Ten Poems




 

What follows is a short anthology, a sampling of Diann Blakely's work that reaches back to Hurricane Walk, her first book, and forward to the book-in-progress Rain in Our Door: Duets With Robert Johnson, from which we see her most recent work.

Blakely was born in Anniston and raised there and in Birmingham, and educated at Sewanee, Vanderbilt, Boston, and New York Universities. She taught at Vanderbilt and Harvard; Belmont, Watkins Institute and, as the first poet-in-residence, the Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, where she received a citation from the University of Chicago for excellence in teaching before turning to writing full time. Her first book, Hurricane Walk, was published in 1992, and her second, Farewell, My Lovelies, in 1999. Her third collection, Cities of Flesh and the Dead, which won the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, given for a work-in-progress by the Poetry Society of America, was published by Elixir Press in 2008. Blakely is currently at work on two other volumes, Lost Addresses: New and Selected Poems, and Rain in Our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson. Blakely served for a dozen years as a poetry editor for Antioch Review, a position she occupies at Frederick Barthelme's New World Writing, and is co-editing two prose books, Each Fugitive Moment: On the Life and Work of Lynda Hull and a revived and expanded edition of The Lighthouse Keeper: Essays on the Poetry of Eleanor Ross Taylor. She continues to orchestrate notes on the state of (Southern) poetry.

from Hurricane Walk (1992)



Hurricane Walk


It was better than sex, the way it relaxed me.
My thighs throbbed for ours, each finger
seemed limp. I lighted
a cigarette, then found it too heavy to lift.

A more comfortable lust would have kept me
inside. Yet I wanted
the wind’s touch, to feel its whorled force.
I stood on a bridge, there were no trees

to stop it — I saw thin sheets of water
spin like ghosts from the Charles.
And now, damp from a bath, I feel
honed, quite essential.

This robe seems too big, it abrades
my cleansed skin. The room’s warmth
stings my lips; they were left raw and chapped,
almost bruised. It will take days

to heal them, the slightest good-night kiss
is out of the question for weeks.




 

 

Civil Wars


The guilty are left without protest.
Their burned houses freed slaves, black flesh
bought and sold. In the New Orleans market,
some asked to see teeth … fingered women
for defects. Yet some masters were whipless.

I read now of invasions, most far more unjust.
The oppressed seem so worthy, I admire
their best poems. Their spokesmen
are bearded — they seem wise, and have
something to say.

Still I know women’s house-pride, their fear
of removal. Sherman knew
these sweet zealots, and plotted his course.
I keep my house clean, my silver
well-polished — I too dislike change,
and protect my own.




 

from Farewell, My Lovelies (1999)



 

 

Last Dance


Not swans or flowers, these tulle-shrouded furies gliding
      en pointe, their eyes blank in chignonned heads that lilt
              as each glances at the hand curved on her breast,

black-lipsticked mouths hardened as the eyes shift toward
      Myrthe, their merciless queen, who tells them yes,
             Albrecht too, through his clasped hands beg forgiveness,

love’s betrayers must be danced to death, leapt
      and spun till blood cools in his veins. That when tenderness
             ghost-flickers those hollows where their hearts once beat,

they must look at that cradled air and remember
      the babies denied them. Merciless, their black lips curl
             as Myrthe flings Albrecht to his first unearthly partner,

then pirouettes offstage as Giselle’s starring bad-ass.
      Acting ugly, said my family’s women when I squirmed
             at concert halls like this, itchy in lace skirts,

or tantrummed during yearly perms. Acting ugly,
      they’d say about these red-lipped firls in the bathroom
             at intermission, blowing smoke and admiring

each other’s baby doll dresses, worn with fishnets
      by the taller, whose peroxide-stricken curls droop
             to her shoulders. A fucking bore, she pronounces

the ballet, slumps regally against the tiled wall,
      a fucking A-1 bore. Their mothers bought the tickets,
             bargaining seats for Hole’s next concert, I hear too,

and through smoke glance at the black armband — Kurt Forever —
      tied to the blond queen’s sleeve. We both saw his widow
             on TV, screaming to mourners in phrases mostly bleeped,

