Long past midnight; hard rain.
Somewhere twenty, thirty blocks
west the downtown Chicago grid,
in a neighborhood taxis don’t come to
or stop in this late: in search
of the sublime, gawkers
at the Velvet Lounge, “soul hole”
wedged alongside Fitzsi’s Famous,
fresh out of two epic sets—
avant-garde jazz played wildly
but seriously by a cabal of young lions
gathered round their greybeard leader—
saturated down through our jackets,
laughing about it, falling
into a kind of sadsack parody
of a gang’s strut. I want to say
“a bunch of white guys,” but
that’s not exactly it: comrades,
then, ecstatic encounters
of rain-slicked streets, eager
to inhabit this one particular
moment whole-souled and sad.
Can you picture it? Hovering there
at the outer rim of the inner circle
of regulars clustered at the bar,
we’re hip enough to recognize, when
the bartender puts him on, Tatum—
his slalom runs and storm-pitch arpeggios
a kind of sped-up Bud Powell—
hip enough to order drinks wiped clean
of class, to clap in the right places,
though it ain’t easy anticipating
the step-back pause inside the baritone’s
circular breathing. Chords spraying
from a hockshop horn, leg propped
on the stage like a trap-door hinge.
One song bleeds into the next,
drummers switching mid-bridge,
and a flute player sitting in, only
white guy on stage, who screams
into his flute an extended riff
on the absence of beauty.
Bass pulsing triple time, clanging
like at a railroad crossing, horns
knocking together like boxcars.
Remember that little lunch place on Franklin?
We stepped out into that L.A. oven
to find Peter’s little VW book-ended
by cop cars. “Bad omen,” I said.
“I choose,” Peter said, “to see it
as they’re looking out for my best interest.”
Which I assume he meant spiritually,
a black man’s sarcastic prayer
against indirect malice. You read a poem
that night about being called nigger
by a white man with a bar stool
for a handshake. How at great cost
you beat him into submission.
The lone black man in the audience
coming up to shake your hand.
Saying he could relate. Later, in Leimert Park,
it’s me who has the bull’s-eye
on his chest. You leaned in to remark
on vertigo, how it overtakes you
when you’re out of your element.
Elvis on the lunch joint radio. You gave
me this look that dropped on the counter
heavy into the cup of your hands.
I saw you trying, but failing, to inhabit
the world in a manner akin to prayer.
Let’s not forget this country has always
enjoyed its minstrel show; even better
when the blackface is invisible
and the man shimmying onstage isn’t
that hit parade of soul but some country
white boy with hips like a girl’s
and soulful eyes any mama’d melt for.
I kept drifting, following the birds’
choppy path through sun-gutted windows:
they seemed first to fly through a fence
then morph into schooling fish shivering
in a landscape of blue. There was this movie
you stayed up late for, ringing your mind’s
backdoor bell. In it, this white collar guy
dreams he finds God crouched in a dingy closet
in a building at the heart of a city on fire—
Dresden or Los Angeles—and though He
has the head of a lion, God is scared.
The man must take his hand to reassure Him.
We catch the last train when the rain refuses
to stop playing. This kid in a Bulls jersey, no more
than fourteen, starts right in. He sneers,
“You Irish?” Then: “You white folks are crazy.”
Then, with a comic’s timing: “Get me
a fucking job!” There’s anger there but bluff’s
mostly what I see. Too tired to harass him back
or move to another seat, I merely smile.
It’s a calm resignation cities bring.
The next morning the storm will sweep
through, leaving the streets wet, schoolgirls
trundling by in full dress. Beat, on our way for coffee,
hangovers pulled down like soggy hats,
we’ll be accosted by a girl scout who shouts,
“You know you want it!” We laugh.
We do and we don’t. Maybe
our fight is not to be awake—we’re resurrected
all the time by fire—but to stay that way.
The familiar rocking of the subway
carrying us into the next station of night.
When did the conversation swerve
to the morning’s headline slap? Policeman
Guns Down Unarmed Black Man.
“Same old shit,” Peter muttered.
I conjured up the image of a madman
taking us out—carnival cut-outs
knocked down blam blam blam
with three twitchy trigger pulls.
You remarked, “Man, that’s just
your white man’s guilt urge
to go down in flames.” You were right.
Heading back down 10 the night before
in that low-slung sports car, Coltrane
in place of the rap blasted on the way out,
I started to say “I like my anger beautiful”
but knew it was a matter up for discussion
and so let the night’s bad breath wash
us raw. The freeway crowded at midnight;
lights of the Inland Valley sequining
the night. I thought you’d fallen asleep.
You were just taking Trane in
through your pores.
Let me tell you a story about Art Pepper.
Fresh out of jail, he’s between everything—
gigs, fixes, horns. Diane arranges a gig,
not telling Art, so he wakes to the news
he’s playing with Miles’ rhythm section:
Philly Joe, Garland, Chambers on bass.
He’s afraid, of course, hasn’t touched his horn
in months, cork stuck in its neck and taped
in place. Mad at Diane. In awe.
“They’ve been playing with Miles. They’re masters.”
He’d been goofing, fixing big before.
Forgets every song in the book.
So Gentleman Red says: “I know a nice tune.
Do you know this?” And Art plays it beautiful,
chasing after the melody of “You’d Be So Nice
to Come Home to.” Lets Red call the songs
rest of the way. “What should I do at the end?”
“Just do a little tag kind of thing.”
And Art does. They get eight songs on tape.
After, she gives him a look that asks, “Happy?”
Yeah, he’s happy. Worried, too, he’s not played
well enough. And proud, bragging up his genius
like a cocky boy. The night he falls back
into dope, six months clean, he tells Diane:
“You have to know someone loves you.
When you do, everything is easier.”
Mr. Rhetorical, I once asked you,
“What is it about this country
that makes it hard even to be friends?”
You could only shake your head.
Sitting in the back of Peter’s car,
Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”
on the deck, I listened to you both
articulate your impatience
with our sorry state of affairs, unsure
if I was part of the solution or piling
more wood onto the fire. Memory’s clumsy.
So much left out, so many subtle
add-ins. Coming out of an underpass,
I spied a billboard that, for a second,
read “We Generous”
before blinking and seeing
what the words actually said.
We’ve got to find a way, Marvin crooned,
to bring some loving here today.
But how? What “we”? And how generous?
There was something about that
crowded table of young musicians—
in between sets, cordoned off
by invisible rope—that haunts me.
Is it that they didn’t look over once
all night? That’s not it. Any circle
worth its form curls inward,
a spring about to unfurl in a snap.
It was too loud to talk, anyway.
Two brotherhoods convening
for a night. Can you even call
such proximity a meeting?
The way a man and a woman
share a smoke outside a club—
not knowing what to do
with the plentitude of loneliness
except refrain from offering
some of its sweetness to one another.
Somewhere dead center
inside the second set, I am ready
to scream, or get the hell out.
To pace the album-cover street,
wrapped in drizzle, yearning
for something to breathe my sweet
blue self back into. But then David
leans in, mouth at my ear, “Why
does sabotage always answer
its own urgent question
by blowing things up?” I shout
my retort: “There is no melody
in the world worth this much
chasing.” But at the last possible moment
the baritone grabs hold a funky R&B riff
and rides its steamboat current
to the night’s horizon, bobbing lovingly
in its wake, taking all of us left in the place
right along with him; and I see
the woman behind the bar
allow the rhythm carry her
into the groove of her habitual chores
as the man on his way to the john
falls easily into its rutted sway.
We Generous is the title poem from Matthews’s debut collection, published by Red Hen Press in February 2007.