George Kalamaras

Listening to “Park Avenue Petite,” Hearing My Rain-Raked Heart All Over Again

          for the Blue Mitchell Sextet and the 1959 set, Blue Soul

I’ve either fallen out of love for what I’m sure
has got to be the final time, walking the blotchy blocks
of Manhattan dark—remnants of mule dust,
trudge salts, and borax in my gut. Or I’m caught
in an unthinkable love triangle on a rain-soaked
night in L.A. with Philip Marlowe and a curvy
redhead named Vivian or Leanne. God, this tune makes me
cry, even still in the year 2020. Even through the smoke
of a Lucky Strike some blonde named Rhonda exhales
suggestively around me as if only she and I are engulfed
in that unspeakable cloud. Now I understand
why they called you Blue and not
Richard Allen Mitchell. They say
when the world ends we’ll all feel a wave
of cosmic regret, as if—together—we realize we could
have somehow made things right. The execs at Riverside Records
must surely have contemplated jumping off a bridge
after hearing the bruised scales of this tune. Wynton Kelly
on keys sounding like rain inside the rain. Philly Joe Jones
brushing his snare so lightly with metal wires
we can hear cars swish past, their headlamps
bowing brutally before banking a turn. Sam Jones
on bass as if counting the depth of our final
breaths as I step from trench-coat fog, cock back
my fedora, and kiss a woman
named Muriel or Mona once more
before the big score. Richard Allen “Blue” Mitchell.
How could you have heard my insides cry
several states away when I was only
a boy? Preserving them in this 1959 song
before the age of Instagram
and Vlogs? These notes could make the dead
weep. Could turn sickness inside out,
so that it runs off to a corner to sulk. Could stand in
as catharsis for Romeo and Juliet’s final scene.
How can something so sad send healing salve
when the light heads home and finally gives
out? Kerosene lamps acting as if they could care less?
How come the insomniac world
of worry doesn’t lie down to sleep each night knowing that sleep
is already asleep inside each note of this song that wakes us—
somehow joyfully—into a glorious world of cool-blue,
rain-soaked regret?

Jack Wilson Tries to Convince Roy Ayers to Join His Quartet, 1963

Hand me the claspknife. Show me the smudge lamp.
The world of impossible things remains impossible.

All the women I loved.
Bless the tongue that did not enter their mouth.

Only do what only you can do.
It takes a long time to make dirt—and a lot of vegetables.

Fish mongers hawking fish in Harlem.
Being married is like having a colored television set, I tell you. You never want to go
      back to black and white.

The suggestion of nudity.
Husband man. Brother man.

It’s like really beautiful love with a really dirty hooker.
The meat of a black-boned chicken and wolfberries.

The aching depth of “The Shadow of Your Smile” (“Love Theme from The Sandpiper”).
Yes, Roy. Try to play it all. Like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Like your
      mother’s face—the day you were born, the day she died. Sweetly. So very sweetly.

One Night in Indy, January 18, 1959, Eddie Higgins Trio with an Unknown Bassist

                  One Night in Indy, a recently discovered performance at The
                  Indianapolis Jazz Club (I.J.C.), was recorded on a 7” tape reel at 7.5 IPS.
                  The Club was “a group of people who had a common interest in jazz and who
                   gathered to listen to records and host concerts.
”—Zev Feldman

We can hear Wes Montgomery clearly on guitar.
Eddie Higgins’ piano. Walter Perkins
on skins. But that catfish growl from the bottom
of the mud remains unknown. Call him
Genghis Kahn’s warrior chief from the north,
name lost among the brutally beautiful dead. Call him
Lafayette’s trusted valet. The shoemaker
Dostoyevsky visited with every other
Thursday on his way to the corner
confectionery, but whose name he never knew.
Nobody remembers them. They fade
like the mirror the Indianapolis shoeshine man gives
at Massachusetts and Meridian. His name,
all polish and spit, but then scuffed among concrete
and pigeon turds. Sometimes I’m nothing
but all ache and rain. I go to speak and no
words arrive. I scratch my back only to realize
I’ve been dreaming of swamp-walking
again, mosquito-thick, off the Carolina
coast. And all that those bites keep
bringing with them. These tapes from some cloudy club,
finally found. And this bassist—unknown
even among those the record producers
probed. Seeking the keen ear
of their memory and advice.