her darkly-painted mouth condemning the ugliest act
     she’d known — her husband’s hand caressing his own temple
             with a gun’s cold and blue-sheened barrel after years

of their ghost-dance with heroin; and how they wanted
      to fly higher than bodies lifted in roiling pits,
             than those guitars’ amped keening snarl: Kurt Forever

and never again — an asshole, a fucker — formed
      by the lipsticked mouth before footage cut to stills
             of their child, eyes blank as the lamb’s propped beside her,

lips parted wide while her blond mother tried to hush
      that merciless birth-wail, that transcendent fury
             thumping loud and echoed in tiny blood-leaping veins.

 




 

 

 

Birmingham, 1962


Scarcely affluent, we always had maids.
       One worked a few months then left for Detroit,
the next for a husband's home town; some took
       their children and returned to elderly mothers
who still lived beneath rural tin roofs,
       having found cities and their men “no good.”
I was a good girl, they all told me so
       when I’d stand by their ironing boards, dipping
my fingers in a bowl of water to sprinkle

on my father's shirts, my mother’s lace-wristed
       blouses, the pale dresses I wore to church.
The TV murmured with husky-voiced women
       in negligees; I was admonished to listen
to what preachers told me, to remember
       that Jesus was watching always. I watched
black hands guiding roasts out of ovens,
       turning pieces of chicken in skillets
of sizzling oil, noticed the rough pink

of blisters and scars. These hands dressed me
       each morning; I imagined they loved me.
One August afternoon, my mother home late,
       back from a bridge party, shopping. Delores
had missed the last bus. We drove for miles
       through heat-steaming streets to a part of town
I’d never been to; the houses grew smaller
       and closer together. Peeling paint.
No real driveways, or yards. Then nothing

but rows of small brick apartments,
       “projects,” as if someone had made them
for school. Heat shimmered from roof-tops;
       as we pulled to the curb, my mother locked both
our doors, I heard a kitchen radio playing hymns,
       and saw in the red sun boys my own age
stripped to their briefs, alarmingly white
       against their skin, laughing while pummeled
by water from the corner hydrant they’d opened.

 




 

 

History


It’s blood, and generals who were the cause,
Shadows we study for school. In Nashville, lines
Of a Civil War battle are marked, our heroes
The losers. Map clutched in one fist, my bike
Wobbling, I’ve traced assaults and retreats,
Horns blowing when I stopped. The South’s hurried
And richer now; its ranch-house Taras display
Gilt-framed ancestors and silver hidden
When the Yankees came, or bought at garage sales.
History is bunk. But who’d refute that woman
Last night, sashaying toward the bar’s exit
In cowboy boots to drawl her proclamation?—
“You can write your own epitaph, baby,
I'm outta here—comprendo?—I'm history.”

 





 

The Old Slave Market, Charleston

                                                                            — May, 1992

 

The cracked bricks have loosened with age, with two earthquakes
       rivaling any that collapse skyscrapers elsewhere;
with twenty hurricanes, the last whose devastation
       left in its wake scaffolds around the pastel walls
of stately columned houses and breeze-front piazzas;
       around the steeple of St. Michael’s, the oldest church—
or is that St. Philip’s? Words like “first” and “oldest”
       spark arguments here, though surely not on this gift

of a spring afternoon. I finger baskets made
       by plaiting sea-grasses, an art which may die out
with women who sell in this tourist-crammed market
       on weekends, weaving new holders for bread-loaves,
dried flowers, or jewelry. “Basket ladies,” they’re called,
       & a few feet away hang Christmas ornaments
that resemble them: black wooden silhouettes
       wearing real bandanna headrags. A founding father

gave this land to the city, a permanent marketplace
       for anything but slaves, natives are quick to tell you.
Its name comes from the field hands used for hauling barrels
       of rice & indigo, ripe-to-exploding peaches
& tomatoes, from plantation wagons; or stacking
       cotton bales between brick pillars while the auctioneer
took bids, his voice echoing through salt-heavy air.
       Now, two thousand miles distant, the glass shatters

from Los Angeles storefronts built to weather nothing
       but daily traffic, the quick glances of passersby
en route to bus stops or street corner deals, at worst
       the usual burglaries, with metal grating drawn
at closing time, with alarm bells & triple-locks.
       “Our first multiracial riots,” a newsman proclaimed,
voiced-over shots of whites, blacks, & Hispanics
       who carried armfuls of wrenches & clocks, sparkplugs

