Poem of the Week | October 30, 2012

This week we’re going to let Michael S. Harper show us how it’s done. This poem dates back to 1985, TMR issue 8.2. Harper has been a major voice in American poetry, and a widely influential teacher at Brown University, since the early 70s, when his first book Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970) broke new ground. The first Poet Laureate of Rhode Island (1988-1993), he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. In 2008 he won the prestigious Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Society of America. In 2009 he published a new collection, Use Trouble.

This coming spring, March 13-15, the English Department at The University of Missouri–Columbia, in conjunction with Cave Canem Foundation, is hosting a three-day academic symposium that celebrates and explores the multi-faceted contributions of Michael S. Harper. They invite scholars, poets, and jazz musicians to participate. Read more here.



The malt is all gone but vapors remain;
for $100 you can replenish the bottle
but replacements are at sea, and this sea
is corn—it is August, and the man who rules
is away.
The classic music of Pittsburgh,
in this man’s collection, is the sky almost blue,
for steel is gone, and the rivers are almost clean.


He remembers the lip he never had, his hearing aid
almost attuned to melodies that will not come again,
and the repertoire, these days, is on digital:
still, his outfit of outlaw brands of techniques
on sale, the best of the band, the rhythm section,
come alive in the late hours over manuscripts,
those that will be printed, those thrown away.


Outside are flowers, peonies from England,
bottomsoil moved from up the street, which are houses
built in the last century, beams from the first forests
of the Iowa when Iowa was King;
by the river is a park
and by the park a band that plays only on holidays,
and in tune, like the circus, which is also in tune.


Men and women run up and down the street in shorts,
and the nike slippers of another age pump at the knee
and buttocks. Uptown, in the old library, security
guards ease themselves with the music of the soil,
which comes from Dubuque and Des Moines and costs little.


Tone-deaf, he thinks, as he plays his tapes,
for tapes are all he has time for, his hearing
loss so great he got the job he didn’t want
if victory and sacrifice were all they asked for.


He writes out his own tunes on his lunch hour,
off-beat, self-possessed, in his own tongue;
he thinks for the malt-makers in Scotland
which he knows little about, and the revolution,
which is about to take place under his feet.


He is of middle-age; his spelling is adequate;
the images of the band stuck on the stresses
of a carriage; they are grand names, this dukedom,
and he won’t repeat them for the forefathers.
They are invisible, as he is, on his lunch hour,
building the groomed song, vocal and true.