Three Minutes With Mingus

By William Archila

When I read of poets & their lives,
son of a milkman & seamstress, raised
in a whistle-stop town or village, a child
who spent his after-school hours deep
in the pages of a library book, I want to go
back to my childhood, back to the war,
rescue that boy under the bed, listening
to what bullets can do to a man, take him
out of the homeland, enroll him in school,
his class-size ten, unfold the fables
of the sea, a Spanish galleon slamming up
& down the high waters. This is why
I write poems, why I prefer solitude
when I listen to your lazy sound
of brass on the phonograph. You give
language to black roosters & fossil bones,
break down phrases between the LA River
& the yellow taxi cabs of New York.
I picture you in Watts, the 240-pound
wrath of a bass player building up steam,
woodshedding for the strictly segregated
hood, those who seek a tiny shot of God,
digging through hard pan, the hammer’s
grunt & blow. I need a gutbucket of gospel,
the flat land of cotton to catch all those
Chinese acrobats bubbling inside your head.
When I think of the day I will no longer
hold a pencil within my hand or glance
upon the spines of my books, I hear
Picasso’s Guernica in your half-choked
cries, a gray workhorse lost in a fire’s
spiraling notes, a shrieking tenor sax
for the woman falling out of a burning house.
I want to tell you if I wrote like you pick
& pat in Blues and Roots, I would understand
the caravel of my childhood, loose
without oars or sails, rolling on the swells
of a distant sea. That’s all I got, Mr. Mingus.
I give you the archaeology of my words,
every painstaking sound I utter when I come
to the end of a line, especially the stressed
beats of a tiny country I lost long ago.

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