Thursday, December 28, 2023

The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber

Source of book: I own this


George Kaufman was arguably the biggest name in Broadway comedy during his lifetime. I have previously discussed two of his plays, You Can’t Take It With You (with Moss Hart), and The Cocoanuts, which became a Marx Brothers smash. 


I ran across a Library of America edition of Kaufman’s comedies, and decided to read through them over time. These are all co-written, with Moss Hart and others. I decided to start at the beginning, with The Royal Family, which is one of three in this collection co-written by Edna Ferber. 


My previous experience with Edna Ferber was Giant, which was one of the most disappointing and frustrating classics I ever read. Not that it was bad - quite the opposite. It was a fine story while it lasted, but then it just…ended. It’s like Ferber got tired of it and just stopped writing. This was made more frustrating by the fact that the book opens with the big, dramatic scene, then has to go back in time to explain how we got there. And then once the explanation is complete, “The End.” 


The Royal Family is a “backstage” comedy - a behind the scenes look at actors and playwrights. In this case, it is the Cavendish family, an old acting family going back generations. There are three acts, the first two taking place over two days, and the third a year later. The central conflict is the decision of Gwen, the youngest female Cavendish, to give up acting [gasp!] so she can marry a man who would like to see her sometimes rather than be a stage-widower. [double gasp!]


This coincides with another crisis: young Tony, having run off to Hollywood, suddenly re-appears, pursued by a Breach of Promise suit [lawyers nerd out here] from a Polish actress. He sneaks into the house just ahead of the paparazzi, and needs to make an immediate escape to Europe. 


This triggers a third crisis for Julie, as she herself reconsiders whether the stage life is fulfilling for her. When her one-time beau reappears, now a businessman with interests in South America, she considers marrying him and taking her own departure. 


These crises are deeply upsetting to Fanny, the matriarch of the family, whose identity is tied up in being The Royal Family of the stage. Doing anything else is unthinkable. 


Kaufman takes this basic plot as the vehicle for poking fun at all facets of the stage, from egotistical playwrights to agents to modern staging to, well, everything. Nothing is sacred. 


I may have to give a few spoilers along the way, so sorry about that. A few of the best lines are a bit revealing, unfortunately. 


Kaufman doesn’t write endless and philosophical stage directions like George Bernard Shaw, but he does give detailed instructions for the set and costumes. The opening of the play is practically chaos, with people entering and exiting, offstage noises and voices, the doorbell and both phones ringing off the hook. Yes, TWO phones - one with an outside line, the other internal, to communicate with the servants. A running joke is that the person at the door is never the one the characters think it is. 


Tony turns out to already have a reputation about him, so his punching a director and being pursued by a lawsuit are no surprise to the family. This exchange is fun:


Julie: We’ve got to keep the newspapers off him. You know Tony and the papers. They’ve been laying for him ever since that Mauretania thing. 

Kitty: I must say I don’t blame them.

Dean: Yes, he never should have thrown that reporter overboard. 

Wolfe: It was a big mistake.


There is also a great line in the scene where Julie and Fanny are discussing Julie’s old beau, Gilbert, who is returning. 


Julie: I wonder what he’s like now. He may have grown very charming. South America, and millions, and perhaps a little grey here. (Touches her temple.) Sounds rather romantic.

Fanny: No more romantic now than he was nineteen years ago! Ah! What a siege that was!

Julie: And what a demon you were!

Fanny: I had to be. You thought because he looked serious and didn’t say much that he was doing a lot of deep thinking. I knew it was because he couldn’t think of anything to say. 

Julie: You certainly acted like a mother in a melodrama. 


As we find out in Act Three, Julie has decided to run off with Gilbert….after she finishes her epic run in a successful play, which is why we are a year later. We also learn that Gwen has married Perry, and they have a son. Fanny is in ill health, even if she won’t admit it, and the children want her to retire. Wolfe, the family’s long-time agent, realizes he is at risk for losing his best clients. 


Wolfe: So. You - Gwen - Fanny - that ends it, huh? And for you there’s no excuse. 

Julie: I’m going to be married, Oscar. That’s a pretty good excuse.

Wolfe: Tell me, what do you talk about when you’re with this fellow? The theatre he says he don’t care about. Imagine!

Julie: There are other things in the world beside the theatre.

Wolfe: Sure! But not  for you.

Julie: I want to relax, and play around, and have some fun.

