28 DAYS IN FEBRUARY—The Context
Three anthologies of African American poets have given me the best “then to now.” The one in the middle, edited by Arna Bontemps, came out in 1963, the year I graduated from high school. James Weldon Johnson, 1922, wrote “O Black and Unknown Bards,” and “The Creation (A Negro Sermon),” and Michael Harper and Anthony Walton, edited The Vintage Book of African American Poetry, published in 2000. Harper/Walton gives us voices—contemporary women and men, as well as￼ the ancestors—but Johnson gave us the Negro National Anthem, and Barntemps gave us the poets James Baldwin learned from. These three together: roots, trunk, limbs, leaves, breathing for all, cleaning up the air. The James Weldon Johnson anthology is explored on Harlem Renaissance Stamps page.
NOTE TO MICHAEL HARPER
FROM LAST SUMMER
You’ve been there waiting
On the floor
both sides of my butterscotch chair
(En dos sentidos de esperanza--
double-forked, double fucked hope
hesitation and reversal making do
1 Feb 2021
SECOND DAY IN FEBRUARY FOR MICHAEL S HARPER
...on good days one could build a synagogue in one’s own city,
call it city of testimony, conscious city of words.
Michael S. Harper, The Ghost of Soul-Making
Thing is, I didn’t know you were gone
so you weren’t. Notes at the back of MichaelTree
best notes ever written I kept saying
letters to friends, Best blue notebook
under lined notes to you what
shook me, shook me finding
I won’t say but you were
and you were there
with me on the tarmac with us we
few so many, trying to show
what you put on the page
a bridge over Johnson’s
book to Barntemps’, a quilt
to Elizabeth Alexander,
her genitalia/ will float inside a
pickling jar...a deportation plane
arrives in half an hour I gotta
be there, asylum seekers count
us too, I want you to know
Karen who quilts, and Rex,
the painter, a colorist we talked
Coltrane, we listened,
your poems psalm-sang
and walking the neighborhood
your words horns of supreme love
what John felt was coming
and Rex painted, he’s painting
again Rosalee Tompkins this time
Jesus and John transfigured, your children
heaven-dressed, a songline,
Michael Tree, these three books
bound by yours, outstanding inbreath
2 February 2021
THREE MALE POETS
posse the flag on picnic
Michael S. Harper, Tree Fever
But this still burns
Two poets, friends,
sacks of scrotums
February 4, 2021
AFTER READING SONGLINES IN MICHAELTREE AGAIN
WALKING THE HOUSING DEVELOPMENT
LISTENING TO YOU READ FROM THE LANGUAGE LABORATORY, 1971,
AFTER AGAIN SAYING HOW YOU ARE NAMED BY YOUR GODSON,
HOW YOU OPEN TO ME NOW AS ONLY MUSIC, MICHAEL S. HARPER
Notes to poems in Songlines in Michaeltree
might be Liner Notes on a blues collector’s LP’s,
written in third person. Arthur Schomburg was best friend
of poet’s grandfather, Roland Schomburg, read the entire
note on page 384. Sit there. Turn now to My Father’s Face.
Embrace the lesson in soul. A given. Now what?
Fastidious hands are found in the archives of watering eyes.
Count references to what’s handwritten. This is a temple.
Did you think all of the poems were about Coltrane?
Well, they are. Before you think otherwise, exaggeration,
Hear what Elvin Jones says about Coltrane chemistry,
You have to die for the motherfucker. You have to walk
in his shoes. This is only one story. After the doors
lock up they won’t return to the melody until sunrise.
How was the service? After Harper reads Sterling A. Brown’s
Strong Men at the University of Zululand in South Africa,
he is asked to repeat it as a man writes the poem out
in ink on both arms writing with both hands. In another
place, still opening Brown’s stature, he refers to him
as a poet/raconteur, stealing from him in conversation
for the short poem, Black Cryptogram.
I would not have found Michael S. Harper for myself
had it not been for Pittsburgh University Press,
whose poets had an ear for the spoken human voice.
Dear John, Dear Coltrane, chosen by Gwendolyn Brooks
for publication at the Pittsburgh Press (OK, the title
had that going for it) before Harper had met Brooks.
Do you want to hear a poem, For the Moment, say
for the mature poet in his prime with no cover?
Poet singing from the mercy side of the lost cause.
There is no automatic to Resolution.
