Poems

Ribs

If you believe I saw Joe Harriott play in 1963
and in my good blue dress, danced all night
in that basement dive below Gerrard Street,
Joe howling through his sax, white shirt
sweat soaked and gleaming in the spotlight,
you may as well believe any of the things
I dream on, listening to his music –
the way he smelt up close say (of cigarettes
and clove) when we took a corner table
at the New Friends on Salmon Row, gnawing the ribs
he loved and in between chews just talking
to me in that fatherly way he had.
You may as well believe that sometimes
I put his records on and just start crying
and can’t stop crying, don’t even know
what I’m crying for – those decades in history
when men like Joe and my father were shadows
on English streets, or just the way
a melody can get you. I walk the small rooms
of my flat, light spilling through the skylights,
the treetops just in sight through the glass
and even with all these tears, I’m sort of happy.
Richard says be careful what you do in poems
to real people (known people), but surely this poem
shows its seams enough to let me wish
that Joe didn’t start dying so young, at gigs
he couldn’t even stand up straight to play,
that men he used to jam with didn’t see
his broken body shuffling down the streets
and turn away, and those last morphine days,
the dog he saw barking at the window
of the third floor ward really wasn’t there
– well, how could it be, if Joe and me just stepped
from the club into this winter night,
heading arm in arm down Brewer Street
to order steaming bowls of won ton soup.

Reggae Story

My father liked the blues and Lady Day.
He left Jamaica way before the reggae
rocked all night in backstreet studios,
before King Tubby or Augustus Pablo.
But I used to love a boy who loved
dub reggae, loved thick lugs of ganga, loved
on Sunday nights to cross the river, take me
to The House Of Roots and Aba-shanti
in the cobbled arches under Vauxhall
where the Lion of Judah decked the walls
and stacks of speakers pumped electric bass,
a single bulb above the smoky haze
and on the stage a little dreadlocked man
like Rumplestiltskin shouted Jah! and spun
his blistering tunes on a single turntable
and shut-eyed men called back over the vinyl
Jah Rastafari. Next door, the old guys
were like wizened goats with yellow eyes
hunched over games of chess and ginger tea,
below the golden framed Haile Selassie,
king of kings. That boy didn’t know my father
was a white-haired godless pensioner
and reggae music never really got me
until I played it on my own: Bob Marley,
U-Roy, Johnny Clark, and even then
it came like hymns or Faure’s Requiem,
Vivaldi’s Gloria. That boy thought I had
a Rasta like Prince Far-I for a dad
not the silent island man who sat
beyond the bedroom door I’d listen at
to catch a woman croon a melody:
I can’t give you anything but love, baby

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