Poetry by Ed Frankel
Poetry by Ed Frankel
John Fahey (1939-2001) pioneered the use of traditional country and blues finger picking to showcase the acoustic steel string guitar as a solo instrument that could play a mix of traditional and non-traditional musical genres. He collaged ideas associated with Bartok, Charles Ives, Indian and Gamelan music, Tibetan chanting and western hymns, into often eerie, unpredictable improvisations and meditations. A proficient self-taught guitarist by his teens, Fahey referred to himself and his musical style as “American primitive,” although he had a B.A from American University and an M.A. in musicology from UCLA. Fahey released numerous albums and performed from the sixties until the early nineties. He was ranked thirty fifth in Rolling Stone’s 2003 “One Hundred Greatest Guitarists,” but his eccentricities limited him to a cult following.
At The Ash Grove, 1965
“Ever I get my new house done
Sail away, ladies, sail away.
I’ll give the old one to my son.
Sail away ladies, sail away.”
His hands shook, so he played the first piece fast,
Just to burn off the adrenalin,
Guitar low on his hip,
His head tilted back and to the side,
Long neck curved, eyes closed.
Transcendental Water Fall,
Requiem for the Last Steam Engine Train.
The Maiden Voyage of the Yellow Princess.
Dance of the Inhabitants of the Invisible Bladensburg Castle.
Imagine Bartok in syncopation, Stravinsky and Ravel
Finger-picked on a steel string guitar.
He slid a tarnished lipstick tube
On his little finger up and down the strings,
While his thumb played the alternating bass,
And his fingers picked melody and harmony,
Left hand hammering down, pulling off
The pleasures from the slack and sympathetic strings.
Open tunings gave him perfect chords
In odd and unfamiliar inversions,
The spaciousness of Open C for example,
The top two strings both tuned in unison
Without the third interval became a drone of bees.
The same note, played on different strings
Is not the same note, if every object
Posits its own universe.
The regress of overtones reassured us
Of some kind of order
To whatever it is we are crossing.
He followed the chromatic descent to the dark
Root of the tonic, the turnaround and hesitation.
Don’t look back John.
Whatever’s there might be gaining on you.
The anticipation of another twelve bars
As the steamboat comes around the bend,
The whistle piercing the mist
Before the smokestacks emerge above the willows.
The calliope pipes “The Tennessee Waltz.”
A Day of the Dead skeleton in the pilot house,
Grins and holds the wheel steady.
A deck hand that looks just like you, John
Checks the fathoms, and marks the twine.
Then a hymn, simple and four square
When the hour is fulfilled,
Jesus Is A Dying Bed Maker and all
Who navigate that river squeezed into a tune.
A Raga For Mississippi John Hurt.
The Camptown Races, A Bicycle Built For Two.
Variations on Saint Saens’ The Yellow Princess.
He stabilized the fantasies on the harmonic armature
Until it had a life of its own,
Decks of teak and mahogany,
A jade prow and an ivory hull.
Not much banter in between songs
Except for one quiet monologue
About seeing Jimmy Reed perform
Seated in a straight back chair.
His wife stood behind him,
Her hands on his shoulders,
Whispering lyrics in his ear:
“I got a bird that whistles
I got a bird that sings,
But without my Corina
Life isn’t worth a thing.”
John fiddled with the tuning pegs
Squinting out at the audience.
In the middle of the second set
He toppled backwards off the stool
Knocking over his doctored bottle of Coke,
Clutching his guitar to his chest.
Gravity may be one of God’s clearer manifestations,
Along with pressure and coincidence, he mumbled,
Slowly, deliberately, as he set himself up again.
People laughed nervously
But I suppose we encouraged his oddities,
In exchange for a peek around the bend in that river
That we have given so many names.
Marking on the twine is nine fathoms.
Sail away, Johnny, sail away.
Requiem For John Fahey
I want this poem to turn like a sunflower
Toward a face bigger than the sun,
To listen to talking bridges and singing turtles,
To bend its long swan neck and close its eyes,
To become that kiss and that sweet spot,
The cradled humming,
“In Christ There Is No East or West.”
To sing “Uncloudy Day”
In sacred harp voices, foursquare and loud,
To cool you with a puff of breath.
I want to lay these words in your lap
Like your slide guitar or a sleepy child.
There is a ring around the moon tonight,
John Aloysius Fahey,
Sometimes considered propitious
But not always the best of signs.
The night noise has subsided
And the singing turtles have commenced to dream.
The sun, embraced in the moon’s eclipse,
Has once again begun to move.
The constellations have renewed their drift.
The wind is up and blowing through the unfurled sails
And rigging of The Yellow Princess.
She is out of the doldrums and headed for the open sea
Under the Southern Cross.
What remains is what passes between us at this moment.
The past stretches out in front of us,
The future, and all that is gaining on us
Are beyond words, beyond our remonstrance.
The man in the moon can only reflect
The countenance of a distant love.
The people who worship by staring
Raw at the sun quickly go blind.
The last thing they see is the radiance
Of that solitary and distant love.
“Long John, is long gone.
