Time with Stevie Wonder in It
Winter, the empty air, outside
cold shaking its rigid tongue
announcing itself like something stone,
spit out, which is still a story
and a voice to be embraced.
Januaried movements but I hear a tune
carries me home to Lansing.
Always waiting for signs of thaw,
dark nomads getting covered by snow,
our parents would group in the long night—
tune frequencies to the Black stations
blasting out of Memphis, Nashville,
still playing what was played down south—
Ray Charles, Charles Brown, Ruth Brown, Muddy and Wolf.
The tribal families driven north
to neighborhoods stacked like boxes—
to work the auto plants was progress,
to pour steel would buy a car
to drive hope further on down the road.
How could you touch, hear
or be alive; how could anybody
wearing our habits, quiet Protestant
heads aimed up to some future?
This was our rule following—
buy at J.C. Penney and Woolworth’s,
work at Diamond Reo, Oldsmobile, Fisher Body.
On Fridays drink, dance, and try to forget
the perverse comfort of huddling in
what was done to survive (the buffering,
the forgetting). How could we not
“turn the head/pretend not to see?”
This is what we saw: hope screwed
to steel flesh, this was machine city
and the wind through it—neutral
to an extent, private, and above all
perfectly European language
in which we could not touch, hear
or be alive. How could anybody
be singing “Fingertips?” Little Stevie
Wonder on my crystal, 1963.
Blind boy comes to go to school,
the air waves politely segregated
If this were just a poem
there would be a timelessness—
the punchclock Midwest would go on
ticking, the intervals between ticks
metaphor for the gap in our lives
and in that language which would not
carry itself beyond indifferent
consequences. The beauty of the word,
though, is the difference between language
and the telling made through use.
Dance Motown on his lip, he lays
these radio tracks across the synapse
of snow. The crystals show
a future happening with you in it.
From Across the Mutual Landscape (Graywolf Press, 1984). Copyright © 1984 by Christopher Gilbert. Used with permission of The Permissions Company inc. on behalf of Graywolf Press.