Listening tonight to “Lil’ Darling.” To
“Prelude to a Kiss.” To “Ruby, My Dear.”
I wonder who he was and how he came to play
with the Eddie Higgins Trio. Did he have a lover?
Did she prefer baked potatoes or sweet?
Did they open-mouth kiss the first time
he leaned into her? Did he look into her eye
long evenings to the sound of steam
heating the pipes? Did his breath catch
mornings over oolong tea, or did he prefer coffee
thick as Mississippi mud? His limp? I ask
myself in the dark if he had one and whether
it had a name. Did he spend
Sunday afternoons scrubbing the chrome
on his ’59 Caddy, bought on payments
he could not afford? How many oranges
a day did he eat? And was his right arm
slightly longer than his left from reaching
all those hours long around the belly of his bass?
Did he prefer the musica universalis of Pythagoras
or did he study Gogol, imagining the fur collar
of an overcoat he hoped one day himself
to own? Did he stay up nights,
late, swaying into broken parts of the moon
left to rot by disillusioned poets
who abandoned bamboo groves to enter
exile among barbarians of the north?

Why has this bassist’s name been lost
to walk among ruins of tunes
from a night in Indianapolis most have forgotten,
along with the names and weight
of patrons who came to the club that night?
To listen to the chords on stage vibrate
parts of themselves they did not know
otherwise how to touch. To sip scotch slow
on the rocks, savoring the clink of cubes
at the bottom of the glass. To remember
for a short time not just the names
of the dead but. Who they were. And. To forget.

Not Just Forest Rain but Bamboo Hollow: Fancy Miss Nancy’s “Happy Talk”

           for Nancy Wilson

Not just your beauty but your rain-silk
voice. Second only to the Beatles in the 60s
for Capitol Records’ sales, Nancy, you stunned us
with your butterfly flight and oh-so-cool.
Wish I could have shared a cup of coffee with you, a cup
of anything in Paris or Brazil. Held your gaze
while you leaned long into the rivers
of my eyes, tipping cream
into a brown swirl. Seems I’ve been traveling a long time
through the copper mines of Chile to find your iron-foundry
voice in the hard work of your father in Chillicothe, Ohio.
Not just forest rain but bamboo hollow.
Not just thin whiffs but canebrake in wind balm.
As if your body was a river reed the gusts blew
to make music we could not mistake for a crooked game
of cards. That dream where we make love, and afterwards
you ask me to run the hounds down below the swamp
while you freshen up. And you sing me back a full-moon
track, saying it was all a joke when I return with daisies
and mud-cakes for your hair. Yes, “Happy Talk,”
the song you sing butterfly-bright, and the happy-sad
in its stance. Seems centuries now since I placed garlic in the mouths
of the dead. Ancestors. Sage. And perhaps it was. In some previous life
when I bent over the final box and thought how little time
even time itself has. Your voice elongates birdsong, keeping it
always an hour ahead of sorrow. When I play your records backwards,
they never tell me who the Walrus is or whether
Paul is dead but instead sound like birds
from Micronesia salving the thatch. Triggerfish or clownfish,
something is always swimming through me
when you sing. A wind that seems there only for me.
A line of storms building across Mississippi into Alabama and Georgia.
You with Cannonball, urging your sultry “Save Your Love for Me.”
Talk away your happy talk. Swing it, Nancy, bouncy and bright.
Tell the world you’ve had enough of its sad,
sad hair. That you want a little rain
glazed with snow. Gaiety with ache. Sorrow, say, mixed with the sad
glad of being alive. That all you want is one hour alone with me
where we stir our coffee together, slow,
lingering through the mud pools of one another’s eyes
in ways that remind us of just and common birth.
In ways that make our singing sing, our weeping weep.

George Kalamaras, former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014–2016), is the author of twenty books of poetry, twelve of which are full-length. His three most recent books, all of which appeared in 2021, are Marsupial Mouth Movements (Červená Barva Press), Through the Silk-Heavy Rains (SurVision Books), and We Slept the Animal: Letters from the American West (Dos Madres Press). He is Professor Emeritus of English at Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he taught for thirty-two years.