The Lex

Mingus sets up by the doors,
plucks out “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,”
the melody—not a riffing solo—
hums it as our lonely uptown Lex
clacks faster into the dark.

Frayed bass strings, burnt places
on the crooked fingers of night;
fire inside moonlight draining
down subway stairs past turnstiles
to join the smell of steel on steel,
the scent of piss everywhere.

Strange beauty in the car: poles still
silver, seats and floor clean, unscarred,
colors deep into primary red and green.
In the back a fine glitter of dust
or snow hangs in midair,
vibrates through the rattled space
deep beneath Manhattan streets.

A passenger down the other side:
Duke Ellington in overcoat and black
lambskin Cossack hat, same as in
La Guardia, ten years after he left.
Gave me a “Don’t say anything” look.
And I didn’t. Throws that smile now.
Did Mingus see him when he got on?

Iron horse in a long cave, thrashing
hell out of riders, smoke from
their fingertips and calloused palms.
Outside, on the station’s walls,
Levy’s rye poster with a Black kid
noshing a big slice of it: “You don’t
have to be Jewish to love Levy’s…”
Malcolm X loved the ad, took a picture
with it just before J. Edgar took him out.

Next stop—B Flat Minor Street,
Black, Brown, & Beige Street.
The doors open for Lester Young,
his pork pie hat tipped to Mingus
as he strolls over to sit by Duke.
Lady Day’s on Duke’s other side:
more hipsters in this car
than anyone has seen get on.
Dizzy Gillespie, in shades and beret,
yells “Billie!” as she turns and looks away.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk at the other end—
weighed down by his magic armor
of reeds, flutes, and whistles—
rocks and sings inside his head,
accompanies Ariel and all the gone spirits
darting through whirls of airborne glitter.
Bud and Bird one seat down
plan their next gig at Birdland.
Cannonball and Nat take Monk’s advice,
dress in their best suits, but are puzzled,
wonder how and when they got there.
And Monk everywhere in the car,
sitting or standing, each hologram
wearing a different take
on the world’s coolest hat
on the world’s coolest guy.

There’s a rising sound, a crazed
dynamo moving up the scales, songs
that shake the car in a raw jargon
dead set on blowing every eardrum.
They’re the sounds of every siren,
every screaming cop, the screech
of jail cells slamming shut, moans
of players losing cabaret cards,
the bent chord of jazz crippled.
Shouts of nightclub drunks,
too many angry voices, screaming
hatred for this legion of masters.

Coltrane slips on at C Jam Street,
nervous that folks in the car might
recognize the suit he was buried in.
He nods at everyone, but cannot smile.
Miles gets on, brushes hard by Mingus,
still playing and humming by the door.
He moves to the far end of the car,
sits by Rahsaan, trumpet case
upright on his lap, hugs it like a baby.

The clustered snow is thicker now,
the sound winds up to one decibel
more than a human heart can bear.
The car stops, all doors shoot open,
Mary Lou Williams floats on board:
the woman who nurtured them,
gathered in her Harlem apartment
where she taught new ways to sing.
The fog of stardust flashes and falls
to the floor, the dynamo ceases,
and the sound of full salvation
flows through the length of the car.
Mary Lou Williams has come to heal
the needle punctures in their hearts,
has come to take them home.

Lawrence R. Smith edited and published the now retired Calibanonline and its print parent, Caliban. He is the author of Annie’s Soup Kitchen (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2003), The Map of Who We Are (U. of Oklahoma Press, 1997), and The Plain  Talk of the Dead (Montparnasse Editions, 1988). He has translated Antonio Porta’s The King of the Storeroom (Wesleyan U. Press, 1992) and, with Michelle Yeh, No  Trace of the Gardener, poems by Yang Mu (Yale U. Press, 1998). He edited and translated The New Italian Poetry: 1945 to the Present (U. of California Press, 1981) (A more complete bio is available at