I’m Lonely As Those Story Tellers

Michael S. Harper (1938 – 2016)

I have a great fear for the moral will of Americans if it takes more than a week to achieve results.

Michael S. Harper

Clan Meeting: Births and Nations: A Blood Song

By Michael S. Harper
We reconstruct lives in the intensive
care unit, pieced together in a buffet
dinner: two widows with cancerous breasts
in their balled hands; a 30-year-old man
in a three-month coma
from a Buick and a brick wall;
a woman who bleeds off and on from her gullet;
a prominent socialite, our own nurse,
shrieking for twins, “her bump gone”;
the gallery of veterans, succored,
awake, without valves, some lungs gone.
Splicing the meats with fluids
seasoned on the dressing room
table, she sings “the bump gone”
refrain in this 69-degree oven,
unstuffing her twin yolks
carved from the breast, the dark meat
wrapped in tinfoil and clean newspaper;
the half black registered nurse
hums her six years in an orphanage,
her adopted white family,
breaded and primed in a posse,
rising in clan for their dinner.
We reload our brains as the cameras,
the film overexposed
in the x-ray light,
locked with our double door
light meters: race and sex
spooled and rungs in a hobby;
we take our bundle and go home.


By Yusef Komunyakaa 
Drunken laughter escapes
Behind the fence woven
With honeysuckle, up to where   
I stand. Daddy’s running-buddy,   
Carson, is beside him. In the time   
It takes to turn & watch a woman   
Tiptoe & pull a sheer blouse off   
The clothesline, to see her sun-lit   
Dress ride up peasant legs
Like the last image of mercy, three   
Are drinking from the Mason jar.
That’s the oak we planted
The day before I left town,   
As if father & son
Needed staking down to earth.   
If anything could now plumb   
Distance, that tree comes close,   
Recounting lost friends
As they turn into mist.
The woman stands in a kitchen   
Folding a man’s trousers—
Her chin tucked to hold
The cuffs straight.
I’m lonely as those storytellers   
In my father’s backyard
I shall join soon. Alone
As they are, tilting back heads   
To let the burning ease down.   
The names of women melt
In their mouths like hot mints,
As if we didn’t know Old Man Pagget’s   
Stoopdown is doctored with   
Slivers of Red Devil Lye.

A Love Supreme

Michael S. Harper (1938 – 2016)

“Poets find their voices when they articulate the wishes of the dead, especially those slain as sacrificial talismans to a larger frame of existence.

Michael S. Harper

Jazz Station

by Michael S. Harper

Some great musicians got no place to play

Above the freeway, over the music,
we speak of the strategy of poems,
bleeding wives who ulcerate
our voices rhythming in the cut-heat
Portland stink from the Willamette River;
arteries of smog fixate this place
in each recording, music, music, on Impulse.
This little racist community has few friends;
thousands of deerslayers hum into Beaverton,
the one talk show driven out for their talk
as the liberals dig in to KGO out of San Francisco;
we troop toward the Lloyd Center for the ice-skating,
the colorette bloomered dream merchants on rented skates,
and the Sunday Chronicle near the big hotel.
The poets, man and wife, write in the dimming air,
their daughter in the toy rooms connecting them,
the typewriter tacking the nails and snaps of her gown.
This image of separation begins in adoption:
her mother adopted out in San Jose; her father
disowned, abandoned, torn out of the will; her name: Phoebe.
And the sun does shine on them for this visit
in squat pigeontoes, and this beach ball sings.

New York City is a character, not just a place in the force that is jazz poetry.   Michael S. Harper, like so many other jazz poets, was born there, in Brooklyn in 1938. He took the opportunity as a young man to experience new horizons through his education, getting his undergraduate in California and his MFA in Iowa.   He would go on to travel the globe, while being one of the most influential professors of literature at Brown University.  Harper during his tenure would influence and mentor generations of writers and poets during his career. 

Brown embraced the nuances of jazz and black identity in his writing while finding common ground by embracing global culture and folklore.   As important for his academic work as for his art, his playful poetic nature infused his unique style as a writer. 

Harper, a celebrated music observer, essayist, and just plain fan, had a life long love affair with jazz.   In reading Harper’s poems, Coltrane is a reoccurring inspiration as both a symbol and a character of affection in his writing. Harper connects with the obstacles Coltrane had to over come.  In particular Coltrane;s challenges with pain in his embouchure at the height of his career and his need to be constantly looking for ways to ease the discomfort while never wavering in his mastery of master his craft. Coltrane would die of liver failure at age 40 as the result of addictions, to music, to heroin and alcohol.   Harper connected with both Coltrane’s music and his humanity.  In his poem Dear John, Dear Coltrane, Harper writes midway through; 

Why you so black?
cause I am
why you so funky?
cause I am
why you so black?
cause I am
why you so sweet?
cause I am
why you so black?
cause I am
a love supreme, a love supreme:
To read the entire poem, check out this link and try reading it as you listen to this live version of Coltrane playing – A Love Supreme – Pt. IV – Psalm. 

Here Where Coltrane Is

by Michael S. Harper
Soul and race
are private dominions,   
memories and modal
songs, a tenor blossoming,
which would paint suffering   
a clear color but is not in   
this Victorian house
without oil in zero degree
weather and a forty-mile-an-hour wind;
it is all a well-knit family:   
a love supreme.
Oak leaves pile up on walkway
and steps, catholic as apples
in a special mist of clear white   
children who love my children.   
I play “Alabama”
on a warped record player
skipping the scratches
on your faces over the fibrous   
conical hairs of plastic
under the wooden floors.
Dreaming on a train from New York   
to Philly, you hand out six
notes which become an anthem
to our memories of you:
oak, birch, maple,
apple, cocoa, rubber.
For this reason Martin is dead;
for this reason Malcolm is dead;
for this reason Coltrane is dead;
in the eyes of my first son are the browns   
of these men and their music.