& a butcher’s fat hams. They rushed through streets littered
       with broken liquor bottles, foam-spewing cans of beer
dropped by those running from police or store owners.
       Or each other. Lawn sprinklers, cartoons of Twinkies
& cigarettes, rhinestone necklaces in gutters,
       on sidewalks, in hands trembling with adrenalin
& greed. The woman’s hands before me are steady,
       sinewed from generations of slaves’ hardscrabble,

the continuing lineage of taking in laundry,
       diapering white babies in bay-windowed nurseries,
polishing silver to grace meals eaten off china
       passed down from mother to daughter, except for
those dinner plates dropped too hard in sinks, tea cups
       allowed to smash on floors always swept clean before
the bus ride home. Ignoring signs above her cashbox,
       her newspaper folded beside it, the woman lights

a cigarette, tosses the match too near the grass
       piled at her feet, as if wanting conflagration,
as if wanting to see huge flames weave their bright orange
       & red together, then lift their work toward a sky
today unclouded with judgment, perhaps waiting
       another century before darkening with flood-rains,
before loosing winds which may or may not blow
       these famed houses & churches, these old brick walls, down.




 

Bodies


Low-angle shots show Viv, Eliot’s hormone-plagued first wife,
sunk to her knees and scrubbing, scrubbing blood-stained hotel sheets
while her husband walks along the beach, crowded with housewives
and families on holiday. He wishes his new wife
were like those singing mermaids he wrote poems about in college,
poems he later recited Camside to court his future wife,
eyes needy in the flashback as when she becomes his wife,
as when she’s pronounced “morally insane,” drunk on ether
and raving about thrice-monthly periods and saints. Either
you take his side or you take hers: wives sympathize with wives,
usually, husbands with husbands, but I fell in love
with Eliot during freshman year, read “Prufrock” and loved

every last word. Getting pregnant the first time you make love
is awful luck: my roommate hid in clothes like a fat housewife’s,
spent five months drunk before she finally told her ex-lover
and me, who took the Pill each time I thought I was in love.
A shot and—I’ll call her Ruthie—writhed on clinic sheets,
writhed as I read to her the bedstand’s From Russia with Love
and Modern Poets, read to myself Saying No and Love;
and British spies and Prufrock and freak pregnancies collaged
with punk blared from next door, where kids from another college,
in that town we’d come to by bus, heard the death of love
and God and maybe Queen Elizabeth screeched by either
Sid Vicious or Johnny Rotten, or maybe both. “Ether

is contraindicated for your friend’s procedure; ether
lessens the contractions and the fetus won’t expel, love”
a nurse said on that night’s first rounds, the full moon etherous
and clouding over in the window pane. Smell of ether—
no, Lysol—and Ruthie’s sweat. Was Nancy Spungeon a wife,
 or a girlfriend, when her nags sabotaged that haze of ether
Sid wrapped around himself, a heroin drift etherous
and shared like the Chelsea Hotel’s cigarette-scarred sheets,
till he stabbed her dead? I read “Prufrock” aloud, smoothed those sheets,
fed Ruthie ice-chips till she finished screaming in the calm ether
of the recovery room, dark as that bar near our college
where the father cried and gave me cash: “Three years of college

and she thought a baby could be wished away?” Back at college,
Ruthie moved to another dorm; by the next year, either
she’d lost contact with me or vice versa, and I left college
for more school, to study those poems Eliot wrote at college
on erotic martyrs like Sebastian and the arrows he loved.
Now Viv dies in the asylum: I’m pulled from friends at college
to recall scenes from that other movie, just after college,
its scenes razored by Nancy’s whine—she was a perfect wife,
if you live in hell and want some company, like a wife.
The two films twine with that clinic, the club’s kids from college
who spewed cheap beer, Ruthie’s why not you? muffled by sheets
as I left at twelve to buy cigarettes and stand in sheets

