When I was ten, I was in a movie. It was a very famous movie. It ran in theaters for over a month, bringing in more and more revenue for the production company. When it finally came out on VHS (it was old enough that it was a tape, with reels inside it), the film grossed in the millions. The director was hailed as “visionary”, the actors as “superb”. The film itself became famous for having been one of the best horror movies of the year (1992). Critics said that it had “truly ushered in a new era of horror, one in which the innocent and benign murder recklessly”. The review that held these words was taped to my wall, for I’d been mentioned by name, praised, and it was a very well known newspaper, indeed. “Sharon Ellis, a real child actor who will no doubt amount to something great, gives a phenomenal debut performance. Her emotion and sensual expression are truly remarkable for such a young girl so new to the scene.” I used to read those words, over and over again, and imagine the critic who had written them watching me on the big screen before them....
July 10th, 2010
Does god play the ribs of a starving infant
In the Sudan like the kalimbe you
Can buy in the gift shop in the airport
Where tourists, doctors, murderers come and go
And we know nothing of their destinations or their
Motivations? Does god play on the bald head
July 4th, 2010
One black leather pump hides under the sofa; the other skidded behind the front door, keeled over in shock. Stockings lie limp on the carpet, slim legs broken, and shrunken feet awry at the heels, pale rungs shred up the thigh, as jagged and useless as fear. A gold chain lies coiled like a snake, broken beyond repair, not sparkling, just stunned.
In the bathroom, water gushes wild and wide from the metal spigot, creeps up the sides of steep white porcelain an inch at a time, swirls with thick steam and current from the source, a dank basement room, a mystery pumping system, a light hum in the pipes and a bill at the end of the month. She squeezes her lashes then twists the tap shut. Leg poised, she dips a foot...
March 10th, 2010
Baffled sound distinguishes each instrument.
Oblational as bread and wine, the symphony is offered up
Daliance with obligatory matters has no place here.
Abiotic as a stone, the tone still is lively:
cabaret saxophone and trumpet indiscretion.
February 2nd, 2010
Something You Can Count On
I had, once, a Captain Midnight ring
that told the weather, or so they said.
Frankly, I don’t remember Captain Midnight,
didn’t listen to him much.
Don’t know what made him special,
what made him Captain Midnight, for that matter.
But I didn’t need to, knew in my 1947 heart of hearts
December 27th, 2009
TRIMMING THE UNKNOWN
I open the door to the jetsam of black curls
Cast into a linoleum sea
As fluorescent light glints off scissors and smiles.
Smelling the shaving cream and my own fear,
I sit in a distant chair and pick up a magazine,
Glance up from time to time
December 22nd, 2009
Thanksgiving, 1968. I can’t remember what I ate for dinner last night, but I see that day as clearly as if I’m watching it on an old Magnavox. My mother Rose buzzes around our cramped two-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York, her hair in rollers, no makeup. She’s beautiful though, anyone would agree. It’s early in the day. She retrieves the tablecloth my grandmother embroidered when a teenager herself from the back of the hall closet, and sets the dining table in the foyer with her best dishes (black and white Noritake), silver plate from Fortunoff’s, and real cloth napkins in a tasty shade of pumpkin. She’s been up since five cooking; pies were baked the night before. But although her culinary plans are running smoothly, my mother’s mood is lethal....
November 10th, 2009
In the fall of 1991 I believed I would be the next Charlie Parker. Few of the bands on campus had even heard of Bird, and the few that had did not want a flute player. This did not deter me. I was out on the commons at UCLA riffing on “Confirmation” when Nadine found me.
“That makes my nipples hard.” She smiled.
I lowered my flute and stared. She was wearing a man’s dress shirt, as if she’d spent the night away. The shirt did little to hide the truth of her statement. But that wasn’t what got my attention. It was her face. She had the knack of smiling with her whole face – eyes, cheeks, lips, nose. Everything got into the act....
July 15th, 2009
Pantoum: Carson McCullers and Misanthropy at Yaddo
An odd child, I sprawled in bed, conjured her square pale face,
Propelled myself into her enormous dark eyes
And imagined, for years, that I curled inside her mind.
At Yaddo I drank sherry from a thermos, strode lank-legged
March 22nd, 2009
There’s this painting she keeps staring at.
She imbibes it, absorbs everything it has to offer. A lilting shade of lavender, it features fourteen flawless flowers arranged with a meandering dissonance that flies in the face of the frame’s four square corners. They make its math seem maddening, symmetry superfluous.
“I like it,” she says quietly, tucking long brown strands of slightly curly hair behind her ears. She turns towards me slowly then, notes the slight adversarial something in my eyes. Intimately familiar with my proclivity for irreverent mocking, she now offers a slight smirk that seems just one shade shy of sly. Aware of my antagonism,...
