May 2008 - THE POTOMAC



Earl & Me, Boston, 1963
   Michael Salcman

I saw his death announced on a blackboard
at Boston City Hospital.
Three-fourths mocha and one fourth Cherokee,
also a vet but never so anonymous as that,
he pawned and lost his acoustic guitar,
so he borrowed mine—everywhere we went
that summer the one good hand fingered the frets
while his right arm strummed and slapped
the strings with a folded matchbook cover
held in a mechanical claw.
His raspy voice was always short of spit
but sang.
What he probably saw at the end
were the steps leading to Harrison Ave.
and Worcester Square
where he always meant to explode but not care
(he said) after all night gigs singing Leadbelly
and Woody Guthrie with me, the only pale face
seen that year in Roxbury flats
filled with blind sweat, their busted windows
held up by air.
He drank a lot of screw-top wine
before they called it chardonnay,
and boiled his liver in pancreatic acid.
He drank to remember and sang to forget
the right hand he left in Korea.
The flat statement of the chief complaint
didn’t tell me it was him up there
on the chalk-board;
a lot of drunks died in the South End
in the Sixties and they didn’t list his repertoire,
his one blinking eye or the yellow patch of skin
above his jaw. No clue.
But when I saw the note about a giant E
engraved in gold on a tooth,
I knew that Earl was dead,
and I was just a kid with gestures—you know,
like putting down my hospital tray to hum
the Red River Valley in my coffee,
stirring it with my breath.

 

Kadish for Books at the Peabody Library

Water moves floor to floor from a drainage pipe, bursting
like an assassin spraying bullets in a Mid-Eastern market;
a cross section of nineteenth century liberalism is cut down—
a vellum covered 1712 collection of classical writings,
the Acta Eruditorium, a 1752 set of ecclesiastical histories,
literature, art and architecture (but no medicine or law).
It takes a calamity to draw this much attention but now
almost everyone cares as the decorated bindings swell and stain,
and green mold grows in a soggy volume of Fortnightly Review
from 1878; ink runs, pages cockle, buckle and wrinkle,
knowledge turns to cheese. On five stories of cast iron balconies
the victims sit awaiting a cryogenic rescue, the quick freeze
formerly reserved for vacuum packed coffee, trail mix
and the head of Ted Williams. In a slurry of water
and wood pulp, pages swelling assume the memory of trees,
mold and spores attack old paper like flesh, animal glues
in bindings crack, the volumes bloat and stink, marred
with putrefaction. The next day, their bodies are carted away
in trucks and placed in an enormous can,
where ice sublimates out of their bones and migrates
as vapor. A few will be saved and returned to live in the stacks,
where some other carbon-based life-form like me,
might raise a digit and tenderly touch a spine
in praise of their resurrection. For the others, there’s only this.

  
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