[from Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly, Verse, 2005]
mistress stella speaks
you think I'm his property
'cause he paid cash
to grab me by the neck,
swing me 'cross his knee
and stroke the living song from my hips.
you think he is master of all
my twelve tongues, spreading notes
thick as starless night, strangling spine
till my voice is a jungle of chords.
the truth is that i owned him
since the word love first blessed his lips
since hurt and flight and free
carved their way into the cotton
fused bones of his fretting hand,
since he learned how pleading men hunt
for my face in the well of their throats
till their tongues are soaked with want.
yes, each day he comes back
home from the fields,
from chain gang fury,
from the smell of sometime women
who borrow his body. he bends
his weight around me
like a wilting weed
drinking in my kiss
of fretboard across fingertip
'til he can stand up straight again,
aching from what he left behind,
rising sure as dawn.
blind lemon taught me
i remember a useless eyed street busker, twin holes shriveled small behind smoked spectacles, the parables he taught me in the troubled space between each note. sometimes, i would close my eyes, run my fingers through landscape where he'd placed his hands to solve the riddle of my features, his fingertips supple winged blackbirds, fluttering from brow to eyelash to cheek to chin, he found my true face, stretched those knuckle jointed roots from ebony trunk of wrist and ashen palm to grow as one with the wood of his twelve-string. there, he told how a man can trade pieces of himself for a song, an eye here, an ankle there, a ball if he's not careful, and the fret board's friction that turns silken skin to callus. i remember how he bottlenecked blues caught between the teeth of each tin pan alley tune, nailed it in a patent leather stomp, moved streetcorner crowds down another mile of his train tracked voice with every beat. i remember how every song stitched together my story, how he took something away when he discovered my face beneath his palms, gave it back on layaway plan of bent notes, bloodied moons.
leadbelly: poems (National Poetry Series)