We’re you listening to Elvin Jones earlier?
In his poem dedicated to Paul Lawrence Dunbar,
1872-1906, Harper raises up headrags, repeats
Double-conscious brother in the veil,
three times in italics like that.
Harper listening without having drums
for protection. Playing/
only when you’re ready to die.
5 February 2021
LETTER TO ARNA BONTEMPS,
EDITOR, AMERICAN NEGRO POETRY
AFTER 50 YEARS OF LISTENING
I scattered seed enough to plant the land
in rows from Canada to Mexico
--A Black Man Talks of Reaping, Arna Bontemps, 1902-1973
It’s first year, 1963, the year I graduate from high school
in Seattle, in my hands for the first time,
14th printing, January, 1968,
the year I return to school from Vietnam,
the poems with me, into me, cover-worn,
Go to Bontemps, until 15 May 2020,
the day George Floyd is murdered.
Army green cover with poets named
three across in black ink rubbed white,
An Anthology edited by Arna Bontemps
in white, mid-page, surrounded. I give
the book to my granddaughter, 15,
angry at police, white America,
only to ask for it back one week
later. This time, young America
vows to get it right, marching in streets
following Black Lives Matter.
From you then: Johnson, Dunbar, McKay;
Cullen: To make a poet Black and bid him sing!
Helene Johnson: too splendid for this city street.
Mari E. Evans and her emancipated turtle.
Hayden’s souvenir to Mark Van Doren.
New England pews made from father’s bones.
Owen Dodson’s drunken lover; Margaret Walker’s
people, walking blindly, spreading joy; Yerby’s
That part of you is part of me; Samuel Allen’s
Satch grabbing a handful of stars.
Gwendolyn Brooks not answering the phone.
This one breaking the spine, Leroy Jones’
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,
for Kelley Jones, born 16 May 1959,
where is she 61 years and a day after
George Floyd’s murder? Things have come to that.
The ground,,,envelops me tiptoeing to her room
she’s praying into her own clasped hands.
You mean that much to an army of us,
Mr. Arna Bontemps, Louisiana Creole.
First published poem titled Hope. Life-long
friend of Hughes, DuBois, Hurston, Toomer.
Oxygen of the Renaissance, a collaborator.
The Book of Folklore for the WPA. Black thunder
refusing to burn his books, a children’s writer.
Thanking you sir, from Yakima, Washington,
5 February 2021
FOUND POEM FOR MICHAEL S. HARPER
Last night on Netflix
Malcolm in the hotel room
with Cassius, Jim Brown, and Sam Cook
Malcolm in Cook’s face,
Start with the weapon you have,
6 February 2021
“I SAT SHIVA FOR TEN DAYS” STACEY ABRAMS
Beyond vogue, más allá que allá, and further,
Stacey Abrams, Fair Fight. Tuesday,
19 January 2021, Yakama, Yakima,
State of Washington. Thanks. I got
your address from a friend on Facebook
who had just written. May these notes
be as numberless as the multitudes
in Revelations 7: 9. Today.
Asylum seekers get deported from my city
in less than an hour. Flight #95:
Yakima Immigration Response Network.
YIRN. Quiet vigil for another fair fight.
This one our last? Thanks for that, too.
Buses arrive from Tacoma Detention Center.
Deportees board Swift Air chain-locked,
surrounded by yellow vests. ICED.
I’m old enough to hear Joan Baez sing.
Tear-stained cheeks of joy, post marked
hand-canceled thanks for your stand.
He won’t take you to shore, but there’s a boat
Holy Temple Cathedral, Little Rock, Arkansas. Streaming their worship service. on Sundays, invited by a friend. "...But here's a boat. Get in the boat." Did you think Leonard Cohen had copyright to Hallelujah? Tonight on PBS, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., begins his Black Church special. Warm up. Did you watch Marian Anderson last night? I used to ask friends, Where were you in 1968? But the ancestors. They were trying to get to me. They had a question. "Jim, where were you in 1922?.”
Wasn’t that the year the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated?
The Ancestors. They’re singing to me. If I could listen. You mean, yes,
If I would, I would. I remember people saying to me, “Jim, I wasn’t born in 1968.”
Orpheus and Eleanor. Anderson and Nina Simone. Nina Simone in 1968. Were you listening?
