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Watching the Good Trains Go By: A Suite of Poems to Accompany Collages By Romare Bearden


ISSUE:  Winter 2004

To honor the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition The Art of Romare Bearden, the first comprehensive Bearden retrospective in more than a decade, VQR asked National Book Award-finalist Kevin Young to respond to ten of Bearden’s photomontages. The show will remain at the National Gallery through January 4, 2004, then travel to San Francisco, Dallas, New York, and Atlanta.

The Blues Between Us

Romare Bearden’s sense of history—his range of influences—is almost palpable. Whether in a street scene, a private moment of undress, or a visitation by the “conjur woman,” Bearden’s subjects share the variety and visionary quality of African American culture. What’s more, Bearden’s career, spanning as it does from the Harlem Renaissance through the Black Arts movement and beyond, marks a history of art of the 20th century. Like Jacob Lawrence, Bearden anticipates yet outlives an artist like Jean-Michel Basquiat, for instance. All this means Bearden is to be admired and for me, up to now, avoided—not so much because he is avoidable, mind you, but because he is not. To be asked to appear alongside his “projections” (as he called them), then, is both to name what we understand and intuitively know about him—his dominance and ever-presence—but also to attempt to recapture the immediacy and mystery of his art’s origins.

I have thought of this suite of poems less as a collaboration with Bearden than as inspired and confirmed by Bearden, almost in a religious sense—his aesthetic, so matched as it is to what used to be called Afro-American culture, seemed best honored by a range of blues and moods. He helps us all to see the ways in which the blues aesthetic—which rears its tragicomic head in Bearden in everything from card players to a jumble of faces—is one of collage. Indeed, collage may be one way to understand the blues method: gathering the best floating lines from all over creation in order to make a blues of one’s own. I wanted many of the poems here to sound like something hauntingly familiar, like something heard before, whether gossip or song. Or a collage, with its original elements intact but fractured into something new. After the blues of my last book, where the music provided a guide to the personal, I see the blues here more as trying to capture the historic sense of the blues—how to evoke history in just a title, or a phrase, or a sliver of a face.

In fact, Bearden’s faces—a mix of cutout masks and magazine photos of different sizes—seem not so much distorted, as Picasso’s may, as shifting. His faces seem to imply there’s always a mask—something Picasso himself, taking his cues from African art, well knew. Bearden indeed is reclaiming the mask for the face, making it ceremony and totem, memory and dance, awe- and even fear-inspiring. He saves the mask from the museum’s collection and gives it back to recollections, to “Pittsburgh Memory” or the soothsaying South. Just as the train in the background of his projections is historical and musical—witness Watching the Good Trains Go By with its railroad taking us away, north or west, past or future—the face in Bearden represents a community in itself.

The name “projections,” then, refers not just to the process of making, but of viewing—of projecting ourselves into the work and its sense of memory, its mix of Africa and the Americas. If the projections are about looking, make no mistake: the subjects look back. Not in the come-hither of Demoiselles d’Avignon or a typical odalisque, but almost as if we are interrupting by even looking. “And?” the pictures seem to ask. The song they say is “So What.” This music of the mask may best describe what the poems attempt, not just because of Bearden but also because of the blues we both share. It’s the music of a face-off too-a mix of a “Negro” left anonymous by a WPA field photo and that same someone who knows her own name. But it would be a mistake to see Bearden, or the blues, as mere raw emotion without witnessing the ways Bearden was influenced by (and the blues influenced) a jazz that is by turns emotive and playfully serious, both showoffy and stirring. Such shifts are crucial to seeing what the pictures see, and I hope the poems say. The waves Bearden made are still being felt, and—as the conjur woman knows and a poem like “Guinea Gall” hopes—may be made clear on some other, distant shore.

—Kevin Young, November 2003

 


Dirty Deal Blues

Best advice I ever heard
I learned


at the poker table:
Shut up & deal.


I keep hoping for diamonds
or a handful of hearts


& getting only clubbed. Spades
to dig an early grave.


She said she was feeling flush;
turns out it was just a bluff.


I never call them
that raised me


since I split home.
My closest kin named


No One.
And him long gone.

 

 


Watching the Good Trains Go By

Only the stones
know my name.

The back of our family’s
King James

forgot my birthday

but still keeps a blank space
for my death date.

Sleep a strong wind
that once let me drift—

now, airless nights
strand me

in my battered boat.

Fiddle without a bow.
Pawnshop guitar.

My mouth a harp,
heart a harmonica

in coat pockets so thin
the wind

is my accompanist.

Sleep, I sing.
Forget weeping.

Watching the good trains
go by—Washington

& Dominion, Santa Fe —

I think of jumping a boxcar
wherever stays cooler

than this here dirt
red

as a wound, or the bottom

of the pot boiling
the cure-red

as a child’s backside

whupped till he cries
& then’s switched

silent again.

