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Horse-Trading; Memorial Meetings

From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Summer 1982, Vol. IV, No. 3.


for Henri Coulette

Either the track or the glue factory,
he got both,
but the image of the horsecock
hanging there at eye level
is all she ever got of the saddle.

And so she took it to bed;
musicians with perfect tone
seldom die of heart attacks
but this one did.

He was accomplished on eight instruments,
none of them the women he loved,
and his middle son changed his name
to his mother’s
the result of a quarrel;

you cradled him in your uniform
cut down from your unit measure
of paratrooper’s boots,
for you were not coming home
in your thin quarterback
arms you’d once had broken
in preseason scrimmage,
so you did not go to high school,
or sue, or break out of the I Am
Movement your mother ladled
on her Irish brow.

So what of your perfect pitch,
the prosody of a mixed marriage,
same formality and freedom,
your cocksmanlike posturing,
flat feet going nowhere
in the open field
except for the snowing over,
the blanket, the foxhole, the spun reeds.

When you thought Madison Square Garden
was a real garden with roses,
it was a race horse you should’ve seen,
hard up and ungelded
for the mounting of the jockey:
for this you could ride,
long and hard on saddleback
over hurdles, over broken fields;
as for the garden,

you can’t remember where you are,
but you’re up on your feet,
instinct’s taken over,
feinting, you’re saved by the bell,
erect, poised, ears pinned back:
your father did not die for nothing.

Memorial Meetings

for Robert Hayden, 1913-1980

Clearing your throat
at the high-falutin’ antics of friends,
in the first public light
(hidden confrontations, admissions,
confessions)—the jazz band
could not play, locked out of
reconstructed Paradise theatricals
in the old section of Detroit.
Sunday morning after peering at the Institute,
at the Detroit River,
suicides in the abstract,
the great bands of sing-me-downs at the Koppin,
squeezed in after a long line
to peep at Bessie, Leontyne,
and never on the same bill,
wondrous choral sections of the off-beat,
entries of the spiritual in the blues,
making the hi-tech engineers wince
in spectral tweetings, low exteriors.

A sound system is what you were,
silences and hesitations at the pitch
of character, the silent gesture,
and stories of the poor and elegant;

once on a train to New York,
the land’s end of landscape
you could not see, the sheen
of water and the bridge at sunrise
catching you abreast of Monet and Rousseau,
nightmares of responsible obsession,
nightmares of the tears shed at our sins
against ourselves, no luminous heart
to wear beneath the surface pain
and our exterior joys.

You cried for us in the high-tea parlor
in the Calhoun living room in impeccable tears,
to singing and the score of Malcolm X
and the Egyptian rouge of Josephine Baker,
your favorite dictionary of the races,
dicta of the Chelsea Hotel and Uncle Crip,
murdered on the dance floor of the ghetto.

You stare down on us, face up,
on the divan of the Zulu King and Nefertiti,
but will not speak again,
the fires burning all night to your favorite
flowers, the scarf and blue pajamas
all packed up in incense and the reefer rose.

You last tirade was at your barber,
who cut your locks so short
we could see your scalp,
and think of Fletcher Henderson,
and Duke, without the grey and cough
of the piano, the ugly world of vanity
in hormones and of the search for home.

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Michael S. Harper was a poet, scholar, and teacher. His many books of poetry earned him multiple awards including the National Institute of Arts and Letters Creative Writing Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant.