Pushcart XL: Maxine Scates, “Singer” (poetry) from Cave Wall, #13

Raquel Stokes: "Don't Explain" 2013

Raquel Stokes: “Don’t Explain” 2013

They listen to something they can’t hear
until they open their mouths, skinny whistler
in a tuneless childhood where every scrape, every
skinned knee, every door slammed
on a spilled or misbegotten dream leans toward us
cloaked in smoky barlight or circled in stage light,
Amália Rodrigues singing the losses of fado
in a language we don’t understand
but can because no one was happy there
and neither were we.

~~Available online at Cave Wall Press

I first became aware of fado – a Portuguese genre of “fate song” – while reading Herman Wouk’s Winds of War. It’s very similar to the American blues, with both combining African roots with the contemporary diasporic setting.

Scates attributes a line in another of her poems – “Blue Boxcars” – to something she picked up from WS Merwin in reference to Emily Dickinson: “We don’t know where the grief comes from.” She says, in a reading from a couple of years ago, that she found this a liberating idea, to feel the grief in the words, in the poem, but not know the source, not need to know the source. I think the Blues work much the same way. It’s a curious thing, to sing of sorrow, to make music out of grief.

Out of these, comes this poem. It explores the women who’ve sung the blues. They may not have the prettiest voices, but they reach us. They don’t sell out hundred-thousand seat arenas, not because they aren’t popular, but because their art is more intimate, more personal. Some people suck the air out of a room; others serve as respirators, keeping us alive with their breath. And in this winter where the 60s seem to be dying one voice at a time, perhaps in response to a country that seems to have lost its collective mind and is seemingly unaware of the increasing irony of “it couldn’t happen here,” this might serve as some kind of solace.

It’s a poem in four sentences, the last one meandering, under the power of its own lyricism, through the songs of captured women, from Hecuba in Ilium to Bessie Smith to Judy Garland, to end with the reader’s question:

…the first voice that told us sorrow was a well so deep
we’d never hear the rock hitting water, that song,
their song, never a song of ships so much as someone
going away, a lament, never a song sung around fires,
the one that keeps telling the endless march to victory,
but the other song, Hecuba’s wail, the song of junked cars
and roofs tarped against rain, song of the broken branch
we gave them, its fragrant blossoms, asking
please sing why it’s broken, sing why we broke it,
why do these blossoms fade?

Blossoms fade because that is the nature of blossoms, the nature of life, in fact: things die to make way for new things. It’s the nature of the blues to mourn and praise at the same time, to make that which has died live on.


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