~This poem previously appeared in Callaloo (1999).
Improvisation #2: Charlie Parker Dies for Our Sins
exhale a blue dream and follow it up
hear heaven sing back to you
its majestic tone flatted a ¼ step as
it riffs your breath
don’t look down
Hail Mary and Praise Jesus will not save you though
a needle can prick the pain into
a single sixteenth under your skin
Thou shalt not wear brown skin boldly.
Thou shalt not cry in laughing notes.
Thou shalt not wallow in the bottom to reach the top.
these songs will be a burning bush in your mouth
the notes will buoy you up til you are
spoonfeeding each vibration
into God’s allergic ear.
God himself will remind you that
the wages of sin are death.
~This poem was previously published in Third Coast (1999).
the boomerang smile
pants tumbling to black shoes
the too close polish of front row eyes
The blues are customarily short pieces in 12 measures or bars
inviting the nerveless to feel once more
that fierce dying of humans consumed
sweet beats of jazz impaled
on sliver of wind
a tonality midway between major & minor
a handclap like thunder, notes
alchemized into manna
though prophesying lips are not enough for my salvation
He seduces hands & hips
with wool and silk
gyrates my spine/blows
honey through ligaments.
Our best songs are body songs.
I want him to unbutton the honking
& moaning, screaming and blasting
til brows explode with sound
Why don’t you wear a tie that doesn’t constantly need tucking in like a too-blonde blonde?
“I’m going to make you feel something tonight, you tell me what it is.”
something in him fixes me
cool revelation/shrill hopes
sounds which are waveringly liquid
a minister’s palm oiling my head as he shouts
“Be healed in the name of Jesus.”
Note: Collaged from original text, Jazz by Andre Dubus, “Walking Parker Home” by Bob Kaufman, “The Wisdom of the Body” by Stanley Kunitz, and overheard conversations.
~This poem was previously published in Rhapsoidia (2005).
I forgive this poem
after Denise Duhamel
I forgive this poem its stubborn silence.
I forgive this poem for not saying enough.
I forgive this poem a summer day in 1989.
I forgive this poem for all of my sins.
I forgive this poem for all of my silences.
(I forgive it. I forgive it. I forgive it.)
In New York.
I forgive this poem for having a tongue.
I forgive my tongue for needing this poem.
I forgive this poem everywhere its rhythm falters.
I forgive this poem for not being surprising.
I forgive this poem its informality.
I forgive absence, longing, mother.
I forgive this poem for not knowing what to say.
I forgive the words…
I forgive this poem for talking too loudly.
I forgive this poem for signifying distance & flight.
I forgive this poem its interior monologue.
I forgive this poem for itching like a new tattoo.
I forgive this poem for dressing like a backup singer.
I forgive this poem the 14 times it forgot the words.
I forgive the lines “I trusted Mama not to push me away/ to some place where I could not/get back to her, where I would be/eaten by dark fear.”
I forgive this poem for breaking the fourth commandment.
I forgive this poem for not breaking the eighth.
I forgive this poem for being in code.
I forgive myself for not knowing a better way to write this.
I forgive this poem for not speaking up sooner.
I forgive this poem for not being enough.
Note: “I forgive this poem” contains lines by Afaa Michael Weaver.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
These three poems—more than a decade old--speak to my roots in poetry, the elements to which I consistently return, the fingerprints I leave all over (most) poems. I’ve written poetry all my life and was particularly active in high school. But other than one college class (with the poet Barbara Helfgott-Hyett), I didn’t start studying seriously until my mid-20s in Chicago. That’s also where and when I discovered jazz and the blues--music that could actually bypass my hyperactive brain and land directly in my gut/soul/heart.
I wrote the Charlie Parker poem after watching Clint Eastwood’s movie Bird. I’d been listening to Parker and other musicians of that time—Monk, Coltrane, Bud Powell—nonstop, and the film broke my heart the way their music was breaking something open in me. A poem seemed the only way to process how much pain Bird had experienced, how his body was too broken to survive getting clean, how even the music wasn’t enough to sustain him.
I wrote “Baptism” during a residency of several months on Cape Cod. I first learned about collage in a workshop with Maureen Seaton. It seemed the right form to write about the Mighty Blue Kings, a band I followed at the time, and their lead singer Ross Bon. I couldn't quite understand how and why their music affected me so powerfully, and the collage form seemed to echo that confusion. I think as I am (or was) also a singer, I’ve never been overly concerned with originality, and I loved combing through disparate pieces of text, mixing them till I felt that jolt that said they belonged together, that particular pleasurable tension of each section of text kidnapped from it original home and made to cohabit with strangers. I also made a conscious decision to work on fracturing narrative, to move away from straight storytelling in the poems. I think of these fragmented poems as an album of photographs, or pieces of sculpture. You have to circle all the way around the sculpture, or flip through the entire album, so to speak, to apprehend the full story.
Finally, the last poem is a testament to my undying love of anaphora, and two of the first poets I read seriously—Denise Duhamel and Joy Harjo. I find I turn to list poems a lot when I know I have something to say, but I can't quite itch out what it is that's stuck on my tongue. The repetition somehow lets me get past my internal censors or any discomfort, and tap directly into my (much braver) subconscious where the truth (or at least my version of it) lurks, waiting for way out. I think I also like writing list poems and using anaphora because of the way the form not only plays with narrative structure, but also allows me to fracture rhythm. I tend to backphrase when I sing, so I guess you could say, that though I rarely write about music anymore, I’ve learned to compose a type of music instead—from loss, from fracture, from theft, from repetition.
ABOUT PAULETTE BEETE
Paulette Beete's work has appeared in or is forthcoming in journals, including Crab Orchard Review, Gargoyle, Escape into Life, Found Poetry Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and many others. She's the author of the chapbooks Blues for a Pretty Girl (Finishing Line Press) and Voice Lessons (Plan B Press), and her work appears in the anthologies Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC and Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry. She blogs (occasionally) at thehomebeete.com.