Now He’s an Etching

For Hooker, Muddy, and Buddy

of the sluggish, coolly vengeful way
a southern body falters. Muscles whine 
with toiling, browning teeth go tilt and splay,
then tremulous and gone. The serpentine
and slapdash landscape of his mouth is maze
for blue until the heart—so sparsely blessed,
lethargic in its fatty cloak—OKs
that surge of Tallahatchie through his chest,
and Lordy, hear that awful moan unlatch?
Behind the mic, he’s drowning in that great        
migration uniform of sharkskin patched
with prayer and dust. His cramped feet palpitate
in alligator kickers, needle-toed,
so tight he feels the thudding blood, so tight
they make it way too easy to unload
his woe. The drunken drummer misses right
on time, the speakers sputter static, but
our bluesman gravels anyhow—The moon
won’t even rise for me tonight / now what’s
a brokedown man gon’ do? That wretched croon
delights the urban wanderers, intent
on loving on this perfect underwhelm
of Negro, jinxed and catastrophic, bent
into his hurting halves. Inside the realm
of pain as pageant, woozy revelers raise
their plastic cups of fizz and watered rye
to toast the warbler of decay, whose dazed
and dwindling lyric craves its moonlit sky.


Copyright © 2020 by Patricia Smith. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 16, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“I mourn the elders. I mourn the black bluesmen and women who could only move sanely through their hours with the help of heartbreak. I miss their stout southern stature, bodies resolute with a recollected woe. I ache for the gut gravel of lyric, the knowledge that my crooner is truly suffering, and that she or he has decided to allow us to suffer too. But many of the elders still with us have become millennial playthings, one of the many ‘woke’ things to sample and add to the cultural resume. Hopefully, this poem springs from that space.”

Patricia Smith