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Mostly Hamburg: ’72


ISSUE:  Winter 2020

 

for and after Kwame Dawes

Confusion is the foreigner’s advantage. Natives 
tamp the nuance in their sounds. Stranger 
seeking refuge pockets vowels, picks gesture,
learns body, gets caught up on the cobble  
slang of shoes. The polite in this tram-knit 
city far from English smile quick
but their toes? Uneasy. Hump leather. Squeak. 
A Channel boat and hyphenated rolling stock 
from London, and London from his ackee trees
an iron bird away, he practices in silence as he walks
the bird-flecked squares, tweed hat on his half-dread 
’fro at bias, murmurs new songs, scatters wild 
consonants that roost now in his mouth. 
In empty churches that stood firm while getting dusted 
by bomb-plumes one turns easy to infinity and origin,
to how some children if god-blest just have 
it natural: organ pipes. Halfway to Rasta 
but so way-far-way from home, prayer becomes 
a little easy, comes to him organic-like 
where beer has names like Weizen
starts to anchor in this place where
no one (yet) says nigger, but the bread 
will chop your mouth; and there’s been months of this, 
two seasons, time the sweaters swagged in 
sticky Kingston serve. Reggae masters dress 
up cold  to say they travel, but what circumnavigates 
is just their songs, lyrics that betray, go abroad 
with promise as to Panama, but only drabs return. 
Muddle is the foreigner’s advantage. 
With slow talk and hand signals, pictures poked at 
while spotting needle in the groove,
I play LPs from my satchel for the curious,
drink what they bring deeply, watch 
them smiling, feeling jokified by how 
they clap their brows, not to what is sung 
exactly, just the loosey-tighty sound:
Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, 
and me in and with the whole of them 
just riddim different swung. Once, in my bedsit 
I watched eyes die and nose-holes enliven,
twitch as mysteries in the soulcase were wooed 
and I was wheeled back to my grandfather’s 
cement church near Dungle, 
eight and speechless from mama water broke
and two doves clawed my epaulets; I was
lifted as I sung in what said some was Latin, 
others said was normal clap-hand tongues;
but what it was it was, and what it was came rapid,
flocks of fire black and silver lifting from my throat 
and I could see their sound make patterns—yes, 
a vision shook me. To see sounds above a praising 
congregation shape one way quite certain then quick-shift 
like soldiers on a dress-up march or shine starlings—
(Know those small, black birds?)—that’s a mystic,
and so, all the way from mento, ska, doo-wop, and rocksteady 
into this here catapultic time I sing from mystic, 
even my love songs—them is mystic, mystic mix with soul, 
so no producer can predict me, no chord can bind me 
for I can quick-change where my music goes. 
Dear Lord, what wrong have I done thee, why did
you change your heart? Why did you blight 
thine own promise? How many songs must your servant
sow before he reaps? I hold steadfast while
others sing less tuneful, demand sparse brasses,
bleat righteous, eat calabashes full of Ital then
rehearse the hunger-sound. As these stained saints
gaze down on me I am bilious, broken, broke.
Even minor reggae masters know the ginnal roots of myth,
know to make it seem natural, ever-there—adventitious— 
that rehearsed amalgam: prince royal, prophet, pimp;
and so he goes about his days singing softly as if unto 
himself, marking the squares, consoling lindens
on the tram-keloided streets, trailing that silk smell
of soul music like the fighter-pilot scarf he likes to wear,
the throat language coming slow-no-itching
as he gives his neighbors greetings, but he still scouts
out their feet; friendly, but in character standoffish, 
screw-face, naw-beg-nutten-from-nobaddy. 
How we say aloof

 

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