(For Sterling A. Brown, Howard University celebration mid 1980’s)
And Conjure Man, this is
all I recall—
they were your coda: work songs, ballads, blues
or jazz from fast-flowing rivers, muddy soil,
from life-livin’, tears, and nothing but toil.
And where joy or love was slowed by rain
the spirit made music through heartfelt pain:
whether city or country, all caught your eye,
of those who endured and laughed, loved and cried;
then swifter than wind you gathered their songs
turning earth’s soil and hardened broils
into myth and legend and hearts that long
for more, more than stone. And you taught us to fly
with you— in all you had seen, till we could all see
through cloudage, veils—joy and nobility
in Big Boy Davis, and yes, Stagolee.
And so Conjure Man, this is all
I recall. Your aim was pure
your heart— independent, resolute,
and your spirit— attracted to rhythms
and moments past that did not last,
for this was how our past was cast.
And, your thought was at peace with words
of folk, and blues. And never a false note.
Your power was artistry, and chemistry—like Bird’s—
a rhythmed song: Strong Men, Stagolee,
Casey Jones, and Jazzbo. A troweller, your words dig deep,
unearthing spirits, buried forms, forgotten voices
seldom heard—the rare beauty in long roads,
Southern Road, Slim, and Memphis Blues. (Lift the veils…)
In this, your thought was at peace. And you were
So intelligent —mirror
of past and future…
Now it is I who dig, searching for words,
and memories of one brief encounter:
your imagination—deeper than feeling or thought,
fancy and ingenuity half-heard, syllable
and rhythm in the birth of every
word, tuning, turning vitality on the tongue.
Lift the veil, and this, I suppose, is all
one need recall so many years later:
I—student, escort— walk with you, chairs
on either side of the aisle become a blur, and there
is silence. Silence as I make way with you
to the dais, with one who’d made way: work songs,
Jazz, “Memphis Blues,” and “Sister Lou.”
And (Was I in a cloud?) it seems, for a moment, gathered
guests beat with one heart—and as much for me
as for you, esteemed one, accompanied one.
And between us, no word is spoken, and the silence so
long unbroken, until now, could only contend
this: your poems—bright, striving stars—shining,
naming joy and strength, being over and over
that did not die with the lash, flood, or flame,
rhythms that dove into interior
geographies, darker lands calling—
summoning voices of love, word, and spirit— shining
your pure torch of remembrance,
giving voice to pantomimes, to past.
And as we move, reverent silence. As we moved,
everyone seemed to remember the lines
your lines of bards unknown, as “Sterling”
refashioned them from folklore, common
store, and familial yarns: images, idioms, vocabulary
of memory—of wanderings, long ways
from home, and lonesome valleys.
At once, all recalled the gaze, your clear-eyed look
at the wilderness of the world, finding freedom,
improvisation, the past as mirror. Brave one
giving voice to troubled “sperrit” and the wise,
giving voice, even now, to me, and voice
to young, old, and O, mostly, O to those with none.
Of Haitian American descent, Donna Denizé is the author of a poetry chapbook, The Lover's Voice (Hickory House,1997) and a book of poems, Broken Like Job (The Word Works,2005).Her poems have appeared in anthologies such as Full Moon on K Street,Hungry As We Are; WPFW Poetry Anthology; Weavings 2000, and magazines, Provincetown Arts, Gargoyle, World Order, Innisfree Journal of Poetry, and Orison. She is currently Chairperson of the English Department at St. Albans School for Boys, where she teaches Shakespeare, American literature, and freshman English.