Long gone with his long johns on.
he’s got a heel in front and a heel behind
And they never will tell which way he’s gone.”
The melody has faded from the grooves
Of those thick, old seventy eights.
They’ve been played over and over
Until they just wore out,
Like the valves and chambers of the heart.
Beyond the sun that you can’t stare at for long
Face to face, a fragrance you can’t name.
A cool finger touches your chest.
A slide up to that high A on the tenth fret,
A kiss on the sweet spot with just a little tremolo.
Of Rivers And Religions: Fahey album title
Bukka White: traditional blues musician
When the catfish were in bloom: Fahey song title
The Man Who Fell to Earth: film title
“Of course I would love you green.” Garcia Lorca
“The ten thousand things that make up this temporary and perishable world”: Tao Te Ching and Rilke
“Every object posits its own universe.” : Husserl
“Don’t look back [John] ; whatever’s there might be gaining on you”: Satchel Paige
“A ship with golden sails, an ivory hull/
a jade prow and a jeweled mast head”: Fahey
“Sail Away Ladies, Sail Away”: Traditional American Folk Song
“All those middle class white boys/ out to have some fun.”: Mose Allison
Age of mechanical reproduction: Walter Benjamin
“[stealing back to those]same old used to be’s.” : Gus Cannon.
I wish I was a tree,
I wish I was a mole in the ground: Traditional song
It’s not haunted…contain evil spirits: Fahey, How Bluegrass Music Ruined My Life
“[a beauty] beyond all remonstrance”: William Carlos Williams
“Long John is…which way he’s gone: Traditional Blues
“The Radio told me about the death”:: Jack Spicer
“Pack Up Your Troubles In that Old Kit Bag And Smile”: George and Felix Powell, 1915
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Miles Davis And The Radish Man
At the after-hours club on Fast Fifty-Ninth Street,
All us hipsters dressed to the nines,
Sitting in, laying out,
The burning in our pulses, cooling each time
We bring thumb and third finger together,
The pulsing language of cool, congealing,
Having said it, frozen, in the mouth,
No longer, really, what it is.
Backstage we kiss each other’s necks,
Whisper in each other’s ears,
Feign, juke, posture, test
The limits of range, velocity and will,
The flex and strength.
We sniff each other for clues.
Is that a Bessin or a silver Benge?
Where did you get that custom-made mute,
That secret sauce to lubricate your valves?
Where did you learn how to breathe like that?
Are those special exercises for your fingers?
Do you have something under your tongue?
We meditate on our drinks,
Search our cloudy auguries, wide-eyed–
For the edge on the one leg up,
Beyond what the fingers can be trained to manage,
Beyond musical memory, and perfect pitch.
He came in, “too square for the hipsters
Too hip for the squares,”
Eating salted radishes from a paper bag,
Overgrown college boy– those horn-rimmed glasses,
Thick as the bottoms of a soda pop bottle,
Hair slicked back in a pompadour
With “just a little dab will do ya.”
We teased him hard,
White boy this and college boy that.
But Miles didn’t care what color you were
As long as you could get the music right.
He and Miles talked about Schoenberg and Ravel
Who were hip before it was hip to be gone:
Imagine Stravinsky on bebop, he said, “Rites of Spring”
Those long, pulsing figures not chaotic as you think
If you count them right, from a distance
There’s a pattern underneath.
Imagine Erik Satie playing “Straight No Chaser.”
The spaces between the notes and riffs, as music too,
Like architecture is the music of space,
As much if not more than the thing itself.
He chorded out spaces for Miles to play in
That I realize now looked a lot
Like the Milky Way or the human heart.
A riff for each of the heavenly bodies
A song for every star.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Our Breath On The Mirror
Under the Dodgers’ cap, and khaki work shirt
the woman selling flowers by the freeway
is short, broad and full as the Goddess
of earth and death, Coatlicue, and you hear
the rattles on her ankles, her necklace
of hands, and skulls shaking
to the heart of a distant smoking drum.
The two snake heads rattle in her hands
as Coatlicue begins to dance.
With a lift of her chin Juana raises her eyebrows
offering the flowers–Guelagetza—
to faces behind the glass that look at her,
pretend not to look at her.
Windows hum open or slide closed.
Sometimes men rush and fumble for dollar bills
as they watch the light, then lay the rose
beside them on the passenger seat.
Juana relieves herself at the Arco station
or in the bushes by the side of the freeway.
She is two thousand miles from Tlacolula.
She and her brother each paid the coyote
two thousand dollars American to guide them
through the labyrinths of arroyos and barrancas
past la Migra, in their blazers with their nightscopes,
across the border, that jagged scar, al otro lado.
She wires a hundred and fifty a month
to her mother who pays the bills,
who makes a payment on the land in Mitla,
who saves the rest for three years to send other children
to hide under the remote pitch of the moon
from the green and infrared lights that search
for silhouettes of caravans and the dreams of caravans,
the heat of human bodies, on a backlit horizon.
They will walk with care past the listening machines
that hear their pulses surge and their mouths go dry.
They remember Elalo, Macario, and Evodio from the village
who froze to death last year in these mountains
just three miles from the highway.