A torn tom-tom.
Banjo without strings.

Keep me, I sing.
Forgive leaving.

Only the stones
call me home.

 

 


Black Cat Blues

I showed up for jury duty—
turns out the one on trial was me.


Paid me for my time & still
I couldn’t make bail.


Judge that showed up
was my ex-wife.


Now that was some
hard time.


She sentenced me
to remarry.


I chose firing squad instead.
Wouldn’t you know it—


Plenty of volunteers
to take the first shot


But no one wanted to spring
for the bullets.


Governor commuted my sentence to life
in a cell more comfortable


Than this here skin
I been living in.

 

 


West Hell

Sin, thy name is this
wait—this place—
a long ways from Here
to There, from where

last we were
in love, or lust, or not
even close. It’s hot
most the year

& by noon this town shuts
doors, down, the bass
burrowing in the bot-
tom—even our mudfish

with nowheres to go.
The days dry as envy,
we trawl the shallows
& perfect our lies—

the morning’s catch we could
have landed, the ladies
or mens jealousies
we wear as badge, avoid

not at all. How humid
the heart, its messy
rooms! We eat spicy
food, sweat like wood

& smolder like the coal
mine that caught fire
years ago, yet still smokes
more than my uncle

who will not quit—
or go out—

 

 


Lullaby

Sleep, shelter me.
Shuffle

me back into the deck
where I belong—

Sing no shout
your favorite song

until I fall
into your empty arms.

Let me be what
dust has to be, settling

over everything
& I promise to dream

of new houses & old
loves no longer. I swear,

sweet sleep,
I will summon no one

if you make me
again mine.

 

 


Guinea Gall

And one day, when, I will cross
Great Water, walk and reach
that final rise

and find them
singing. There,
in the valley, they all will be.

Forgive me, Grandfather, for wanting
to hear you again
for leaning close to strain

to understand what you are saying.
And, Mother, Father, for expecting
to kiss again your wide hands

even though I still can.
In my breast
pocket I shall keep

the ticket the conductor
sold me
stamped One Wayscaps .
scaps0
That day even rain can’t delay.

And we will sit and rock
and sip our drinks—
watching the sun toward us bring

the red light like an arriving train.

 

 


Say When

Some days there is nothing
of the blues
     I can use
so I put down
my pen & walk instead

humming “Memories
of You” by Louie
Armstrong—
     it won’t be long
before I have forgotten

the words, and soon
enough the words

will have gone
& forgotten me—

the silence we all meet.

I guess at God—
     the road twisting east

or south toward
the quarries,
     fading light.

My body rejecting
my own heart.

Trees touching
above the buildings.

I want to raise
my face
to the blackboard sky—

forgetting how hard
it is for me
not to believe—

& scrawl my name
on a slate

no hand can erase.

 

 


Prayer

Today even the cows are tired
have lain down, tuckered, tucking
their legs beneath them

in prayer. Their thick restless
tongues, tails, their blank
bovine bows.

No wonder we worship cows.

No wonder we let them lick
the salt from our arms.
Or bend beneath them

& borrow their motherhood
make it our own. Have you ever
tasted fresh-pulled milk, slightly

warm? It tastes of whatever
grass you have fed them: blue
or bitter crab. Mint. No wonder

we swallow cows & save
their skins, find out if we fit.

 

 


Quartet

I am tired of this place & want to take
a slow train to the moon—

Just jump the rails out past the pale
peeling walls of this here room.

I feel like a dog that done lost his tail
& keeps barking: soon? so soon?

Lay down outstretched among hail

& fallen stars, the rain’s raggy tune.

 

 


Hard Headed Blues

Me & the Devil are rivals
for God’s affection.

I can’t say who wins.
My father’s name

is Fate,
my son’s Sin.

My guard dog’s got laryngitis
& knows just one trick—

how to let folks in.

Came home early to find
my fiancee stolen—

her ring’s gone to pawn
& my television’s walked off—

Can’t say I mind
that girl’s gone

& that crackerjack ring wouldn’t
cut anything

but why take my Zenith
with the good reception

& leave the one
with sound alone?

I tried but God’s
still unlisted.

I don’t mind using
love letters for fire

but at least leave me
some whiskey

to fan it higher.

Order your air-
conditioned coffin today.

I’m sick of listening
to beauty

pageants, I can’t say
who wins. They keep on

rescheduling Armageddon

but only seats I can get
are in the nosebleed section.

Even Heaven
has evictions.

By accident
my obit ran early

& only the taxman
& that damn dog showed

to mourn me,
his bark’s mute trumpet

my only eulogy.

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