[“The Boy, Discovering Leadbelly” appeared originally in Levitate.]

The Boy, Discovering Leadbelly, Hears Things He Doesn’t Understand (Sebastopol, CA, 1965)


In the song it is still
jump down
turn around
pick a bale of cotton.
And the Rock
Island Line is mighty fine as the voice pretends
to be a white man—then sings out This load’s aahllll
pig iron as the train pulls away and he’s the train
and the white man he’s fooled is gawping at the station.

And the jubilation in the voice is as if the trick
had somehow erased the years of gray & white stripes,
chained ankle to ankle as if one body, and the Cap’n
a white man on his horse, measuring their time

as they each dreamed of sending him back their shovel
or axe or sledge, singing out Tell him I’m gone
crossing the hilltop and slipping into the woods,
the deep shade even slower than the southern sun
and as if it had never been.

But in each Tell Him I’m gone, the Cap’n’s belly
still sags over the wide belt, the shotgun
angling up from his crotch as if it’s his dick
and you not even worth fucking—
even if his eyes actually saw you
and not just the hate that made him something
because he was on a horse and free to show his hate.

But you are a white boy in a western town
watching the needle ride the vinyl’s black groove—
listening to the tinny speaker offering up
these songs you do not understand—race,
and what it was to pick a bale of cotton,
then drag the bag to the scale to be cheated
and smile back as if not knowing that.

Nor do you question having stopped on the walk home from school,
that new store on the back street, to study the paperback covers
that say The Iliad, Pere Goriot, and Poems, then bought instead
Take This Hammer—the cover a Black Man,
thick bodied, the white band around his neck
you will later learn was a knife scar.

Perhaps it’s because you’ve heard the Brothers Four
harmonize that song in their crew neck sweaters
and Harry Belafonte sing Day-O on a record at your aunt’s house.

Or perhaps you sense Que Sera, Sera is not an answer.
And from how he holds his guitar against his overalls
you know this is folk music and so not the radio.

And yes the songs matter, too, the thumb walking time
as if time were both now and then, and you might walk with it
in that now it lines out that is neither now or then.

But even more what matters is the voice—pained,
boistrous and sly.
And even on the little phonograph on your bedroom floor,
the voice is so much life

that it is larger than life,
and you are some kind of Tom
wanting to be Huck, but watching as Jim lifts up the mask
and it is Goodnight, Irene, Irene, goodnight.

And this is not the answer, either,
but somehow you know it is the question.