WORDS FOR JAZZ PERHAPS
for Sally Lipsitz
Elegy for Fats Waller
Lighting up, lest all our hearts should break,
His fiftieth cigarette of the day,
Happy with so many notes at his beck
And call, he sits there taking it away,
The maker of immaculate slapstick.
With music and with such precise trampage
Across the deserts of the blues a trail
He blazes, towards the one true mirage,
Enormous on a nimble-footed camel
And almost refusing to be his age.
He plays for hours on end and though there be
Oases one part water, two parts gin,
He tumbles past to reign, wise and thirsty,
At the still centre of his loud dominion —
THE SHOOK THE SHAKE THE SHEIKH OF ARABY.
Bud Freeman in Belfast
Fog horn and factory siren intercept
Each fragile hoarded-up refrain. What else
Is there to do but let those notes erupt
Until your fading last glissando settles
Among all other sounds — carefully wrapped
In the cotton wool from aspirin bottles?
To Bessie Smith
You bring from Chattanooga Tennessee
Your huge voice to the back of my mind
Where, like sea shells salvaged from the sea
As bright reminders of a few weeks' stay,
Some random notes are all I ever find.
I couldn't play your records every day.
I think of Tra-na-rossan, Inisheer,
Of Harris drenched by horizontal rain —
Those landscapes I must visit year by year.
I do not live with sounds so seasonal
Not set up house for good. Your blues contain
Each longed-for holiday, each terminal.
To Bix Beiderbecke
In hotel rooms, in digs you went to school.
These dead were voices from the floor below
Who filled like an empty room your skull,
Who shared your peretual one night stand
— The havoc there, and the manoeuvrings! —
Each coloured hero with his instrument.
You were bound with one original theme
To compromise in your head your terminus,
Or to improvise with the best of them
That parabola from blues to barrelhouse.
Hello, Central! Give me Doctor Jazz!
Jelly Roll Morton
To be nearly as great as you
Think you are, play the same tunes
Again and again: small fortunes,
Diamonds for each hollow tooth.
A whole new method compensates
For your damaged fingers: sweat
In the creases of your forehead,
Mother-of-pearl between the frets.
Now all pretenders to the throne
Learn how the patient gums decay,
Music hurts: though they took away
Your bad breath, the crown's your own.
You fastened to your bony thigh
Some dollar bills and waited for
The cacophonous janitor
And silence and the cue to die.
(Wake Forest University Press, 2007)
songs chosen by the Birdhouse