of rain like tonight’s, peering through the door at a torn sheet
emblazoned with a safety-pinned Queen Liz, at a collage
of pulsing acrid spotlights, of beer and spit and blood in sheets.
“I’m not an animal,” rose Sid’s dazed choral leer, sheeting
the words in cut-throat fury. “And I’m not a discharge, either”—
“I’m an abortion.” Eliot sent his friend Aiken a sheet
of the Times once, red-circling words like “mucus,” “bloody sheets,”
but this after he’d renounced Viv and her half-mad love.
Aiken’s left out of tonight’s film, which, like London, I love,
though I’m travelling alone, sleeping chilled by nylon sheets.
On the late bus, a punk trio—husband, toddler, wife—
nuzzle each other’s spiky hair; he kisses his wife,

who’s given birth to more than rage and pain. Both of us wives
just after graduation, Ruthie, and I sent you lace sheets
but missed your wedding, write each year in care of the college.
This scrawled postcard will say there aren’t any mermaids here, either,
but the punk husband’s singing—I swear—a lullaby, with love.




 

from Cities of Flesh and the Dead (forthcoming, 2005, from Zoo Press) 



  

HOME MOVIES


 

1. Christmas: Ext., Wide-Angle


A Dantescan pit, the city glitters into view
         As this climbing, until street levels off and curves,
Curves so sharply the odd gift, a book of photos —

Fin de siècle dead girls from police archives,
         Also silverprinted porn — thuds to the car’s floor;
You’re dizzy from brandied fruitcake and surviving

Another visit home and — stop. Aren’t you bored
         With those family scenes, replayed so many times?
And “Dantescan” and “surviving”—can’t you find words

Less grandiose? And yet who doesn’t feel godlike
         Speeding on deserted streets, the gorgeous sprawl
Of city lights below, those skyscrapers spiking

At your feet? And how the sweeping eye’s lust swells
         As your ears vibrate with the tape player’s chords
Now thrumming, that post-punk diva and grunge pin-up girl

Who wails yeah they really want you in “Doll Parts.”
         Not what you really wanted, the evening’s first show:
Your parents’ surprise gift of home movies, cartons

They’d saved for years and copies onto video;
         The cheerless opener showed a foundry burning down—
O dying town of Bethlehem Steel—and windows

Shattered, wooden rafters split and sparking flames,
         In one hour your grandfather’s job gone
That Christmas Eve. And close-ups of his sister, the shame

Of her suicide just months away. O dying town.
         In which infernal circle did Farinata rear
His scorched and ash-smeared head to stare down at Dante

From the glowing tomb, ask who were your ancestors?
         Close-ups of a wedding cake.  Yeah they really want—
You know about the singer’s husband, dead now ten years,

Another suicide, MTV still haunted
         By his ashen junkie’s face, by barbed-wire guitar licks
And shots of his little girl, who dances frenzied

On legs as plump as your were kicking in red socks:
         Santa brought one doll, but you’d asked for two,
And tantrummed—I want to be the girl with the most cake,

The tape goes—by the tree. Yeah they really want you—
         Who gets to wish0list anyone as parent or child?
An obvious afterthought, the book of ghastly photos

On the car’s floor, late-arriving from hundreds of miles
         To this city’s sunken glitter; yet you forgive
Distracted, distant friends more than your family. Smile,

They said: is that such a wrongheaded way to live?
         Dead girls and bad girls blur their singing answers
Like the city, like the last shot of clustered graves.