March 15th, 2009
An overgrown trail is abruptly halted by a set of rusting metal gates,
Secured to a crooked post by a battered padlock and feeble chain.
A grey guard tower lies out of sight, studying the unfolding scene intently,
From the dense undergrowth where fresh raindrops glisten in the new-born sunlight.
January 22nd, 2009
Pondering the Musical Style of Thelonious Monk
January 4th, 2009
If Mom and Dad had heard about my friend Benny and all that jazz from me, they’d have handled it. But when my fifth grade teacher ratted on us, it became a big, fat deal. Mom had to meet me in the front office after school and we silently trudged back to my classroom, both taking refuge in our own mental world.
Mrs. Drake motioned us to identical chairs in front of her desk. “I don’t want to alarm you. This isn’t an emergency, Mrs. McKenzie.” She forced her goosy face into a sympathetic mask. “Cathy’s not a problem child by any means.”
Mom’s shoulders relaxed under her starched cotton housedress, but her hands clutched the white gloves and tooled leather pocketbook positioned mid-lap....
November 7th, 2008
My father was a Catholic jazz musician
Say one Our Father, two Hail Marys,
and listen to twelve recordings of John Coltrane.
Dip your fingers in the font of holy water,
make your way to a pew,
genuflect, take your seat,
and meditate on the perfection of Thelonious chords.
August 6th, 2008
The first of my notes read I’M IN A STATE OF DISBELIEF. I left this one on top of a counter at a place where many of the thousands of people who worked in the same building as I did went to get their coffees and pastries in the morning.
The second note went AN ANGEL GOT IN BED WITH ME LAST NIGHT — OR MAYBE IT WASN’T AN ANGEL. I taped this one to the inside of the door of one of the stalls in the public bathroom of the same building....
July 10th, 2008
I can’t fight. I’m not made for it. When I’m backed into a corner I can run, and that’s what I’m good at. I can’t gather myself to put up an opposition. I begin to quake and crumble and the parts of myself split into ever-smaller parts that want to get away as fast as possible. I’m an explosion, a spectacle to momentarily confuse the enemy. Also a physical wreck. The only movement that suits me is flight. My parts will converge into a fluid line of energy, but only in movement. It’s the way I’m made. If I held my hand out, lengthened my fingers for you and attempted to keep as still as possible, you would marvel at the trembling. But then give me a guitar and this same hand will produce a line no less marvelous in fluid grace....
March 5th, 2008
BLACK SONG FOR BILLIE HOLIDAY
The night the blue saxophones died
You still remain in the spotlight’s ivory heat
A riddle that puzzles the heart
Snatching from the soil of catastrophe
A nugget of perfect sound
Glowing like an iridescent candle
January 5th, 2008
It had been warm all day, the type of day where the heavy air presses into you and makes it hard to move. It didn’t help that her shift had been spent calling customers and listening to endless streams of why they couldn’t make their hydro payments. And they would yell, swear at her as if she had caused their loss of job, their alcoholism, their way of life. She absorbed it all, the words sinking through the membrane in her ear and resonating within the membrane of her mind long after the calls had stopped.
If there’d been a breeze, or a slight coolness to the air, then those words could have lifted from her. They heated her, churning and boiling within so that by the time she got the apartment door open her flesh looked glossy with the sweat....
November 1st, 2007
Stories burst out of her as a magician’s trick pulls out scarves; multi-colored patterns, solids and conservative checks spilled out of her mouth and hands when she least expected it. In the end, of course, she recognized it as it was. These were the stories of all our lives, every human soul’s experience could produce that knotted, impossibly long scarf string that sprung out of the local magician.
Yet, most people did not have a new story to tell very often at all. At first, this was a wonder to her — why did all the interesting things happen only to her? But of course, this was self-centered, she realized. These things do happen to all of us on this earth. It was just that few people noticed the stories as they blossomed. It’s in the observation of it, she discovered, that one finds a good story....
July 15th, 2007
MATCHBOOK: The Spinnaker (Sausalito)
in memory of Bill Evans
by Michael Harper
Adrift in your own spittle
(eyebrows on vibrato knuckles)
we are across the bay
but reality hits in waves...
May 22nd, 2007
I have a problem, Father.
No, no “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” and the rest. Not this time.
And that’s it, really: I’m here again, in confession with you, as I have been for a long time, but I don’t think I’ve sinned.
Yes, of course, Father, I understand about confession. Penance, really, because that’s a sacrament, that’s how a person gets forgiveness of sins. There is absolution by a priest, but you I, because I am sitting here now have to have true sorrow and confess your sins, and do something about your behavior. You really have to mean it, not just want a pass for what you’ve done and may do again, unless you’re genuine in your confession and really want to change....
