Living in Music


Listen to poem audio here.

Does anyone remember the Saturday night Sonny Stitt
dueled with Ammons on tenor at a dance hall on the East Side?
I could say those were the days, but in truth they were
no better and no worse than these. We kids were kids,
the musicians were miserable, joyous, uncertain, young,
playing their hearts out. I was miserable, uncertain, young,
working my ass off for 3.25 an hour at Wyandotte Chemical,
the worst work I ever had. “At height” was the job description,
which left out the fact that it was terrifying. You’d look down to see
the ground waiting to receive your body as a religious object
but without the attending women in their long dresses
to hold up your flattened head and keen over your passing.
Would the woman have made a difference? I suppose so.
I was a romantic idiot in love with the gestures I read about
or saw in postwar Italian movies. Hell, I was twenty-three,
healthy, with a young man’s appetites and an old man’s future.
Sonny wasn’t much older than I, just out of the dry-up tank
at Lexington, clean, clear-eyed, leaning back to blow out
the unquenchable fire that burned within and never
succeeding. Of course I envied him. He was up there,
the star; I was alone too but anonymous among the teenagers
who’d come to dance and barely moved for hours, by turns
spellbound or fired up, just as I was. Together we beheld
ordinary human breath, stained with cigarettes and cognac,
transformed into melody that vanished. Did I go back
to Wynadotte on Monday and—masked and gloved—climb
the stacks to survey the scarred world that stretched
all the way to Ohio? I can’t recall. I know I survived.
I know the musicians left before dawn for Flint. I can recall
the entire final solo Sonny took on “Body and Soul,”
how pure and warm the hard tone suddenly became,
how he slid slowly to the front of the stage to play
all of it a second time, the hunched back bearing down,
the almond eyes closed up tight, each single note going out
over the bowed heads of the children, and how silent
we were as we filed out into the blackened street.
The streetcar on Joy Road never came and no one cared,
alone or in pairs we had entered music. We’re still there.