When I walk. Yes. Where do you walk? Sidewalks? Word-wonder saturated. Worrying the line like that. Side-walking. Or the street. Listening. Listening for Jesus? Where do you come from? Come from? Just walking. Where do you go?
Why do you insist on bringing up Cotton-Eyed Joe?
I’m trying to write a letter to Michael Harper, Michael Harper.
Why am I writing Letters to the Editor about the Editorial Page? I don’t know. I told them how the losses hit me, and the budget. Then, just before signing off, between the letter and my name, I wrote: Occasionally the thought surfaces, Is there such a thing as a Republican poet?
SONGLINE FOR MICHAEL S. HARPER
What is there but the walk--
walk breaking the cage
What the poets don't get
writing, walk--Quixote broke his
cage when all his world
wanted to break him
when they broke him
he died, this came to me
as a gift walking
to Michael Harper
read his poems
with Gwendolyn Brooks
and Robert Hayden
I had never heard
We Real Cool
before I took
that step, Quijote’s
ahead and behind
by his barber, priest
this about Mr.
as his godson
who comes live
from Library of Congress
found by Ms. Brooks,
found by Mr. Hayden,
A. Brown, raconteur,
Lem, Slim Greer, Lou,
and others laughing
in telephone booths
where ever tracks
cross, this Harper,
what a name!
If you know musicians,
it’s in the search
imagine the image
secret to Coltrane
all this come to me
In the world,
easy, easy, listen,
walking the development
17 February 2021
DEEPER INTO FEBRUARY, MICHAEL S. HARPER
No, no, no.
not the other guy
sounds like train
bumping over tracks
lining crosswise, cross
Caverns at Montesino
Aretha Special on PBS
and Nat King Cole
and a quilt
Cornbread from the oven
Nina Simone singing in French
All the lives in your poems
matter to me
Mr. Michaeltree Songline
And your notes
in the back of the book
art being the only appropriation
a steady march
a fearless (Who has one? Who has one?)
What I always thought
I knew you were older
We are from the same time
I knew we would meet
Now this way, no, no,
you young, so young
this song new
now, now, now
FIRST LAUGHED AT BY COOKIE DOUGH,
I MUST BURN THE COOKIES BEFORE
DISCOVERING THEIR COMPOUND NATURE
Snickerdoodle enters the notebook like this,
on a walk after Tuesday’s ICE flight. Third mile
listening. Drummer telling Coltrane stories.
You have to die for him, go where he goes,
how the notebook speaks for itself: ICE
flight Tuesday, 8 asylum seekers flown out
chained on a hundred thousand dollar ride.
Between the times, a new batch of dough
mixed with fresh ginger cools in the fridge.
Asylum seeking women held back with Covid.
Karen braids native Sweetgrass.
What are you doing here? Acknowledging beauty.
Listening in ink snickers back at you.
Belly laughs confront the heat of your oven.
Grief-soaked, a note to roll smaller cookies.
12 January 2021
[for Pastor David Lambertson]
11 February 2021
AFTER VIEWING A PAINTING
OF AMIRI BARAKA, POET,
for Rex Deloney
I walk the rounds
of the house
after doing dishes.
Later find my way
to the butterscotch
chair away from
An artist friend
has painted a portrait
of Amiri Baraka
and I pick up his poems
reading what I underlined
this summer. A compromise
would be silence. I know
something about pursuing
the ridiculous. I’ve spent
the past six months
reading Don Quixote
in three translations,
including the original.
I know the code of
knights errant. The painting
of Baraka haunts me.
Knights aren’t supposed
to sleep. They’ve promised
only to be grateful,
grateful and loyal
to their cause. Our
State legislature has
to replace the statue
of Marcus Whitman
swapping it out with
one of Billy Frank, Jr.,
a Nisqually fisherman
who had the courage
to go fishing each time
he was released from jail.
24 February 2021
HOW THIS HAPPENED
HAND-CARRYING STERLING BROWN PROJECT
TO THE EYE DOCTOR
As if they didn’t know where they were
Cornelius Eady “Crows in a Strong Wind”
Back from eye doctor
Rough Magic Atlanta drum
Kitchen counter clean
this morning, down in Atlanta
first song gets it right
hand the young optometrist
the burned copy of Mr. Brown’s
song poems read xeroxed wrapped
Bitter Fruit of the Tree, glossed
black ink in margins.
