for Sterling Brown
So I take my seven bucks
and buy a railroad ticket.
And with a little luck
hitchhike to the station.
The money comes from playing
in a dance band with Vinny Gallo
braying on his tenor sax
and Charley Panzner—
I forget the others—
and me on the piano.
When no one is looking I play
solo piano in taverns after hours
up and down Long Island’s South Shore,
singing Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life.
I don’t tell my folks when I hop
on a train at age 14 and head
to Birdland where I sit
in the Peanut Gallery for nothing
and drink in Miles Davis,
John Coltrane, Count Basie
and Oscar Peterson. And not far away
you could go to the Embers
and hear Red Norvo on the vibraphone
play the Blues in E Flat.
And Stan Getz whose tunes you’d been trying
to play all year and ever since.
Sterling, this was before I met you.
Were you there too, singing your poems:
saying “Slim in Atlanta” and “After Winter”
and “Sister Lou.” Or listening to “Ma Rainey”:
O Ma Rainey,
Sing yo’ song:
Now you’s back
Whah you belong,
Git way inside us,
Keep us strong…
O Ma Rainey,
Li’l and low…
Sterling, you made us stand up
in your living room while you played jazz
on your phonograph and wouldn’t let us
sit down till we could name who was playing.
Sometimes we stood a long, long time.
It was Erroll Garner and Lester Young.
Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.
And there was Satchmo who we loved.
I never told my folks where I’d been, pretended
to spend the night at a friend’s.
But I wouldn’t trade that smokey room
and that gorgeous music that filled you up
to the top until it was time to sneak out
of the house and head uptown to Birdland
once more. And years later, Sterling, to stand
in your living room, under the alms
of a great poet having us listen
to the music you loved and to the words
you wrote. Sterling, we could have stayed
there the rest of our lives.
Myra Sklarew was educated at Tufts University and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. She studied at Cold Spring Harbor Biological Laboratory with Salvador Luria and Max Delbruck and conducted research in frontal lobe function of Rhesus monkeys at Yale University School of Medicine. She is the author of 17 collections of poetry, fiction and essays including Invitation to a Country Called Aging (co-written with Patricia Garfinkel, Politics & Prose Books, 2018), Harmless (Mayapple Press, 2010), The Witness Trees (Cornwall Books U.S./London/Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture, 2000, reprinted 2007), Lithuania: New & Selected Poems (Azul Editions, 1995), and the forthcoming A Survivor Named Trauma: Holocaust Memory in Lithuania (SUNY University Press). Awards include the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award and the National Jewish Book Council Award in Poetry for From the Backyard of the Diaspora (Dryad Press, 1981). She is the former president of the Yaddo Artist Community and professor emerita in the Department of Literature, American University. To read more by this author: Five poems, Winter 2004, Whitman Issue, Myra Sklarew on May Miller: Memorial Issue, and Myra Sklarew on Leon-Gontran Damas: Forebears Issue