River Street Blues
In the gray shadows of morning, blues
comes up River Street like a pack of dogs
ready to set you straight if you ain’t,
set you right if you’re white, the blues
comes up River like a greyhound bus,
packed with 42 tons of Gary steel –
heading for Miami or Atlanta –
that will fuck you up so bad that not all
the mothers in heaven will have enough
tears to soak the sorrow from your eyes
if you get in the way of that north bound,
south bound bus heading out of this town.
These River Street Blues know a thing or two.
They know you got to hold on, hold on to
the night as long as you can ‘cause the night
is dreaming. It’s a quiet bed loved flat
by dreaming, and not the kind of dreaming
that ends you up in sweat and sticky sheets
but the kind of dreaming that’s hungry
for oats and black bread, food you chew
longer than you know how. Food a man wants.
Dreams a man wants. Dreams a woman wants.
Dreams only a child dreams because a child
cannot yet know the truth about dreams,
how they get mixed up and licked up
how they get spewed out and shooed out,
how they grow old and raggedy, fingered
till the colors of me and you both bleed out
and all that’s left of the dreams and the child
dreaming them is the thin soup of hope
an old man living alone stores in cans
and stirs in a closet nobody ever sees.
These River Street Blues are a quiet street
of shacks built so long ago there ain’t no
granny who can tell you what the door
was colored when it first took a knock.
Hear that knock? It’s the River Street blues –
coming to tell you the world needs blues,
needs them like a baby needs candy,
like a woman needs a quick hot spring,
like a man needs the things that keep him
smiling even when the things that keep him
smiling have been gone for so damn long
that nothing is shaking but shaking.
Trees in late February
(Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield, Georgia)
The trees are hardly worth noticing.
The air around them is gray, wet,
cold, and misty—the kind of air
you find early in the morning
in the mountains. It hits you
and you breathe it, and want more
than you can possibly get
into your lungs. But the trees—
they are like the trees you see
everywhere in February.
Thin—too tall. The leaves colorless,
a lusterless brown—fallen
and lying at the foot of the trees.
This is still winter—in the spring
maybe you’ll notice the trees,
the leaves budding out, so green
and yet touched with a moist gold
—so alive, like the best living things,
full of promise, hope, youth, dreams,
energy, magic, drama, blood,
and gods. The children who see them
will be set to dreaming dreams
that will keep them alive, dreaming
until they are old and staring
at the trees and realizing they
are truly not worth noticing.
John Guzlowski’s writing has appeared in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, The Ontario Review, Exquisite Corpse, Crab Orchard Review, Modern Fiction Studies and other journals both here and abroad. His poems about his parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps appear in his book Lightning and Ashes. He blogs about his parents and their experiences at http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/
Q.Did you have any blues songs/poems in mind when you were writing “River Street Blues”? A.I grew up in Chicago, on the near north side in a working class neighborhood, listening to the blues. Blues of all kinds. Black blues, Polack blues, hillbilly blues, Irish blues. Sober blues and drunk blues. Good night blues and good morning blues. Sad blues and happy as Sunday blues. Back then men and women would walk the streets singing and playing the blues. I bet they still do. When I moved to Georgia, I was happy to hear the blues there too. Knew I was home. One of those blues singers I heard when I was a kid told me that if you don’t like the blues, you’ve got a hole in your soul. Q.Willie Dixon said that the blues was built in man from the beginning. Was the blues also built into America from the beginning, and is it time for America to take the blues back to its heart? A.Absolutely. The blues was not only built into America, it was built into Adam and Eve, Noah, Job, and Jesus. Whitman and Emily Dickenson too. They knew it and heard it. Listen to those long catalogues in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” In them you can hear the sorrow of the slave songs, the Parchman Farm prison songs, and the songs about the Erie Canal and the working men and women moving west. Does America need to get back to the blues? It’s never left them. When John Henry broke his heart driving steel, his wife Polly Ann picked up his hammer and drove steel like a man. It’s the same today. Q.You have written about the “Language of Mules”—a topic near to the Southern heart. Mules, that is. And language, too, I realize. Any thoughts on one or both? A.The book is about my parents and their experiences in German concentration camps. The Germans treated them like mules, worse than mules. It was like my parents weren’t human. They were just mules talking the language of mules. My parents weren’t mules, but I grew up knowing that there are people who will treat you like that. Bad people who will push you down, kick you. And if they aren’t doing it to me they’re doing it to somebody else. My brother or my sister. Growing up like that, you know you have to help people. And maybe that’s what the blues is all about. One person in sorrow telling another person in sorrow to just hold on and we’ll get out of this mess we’re in.