So he’ll know where vision
comes from, ancestral new
signal lights coming on. Young
physician, this medicine
fights hate in Atlanta,
come from Michael Harper
cookout Cornelius Eady
threshold walking chance-
changing door way new
project development walk.
18 March 2021
SOMETIMES IT’S JUST THE STAMPS,
it’s just taking steps. Stamps
open the door, entering
with the postman, your
opening statement. The stamp
says, Sit up, I’m bringing
you a 100-year story, postage
paid. This stamp with the man
in the pork pie hat, will take you
to the library in Pittsburgh,
to the Hill District, where
you can find the home
where the man was born.
A playwright, a poet.
Ten stories of a hundred years.
Perhaps you want to change a law,
or the cast of characters,
ask the legislature to build
a statue. Why not let
August Wilson, the man
in the corner of the envelope
get the door for you?
Stamp with a foot in the door.
Totem in place of the internet.
Conflict that makes your heart beat.
For FAN staff—Paul, Zahra, Elise
24 February 2021
FROM THE DEVELOPMENT WALK POEMS
for John Willson
Still caroming from connections,
yours, Cornelius Eady’s calm
recitations of Sterling Brown’s
ballad tracks to jazz. Flat
on the page coming off bass
string back beat. Call this one
Michael Harper month.
Further, furthering, furtherance.
Sterling A. Brown walking
Southern Road to the telephone
booth where laughter has its permit.
Sterling Brown’s scholarship
makes other rails with DuBois, Johnson.
Lem’s voice as the canon.
24-25 February 2021
QUATRAIN FOR BUNNY WAILER
Age 73, d. 2 March 2021
Black Heart Man, don’t go near him
Railing rudeboy teen
Dreamland dancing shoes burning
3 March 2021
ADDING TO THE LONG STUDY OF STERLING A. BROWN
ANOTHER LETTER FOLLOWING BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Dear Mr. Brown,
I know you this morning from your voice
reading at the Library of Congress in 1974,
and your telling and explication
of truth and lies in the upside-down world,
you, being, in your words, one
of the great liars of Howard University,
muddying the waters by including
the president and board of trustees
among the select. May I say, Sir,
I love you for the way you talked
about the young man who illustrated
“The Ballad of Joe Meek,” the kindness
in your reprimand, before
reading the poem. And for the way
you introduced “Old Lem”
as you entered deeper into
Southern Road, listening
through they come by tens.
Through violence and bleedings
as you record how they come,
not by ones, not by twos,
but by tens. Mr. Brown,
Thank you, again.
You come to me, Mr. Brown,
through Michael Harper
in your manufactured dressing
of him in a tuxedo. Michael Harper,
too, has memorized the Robert Frost
poem Dave’s Dive-In.
Michael Harper gives me the lovely
word, raconteur, in praising you,
deal me five cards, you,
Ernest Gaines and Harper in the same
Hall of Fame room. Through
Harper I know The Odyssey
of Big Boy, classic and epic,
I know you close with Strong Men,
Strong men comin’ on,
and Mr. Brown, they are.
They’re coming on, they are indeed.
But Mr. Brown, I’ve also known you,
now over half a century, when I was
21, when Hausman’s One and Twenty
lay on my army bunk, your voice
carrying. I knew you from Arna Bontemps,
and Richard Johnson--teacher/friend, and Folkway
research, and the WPA, the blues,
the records and the music and the blues,
and the Federal Writers Project,
and how you immersed
yourself listening, and I always
tried to get the listening right.
The practice of the listening itself.
Pure listening. Listening again,
digging, in my mid-70s,
you’re coming through, strongest
from the beginning, of the strong men,
coming on. Too large, yourself,
for subversive, except when saved
for the greatest of them, Jesus,
DuBois. James Weldon Johnson.
Remembered this morning
in your lines to Anne Spencer.
Mr. Brown, those in your footsteps
have done you proud.
In lifting them, you’ve lifted
the likes of me, child
of the Dakotas, growing old
reciting Children’s Children,
one of so many grateful
in remembering with grace,
your faith, how you responded
for your brother, your brothers
to the question, Am I bitter?
Butter beans for Clara.
Stronger in spring.
9 March 2021
RESPONDING TO LINES OF STERLING A. BROWN
[Confronting poems from Southern Road, originally published, 1932)
Part Two: On Restless River, in order, during one morning,
as a partial method of encountering inherent genius.