 

2. After Baudelaire


The beggar child mistook my bread for cake,
And I was glad to share my loaf with him,
Having travelled so far from native hates
And loves. My eyes grew vast as the sky’s dome
In that picturesque land, its mountains where
Clouds floated at my feet, where the faint bells
Of invisible herds tinkled like prayers
And I watched a lake’s deep black ebbs and swells—
“Cake,” grasped the little urchin, as if hoarse,
And I offered him another slice, smiled
At his greed until another appeared,
As small, as filthy, his eyes and hair as wild,
To fight him till the prize was crumbs and dirt.
You! Hypocrite voyeur! Ma semblable! Ma sœur!

 

 

3.  Antonion’s Blow-Up


Already dated when I’m in college,
David Hemming’s bell-bottomed swagger
And talk of Nepal, the thick eyeliner
Raccooning his models: misogyny

Or a knight errant’s heart makes him walk out
Of one shoot, leave the models standing there
With eyes shut, arms artfully akimbo, bare
Bony torsos thrust sideways as they wait;

Already dated, the Mary Quant bangs
And white lips of two Twiggy wannabes
Who haunt his trail. The three fuck like bunnies
In one scene. It’s all in fun. He hangs,

In his swank Knightsbridge flat, not fashion spreads
Or even portraits of the most gorgeous—
What happened to … was her name Veruschka?
But poster-sized shots of London’s rag-clad

Scrounging for fish and chips in curbside bins,
Sleeping in tube stations, sleeping in parks.
(Film 301. Late 70’s. No talk
Of homelessness except after hurricanes,

Those fires and earthquakes covered on TV.)
Sleeping in parks. In a green leafy copse—
Even then my brain translated corpse—
A body lies waiting to be found. What’s real

But the shots developed in his darkroom,
Characters and props taking hazy shape
As fixative scents the air, as blow-ups
Reveal a splayed leg flattening grass, an arm

Holding a gun, a woman’s frightened face—there—
Then dissolve to grains? Or is the body,
And the gun, a trick of light? I’m twenty,
Taking notes as if the world might disappear.



4. “Installation,” Warhol Museum


Swelled to peaks, the hot tinted streaks of flame
On each black canvas—one hundred in all—
Cast their symmetric flares around this room,
Almost a textbook chart of the spectrum
Through in skull-rattling, postmodern hues:
Blues like cheap eyeshadows, or fake tattoos;
Reds metallic as Coke cans, vibrating greens
The color not of grass but of migranes;
Still the yellows, centered on one white wall,
Are three pulsing flickers like distant flame

From a plains campfire in the last century,
Its sparks glittering the hope-fevered ones
Who pick lice from blankets and pray, half-sleeping,
That tomahawks don’t take their scalps; that springs’
Tornadoes don’t burst down from clouds to rip
The handspun muslin off their wagon hoops;
Pray poisonweed won’t kill their stark-ribbed horses;
Pray when they search for water at sunrise
That rattlesnakes don’t coil their hollow bones
To strike. From later in the century,

Trapped in the palest set of flames, I see
An image reprised from that Christmas book,
Its silvery outlines blurred: the murdered girl
Who fled the prairies’ brute smother to curl
Her hair and hang a mirror on each wall,
To raise her skirts for men who paid to call
Her sweetheart: she bought the fluttering curtains
And plush, now-bloodied chair with the reflection
Of naked backs. Sex, like pain, is work—
See how carefully her sleeves are rolled, see

Her bruise-splotched legs above the boots she saved
For months to buy. The photographer’s hand
Casts shadows on his model, her name unknown;
Warhol’s shadow casts its throbbing neon glow
On his silkscreened subjects, here still living:
Pink-suited Jackie, Truman and Marilyn,
Shorn Edie with her skeletal glamour.
More voices swell their purgatorial choir:
We prayed for sparks from fame’s magic wand;
Poor faceless pilgrim, pray we shall be saved.


 

5. Against Aristotle


Margaret eats fried chicken with her fingers;
Mine pick at still-warm bread as a fresh round
Of drinks arrives at our plush booth. “The ground?
She asks, half-giggling at my arguments
Against catharsis. She’s a long-time believer,
Assuaged the loss of dolls or pets in childhood
With Charlotte’s Web; on bad nights, she cried
At Wilbur’s near-death, his eight-legged repriever,
And slept, soothed. “When my parents’ fights got loud,”
I slur, “That pig made me sob worse: some days
I’d take my father’s golf umbrella and crouch
Beneath the pin trees, pretending to be—
Not purged by transported!—a mutant snail
Or neon-capped mushroom. Some wine? On me?”



