blues, song, & sea: amiri baraka

The distance between the list poem and the ode varies. A list poem, for one, implies attention, if not praise. Yet, the act of listing is the act of making space and placing importance on a subject. Odes, which are made up of mainly attention and praise, also create an empathic space for readers. Whenever I begin to see a list occurring in a poem, I take it as a cue to listen/watch closely: something is being paid attention to in an engaged manner.

In this week’s poem, “Legacy” by Amiri Baraka, what is listed is a series of actions: sleeping, growling, stumbling, frowning, etc. There is a momentum generated in this listing of actions that embodies the tortured tone of the speaker. I call it a “tortured tone” but not a passive one; what this list of actions brings attention to is the act of evocation made possible by song. This speaker goes on to tell us that “(the old songs / lead you to believe)” in the sea. To expand on this logic: Songs, which exist on the air, can create hope, illusion, feelings, etc. out of the very air that holds them.

This poem is dedicated to “Blues People,” and what these people mean to the speaker can be felt through this listing and attention to action. This list itself becomes like the sea, existing in motion as long as the poem is read.

Legacy – Amiri Baraka

(For Blues People)

In the south, sleeping against
the drugstore, growling under
the trucks and stoves, stumbling
through and over the cluttered eyes
of early mysterious night. Frowning
drunk waving moving a hand or lash.
Dancing kneeling reaching out, letting
a hand rest in shadows. Squatting
to drink or pee. Stretching to climb
pulling themselves onto horses near
where there was sea (the old songs
lead you to believe). Riding out
from this town, to another, where
it is also black. Down a road
where people are asleep. Towards
the moon or the shadows of houses.
Towards the songs’ pretended sea.

from Black Magic (Bobbs-Merrill, 1969)

* missing Corpus Christi

mi sea wall es su sea wall...
mi sea wall es su sea wall…

The above image is from the Sea Wall in my hometown of Corpus Christi Texas.  It stretches up and down Ocean Drive, down past the Whataburger by the Bay, down into the palm-trees lining downtown.

Go a little further and you’ll end up at the old site of the factory I used to work at.  We made equipment for oil rigs.  We worked in open-air garages, so close to the water we could look out in the mornings during summer – hurricane season – and watch as little whirlwinds funneled up and over the water, appearing and disappearing against a peach sky.

This week’s poem is one of my own from that time.  An earlier version of the poem was published in Blue Collar Review.  What I feel I finally got right in the present version has everything to do with the word “hands” – how it opens and ends the poem, holds it in place, a young man’s angst funneling up and down in between.

It’s the holidays and I can’t help but get sentimental.  I look at photos like these and hear the water.  Straight up.

Here’s another view, followed by my poem:

cuanto quieres por el downtown?
cuanto quieres por el downtown?

Escape Ropes – Jose Angel Araguz *

Hands raw from setting knots
The few inches apart it takes
For a leg to imagine a ladder,
Ropes designed for escape from a fire
On an oil rig squatted on the gulf,
My mind would work out
Images of men with only the open water
To swim, to march across if they could,
To bob and pray for miracles.

Those knotted afternoons,
The sun made an oven of the warehouse.
The foreman stood me in the back
While other men sat on stools
And looked over, faces worn,
Fingernails yellowed from smoking.
There, I held my tongue,
Grunted against each wince,
And felt fire in my hands.

***

Happy escaping!

jose

* published originally in Blue Collar Review.