Hell: A Jew in Maine by Allen Lowe
The Scroll is adding to our poetry output with Scroll Verse, a recurring feature that introduces the works of Jewish poets–or in some cases, poets who write on Tablet themes or have Jewish souls. Last week’s excellent poem was “Untitled,” by Talia Lavin. Our latest installment features a poem by Allen Lowe, updating Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
Hell: A Jew in Maine
I lost my mind in Maine
Sending emails in deranged tongues
To organizations of the deaf and the dumb –
To Amy, Queen of Ovations, sipping tea
On Congress Street – oh Amy do you see the smoke across the water,
The late night calls, oh angry daughter
of the monarch?
I saw other minds of other generations
Walking Portland streets, the empty page, no, the empty stage of life –
In Maine, where everything is closed on Sundays – and Mondays and every
Other day; or the Space, where life is younger than the consciousness of life.
I bared my soul to your stages, Amy, but
you sent my letters back – with accusation and lies, Amy.
So here I sit, in Maine, in hell,
No hope left not even coins or wishing well.
Bleeding from my brain my mind the ears the eyes
Both eyes blinded
By Amy’s spear of sharpened light – unprotected day, or night
I sit at my screen exposed to the infra red of the dying and the dead
Who call me daily, to assemble with them in Congress Square –
Or is it Longellow, where the poet watches performances by folkies saddened
By the end of folklore? Or does he see the tired world musicians who sit with oud and wail?
Not all are dead here, most just stare with hollow eyes.
But the dead call me in my sleep and I answer “let me earn my keep”
To which they say you died the day you set foot in Portland –
and I say nothing; they are right. They are right. They are right.
Here homeless Jews cower in temples
where the ink on Torah runs
like blood in the Minsk-like streets of Maine,
of Maine where a Jew’s best days
Were fueled by benzadrine and smoked weeds, if only they could
Brave the light: take the pill and light the paper –
For tenements in Maine are in the mind –
And prison here is in the mind – and dying here is in the mind,
and death seems a spot on my left lobe –
but the mind has taken over.
Amy do you hear me?
Vermont is where the lakes run over –
Maine was where you took the high ground –
why did you tell lies, in public, about the things I sent?
I don’t know where the best minds of my generation have gone
I only know my own mind leaks like a silver sieve –
Scattering Ideas that roll around my feet, so I kick them under the bed with
the books, the music, the dust balls and the last sentence
that I spoke before a dream took over and killed the last sentence
that I spoke.
The schwitzes of the dead give off corpse-like steam
The automat is where I dreamt of Philo Farnsworth
Man of tele- vision, Barbara told me – “meet his daughter.”
West end Avenue and Brownsville streets;
Amy have you visited these places where my dead sleep?
Do you know a thing of Dave Schildkraut and his friend Triglia,
who both now sleep In Bird’s nest, remembering, in sleep, their better days,
When Lester Young told Dave he understood his ways?
Amy do you know the life beyond the dancing troupes of grants and seminars,
Where unconscious scholars tell you what you already know?
Did Julius just tell me that I shouldn’t care
Because his kidney never arrived and he sat up In bed and fell back down,
And watched the ceiling sink into his heart?
Where were you, Amy, when that happened? Did you call the medics,
Did you try to defibrillate before it was much, much too late?
(so sorry Julius, that death came so soon; I keep your picture on my wall
alone; I will not share the space).
Amy did you sit with me at The West End when Dicky Wells
pointed his slide at the wall and sent a message to the ages?
Did you hear Al Haig’s tales of Billy Berg’s, or of Bird’s last call?
Did Tommy Potter open the door of his brownstone castle and
Tell you why Doris was Bird’s real wife? Did Percy France give you advice on life?
Did you listen to Duke Jordan spit and curse, his voice cutting like a knife?
Did Jaki Byard tell you, as a young 25, that he trusted you because you understood his life?
Did you sit and talk of three bosses with Francis Paudras while Bill Evans lay
in his coffin and Joe Puma took the stage?
Did Curley Russell smile when he talked of side life in the shadow of Bird ?
Or did Dizzy tell you tales of Schildkraut’s strange but genius ways?
Did Walter Bishop narrate, for you, the Life of Bud Powell?
Did Joe Albany mention casually as you eased along on the East Side Highway the horse-drugs he took, or the reason why, for 10 long years, he never spoke to Bird?
( “I will call my autobiography ‘I Licked Bird’s Blood’ he says, in memory of needles shared.)
Did Bill Triglia tell you of the Orthodox wedding where Bird showed up to play with him and Wilbur Ware, and where an old Jewish man, inspired by Bird song, danced on a table?
Did Jackie McLean offer you a job?
Or did you simply send my message back, Amy?
Did you speak with Martin Luther King in Coney Island while the waves beat against the sand?
Did you hear Dwight McDonald call your name?
Did you share a stage with Eubie Blake or Roswell Rudd
or with Doc, who once pushed the valves while Bessie sang?
Did Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary stare you in the eye with lysergic innervision while 200,000 children of America screamed in unison for Nixon to fly away?
Did you watch the Dead in Central Park in 1967 while Garcia drove the band, Pigpen gave them life, and thousands stared in disbelief?
Did you stand next to Genet while Mingus fired his drummer?
did Charlie Haden explain to you, in 1969, with patient cadence, how he accompanied Ornette?
Did you sit at Muddy Waters’ feet and feel the earth move? Did your mother tell you of the one-armed Wittgenstein who taught her, or of Ravel’s shimmering gift?
Or did you simply send my message back, Amy?
Because you knew I was long dead.
A shade, a shadow, a body, not at rest
But a body just the same.
Drained of fluid by the embalming Portland night;
You knew, Amy, that the dead cannot talk back
You knew, Amy that the dead cannot argue with the money in your hand
You knew, Amy that the dead cannot find an audience for their grievances
You knew, Amy that the dead have lost their voice
You knew, Amy that the dead are dead are dead are dead are dead.
Allen Lowe is a saxophonist, guitarist, and American music historian who has written extensively on jazz, the blues, country music, and American popular song. As a musician he has recorded with Marc Ribot, Julius Hemphill, Roswell Rudd, Matt Shipp, Erin McKeown, Doc Cheatham, David Murray, and Don Byron. His last CD, Blues and the Empirical Truth, was chosen as one of the Top 15 of 2011 by the New Republic, and his next CD, Autobiography of an Ex White Man, is due out this winter. He is currently trapped in South Portland, Maine.