 

6. Gone with the Wind, Boston, 1967


The favorite book of Anne Sexton’s daughter
Fills the screen decades after its première

And Linda’s wide-eyed when Atlanta burns,
Those Technicolor yellows, read, and oranges

As brightly-hued as her mom’s sleeping pills,
Gulped with vodka while Linda reads the novel

Aloud, ask falling from Anne’s cigarette,
Ash falling on those war-smashed streets. Nervous,

 

So agoraphobic that she rarely leaves
The house when her husband travels—flee, flee

On your donkey—to sell his company’s wool,
Anne’s let her Linda-Pie, her first-born girl

Choose her own birthday gift, this movie outing.
What large children we are here. Now pouting,

Scarlett slaps Rhett in their grand living room.
Anne digs stained fingers into Linda’s popcorn

And swills the orange soda she’s spiked, sees light
Caress her daughter’s flickered hair, sees Rhett

Carry Scarlett, who fumes and kicks, upstairs.
Life is a trick … Linda’s half-transported,

Repeating lines with those figures onscreen
Till Anne’s shhh, shhh. Her hand in Linda’s popcorn.

Her hand between Linda’s stiff legs at night.
Children forgive anything if hugged tight—

But like that? Life is a kitten in a sack.
Stubbing out a Salem, Anne draws her mink

Around them both and pulls at Linda’s hand.
At home, champagne and cake wait, also candles.



 

 

7. The Pink Palace


Not quite heaven, Utopia Parkway,
Those rooms cluttered with movie reels, tin stars,
Antique maps hung above stacked dossiers,

And two bins labeled “Dolls.” Against a door,
A battered TV tilts, the sound turned off
To remind Cornell—arthritic, snowy-haired—

Of silent films. Miles distant, at the Gulf,
I’m six years old, assembling paradise
From broken shells that washed ashore like gifts,

Although a sunburn glows its fevered outline
Beneath my gown. No one’s wakened yet:
Beyond the rusted screens, the dawn’s pink light

Tints the sand like frosting; the TV set—
Do they have cartoons here?—and its dials
Are low enough to reach. “B-movie actress

And buxom bombshell, Jayne Mansfield, has died”—
A crashed convertible on the highway
That leads south, her bleached and hair-pieced head

Smashed against the windshield. My small hands trace
Her smile in montaged clips onscreen as static,
Also white lines, erupt; outside, blue waves

Grow blurred with hungry gulls. Often awake
All night, and lonely, Cornell looks for stars
In pre-dawn movies, breakfasting on cake

And cherry soda, or skims his assortment
Of girlie mags, whose backlit, earthbound angels
Part their lips as if to sing. Their harmonies

Will link the constellations and seashells
His hands frame in fantasias, gifts often mailed
To actresses performing loftier roles

Than Jayne’s best: Love me. Make me seen and real.
Near his TV hangs a box from years before,
“The Pink Palace”; and maybe Cornell sees

Another pink mansion, Jayne in her yard,
Bikini-clad, bestowing stills and kisses
On startled tourists. If I can see and touch her,

Can she really be dead, vanished to drift
Like Cornell’s last angelic nudes, whose gowns
Float sheer and pinkly as dawn’s cloudy wisps?