Wolfe: Fun! Fun is work! It’s work that’s fun. You’ve had more fun in the last twenty years than any woman in America. 

It shouldn’t be a big surprise that the stage draws everyone back in by the end. Gwen finds she is bored by her baby, and misses the lights. Perry, fortunately, has come around. 


Gwen: Perry, you do feel alright about it, don’t you? Because if you don’t, I just won’t do it, that’s all.

Perry: Why, of course you’ll do it. What do a few weeks matter!


I can see a bit of my own marriage there. Three months after each kid was born, Amanda went back to work part time on night shift. She would have gone totally stir crazy if home had become her entire life. And, like Perry, I backed her up. 


At the very end, even baby Stewart is dragged in for a bit part. Fanny keeps referring to him as Aubrey, the historic family name associated with the greatest Cavendish of all time. 


Fanny: To Aubrey Cavendish!

Gwen: Stewart!

Fanny: That won’t stop him! He’s a Cavendish, and he’s going to carry on. We always have, and we always will. When one drops out there’s always another one to take his place. (A pause. She starts to repeat the last phrase, but in a different tone.) When one drops out, there’s always another - 


And this portends the ending a bit, which is darker than the preceding play would cause you to expect. But perhaps it is in the spirit after all: the people may change, but the Cavendish family lives on. The queen is dead. Long live the queen. 


Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Jazz Poems (Various Authors)

Source of book: I own this


Over the last few years, with the kids getting old enough to look after themselves for an night or two, my wife and I have started attending some LA Phil concerts. In addition to playing classical music, I love to hear it live, without the pressure of performance. And, the LA Phil is a world class orchestra. 


All this to say that they have an affiliated story there at Disney Hall, and my wife got me this slim Everyman’s Library edition last year for Christmas. I decided to read it this December.


The poems are selected by Kevin Young, who also selected the poems in the larger volume from the Library of America, African American Poetry. I wrote about the first section of that volume here


For Jazz Poems, the unifying theme is, naturally, Jazz, the musical genre. The poems are by a wide variety of poets, both African American and otherwise (and that encompasses more than just white folks.) In genre, they span from Jazz lyrics to poems complaining about Jazz. (Looking at you, Vachel Lindsay…) With such a variety, there is no way to try to sum up the collection, or describe it. The best I could do is to select the ones that spoke to me the most this time through it. 


Jazz occupies a strange place in my life. It kind of fell through the cracks in my early years. Neither of my parents liked it - my mom abhorred it, along with any other music that sounded obviously “Black.” I didn’t fully understand this until my teens: the fact that she hated saxophones, Gershwin, most Motown, and definitely the kind of melisma you find in Gospel (but she liked the melisma of Handel and bel canto, so…) If it sounded “Black,” she disliked it. My dad was always more broad in taste, but never got into Jazz. 


And then, of course, there was our Gothard years, when anything with “Black” roots was considered demonic. Pop, Rock, Jazz, and certainly Hip Hop. 


As a violinist, I didn’t learn on the stuff. Really, my big exposure (unless you count Kenny G on the radio at the local department store) was when I started playing with our local college orchestra, and we did combined concerts with the concert band and jazz band. It was…a learning curve. I still remember some of the licks from Chuck Mangione’s classic Land of Make Believe, though, so there is that. 


After that, though, there was a lot more. A group of musician friends had a seven piece Dixieland group, the Southside Chicago Seven. (Alas, I cannot find any of their stuff online, but I do have their CDs in regular rotation.) And, my then girlfriend (now wife of 22 years) got me into Ella Fitzgerald. Between the local Jazz scene, that gateway into classic big band stuff, and my own exploration of music after I moved out and no longer had to explain myself (or lie to) my mom about music. 


I won’t say I am as well educated about Jazz as I am about Classical, for obvious reasons. And I still struggle to sight read Jazz rhythms. But I have come to appreciate the genre a lot more, and certainly it is true that any musician who is truly excellent at Jazz can pretty much excel at any form of music. The rhythmic training and skill needed, the expanded vocabulary of chords, and the ability to spin any element of a tune into an extended exploration of sonic space - these are things Beethoven and Brahms would recognize. 


For combining poetry and music in any form, there is the need for a common set of building blocks. Those of us raised on hymns (white people music from the 17th through 19th centuries…) know that you can sing a lot of things to the same tune. (Um, Gilligan’s Island?) The vocabulary, both of the language and of the rhythm, are the same. 


