Betsy Sholl

Bass Line

for Milt Hinton
He needs a bigger body, bull fiddle
to make that thump, that deeper pulse, he needs
four fat inflexible strings made of gut
wrapped by steel so he can pluck each night
that tree and its strange fruit, its slumped shoulders,
and bulging eyes… As he fingers the neck,
as he frets, keeps the time, he can take
those naked feet hung like weights on a stopped clock.
If it’s too much to say one sight winds up
a life and keeps it running, still
some things are burned into the eyes
like a maker’s mark seared into walnut
belly or back, history always there,
no matter how the body is patched
and reglued, the gut and steel fine-tuned.
It’s a deep groove in the brain,
whether you play on top or behind the beat,
walk the line or break out: to know a man
can be waiting for a train and because the crowd’s
riled up get taken– If death unmakes him,
maybe music’s a way of weeping,
of cradling the broken body,
its strained neck, its eyes that tried to jump
at what they saw, and sad hands, sad hands
that couldn’t lift to brush a fly.
Night after night, rhythm wants to unwind
the wire cable from that tree, sway
the mob away from its drunken rush.
So if he humps that stiff body night
after night, if he slaps and slaps? It’s to
accent the offbeat, strengthen the weak, swing
like somebody who knows what swinging is.

Betsy Sholl
“Bass Line” is from Late Psalm (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004).