Musical imagery, with poems by Steve Matanle, Larnell Custis Butler and Maryhelen Snyder.
Three pieces about music. Well, they’re not really about music. They use music to talk about about other things.
First, a piece from Steve Matanle’s book Nightbook that describes fog.
I am grateful
for the fog,
as if playing
on a tenor sax.
“XXVI by Steve Matanle from his book Nightbook.
This next poem is about someone who uses music to put food on the table.
Larnell Custis Butler said, “I am hearing-impaired, but I’m good at looking at people. To make my drawings,” she said, “I sit still and get very quiet. Then, a name will come into my mind, and then a face, and then that person’s story will begin to come through me, and I write it down.” I see a nose here, eyes there, I remember my mother’s friends, and I put it all together.”
Here from Larnell Custis Butler’s book Improvise in the Amen Corner “Bessie Ferguson Sings Jazz Songs for her Supper.”
Bessie Ferguson sings jazz
Songs in a club that has no
License for musical events.
the club is a sheltering place
For poor folks who do hard work
As dishwashers, hotel workers,
And jobs of Labor that rob
the soul of joy and peace.
Bessie Ferguson sings jazz
Songs to lift the imagination
Of those who cannot believe
In Love again, and where
the splendor of memories is
Absent in the heaven-sent place
that holds dear the mind.
Bessie Ferguson is poor, and
She sings affectionately to her
Each night Bessie Ferguson’s
Family members keep a watch
On the front door to wait
For food that Bessie will bring
the family members to Liberate their
Souls from the secret place
Of their poverty.
Larnell Custis Butler’s poem “Bessie Ferguson Sings Jazz Songs for her Supper” from her book Improvise in the Amen Corner. Larnell said, “My mother was a fine seamstress and sewed all her clothes by hand. Her stitches were perfectly straight and all the same length. I try to imitate her stitches in my drawings.
If you go to Passager’s web site and click on Burning Bright, you can see Larnell’s drawing of Bessie Ferguson.
In the final poem on this episode, the speaker finds music a way to connect with her grandson. Maryhelen Snyder was Passager’s 2016 poetry contest winner. Here’s her poem “Waltzing with Stephen at Jessica’s Wedding.”
And even if he is your grandson
and twenty-eight. and you, eighty two,
and he six feet two, and you
five one and shrinking, your head now
at the height of his steady heart.
And even if he insists, and not only
because you are crippled and each hand
holds a cane, that you lean back to where
you can hear that firm thump thump
and feel his cool sweat as he waltzes you
like a pendulum swinging from star to star.
And even if you sense you are trembling,
as though you were thirteen—or two—
and newborn each time
to this male and female world—
and you resist leaning even as you lean—
please, for God’s sake, love—
“Waltzing with Stephen at Jessica’s Wedding,” Maryhelen Snyder. When asked about writing poetry, she said that Lucille Clifton said that we must wait for the poem to tell us what it wants to say. And when it does, it often cannot be said better any other way. This poem also appears in Maryhelen’s book Never the Loss of Wings. And if you go to the book page on Passager’s web site, click on the “author videos” link, and scroll down the right side of the page, you’ll find a great interview with Maryhelen.
To buy Larnell Custis Butler’s Improvise in the Amen Corner or Steve Matanle’s Nightbook or Maryhelen Snyder’s Never the Loss of Wings or to subscribe to, or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to passagerbooks.com.
You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts, Audible, and a host of other podcast apps.
For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne, and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.
Please note: due to the constraints of online publishing, poems may not appear in their original formatting.