Thomas Sayers Ellis

Careless Love

Volume 12, Number 1, Winter 2011
Langston Hughes Tribute Issue

Careless Love

In St. Louis Blues,
the sound of workers singing
while lifting sacks of feed
moves a young W.C. Handy
beyond his father’s wishes
to a street corner jam session,
to The Big Rooster, and Eartha Kitt’s
ain’t got no friend nowhere lord,
ain’t got no friend nowhere lord,
all by myself, no one to love.

Soon he’s humming—”Careless Love”—
next to Pearl Bailey who, playing his aunt,
wants to know, “What kind of love
is that?” At the piano, his fingers
dart like promiscuous blackbirds
from key-to-key, winged sinners.

In his father’s house
there’s no room for earthly love
—one of the reasons Paramount
didn’t bother to cast spouses
for father or aunt. When Mahalia Jackson
spots him at The Big Rooster,
he’s forced to choose
between music & home.

He moves into a room
on Beale Street where he thinks
of Ruby Dee, his childhood sweetheart.
Royalties from the sheet music
of “Harlem Blues.” Nine dollars
& forty cents. “Do you think
this money is evil?”

His voice is satin,
his conk reflects the morning star,
the star of love in eyes,
brown, alive.

Love, O love,
careless love.

Thomas Sayers Ellis was born and raised in Washington, DC. He is the author of Skin, Inc. (Graywolf Press, 2010), The Maverick Room (Graywolf, 2005) and The Genuine Negro Hero (Kent State University Press, 2001). Ellis is a Cave Canem faculty member and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and in the Lesley University Low Residency MFA Program. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Grand Street, The Nation and Best American Poetry (1997, 2001 and 2010). He is the winner of the John C. Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares, a Whiting Writers Award, and fellowships to the Fine Arts Work Center, MacDowell, Bread Loaf, and Yaddo. His photographs were featured in the Poetry Foundation's DC Poetry Tour and Beltway Poetry Quarterly's It's Your Mug Anniversary Issue. To read more by this author: "Tambourine Tommy," DC Places Issue, Summer 2006; "A Baptist Beat," Audio Issue, Fall 2008; "[The Wrong Time of Day to Shoot Color]," It's Your Mug Anniversary Issue, Spring 2009.