Three Minutes with Mingus

When I read of poets & their lives,
  son of a milkman & seamstress, raised
in a whistle-stop town or village, a child
  who spent his after-school hours deep
in the pages of a library book, I want to go
  back to my childhood, back to the war,
rescue that boy under the bed, listening
  to what bullets can do to a man, take him 
out of the homeland, enroll him in school,
  his class-size ten, unfold the fables 
of the sea, a Spanish galleon slamming up 
  & down the high waters. This is why
I write poems, why I prefer solitude 
  when I listen to your lazy sound 
of brass on the phonograph. You give 
  language to black roosters & fossil bones, 
break down phrases between the LA River
  & the yellow taxi cabs of New York.
I picture you in Watts, the 240-pound
  wrath of a bass player building up steam,
woodshedding for the strictly segregated
  hood, those who seek a tiny shot of God,
digging through hard pan, the hammer’s
  grunt & blow. I need a gutbucket of gospel, 
the flat land of cotton to catch all those 
  Chinese acrobats bubbling inside your head. 
When I think of the day I will no longer 
  hold a pencil within my hand or glance 
upon the spines of my books, I hear 
  Picasso’s Guernica in your half-choked 
cries, a gray workhorse lost in a fire’s 
  spiraling notes, a shrieking tenor sax 
for the woman falling out of a burning house. 
  I want to tell you if I wrote like you pick 
& pat in Blues and Roots, I would understand 
  the caravel of my childhood, loose
without oars or sails, rolling on the swells
  of a distant sea. That’s all I got, Mr. Mingus.
I give you the archaeology of my words,
  every painstaking sound I utter when I come
to the end of a line, especially the stressed
  beats of a tiny country I lost long ago.

Copyright © 2015 William Archila. Used with permission of the author. “Three Minutes with Mingus” appears in The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (Red Hen Press, 2015).