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“...he had a pair of binoculars and, back in San Francisco, during the intermission from his playing at the Jazz Workshop, we’d walk ten blocks to a field down by the freeway, and he’d start looking at the stars. He knew where the Milky Way was and everything.”
Louis-Victor Mialy on John Coltrane

for Shay


Upstairs someone’s mama is pretending/so a man she knows will give her money
A man whose grandfather owned her people/gone and took their names
Downstairs someone sits with his aunt meeting/the wooden rictus grin of Europe
With a touch that makes the hammers say/Didn’t She Ramble in the key of blue

The key of work Of the chained men looking/day after day for a pulse to ride
The key of the sisters at the night meetings/passing out with joy
His aunt’s fingers finding something/new between the black and white bars
Strange and unlikely as love beyond shaming/As a market where people are sold

What’s your name honey he hears her asking/that sweet thing on the other side
Of the wood and wire She’s forgotten/everything else in the room
The man with his mother spoke to him once/He plans to disfollow his counsel exactly
Learn a decent living Don’t spend your life/fooling around with a horn


Someone else is in F and it’s raining/and makes him think he’s by himself
As if the woodshed weren’t so crowded/you can hardly hear yourself think
He pretends he’s alone so he won’t see/what the laughing captain is teaching the others
What someone taught the captain What/someone’s mother’s face said when she came downstairs

Is it winter or spring He can’t remember/Or what he promised the night he would do
Or the turns in the river of oblivion mapped/up and down his arms
He likes it there Where he forgets/the body he can’t inhabit or escape
And the bodies of the others he forgets/behind the rented room’s locked door

He dreams he’s walking a plain between armies/Listening in his bare feet
Where blown conches and drums make young men/do what they wouldn’t otherwise do
When he nods half awake his fingers are making/their blurred trained way through the rhythms
He’s thirsty So he has to sit up/and open his eyes and breathe

He’s playing scales and sweating What feels like/sickness comes as forgetting fades
He’s playing scales but he’s hearing bells/at the ankles of dancers with chain scars there
Playing geese caught in a net screaming/One body divided into voices
At the corner of a street he forgets and Columbus/Bells of shuffle dancers in the rain

He’s sick but he can’t stop just yet Up and down/in the tracks of the map his dream made
Remembering his aunt’s touch Forgetting/what his country taught him his body is
In his arms a curve of metal translating/breath into horses in a bolted barn burning
In his eyes the last drift of forgetting but he closes them/In his mouth a slip of cane

Wet and bound by the ligature/Supple and tight enough to sing
At the touch of his tongue To call to the flipper/gate at the thumb of his left hand
On the gold neck His right low on the body/as if guiding the opening of the bell
Where something sweet with no name keeps/pressing Trying to get through


First dust He gathers it in the bell/In the wrong light you could mistake it for gold
Or the flecks of a meteor passage sifting/into Friday afternoon
In a locked room with a window a little/open to traffic and the gray street shining
Wet In the woodshed In daylight Ransacking/the chords that woke him up in the night

Dust Swirling As it coalesces/he starts to taste what he’s thirsty for
And leans into the pull of it Singing/a heathen song in a foreign land
You could mistake for home if you listen/to a son of slaves sweating in his boxers
Making lightning like the first white fire/on the cherry branches in the park across the way

He’s lost something The raisins in his pocket/remind him as he plays the labyrinth
Back to the vineyard When he gets to rock/he turns and comes back another way
Architect Undoing the harmony bindings/Unfolding the silk to find the seed
Back to the field Where he closes his eyes/to watch a fox on fire running through

Four-note patternsTwelve ways till Sunday/One lifetime in each of the keys
Leaving notes to answer the question/What you gonna do when the world’s on fire
Dissolving the citadels Hushing the sentries/Filing the locks from the silos of grain
Notes in the fractures Gathering Dispersing/Finding the next question Didn’t it rain

And Ain’t that a witness To the scatter of settlements/The facet break of the pyramid tombs
The king’s body returned to the earth/and the limestone forams to the sea
The villagers dancing in the palace footprints/designed to match the footprints of the stars
The slave quarters The walls of segregation/dust under wanderers’ feet

He rides the rails inside the mouthpiece/to the delta marsh huts made of reed
Playing down the towers So the sick/heal The hungry eat The dead sing
Listening for the messenger’s signature/left between the limestones in a seam
Iridium Sign of the great dying/and birthplace of its refugees

Up to the troposphere Down to the mantle/He finds dust and plays the monuments broken
With the scavenger resourcefulness/of the remnant who return
Nodding and leaning Like washing clothes/on a rough rock kneeling at the edge of a river
Up and down the ziggurat terraces/Finding Dispersing Closing the gates

