Johnny Winter in Stockholm
Tivoli Garden, June 1984
No shadows here. You could be in Miami:
one of those places where the blues
has the bright echo of a bauble in the sun –
light plunging: white stone into rivermurk.
There’s something like home about a water city
even where the buildings are angled all wrong,
the history belongs to someone else
and the churches are unsmiling.
A long way from Leland or Beaumont
but still the sweet mildew smell of summer,
the strange blossoming of hyacinth.
When you’re seeing clearly –
no more dragons to chase – one stage
fades into next, until a high lonesome wind
bruises down from mountains
with the keening of a water oak limb
about to break free. They adore you here
but you know better – it’s the music,
not the words, your fingers telling a story
in any language, any season – it’s about love,
all the loves a man ever had
or lost, you can’t let this sunshine end
because once the song stops, baby,
you can kiss tomorrow goodbye.
Big Bill Broonzy in Amsterdam
Some places just lay claim to you –
the way this city named for a river
where all the trees are no taller
than a man’s head has felt like home
from the hour you arrived. Summer
no warmer than March, Jim Crow’s
never set foot here – your new friends
think you’re joking when you ask
if you’ll be arrested for taking
the stage at the pub. You thought
you knew a thing or two about rivers
& women, but this girl,
she turns you inside out. She
hardly looks at your face
but never stops watching
your fingers. Her smile makes
your blood heat up, thumping
this Gibson never felt so good.
This place reminds you of a house
being built on top of the spot
where an older house burned:
all promise & possibility
& maybe even redemption.
It’s not until hours later
when she tells you her name – Pim –
& asks for a light.
Without waiting for an answer,
she leans in so close to your mouth
you smell lemons & fresh air,
she touches the tip of her cigarette
to yours, inhales
like she’s drawing electricity
from deep inside you,
in that brief glow
sparking between you
you can see everything:
the beginning, the end –
dark smeary blotches
flickering against a pale green
so bright it hurts the eye.
Governor O.K. Allen Considers the Pardon Request of Huddie William Ledbetter
One of those Louisiana summer evenings,
peeper frogs rioting outside,
breeze just moving heat around
like the inside of an oven. Can’t tell
if it’s supposed to be funny, letter
on back of record: “Goodnight
Irene.” Fine song, but the gimmick puts you in mind
of that joke you know the newspapermen
are telling about you – dogwood leaf blows in
an open office window, and thinking
it might be a bill from Huey, you sign it.
Lord, it’s hot. Life’s too short.
You’ve been looking for something essential
you can claim as your own,
maybe this is it – think of the music,
the way a song can get inside a man’s head
and lurk there, dangerous
and erotic like blood, or water
when the river’s high against the levies,
swirling away whole Tupelo trees
from leaf to root. Hear the right
notes on a record player
and you’re twenty-six again,
back in Waxahachie
on a picnic blanket with a girl in a yellow muslin dress,
world on fire and smelling like red wine,
her mouth hungry against yours,
this was before tax assessments and highway commissions,
before this pressure behind your eyes
that you’re pretty sure will kill you someday,
before anyone owed or owned you –
when anything, by God, was possible.
Amorak Huey teaches professional and creative writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems have appeared in Rattle, Poet Lore, Contrary, The Southern Review and other journals. More information is at www.amorakhuey.net.
Q: What is your favorite water city, and why?
A: It’s no secret that we humans love to live by the water. There are practical reasons for this – transportation, commerce, etc. – but there’s also something about water that speaks to us, connects with us, calms us. Raymond Carver wrote that loving rivers increases us, and that line has always resonated with me. Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a river running through it, and we’re an easy drive from Lake Michigan. So maybe this is my favorite because it’s where I live now. I am here, and there is water, and yes to both of these things.
Q: Tell us more about Big Bill Broonzy and his life and music.
A: Big Bill Broonzy was a ridiculously talented blues guitarist and singer in the first half of the twentieth century. His biography is suitably unclear for a blues legend – maybe he was born in Arkansas, maybe in Mississippi – and he worked mostly in obscurity until after World War II when he went to Europe with part of a folk-blues-roots music revival tour, where he was extremely well received and cemented his status as an icon. Also, while he was in Holland, he fell in love with a Dutch woman named Pim van Iseldt, whom he married. Broonzy died in Chicago in 1958 of throat cancer. His “Guitar Shuffle” is one of the most remarkable pieces of music ever recorded. You can listen to it here.
Q: How did you come to write these poems about music and musicians and place?
A: I wrote a poem about the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson and his alleged deal with the devil, and then I wrote another one, and then I started reading about other blues musicians and I just kept writing. I grew up in Alabama, so the songs and stories and rhythms of the South matter to me, and my father has always listened to the blues. So these poems, which make up a whole manuscript now, are about music, and place, and American history, and fathers and sons, and all these huge and important and small and personal things wrapped up in the blues. The music. It all comes back to the music.