December 1973: I’m 16 and walking
home from school and job through
New Town on a late afternoon that’s
frozen in the old Chicago way—-by
a ferocity more certain in its
hard blue caboosing than death.
The cold seems freighted directly
from the North Pole as I hug my peacoat
tight, hands jammed into its pockets,
a cigarette in my lips with its tiny bead
of fire like a single orange life-vest
lost amid the towered waves of Arctic sea.
When I turn right at Fullerton
the wind slaps at me hard like a wolf-
pack sprung with fury; it mauls and
tears to free the last of heat from me
which I try to shield like a throat.
The light to the west is minted from
those canines, an angry red leaping high
at blue then blacker truths. I could die
out here and no one would care nor even
notice amid the city’s grey decrepitude,
a ghetto of the heart that devours whole
whatever morsels its weary citizens
provide by failing and falling hard.
Not that much awaits me at home
a few blocks further on, my parents
imploding into an unspoken doom, the
eyes of my siblings too bright with
rage and fear, even the dogs yapping
hysterically at every next wrong sound
coming off the street ten feet from our
front door, sounds we hear and pray
only the safest registers of.
I’m walking there anyway, because
where else does a boy-man go when
he hasn’t flown the nest? It’s all ending
in the brutal precis of a winter’s
afternoon very close to the dead end
of my lousy sixteenth year:
So why am I just then hearing Billy Paul’s
“Me And Mrs. Jones” in my head?
That sappy Philly soul tune played on
so sweet and tender despite ghetto
arrears which freezes every bud to
stillness on the stem, dooming me
in the end. Stolen love and fragile dreams
which cannot survive another day—-
that’s the hottest and most eternal
shaman-virile flame, and it kept me
walking happily bittersweet on that day
& in fixed in my memory every since,
above the miseries of being 16
in the maul of a Chicago winter, with
neither Jesus nor any bottle of sufficient
proof to poof the black dog away.
Like a choirboy I sang along with that
divine song in my head, somehow getting
its sweet blue taste on my heart’s dry tongue.
My ears were burning ice but I still
I heard the song; my hands were numb
yet ached to hold my guitar once again;
my heartwas empty of any lover’s smile but
was alight on Mrs. Jones smile in that
sad cafe, holding her hand, making up plans.
I burned to write and sing what warmed
that frozen city playing from every
radio and juke in town, creating a music
of my own that boated me spoon-fashion
to that song away from that hard afternoon
down some moony river to this pre-dawn
sub-tropic trope on middle-aging blues.
I’m still singing Philly soul love back
in the face of hard-fought days: Florida
and marriage and a switch from pick
to pen have changed perhaps the singer
but not at all the song. It’s still the
soundtrack of all walks through arctic
fields, delighted to see her once again
albeit in the northern lights of my
conceit splashed upon the page.
I’m thrilled the way she loves me too,
dancing there inside the frozen world
slow and sweetly over all the bones
fallen to the bottom of a life. “Me
And Mrs. Jones” is still in my ear
and I’m still walking those cold streets home,
singing along with Your song’s magic
by singing back in my own songs,
getting to every healing insides of
what it means to Get the Girl,
even when love is nowhere to
be found or flung, even when life
freezes to hard ice.
Dante harrowed Hell wrapped
in the meters of his song, writing
the whole passage down the way
he found at last that heart—-his own-—
exactly where Beatrice waited for him.
Whatever I hummed as a baby
I’m still trying to sing here,
her kiss the welcome of each page
I stain in sea-wrack and foam,
still walking those cold blocks home.
2005, posted 2011, reposted Nov. 2016
Submitted to Real Toads’ Tuesday Platoform
1. Letters to A Dead Shaman was written back in 2005 when I was receiving infusions for a migraine that would not let go — a sort of biochemical tenting. This poem is the sixth letter in the series. The Letters ponder whether the physical, mental and spiritual ills that beset us are how the deep body and deep mind heal itself, a sort of inoculation of bad shit in order to produce an archetypal shamanic response. Did the Billy Paul song produce both freezing day and what I found there? And why am I hearing that song today?
2. From Mercea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy:
“Like the sick man, the religious man is projected onto a vital plane that shows him the fundamental data of human existence, that is, solitude, danger, hostility of the surrounding world. But the primitive magician, the medicine man, or the shaman is not only a sick man; he is, above all, a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself. Often when the shaman’s or medicine man’s vocation is revealed through an illness of an epileptoid attack, the initiation of the candidate is equivalent to cure.
“The famous Yakut shaman Tusput (that is, ‘fallen from the sky’) had been ill at the age of twenty; he began to sing, and felt better. When Sieroszowski met him, he was sixty and displayed tireless energy. ‘If necessary he can drum, dance, jump all night. In addition, he was a man who had traveled; he had even worked in the Siberian gold mines. But he needed to shamanize; if he went for a long time without doing so, he did not feel well.’”