The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown]
Watch gonna do when de flood roll gas’,
Floods roll gas’, Mist ah Gambling’ Man?
Listen to Nina Simone sing
He’s got the whole world
cause he’s got that gambling
man in his hands
Git way inside us
Keep us strong….
That trial in Minneapolis
begins today. Git way inside us
like you did in 1927
on the Mississippi River
These, for all their vaunted faith, know doubt.
Children of the Mississippi
Again and again I thank the singers.
When a man bum tobacco ain’t much elf’ to do but die….
New St. Louis Blues
It’s somewhere here in my record collection.
...his cows knee deep in yellow water...
And Bob Dylan went to see the gypsies
“Pus son what gits
In de jam yous in…”
Still I hear my father’s voice talking to mother
On the corner berk
Mom played cribbage with Dad as he drank
An’ few de littler feller
That would be me with Grandpa
hauling freight in his green truck
and Mr. Brown as a child
Les’ dye does you ham
I couldn’t get enough of the music
over and over and over the song
Lines so tight
Slow it down until
you can break the song
enough to hear
back-beat’s hearty terror
Wis de silver in his moue
And de soup plates in his vest…
Slim Lands a Job?
After I was a bus boy
lighting cigarettes of rich women
waiters from Europe
lighting butter fires on cloth tables
Den, things was as usual
In Atlanta, Gee A.
Slim in Atlanta
Basic Training, GI, pulls back
veils only fit for telephone booths
“Got to walk backwards
All de time
Jed’ a putting’ on front
Wis a bare behind”
Slim Hears “The Call”
How I worked out my uniform
by accident gave clues to all seekers
“Where's hell adj think Hell was?
Slim in Hell
Back yard barbecue
or sit-down dinner?
New steps climbing’ to de little Church do’--
Old steps so rotten going up
to our North Dakota house
nails sticking up and slivers
They brought him to handcuffs,
And a dingy cell…
Down my street
legs, waist, hands chained
loaded on planes, Tuesdays
One thing you left with us, Jack Johnson
Miles played tribute
loud on his horn
angrier than angriest young
and I carry it in my car
Always now with me
The half-wit’s text
Among deepest practices
of the hows of Sterling A. Brown
...muddy water roundabout a man’s roots
keep him soaked and stranded…
Walking my development
around development houses
8 March 2021
Pandemic Study of Sterling A. Brown
Poets that look like your mother and father…
Cornelius Eady The Sterling Brown Project
Cave Canem/Beware the Dog
I. You have to disagree with everything except the piano.
Enabled blue door
stone trails cairn-proving
mapping Star River
marking cairn trail journey way
II. Why does this trembling pull us?
walking across planet edge
Large enough to see
Beauty-mapping into self
Mother as Jesus
III. ...gold beneath her feet
Insistent music married
Sonnet rhyme repeat
IV. Ours is a deep dyed emotion..
Brian Guy Gilmore
Possibility dream song
Blue indigo imagined
Mountain desert depth
16 February—16 March 2021
THROUGH THE POET, THE TEACHER APPEARS
for Michael S. Harper
Some questions, this morning, Michael Harper.
Why didn’t we meet when you were here?
You were out West, what went wrong?
Dimes and dollars, how we loved our people
who remain folk songs under stars.
The teacher, already arrived,
the moment the classroom appears,
the one who claims the poem
as all, muse, deliverance itself,
when you pay through the heavy dues
of practice, become more,
carrying all that is unborn
in others into being,
a songline. Why. Why then,
didn’t we meet when you were here?
10 March 2021
for Rindy Jones, Skip Ware, Don King, Richard Johnson, Phil Garrison
First and Last Tavern, Paint the Pig, University of Pittsburgh Press,
Kierkegaard, Blues, Bessie Smith, Jack Daniels, Lightning Hopkins,
a moment in time welcoming me, Karen too. Flannel O'Connor.
Randy had a Yakima connection.
I wasn't six months home from Viet Nam.
Richard Johnson: Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Eudora Wetly, A course in the blues,
James Joyce, Ulysses, Irish whiskey, Mr. Jame son, Then King Down Came, WPA
Formal education, one song at a time.
MILES DAVIS QUINTET, EUROPE, 1967
Antwerp, Copenhagen, Paris
James Baldwin country
Frank Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams
A continent knows who’s here
20 March 2021
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