A jackdaw wisdom, tight-lined mouth and hands
Fashioned a diamond gift for the burgeoning culture
Like an alchemist drawing elements from the soil, but not so base.
Borrowing himself from bluesmen, small-town owners of the road,
From Rambling Jack, from Whitman, Guthrie,
Thomas and Rimbaud. And Macon’s finest too. Out of
Deepest Minnesota what would he choose himself to be?
The joker of the pack, claiming his slice of pie,
Convert-rabbi, neo-prophet, passing evangelist,
Unsentimental, unforeseen, unloved romanticist.
Wallflower gazer, laser, thrower of small verse grenades,
Painting threats of judgement in the mirrors
Of the mighty on the stolen hills.
A man too easy to dismiss, if not quite finally –
A contradicted, flawed, sometime-misogynist,
Ingenue, leaping the book from faith to faith.
However, when the time runs down
Those around may still recall all faith is one, a range
Of many a ledge and foothold. For those who have to climb.
Hibbing was once a mining town. Must have had fragments of sharp refrain
Floating in the post-war air, around the ears of teens and babes: Ma Rainey, Mahalia,
Dock Boggs and Robert Johnson, all of the splendid choir. As the ore ran thin
A voice emerged that “could not sing”, against a pounded piano, harp and buzzed guitar.
And hit a chord of confluence that five decades would ring. Would seize
Its moment in the light of centre stage before an avalanche of dross
Would cover it again, but even then, left trace for anyone who cared.
Minstrel tunes, quick river songs. Railroad, fly tree, putdown songs,
Songs of desire, so numerous and singular that none in that haze century
Could interpret their plurality. You didn’t dance
And if you had to learn the words, he offered you good luck.
No marketplace, no double-track, rolling his stone down a single rail.
The first rap: homesick blues. And songs to power brokers
From the highways, blacks and jews.
He fanned the flames of heroes, names among the brave:
Medger Evers, Emmett Till, Rubin Carter, Davey Moore,
George Jackson, Hattie Carroll, Lenny Bruce and Catfish.
He unlocked and protested love, that broken-glass illusion of what little
Might be saved. The light went down, cold beauty fell away, sensibility
Waned. But again it grew with age, thus he
Survives today, not castaway, his vinyl digitized.
You can check the bins and racks:
Data units in the aisles, blood spilt on the tracks.
For you who hire to dull the danger’s edge
And promote disgrace of person for commercial gain
He must be but a cipher, puffed and lined, a talk-show face
Who cannot entertain, nor write a line of “poetry”. But surely he can be
Another scripted product to put out on stage.
So how do you explain his undertow of fame? What he became, what is by him defined,
The enigmatic resonance that is triggered by his name? He skipped your ropes,
Denounced your pride and kept a finger pointing through the mostly wasted times,
Observed your game, defined it, clung to his control, his nose and inspiration
Clean and scarce and cold.
Camelot invaded Cuban dreams. Even Roosevelt, barred the immigrant doors.
Reagan sponsored terror on the poor and has his airport now. Nixon
And his shonda jew turned Cambodians to stone, until the long
Predicted night when war-masters stand naked too. Clinton played
The sax at least, while Carter something of his slow train knew.
He sure was a contender, although he was no MLK,
No Malcolm X, no Ali/Clay - but from his strings and keys there came
A steady wind and rain, hard as you knew sometimes,
The tears of rage, the grains of sand, the journeys through dark heat,
Some element in all his work that anyone could use.
Even in his watchtower, Hendrix found some blues.
They must have made a margin note when he broadsided in the Village
And declaimed on pawned-off murder at the DC freedom march.
They surely didn’t scan the reality rides to Mobile.. Brownsville
Nashville.. London, an electric hawk.. Jerusalem and Japan.
Distilling lethal verses underground, his hidden basement flooded
With the lyric of the hills. Rolling thunder and the never-ending tour
With make-up, red bandana, cape and mercury.
OK, his book and movie bombed, close to incomprehensible
And perhaps his finest songs were not 10 minutes long, but 2.
But he left no profanity, nor gave a real dumb interview.
And so they underrated him – managed only just
To keep alive and lip-service his name,
Until confinement to the hall of fame.
This is a fading empire, where demons are within, and children
Unprotected from the false are turned to enmity and sin. Where flaws
In atoms of the soul are magnified, so we can hardly see
Into our own dark eyes.
We’re watching through the rain, by rivers
Flowing slow. Taken disappearing – invited to confession,
To let the distant thunder waken us again.
And when the buried histories rise and echoes have endured,
And the ring of truth proves harder than the medals of disdain,
The American of the century, from whom nothing was owed,
Will be seen to have delivered on everyone he was.
The century? The 21st. In these impending years
The answers blowing in the wind will howl around our ears.