by Philip Schultz

I reach from pain
to music great enough
to bring me back…

                    —“Reuben, Reuben”

for Michael S. Harper

You, a magic trick,
looming over R’s
tiny Oakland kitchen,
on a mission to save
the fragile equilibrium
of his desire to persist,
containing within yourself
the painful miscellany
of his syncopated strategies
for good and evil, temptations
to despair – I, jobless,
unpublished, a draft-dodging
60’s manqué, too terrified
of your stature in his eyes
to look up. He, half white,
half scalding black bastard
instinct for the sublime. Each
an apocalyptic neighborhood,
a floor scraped clean,
a scrap of dignity stew,
a slave pierced with
a Hebrew longing for
an ancient bloodstream,
Monk’s “Always old,
always new, always déjà vu.”

“Jews only think they’re white.
Everyone’s got a position,”
you said, pulling out of me
all my growing vision of strife,
him the magnificence of
his glowering rendition
of “Round Midnight.”
He’d sit at a piano hating God
or himself (or me), making
the floor and ceiling weep,
in each suffocating inhalation
of his righteous cigarette
a black father’s anonymity,
the irresistible annihilation
of a white mother’s abandonment,
the embryonic incandescence
of a Detroit rooftop
overlooking a cauldron
of sacrifice, a secret urge
rocking him all the way to God –
that’s the ticket, he said,
to give up enough times
to see how much longer
he could live on nothing.

Forty years and the cold
antediluvian wind from
a P-town phone booth
still despises me. That’s why
I asked you to say it, because
until you did it wasn’t true.
“Okay,” you sighed, “he ate
snail poison, strangled
himself in cellophane.”
Our silence stretched
from then to now,
across either end of
an unsanctified universe.

He still sings “The cries
of my bones like the cries
of animals followed me
out of my mother into exile”
from a photo on my desk,
a twenty-seven-year-old ghost
going on ethereal,
with “thorns for eyes.”

At a gathering to honor
you, Michael, once again
I heard a fierce music,
a grief that knows no peace,
a tune sung by the abyss.
Enslavement being the truer
meaning of enthrallment.

Why you so black?
cause I am
a love supreme, a love supreme

all night your words walked
along frozen water,
a devotional sung by a foghorn
pleading mercy for his soul.
“Everything that is,
in so far as it is, is good,”
said St. Augustine. Yes,
for a moment, we were,
and one — meaning:
all are saved or none.

Published on January 20, 2011