You would like to believe that the Virgin of Guadalupe
covered them with her shawl, that the Naguals
came to them in their sleep
and told them that the storm would pass,
brought them posole and steaming champurrado.
You would like to believe that their tears froze like pearls,
that they died in a fairy tale
like the ice princess or Grimm’s little match girl.
Perhaps freezing to death is like falling asleep.
Huddle together, M’ijos, six hands,
six arms and legs, entwined,
three hearts, thick, and slow, and beating.
What are you dreaming Juana, out there by the freeway?
Are you rocking in a hammock years from now
in your own jalapa in Mitla?
You braid flowers and colored ribbons
into your granddaughter’s hair for The Day of the Dead
The smell of the Cempasuchil, the Marigolds
snd the smoking copal, remind you of roses and oranges,
the gray faces of the gavachos in their shiny cars
stony and silent as the hieroglyphs of the old ones
in Monte Alban and Tule.
The Camazotz call your name Juana,
from their dream gardens and the church bells ring in
the cold winds of the north that bring the spirits of the dead.
Your mother and father are coming across the River Chiconaupan
the day after tomorrow, El Dia de Los Muertos.
They will need gifts and traveler’s provisions.
Lay the path of orange marigolds from the door to the alter.
Scatter breadcrumbs and flower seeds for the birds
which are the souls of small children.
The alter is perfect– gladiolas, chrysathemums.
Stalks of corn, bamboo and sugarcane arch across time
and the cycles of the souls’ resurrections.
Don’t forget– Abuela liked Chapulines, fried grasshoppers,
and Abuelo Joselito liked his mescal.
Leave them a glass of water.
They have journeyed far and they are thirsty.
Candles, yes, lots of Candles to light their way.
Go to the Cemetery and clear the weeds.
See that the graves are swept clean.
Put the sugar skulls, with their maraschino eyes
and syrupy smiles next to the old pictures:
Gran Tio Chuy, fuerte y formal
as he stares into the camera.
The Angelitos, the dead little children lie posed
in their parents arms: Refugia, at two years old
on Tia Cecilia’s lap in a white dress
holds a cross to the camera in her cold, tiny hands.
Arrange their favorite foods, the seven moles,
home-made mescal and candied pumpkin,
fresh baked “bread of the dead.”
The alter is perfect.
Nothing must be touched by anyone.
The children will return on November first,
the adults the day after.
They cannot eat but will kiss the food,
take in the aromas and moisture of the preparations.
When they are satisfied they will look for you
to leave behind their good will and their blessings.
And the gavachos will come as well,
two thousand miles from el otro lado, how strange
with all their gear and their money, rushing,
taking pictures, que raro.
When they smile they seem sad and hungry.
Remember when one– sin verguenza, shameless,
even wanted to buy the shawl you were wrapped in,
and the blanket you were sitting on at the cemetery.
The tour buses and the shiny rented cars rumble
out of the dusty night into Tlacalula.
Gavachos with video cameras at the windows
film The Day Of The Dead.
When you look at them, the flesh melts off their bones.
Allegados, son iguales.
Having arrived, they are all equal,
like the figures in Posada’s drawings,
Skeletons in shorts, with cameras around their necks,
take pictures of each other.
Donde esta la bathroom?
Skeletons bargaining for rugs and black pottery.
Ask her if the dyes are natural or artificial.
skeleton children, loud and unmannered
maniosos y malcriados, grabby and badly behaved,
skeletons full of coming and going
taking with them little pieces of your village
to put on their walls and mantles.
Lights explode beside the people at the graves,
The red eyes of the cameras glow
like the eyes of the Camazotz in the night
who come to steal people’s dreams.
The skeletons covet it all, the sugar sweet holidays,
the rituals, they look south of the border,
to have maraschino cherries for eyes,
necklaces of marigolds and syrupy smiles,
to have their souls become bread of the dead
for the Gods to feast on.
But their pleasures last as long as the marzipan skull
that melts on the tongue and is gone.
Do not mind them Juana.
They desire what the dollars cannot buy,
not the charms or the pictures of theVirgen
to put on their walls or their refrigerators.
They also want to stop the rush of time.
We are all skeletons in a Posada drawing
all on our way, coming and going to Bone Town.
We all borrow hunt and gather,
write poetry, and dance to faraway drums,
whiten our faces with rice powder as we try
to commemorate ourselves and those we love,
to see our breath on the mirror.
Guelagetza: a Zapotec offering, a gift to share or reciprocate.
La Migra: US Immigration Service.
Al otro lado: to the other side.
M’ijos: Mi hijos, i.e. my children
Naguals: Mythical Mexican Trickster animals
Champurrado: hot drink made of corn and chocolate.
Jalapa: open air palm roofed house.
Copal: incense made of resin.
Camazotz: Olmec diety associated with night , death, and sacrifice
See that their graves are kept clean: a blues line. From Blind Lemon Jefferson?
Posada: Mexican artist/cartoonist and satirist famous for popularizing the Calaveras, depictions of the skeletons of Day of the Dead
Sin Verguenza: shameless one
Breath on the mirror: Popol Vuh