dark ear. From the trumpet, pawned, redeemed, pawned again you formed one wrenching blue arrangement, a phrase endlessly complicated as that twilit dive through smoke, applause, the pale hunted rooms. Cold chestnuts flowering April & you’re falling from heaven in a shower of eighth notes to the cobbled street below & foaming dappled horses plunge beneath the still green waters of the Grand Canal.
Reflected in the plate glass, the pies
look like clouds drifting off my shoulder.
I’m telling myself my face has character,
not beauty. It’s my mother’s Slavic face.
She washed the floor on hands and knees
below the Black Madonna, praying
to her god of sorrows and visions
who’s not here tonight when I lay out the plates,
small planets, the cups and moons of saucers.
At this hour the men all look
as if they’d never had mothers.
They do not see me. I bring the cups.
I bring the silver. There’s the man
who leans over the jukebox nightly
pressing the combinations
of numbers. I would not stop him
if he touched me, but it’s only songs
of risky love he leans into. The cook sings
with the jukebox, a moan and sizzle
into the grill. On his forehead
a tattooed cross furrows,
diminished when he frowns. He sings words
dragged up from the bottom of his lungs.
I want a song that rolls
through the night like a big Cadillac
past factories to the refineries
squatting on the bay, round and shiny
as the coffee urn warming my palm.
Sometimes when coffee cruises my mind
visiting the most remote way stations,
I think of my room as a calm arrival
each book and lamp in its place. The calendar
on my wall predicts no disaster
only another white square waiting
to be filled like the desire that fills
jail cells, the cold arrest
that makes me stare out the window or want
to try every bar down the street.
When I walk out of here in the morning
my mouth is bitter with sleeplessness.
Men surge to the factories and I’m too tired
to look. Fingers grip lunch box handles,
belt buckles gleam, wind riffles my uniform
and it’s not romantic when the sun unlids
the end of the avenue. I’m fading
in the morning’s insinuations
collecting in the crevices of the building,
in wrinkles, in every fault
of this frail machinery.