I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Blind Boone’s Pianola Blues
They said I wasn’t smooth enough
to beat their sharp machine.
That my style was obsolete,
that old rags had lost their gleam
and lunge. That all I had
left was a sucker punch
that couldn’t touch
their invisible piano man
with his wind up gut-
less guts of paper rolls.
And so, I went and told them
that before the night was through
I’d prove what the son of an ex-
slave could do: I dared them
to put on their most twisty
tune. To play it double-time
while I listened from another
room past the traffic sounds
of the avenue below.
To play it only once,
then to let me show
note for note how that scroll
made its roll through Chopin
or Bach or Beethoven’s best.
And if I failed to match my fingers
and ears with the spinning gears
of their invisible pneumatic piano
scholar, I’d pay them the price
of a thousand dollars.
And what was in it for Boone?
you might ask…
Might be the same thing that drives men
through mountains at heart attack pace.
Might be just to prove some tasks
ain’t meant to be neatly played
out on paper and into air,
but rather should tear
out from lung, heart and brain
with a flair of flicked wrists
and sly smile above the 88s…
and, of course, that ever-human
weight of pride that swallows us
when a thing’s done just right…
But they were eager to prove me wrong.
They chose their fastest machine
with their trickiest song and stuck it
in a room far down the hall from me.
They didn’t know how sharp
I can see with these ears of mine—
I caught every note even though
they played it in triple time.
And when I played it back to them
even faster, I could feel the violent
stares… heard one mutter
Lucky black bastard…
and that was my cue to rise,
to take a bow in their smoldering
silence and say, Not luck,
my friend, but the science
of touch and sweat and
stubborn old toil. I’d bet
these ten fingers against any coil
of wire and parchment and pump.
And I left them there to ponder
the wonders of blindness
as I walked out the door
into the heat of the sun.
I say “nigger” a hundred times before breakfast every morning just to keep my teeth white.
–Paul Mooney, Comedian
Of course, I was skeptical, but because there’s often wisdom in the hardest humor, I stood before the mirror one sunrise and began my morning chant. All repeated calmly for the first week, but with flavors added on as the regimen continued into the second. 50 with er and 50 with a. 1/4 as question, 1/4 as surprise, 1/4 as anger, 1/4 implying the complaining “please.” All alternately whispered, shouted, laughed, snarled—all in search of the ideal whitening formula. After four weeks I remained skeptical. However, perseverance paid off by the sixth, when colleagues remarked on my brightened, hazeless smile, when friends alerted me to a steely glint in my grin.
I doubled the regimen to maximize results. Week eight saw a 2/3 increase in brightening, with a luminousness approaching diamond quality, particularly in the lower incisors. The uppers were sun white, never leaving room in their shine for shadow. Side effects became audible as well as visual: a small echo became perceptible after each repetition in my mantra, such that the cadence assumed a wondrous worksong rhythm. Upon closer examination, magnifying mirrors revealed one (1) small, brown man peering into the side of each tooth’s mirror-smooth enamel, each one appearing only briefly before each utterance. Alarmed but intrigued, I enhanced my treatment. Various gesticulations were added to the morning litany. Sneers, chuckles, sighs, and facial contortions were enhanced throughout. As a result, the echo’s intensity increased from slight windy whisper to low murmur, to small and steady chorus each morning, a daily affirmation of my will to shine. A halogen glare burned from my mouth throughout the day. I’ve become a walking lighthouse of shine—the ritual has grown above and beyond and through me. I wake each morning to stand before my mirror, and before I open my mouth I hear the chant begin above and around me, as if I were in the middle of the mantra’s core, as if I’m one in a circle of prayer. I’ve found others who hear the chant with me, or they’ve found me, those who rise up with me each morning to stand before our mirrors with the diamond-sharp sound of ourselves polishing each tooth until we gleam—our number grows daily. We shimmer and shine inside the bulging head of our chant, polishing our glowing mirrors, staring into the glare until we shield our eyes.
Tyehimba Jess, author of Leadbelly (Wave, 2005), is a Whiting Writers’ Award winner, a MacDowell fellow, and has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown, and a Lannan Writing Residency. His next book, Olio, will be published by Wave Press in spring 2016. He is associate professor of English at College of Staten Island.