Likewise for other genres, though. Hip Hop has its own poetic style, of course, and a poem that fits that genre will be instantly recognizable even without the music. Blues likewise - Langston Hughes wrote some incredible Blues lyrics that any musician can set to a 12 bar song without difficulty. 


Jazz too. If there is one unifying style in this anthology, it is that the vocabulary of the poems - the words and the rhythms - is that of Jazz. (Except for you, Vachel Lindsay - you sound so white and square.) One might even say - and I do - that much of the best of modern poetry draws from the sound and feel of Jazz. And Hip Hop too. Just as with music, the way forward in the 20th Century for art was, as it has always been, a fusion with neglected and marginalized voices. 


With nearly 250 pages of poems, it was difficult to select the ones to feature. There were so many great ones that I won’t mention. I will likely see different highlights next time I read this. But here are the ones that particularly spoke to me. 


Let’s start with good old Vachel Lindsay - not that he was a bad poet, but that he was a bad critic - and the backlash that has always been there against all African American genres of music, and continues to this day. The introduction by Kevin Young is wonderful in every way, but his description of this backlash is just outstanding. 


This is not to say that jazz, even early on, is without controversy - rather, Vachel Lindsay’s “The Jazz of this Hotel” stands in for a number of poems (and many more editorials) questioning the music’s seeming atonality, disharmony, amorality, and downright noise - opinions that crop up perennially. But jazz can take it. 


On that note, here is Lindsay’s dour response to Jazz:


The Jazz of This Hotel


Why do I curse the jazz of this hotel?

I like the slower tom-toms of the sea;

I like the slower tom-toms of the thunder;

I like the more deliberate dancing knee

Of outdoor love, of outdoor talk and wonder.

I like the slower, deeper violin

Of the wind across the fields of Indian corn;

I like the far more ancient violoncello

Of whittling loafers telling stories mellow

Down at the village grocery in the sun;

I like the slower bells that ring for church

Across the Indiana landscape old. 

Therefore I curse the jazz of this hotel

That seems so hot, but is so hard and cold.


I probably would not have noticed all the dog whistles earlier in my life. But feel free to substitute “white” for “slower.” And notice the belief that Jazz is “new” while white genres are “old.” So, certainly, the old man shaking his cane, but also a misunderstanding of rootedness. White America likes to claim descent from ancient Europe, but this is no more (or less) true than the idea that Jazz and other African American art forms descend from ancient Africa. I’ll also note his feeling that Jazz is “hard and cold” compared to what he likes better. All this shows is that he prefers what is familiar - and cannot see how Jazz resonated for his fellow humans with darker skin. 


By the way, this is not intended as a general diss against Lindsay. Some of his poems are transcendently good. But he had a definite issue with African Americans and other people of color, and never did figure out how to understand their lives and art without imposing his own supremacist blind spots. I’ll leave it to W.E.B. DuBois to give the epic smackdown:


“Mr. Vachel Lindsay knows two things, and two things only, about Negroes: The beautiful rhythm of their music and the ugly side of their drunkards and outcasts. From this poverty of material he tries now and then to make a contribution to Negro literature. It goes without saying that he only partly succeeds.”


I guess I just spent far too much of this post on Lindsay, but I think I did so because of my family history - it is still a trauma to me that I had to lie to my mom about how I played drums, because she had zero interest in actually listening to me about the issue: that would have required that she acknowledge that the charlatans that she believed were so full of shit that they didn’t even understand elementary musical theory. They were just straight up fucking racists. 


Okay, let’s move on past Lindsay and the white supremacists who still rail against music and art by people of color. It’s time for some Langston Hughes, arguably one of the finest and most truly American voices of the 20th Century. 


Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret


Play that thing.

Jazz band!

Play it for the lords and ladies,

For the dukes and counts,

For the whores and gigolos,

For the American millionaires,

And for the school teachers

Out for a spree.

Play it,

Jazz band!

You know that tune

That laughs and cries at the same time.

You know it.


            May I?

            Mais oui.

            Mein Gott!

            Parece una rumba.

Play it, jazz band!

You’ve got seven languages to speak in

And then some,

Even if you do come from Georgia.

            Can I go home wid yuh, sweetie?



And THAT, readers, is the difference between Lindsay’s deafness, and what Jazz (and other genres) mean to those who are part of the scene. 


Also, damn if Langston Hughes wasn’t a freaking genius. One of my favorite poets since I discovered him in high school. 