March 15th, 2007
FOR COUNT BASIE
On this day, your birthday, I want
to celebrate, although you passed last
century. I crave some birthday cake,
so I put on “One O’clock Jump”
one more time to soothe my soul, allow
your fingers to loosen my tight, sore
muscles that have taken hold, the ones
February 22nd, 2007
9 23 99: Coltrane Notes on the Millenium
by Michael Harper
no protection still
that is not churchdriven
James Weldon Johnson’s alternate tune
January 22nd, 2007
January 30, 1946 — Allied Headquarters, Paris, France
“What is it, Captain? I’m very busy.”
“Sorry to disturb you, Colonel, but you said you wanted a report as soon as I completed my investigation.”
Colonel Washburn searched his desk muttering, “Yes, yes. I’ll read your report as soon as you’ve filed it.”...
November 10th, 2006
The Life of Jackie Mclean
by Michael Harper
A critic trying to pass writes me about crossover played some
couldn’t make it got his Ph. D
(he’s onto new changes an advance man now active in grants
August 8th, 2006
Megan Watson pushes open the front door of the old house, escaping the cold. On the left, a welcome mat, wet from snow, rests before the entrance to a vegetarian restaurant. Shes not hungry. Turning to the dry stairwell with the faded violin painted on the wall, she begins her ascent to the shop upstairs.
Paper taped at the top stair reads, “Press Doorbell.” When the door draws open, an older gentleman with a full, white mustache, smiles down at her. Running his palm over the top of his head, he looks tired, but curious....
July 18th, 2006
The whole stalking thing started with the footprints. They were so large that his size twelve’s fit easily into the indents in the snow, and the space between them was so wide that following them forced him into an awkward little step-jump. Large paw prints ran parallel to the human prints. He assumed that they belonged to a dog. What else could they be? Yet, what did he know about the customs or recreational habits of these Northern Maine people? For all he knew they strutted through the pines chatting with bears....
March 8th, 2006
My father died quickly and cleanly in the waning days of autumn, just two months before the arrival of the millennium. A massive neural hemorrhage took him — his brain, drowned in blood, was gone within hours. It was ironic that his own blood finally accomplished what years of alcoholism had not: heavy as his drinking was, he remained utterly lucid and sharp until the early morning hours of a late October Tuesday, when a tiny blood vessel in his head gave way, loosening the flood of fluid that killed him. Until then, his memory, both short and long-term, remained unimpaired. True, his body was falling apart; his liver and heart were bad, he suffered from diabetes, gout, macular degeneration — you name it, he had it — but his mind remained as sharp as the day he graduated with a PhD from Harvard....
November 1st, 2005
“Born Into a World Knowing”
This will happen
Oh god we say just give
me a few more
and don’t let it be
August 1st, 2005
She has begun to daydream about having an affair.
She imagines herself with the men she sits next to at dinner parties, their wives across the table pulling down their mouths as she engages their husbands intensely in conversation, as she lays her hand on their arms and smiles over her wine glass. Then she looks away, smiles at her own husband seated two or three or four people away from her, nods and smiles, raises an eyebrow....
July 1st, 2005
Because I Am
In mem. Sidney Bechet, 1897-1959
Because I am a memorious old man
I’ve been asked to write about you, Papa Sidney,
Improvising in standard meter on a well-known
Motif, as you did all those nights in Paris
And the world. I remember once in Chicago
June 29th, 2005
The rigid wooden slats of the park bench press relentlessly against the length of my goose-pimpled back. A stocking cap rides low over my ears and most of my forehead, and a wool blanket — cocooned around my prone body — laps over my chin and tucks snugly around the sides of my face. Only my eyes, nose, and weather-cracked lips brave the raw chill. I gaze skyward as the frozen minutes slowly pass. I wouldn’t normally choose to rest here in the dead of winter, but tonight I didn’t have a choice. In life you are either a have or a have-not. Mike and I are have-not’s....
March 15th, 2005
The workers at Jackson’s favorite record store wear bumble-bee striped tights, black plastic glasses, leather boots that lace straight up their thighs. Jackson’s wearing the purple beret he always wears, with his blond hair sticking out in back, and his cords, and his corduroy jacket that smells like him. It’s April, too warm for corduroy, but Jackson always wears corduroy, along with T-shirts that tell the world he’s been to every blues concert and jazz festival you could think of.
To me, it all sounds the same — jazz, the blues, whatever — it’s all horns, but Jackson’s got two hundred seventeen records — vinyl, he calls them — and a saxophone, too. Clearly, he’s got music in his blood. His dad also plays the saxophone, at bars in Harvard Square, and they kind of look alike, only Jackson’s dad has eyes like power drills that would tear your clothes clean-open if you didn’t look away in time....