As he makes the neighborhood sound Joining/his river of notes to the river outside
To the river his mothers were taken from/To the river just above his head
Friday afternoon hiding it He lays down/the approaches and opens the bays
And walks across the bridge to the black place/And back And again Practicing


First nothing Just the time and in/No introductions Lovers can’t wait
As if there were no such thing as a stranger/or division or beginning or end
Four men on a bandstand island/with water coming up at the edges
Making ark proclamations Watching/each other’s faces to make the flood swing

Closing their eyes when the vortex pageant/makes them laugh or moan or dizzy
Handing around the ember Forgetting/who follows and who leads
Where you been man What kept you Leaning/into the places they friction and fit
Tight like that Union meeting in the village/to find those last lost notes

Left in the crevices of the project Looking/with hammers and leather and gut and reed
Practiced hands and lips pressed to it Breathing/open the message envelopes
Losing the pulse and back to its shifting/moorings Testifying from the stand
Glances to say That’s my boy He’s a beauty/isn’t he This band is burning tonight

Four men chained together working/the strewnfield Playing the mysteries
Of a night in a minute A nomad’s shelter/Captivity songs pointing to free
The mystery of a place too narrow/but they make one body and find a passage
The mystery of provision in famine/Of four lost men found in the same time

Half the house half asleep at the altar/or arguing and walking away
But then the smooth line of a grown woman’s voice/taking a chorus Come on Bring it home
A night way to say I hope to shout glory/when this world’s on fire
And Abide with me Calling to the quartet searching the high place/with pools of sweat at their feet

Saturday night in the upper partials/into Sunday via brothel psalms
In the night club with its chits for oblivion/Its smoke and chatter Its owners to please
Another line skitters in Are they brothers/or lovers Arguing in their whisky dream
You lied to meYou lied to me/Man I don’t recognize you

On the street after it’s late or early/Pulled grates and a dropped box of eggs
Flattened into shadow Two rows of six/a few feet from the kitchen door
The milk crates where the dishwashers sat/on offclock breaks to smoke and eat
On the blue mailbox ledge curves of ripped orange peel/and half the globe of fruit

Four in the morning After the rain/they impersonate individuals again
Walking Clothes wet with the miracle/The wind lifting swirls of dust
Around the caged trees just past blossom/It gets on their shoes as they separate
The cold spring’s recombinations/Part soot and part gold green


They’re in D minor and he doesn’t tell them/any words or where the song came from
In the studio Tucking the messages/in envelopes to keep
First stumbling together His supple mournful/calling over dark fields as they hold him
With thunder In the toms In the gut strings’ memory/In the piano’s left hand

It’s always a translation He doesn’t/tell them the text yet so they can stay
In the sweet place together a little longer/In the galaxy of notes
Time-bound but in unbreakable circuit/Touching eyes Soaking their clothes
Reading each other’s shoulders to signal/a turn To say I’m done You go

It carries them They carry each other/held in its meshesWalking the song line
Held soft as milkweed silk/and hard as crucible steel
Opening the envelopes brought by the visitors/Pockets full of tektite amulets
They touch when he tells them the title precinct/A song for four Alabama girls

Gone With something to say to every/safety and to every division
To the four men crouched in the church basement/Sunday before dawn
Beside Pull them crackers out of bed/and kill them with axes in the middle of the street
Four other men Grown Leaving other messages/for their children’s children they won’t see

Didn’t She Ramble What they carry/as they leave the burning building together
A way to live To make relations/To make the march from the graveyard swing
It carries them They carry each other/When one breathes the others move
With you They say it three ways and he answers/You stay near me I can do anything

One with his brow gathered in fury/One showing only the keyboard his face
One swooning in the holy cathouse/joy of it Catching his lip in his teeth
One making the Sunday mothers not there/callTell itYesYes Speak
Call to the men who took their daughters/Nothing you can do to take this


Someone’s making the woman upstairs happy/As if she had the dawn robins in her throat
Telling the good news when the morning/remembers to come back and find us again
Someone’s making something so sweet/she forgets the words Someone who loves her making her
So she can’t help it Higher now Showing/late Monday afternoon her real face

In the form of a sheaf of notes Someone waits/till she begs In a line of silk and dirt
Line bent in an arc of Where you been honey/Rainbow all the way down to the street
Where the gutbucket meets the stratosphere Someone/human making her call God
Invitation to the Andromeda ringshout/summoned when she takes off her clothes

Someone’s holding her in the labyrinth/In the places no one can go alone
Making her stutter whisper in the danger/and forget all the directions and names
Someone’s taking her to the border city/called Out of This World Where she can’t stay
Her voice broken with the joy of it/Someone’s taking her there and bringing her home


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