The next poem really needs some background. Maxwell Bodenheim was one of the “Beat” poets - so think Jack Kerouac. Bodenheim was quite the figure of the Jazz Age, but between alcohol, mental illness, homelessness, and general difficulty functioning in the modern world. He and his third wife were brutally murdered by a man who had slept with Bodenheim’s wife, possibly as part of a monetary transaction to keep her and him from starving. It’s a pretty lurid story. That said, this is an interesting poem. According to the original text, the odd-numbered lines are to be spoken slowly, and the even ones quickly. Give it a try, and see how the speed affects the meaning. It’s brilliant. 


Bringing Jazz


Last night I had an oboe dream - 

Whistlers in a box-car madness bringing jazz.

Their faces stormed in a hobo-gleam,

Blinding all the grinding wheels and singing jazz.

The box-car gloried in its dirt - 

Just a hallelujah made of changing mud. 

And one old bum opened up his shirt,

Showing wounds of music in his ranting blood.

The hoboes sang with scorching notes

Burning up the pain into a gale of jazz,

While sadness poured in their shaking throats.

Like a molten bugle in a wail of jazz.

The rails were jails for death and rust -

Holding up the cruel, dark blue speed of jazz - 

But life still stirred underneath their crust - 

Little hums and clicks brought by the need of jazz.

Within the box-car, hoboes leaped - 

Fatalists and pagans in a carefree trap - 

And when they sang of hungers reaped,

Bread and wine of sound came from a dark god’s lap!

The hoboes made a fox-trot blaze -

Scorning women, gliding in a sexless dance - 

And on their coats of ragged baize

Ghosts of orchids fluttered down and looked askance!

The jungle sent a moan of sound - 

Made it blend into an oath of northern grime.

A music came, flaring and profound,

Flayed with rapture half repelled and half sublime.

And then I saw the dream’s dark spring - 

Hurricanes of jazz born from the underworld.

“Saint Louie Gal with a diamond ring”

Danced with mobs of hoboes while the thunder swirled!


A bit of difference between Bodenheim and Lindsay? Maybe the harder life meant a bit more empathy…and understanding of other art forms. Next up is Gwendoly Brooks, another African-American luminary of the 20th Century. I feel like I read this somewhere long ago, but it can’t have been in my school curriculum given its horror of alcohol…


We Real Cool


We real cool. We

Left school. We


Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We


Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We


Jazz June. We

Die soon. 


So much in so short of a poem.


I also wanted to mention a few lines from a poem by Frank Marshall Davis, another African-American poet who met the teenaged Barak Obama, and was apparently a significant influence. There are a couple of lines from his longer poem, “Jazz Band,” that I thought were so great they were worth mentioning. You can (and should) read the whole thing


In describing Jazz, Davis describes the “short tan notes from the piano” and “Make ‘em shout a crazy jargon of hot hosannas to a fiddle-faced jazz god.” Just great lines. 


There are a number of Jazz lyrics in the collection. One of the best, in my opinion, is this Fats Waller song:


Black and Blue


Out in the street, shufflin' feet

Couples passin' two by two

While here am I, left high and dry

Black, and 'cause I'm black I'm blue


Browns and yellers, all have fellers

Gentlemen prefer them light

Wish I could fade, can't make the grade

Nothing but dark days in sight


Cold, empty bed, springs hard as lead

Pains in my head, feel like old Ned

What did I do to be so black and blue?


No joys for me, no company

Even the mouse ran from my house

All my life through I've been so black and blue


I'm white inside, it don't help my case

'Cause I can't hide, what is on my face, oh!


I'm so forlorn, life's just a thorn

My heart is torn, why was I born?

What did I do to be so black and blue?


'Cause you're black, folks think you lack

They laugh at you, and scorn you too

What did I do to be so black and blue?


On the subject of prejudice and colorism, First Lady Jill Biden pretty much freaked out the Right Wing by posting a tap dance video featuring the classic Jazz version of the Nutcracker Suite by Duke Ellington. Unsurprisingly, our modern Right Wing got their KKK hoods in a knot over black people dancing, because anything truly American (meaning NOT WHITE) is making them lose their shit these days. 


I love Duke Ellington, not least because of his small-ensemble recordings featuring an earthy and imaginative fiddle part that has inspired some of my own improvisational playing over the years. Ellington’s collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, wrote many of the lyrics the band recorded. As a black and gay American, Strayhorn is doubly hated by the Right these days. I present one of his best lyrics from this anthology. You can interpret the lyrics as either the elegance of Jazz and the artistic lifestyle, or as the degeneracy and despair of alcoholism. The bivalency is inherent in the poetry. 