A good girl, I don’t wake my sleeping parents
For an answer, or unlatch the screened door
And soothe my sunburn in that gull-scavenged ocean,

But play distractedly with souvenirs
While the sun rises higher, casts the outlines
Of those screens, rust-brocaded, on the floor,

Hot blurry boxes glowing like my skin.
A long gull dives, his black eyes trained on fish;
I grasp a seashell, whorled and cleft and pink

As any human heart, and the roar slips
Those fragile borders when held to my ears,
Which pulse like the world, like its homemade gifts.




from Love in Vain: Duets With Robert Johnson, recent work

 

I’m A Steady Rolling Man: Duet with Robert Johnson



In early 1995, a 19 year-old white native of Guthrie, Kentucky—ironically, the birthplace of Robert Penn Warren, the sole member of the Vanderbilt Fugitives to recant some of the group’s early racist writings—was fatally shot just over the Tennessee border by a fellow Guthrie native, a young African-American man who had given chase to the victim’s pick-up truck after being angered by the large Confederate flag flying from its bed. The vehicle’s tinted windows obscured the identity of both young men, who, according to several sources, had been neighborhood friends as children.


Almost in Kentucky, the state that gave
My country ‘tis of thee two armored foes
Named Abe Lincoln and Jeff Davis, who rolled

Both night and day to let their people go,
         The Fugitives, in meters grave,
         Exalted a post-bellum woe

For yeoman farms plowed red by Yankee wheels.
I’m the man that rolls when icicles hang
On the tree, you hitched rides here to sing, and moaned

So even dead Confederates knew your slang
         And called for an encore. Their flag
         Still flies from pick-up trucks adorned

With gun racks and, on chilly autumn nights,
Antlered, rope-trussed deer. Some drivers lagged
At one country funeral to lift beer cans

To their hard workin’, steady rollin’ friend
         And—maybe—the Ku Klux Klan,
         Which never bought the farm or scorned

Their own, in town called Rednecks and White Trash
Since long before freckled front porches sagged
And girls bought their first radios. You can’t

Give your sweet woman ev’thing she wants at one time
         And men know this, especially those
         Whose bullets plowed Kentucky dark,

Who heard no classmate sing from that crashed truck,
Nor his young wife’s duet. O Dixie’s flag
Still croons Nigger, still sings the Klan reborn

In last century’s flamed youth; and there’s no rhyme
         For gelding knives, nor Emmett Till,
         Who traveled downhome for a summer

From Chicago and bragged he had white girlfriends
By the score: She gets ramblin’ in her brain, other men
On her mind. More rope. A gin wheel. Don’t look away

From fugitives, you and the shot white boy
         Just might agree. And his black friends,
         Now jailed, like you sing They and We.

 


 

Rambling on My Mind: Duet with Robert Johnson #33


And now they’ve found your grave again, your grandson too,
His claim to the estate — T-shirts, CDs, movies

And postage stamps, their cigarettes airbrushed—

Ruled valid when he got himself a witness, his aunt
Whose deathbed memory rambled to your origins,
          The pants and lovecalls rising from underbrush

After a fish fry, rising from a ditch right next to hers.
No one predicts the mess of truth’s red afterbirth,

Not me, fumbling with devilment and forebears,

Who claims the first woman killed by Nat Turner’s gang,
Two war suicides, a master who damned slaveholding
          And plunged his fortune past what the market bears,

Past—he prayed—mean things. Mean things like those you claimed for songs,
Which foretold more bad news: factory and stockyard closings,

King shot in Memphis, schoolkids selling crack

By fallen tractor sheds. All great migrations done,
And done for. You treat me so unkind, sing thousands gone
          Half-mad with hearts that history has cracked

Like a sun-warped guitar, ditched and almost forgotten—
My time ain’t long, you sigh, edged near the door. What then

About the Greek guy who cut a ewe’s throat

And watched ghosts bend to drink from its ditch-runnelled blood,
His rambling heart grown still? They rose in packs from Hades,
          Among them his own mother, her prophet’s throat

A mess of wrinkles, to warn that her son’s journey home
Would be long and kill all his men—he wept, his arms

Embracing loveless air three times. Truth sides

With history’s open veins, we’ll reprise when the curtain
Of that dimestore photo booth opens, its mirror stained
          And thumb-stamped by those called from the other side.

 

 

 

 

All poems © Diann Blakely, reprinted by permission of author.

“Rambling On My Mind” originally appeared in Bomb and was reprinted in The Best American Poetry 2003. “I’m a Steady Rolling Man” originally appeared in Callaloo. Both poems are reprinted here by permission of the author.




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