~This poem previously appeared in Crab Orchard Review (2000)
IF I HAD POSSESSION OVER JUDGMENT DAY
Enough of God. Enough of witnesses.
O turn your face to the room's wall
And sing, poor Bob. O sing damnation past drawn shades
More cracked with light than mine. Bowls fill
With melting ice; fan blades shift, dangerous
In the choked air. A man's brought you to Texas,
Twice, to needle songs—I went
To the mountain, looked as far as my eyes could see—
On waxy plates. Brought you a pint,
And let's drink to that first crowd's sweaty laughs,
Also your last girlfriend's. O vengeful solo:
You didn't like the way she done
And swore she'd have no right to pray. Tears prick my throat
As if you'd damned me too, as one
Who makes her songs from scaredy-cat bravado
And flirts with others' dues. Enough of love—
Aren't we both vagrants of the South,
You born from autumn trysts, black knees splayed in high cotton;
I from a history of shut mouths
And families gone? Lead me beyond the eaves
Of sleeping women's shacks, where you once stayed
Till dawn, your fingers muting still
The knife-edged chords that beckon toward a possessed heart . . .
Mine's followed you to Texan hell,
Though walls melt down to echoes as you play
And curse God's vast shining back: don't throw me out.
Here's another pint. Another hymn
From a white girl whose call craves your response, shades drawn
Against false stars . . . Trouble gon' come:
Lead me, like whiskey and wept judgments, down.
~This poem previously appeared in The Oxford American (2002)
HELLHOUND ON MY TRAIL
As if snakes and mosquitoes weren't enough.
As if trees, flaming in late sun, weren't morgue
And cradle both: blues falling down
Like hail like hail. As if fanged howls
Weren't echoes on this summer's trail, littered
With skulls. And now cicadas, and the vomit
Of my neighbor's Bichon Frise,
Who eats them live or otherwise,
The males' wings calling, with loud-trembled chords—
Blues falling down like hail like hail—for brides
In twilit veils, lethal and silent
As a man driving, one hot night,
Up from Greenwood to “shoot himself a nigger.”
Greenwood: that's where you died, years earlier.
Each summer stinks of ones before.
My neighbor, her cancer returned,
Sinks toward the porch. You sprinkled hot foot powder
All around my door All around my door
And it fell silently as blood,
As silently as dead cicadas
Or those just-hatched to dig through humid grass
And sleep for thirteen years. Each summer's slap
Revives old echoes: ask shot Evers,
Exhumed from mud three decades later;
Ask my neighbor, whose dog howls each hot dusk.
If today was Christmas Eve O if today was
Christmas Eve, wouldn't we have a time?
Is your true grave at Mt. Zion,
Where I fell on my knees, or in that field
Of Greenwood's poor? As if death comes for free,
A one-night stand. For brides, a veil,
For murderers, a dirt road's embrace,
For bluesmen, loud cicadas and leaves tremblin'
On the tree. As if love, like hate, weren't a sin
Original as hell's hot birth:
Each song consumes the singer's breath.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
Looking over my ms.-in-progress, Rain in Our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson, I was pulled toward two of the earliest poems I wrote for the book—whose “progress” has been complicated by vast surprises uncovered in what began as casual genealogical research—by the purity of their engagement with Johnson: at that point, we were solely each other’s “hellhounds.” I’d long known Johnson’s music, of course, but multiple occasions of loss occurring within a brief period made his voice—the singing redoubled by melody—and story inescapable. The earliest decision I had to make concerned form: a book about Johnson written in the blues stanza? What could be more boring or repetitive? Instead, I had to devise means of brief inserting lyrical phrases from his songs, often in refrain-like fashion; and as for the poems themselves, I allowed their shape, rhyme scheme (often slant), and rhythms to be dictated by each individual work he left behind, three of which are usually ignored because unrecorded. Most important: once entered fully, there’s no exiting Johnson’s world and its ever-resonant cry; his rising sun may always go down, but how can his legacy fail to continue its ascent?
ABOUT DIANN BLAKELY
Diann Blakely’s Cities of Flesh and the Dead won the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award; and she has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Best American Poetry and two volumes of Pushcart. Poems from her latest manuscripts, Rain in Our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson and Lost Addresses have been featured twice in Greil Marcus’s “Hard Rock Top Ten,” as well as Lisa Russ Spaar’s Chronicle of Higher Education poetry column and New World Writing; Blakely has been also published at Harvard Review Online, the Nation, the Paris Review, the Oxford American, Triquarterly, Shenandoah, the Southern Review, and Verse, among others.