Lush Life


I used to visit all the very gay places,

Those come-what-may places,

Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life

To get the feel of life

From jazz and cocktails.


The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces

With distingue traces

That used to be there.

You could see where

They'd been washed away

By too many through the day

Twelve o'clock tales.


Then you came along 

With your siren of song

To tempt me to madness.

I thought for a while 

That your poignant smile

Was tinged with the sadness

Of a great love for me.


Ah yes! I was wrong

Again, I was wrong!


Life is lonely again,

And only last year 

Everything seemed so sure.

Now life is awful again,

A troughful of hearts could only be a bore.

A week in Paris will ease the bite of it,

All I care is to smile in spite of it.


I'll forget you, I will

While yet you are still 

Burning inside my brain.

Romance is mush, stifling those who strive.

I'll live a lush life in some small dive

And there I'll be, while I rot with the rest 

Of those whose lives are lonely, too.


Another nod to Ellington and Strayhorn is this lovely poem by Ntozake Shange. 


Mood Indigo


it hasn’t always been this way

ellington was not a street

robeson no mere memory

du bois walked up my father’s stairs

hummed some tune over me

sleeping in the company of men

who changed the world


it wasn’t always like this

why ray barretto used to be a side-man

& dizzy’s hair was not always grey

i remember             i was there

i listened in the company of men

politics as necessary as collards

music even in our dreams


our house was filled with all kinda folks

our windows were not cement or steel

our doors opened like our daddy’s arms

held us safe & loved

children growing in the company of men

old southern men & young slick ones

sonny til was not a boy

the clovers no rag-tag orphans

our crooners/ we belonged to a whole world

nkrumah was no foreigner

virgil aikens was not the only fighter


it hasn’t always been this way

ellington was not a street


I also want to include this one by Bob Kaufman, another of the Beat poets - in this case African American - who had a difficult life, struggling with incarceration, drug addiction, and mental illuness. He took a vow of silence after Kennedy’s assassination, and didn’t speak until the end of the Vietnam war. Wow. Also, this poem is thoroughly badass. 


War Memoir


Jazz - listen to it at your own risk.

At the beginning, a warm dark place. 


(Her screams were trumpet laughter,

Not quite blues, but almost sinful.)


Crying above the pain, we forgave ourselves;

Original sin seemed a broken record.

God-played blues to kill time, all the time.

Red-waved rivers floated us into life.


(So much laughter, concealed by blood and faith;

Life is a saxophone played by death.)


Greedy to please, we learned to cry;

Hungry to life, we learned to die.

The heart is a sad musician,

Forever playing the blues.


The blues blow life, as life blows fright;

Death begins, jazz blows soft in the night,

Too soft for ears of men whose minds

Hear only the sound of death, of war,

Of flagwrapped cremation in bitter lands. 


No chords of jazz as mud is shoveled 

Into the mouths of men; even the blues shy

At cries of children dying on deserted corners.

Jazz deserted, leaving us to our burning.


(Jazz is an African traitor.)


What one-hundred-percent redblooded savage

Wastes precious time listening to jazz

With so much important killing to do?


Silence the drums, that we may hear the burning

Of Japanese in atomic colorcinemascope,

And remember the stereophonic screaming. 


Both as an anti-war poem and as a paean to the power of music, it is powerful. I particularly love the line about wasting time on music when there is all that important killing to do. Fucking nailed it. 


Next up is another poem with colors in the title, this one by Darrell Burton, who tragically died in a house fire just before his poetry collection was published. I absolutely LOVE this poem, which is so evocative of a mood, an feeling, a seminal event in a life. 


Blue in Green


Miles' muted horn penetrates

like liquid, melancholy medicine

to the pinched nerve

of an old miser. I'd hit

the winning shot at State that night;

teary-eyed, Tina kissed me -

way past any doubt, then

wore distance like

a torn red dress the next day.


I feel the rend again - in the piano,

I hear her long, practiced excuses

in Coltrane's troubling tenor -

mixed with this loneliness

I'd felt at seventeen, standing

between rusted railroad tracks

in July.


I turn the lights off -

they go black.


Spare, midnight tones tug at me,

I lean back hard into the past:

I see that winning shot go in,

I see her run at me, again,

and for a moment - she's there

mingled in Coltrane's tenor.

