Portrait of Leadbelly in Pinstriped Suit
In the distance, wild blue cane, the fugitive strain.
He bows in them old cotton fields back home.
Angola: twelve-bar blues, fiber thick in his fist
and the law cuts him deals, leads him in and out of farms.
The boll is parenthesis, the weevil his voice.
And the city takes him back, in soot-stained arms,
furnace breath, to joints he shakes like the devil
has shimmied up inside his leather boot.
Blue cane in ten-foot topsoil, where no man dares plough.
Because one day he’ll raise his head against the whip,
smile at the overseer, swear his name’s
Mister Ledbetter, chains or no. How sweet the sound.
“Portrait of Leadbelly in Pinstriped Suit” is from Copperhead (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2011), and first appeared in Shenandoah, fall 2006 (vol 56 no 2).