November 1st, 2004
Soul Make a Path Through Shouting
for Elizabeth Eckford
Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957
Thick at the schoolgate are the ones
Rage has twisted
Into minotaurs, harpies
So you must walk past the pincers,
October 17th, 2004
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #6: “The Place Where Colored Notes Play,” by Rebecca Marshall-Courtois
Today, Celina is going tolive up to the promise she made to him fifteen years ago, that November dayin the neurologist’s parking lot, when he told her, “When my voice goes,I go.”
Ray can still hear the pitter-patter of raindrops onthe umbrella they’d shared that day, drumming out the minutes that passedas they stood, emotionally and physically immobile, terrified at the thoughtof taking another step. And he can still recall the wet wool smell of hersweater when he tucked his face into the hollow of her neck to hide his tears.But he thought Celina had chosen to forget that day and her vow, until twomonths ago when she asked him if he’d changed his mind. “Squeeze my arm ifyou still want to,” she’d told him....
July 1st, 2004
There are coyote in The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve in West Travis County, Texas. One family; with three cubs. As always, the alpha female is the only one to breed, her two sisters will help her rear the cubs to maturity. She is a young female, less than two years old, and her sisters are her littermates: this family, barely more than striplings themselves, have fought hard to establish themselves in this reserve, managed for deer and birds, but not for coyote. Most Texans still shoot first, and ask themselves only afterwards if the beautiful golden corpse in front of them could possibly have posed a risk to livestock or pets....
March 5th, 2004
One. Anacostia lay there. Two. Three. Counting gunshots. Four. Five. He imagined the bullets cutting the sky, wondered how this tradition had begun. Six. The first time he held a gun, fired his first shot, he was six years old. It was on this same night — New Year’s Eve — thirteen years ago, just after midnight. Seven.
* * *
His father’s yellowy, roach-burnt fingertips stretched and folded his hand, his small fingers, barely skilled using a pencil, around the handle and trigger. I’m gonna make you a man. A chill shook his small body. He had never felt anything so cold, not a popsicle fresh from the ice cream truck, not the cold air gushing from inside the fridge onto his face in summer. Not even snow was this cold. When he had finished molding the boy’s hand to the gun, he let go. It fell immediately to Anacostia’s knees. A flat, open palm, smacked the back of his head. You ain’t no bitch. Lift that gun up, boy!...
October 15th, 2003
Though she sat alone, Mira wasn’t lonely. Woman, chair, patio, trees and sky merged in her nightly meditation. Mira finished her prayer, touching the crown of her head, forehead and heart center with folded hands, crossed herself, and opened her eyes to the East, observing in one smooth movement her indigenous heritage, Catholic upbringing, and conversion to Buddhism.
Gathering and tossing her long raven-wing hair over one shoulder, Mira shifted her weight from one hip to the other, rubbing her ample belly. She turned over mental stones from the last few months, examining the process of shock, resignation, and acceptance that marked this pregnancy. The youngest of five daughters, she ruefully watched her older sisters succumb one by one to the entanglements of family life. She vowed while still a teenager to never clip her wings....
June 15th, 2003
Donna walked into the student union on the evening of the Kent State shootings while thunderheads roiled over the Toledo River. They invoked little-girl notions that God brought storms until she checked herself with the atheism sweeping the Milestone College campus that semester. In the foyer mirror she stroked long chestnut hair and nodded terse approval of her denim mini-skirt, leotards, and khaki jacket.
Descending the circular staircase to the basement, Donna replayed the scene in the dining commons–Chris, flanked by his entourage, requesting that she report after dinner; how girl friends had flashed wide-eyed grins that heightened her excitement–“God, Donna! No freshman poly-sci’s ever been invited to work with him before!”...
February 10th, 2003
I like the jazz because it plays in different colors: deep green and blue, translucent purple, ivory black; city storefronts, magenta sunsets; watercolor splashes here and there like a yellow crocus on snow or an orange goldfish tail — sudden, surprising, but always carefully placed.
Like the way people come in different colors — they just don’t know it. People walk along in darkness daily, ignorant of the color that’s surrounding them or the beat their music plays. That’s what I’m lying here thinking about, in my dark bedroom between the folds of cotton sheets. Africans, Asians, Seminoles they all come in different colors — not their skins, but their insides....
October 4th, 2002
Between Two Wars
Remember that breakfast one November —
Cold black grapes smelling faintly
Of the cork they were packed in.
Hard rolls with hot, white flesh,
And thick, honey sweetened chocolate?
And the parties at night; the gin and the tangos?
The torn hair nets, the lost cuff links?
April 29th, 2002