What if


I never get past this pain,

just then Miles wavers back in

with an antidote -

traying eights behind

the ivorys. It works

this time, if I only knew

how it means.


Man, that’s just straight-up excellent. Next up is one by Kamau Brathwaite, a poet from Barbados. 




Propped against the crowded bar

he pours into the curved and silver horn

his old unhappy longing for a home


the dancers twist and turn

he leans and wishes he could burn

his memories to ashes like some old notorious emperor


of rome, but no stars blazed across the sky when he was born

no wise men found his hovel; this crowded bar

where dancers twist and turn,


holds all the fame and recognition he will ever earn

on earth or heaven. he leans against the bar

and pours his old unhappy longing in the saxophone


This ambivalent approach to music, jazz, and life is one of the most beautiful tensions in this anthology. Music is an expression of all of that sadness, longing, and even despair. Again, let’s return to Langston Hughes. 


Lenox Avenue: Midnight


The rhythm of life
Is a jazz rhythm,
The gods are laughing at us.

The broken heart of love,
The weary, weary heart of pain,—
To the rumble of street cars,
To the swish of rain.

Lenox Avenue,
And the gods are laughing at us.


Next up is one from William Matthews, with a rather wry look at youth and its angst. 


Mingus at the Showplace


I was miserable, of course, for I was seventeen,

and so I swung into action and wrote a poem,


and it was miserable, for that was how I thought

poetry worked: you digested experience and shat


literature. It was 1960 at The Showplace, long since

defunct, on West 4th St., and I sat at the bar,


casting beer money from a thin reel of ones,

the kid in the city, big ears like a puppy.


And I knew that Mingus was a genius. I knew twoo

other things but as it happened they were wrong.


So I made him look at the poem.

‘There’s a lot of that going around,’ he said.


and Sweet Baby Jesus he was right. He glowered

at me but he didn’t look as if he thought


bad poems were dangerous, the way some poets do.

If they were baseball executives they’d plot


to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game

could be saved from children. Of course later


that night he fired his pianist in mid-number

and flurried him from the stand.


‘We’ve suffered a diminuendo in personnel,’

he explained, and the band played on. 


Here is another one by a white poet, Paul Zimmer, but one that understands the universality of Jazz, and also the reasons for the backlash. 


One O’Clock Jump


Still tingling with Basie’s hard cooking, 

between sets I stood at the bar

when the man next to me ordered 

scotch and milk. I looked to see who had 

this stray taste and almost swooned 

when I saw it was the master.

Basie knocked his shot back,

then, when he saw me gaping,

raised his milk to my peachy face

and rolled out his complete smile

before going off with friends 

to leave me in that state of grace.


A year later I was renting rooms 

from a woman named Tillie who wanted

no jazz in her dank, unhallowed house.

Objecting even to the lowest volume of solo piano,

she’d puff upstairs to bang on my door.


I grew opaque, unwell,

slouched to other apartments,

begging to play records. 

Duked, dePrezed, and unBased,

longing for Billy, Monk, Brute, or Zoot,

I lived in silence through

that whole lost summer. 


Still, aware of divine favor, I bided time

and waited for the day of reckoning. 

My last night in Tillie’s godless house,

late - when I knew she was hard asleep -

I gave her the full One O’Clock Jump,

having Basie ride his horse of perfect time

like an avenging angel over top volume,

hoisting his scotch and milk as he galloped

into Tillie’s ear, headlong down her throat

to roar all night in her sulfurous organs. 


I’ll end with (who else?) Langston Hughes once more. There are many poems here about or dedicated to Billie Holiday. Perhaps no other singer of her era did more to express the true feelings of Black Americans. Feelings about lynchings, prejudice, despair, hate, and oppression. 


Song For Billie Holiday


What can purge my heart

            Of the song

            And the sadness?

What can purge my heart

            But the song

            Of the sadness?

What can purge my heart

            Of the sadness

            Of the song?


Do not speak of sorrow

With dust in her hair

Or bits of dust in eyes

A chance wind blows there.

The sorrow that I speak of 

Is dusted with despair.


Voice of muted trumpet,

Cold brass in warm air.

Bitter television blurred

By sound that shimmers - 



Those are my favorites - the poems that spoke most deeply to me. This is a compact, inexpensive volume, but it contains multitudes. It is a good addition to any collection of poetry.