When I was four
Robert Lowell declared it the skunk
hour. Those waddling stinkers, of which
I was one, only less hairy, surely, but just
as ripe.

What of Elvis?
It was said he had left the building,
left it open to run off to the Memphian.
He’d booked it, the entire theatre, so
he could be alone.

Me and the skunks waited outside.
What movie was he watching, “Pillow Talk?”
Or was it a preview of “Schindler’s List?”
The Holocaust was on everyone’s mind;
Elvis wouldn’t drop it.

Robert Lowell, Elvis and me: I knew better
not to ask. I was too young to be allowed in.
Like Elvis, I was fascinated by the Warsaw ghetto.
We were proof positive of what Susan Sontag
said was true: Fascism was becoming fashionable.

People found Auschwitz unspeakable. Elvis was
appalled, as was Robert Lowell. The word “unfathomable”
hung on the tip of our tongues. I stood alone in the balcony,
in the colored section, watching the movie. I had trouble
gathering my thoughts.

It was a double-feature. “Some Like It Hot”
had just opened. A lovely man worked concession,
busying himself popping popcorn. I am quite sure
he was listening to John Coltrane. It would soon be
1960. I would be five. We all died when JFK was shot.

I go through the motions, trying my best to seem alright.
I’m fine. I’m good. No reason to be ugly. Mass murder
is hard to fathom. Assassinations are more personal. Like
watching Ricky Ricardo get run over. Like watching your
dad die of a heart-attack. We all go through it.

Replacing Mascots

Italia…ah, Italy. Beautiful, sensuous, romantic.
What else is she? And there’s Nicaragua. Argentina.
Mimosa(?) and Czechoslovakia. How are the old girls
getting on, eh? Eh? Girls, they most certainly are; each
and every last one of them a heroine, an Amazonian,
perhaps even a Russian; every single one, except
American. America is male. There, I said it. All the
world’s countries use cold cream and favor silk stockings,
except that sulking child in the corner, the US of A.

Ask James Brown.
Take it up with Stravinsky.
Martin Scorsese. Pablo Picasso. They knew.
John Wayne, even if he was once named Marion.
He was a man. Don’t let them fool you. “It is a man’s
world,” sang James Brown, and so it is. Go right ahead,
call Italy a girl. She can take it. But not Brooklyn. Not
New Orleans, not Vegas or Memphis, not Des Moines,
and especially not manly Chicago. Not him.

Call them what you will. Say she, say her, say Kalamazoo
is a she, but nobody will believe you. “Kalamazoo, that old girl.”
Go ahead: Kentucky, Oklahoma, New Mexico. Give it a go.
Try calling them tarts. Go on! Tell Mr. Brown he is wrong.
Tell Brown’s mama, it is a woman’s world, and listen
to her laugh. She might wash your mouth out with soap.
She might get herself a switch and wear you out. It is not
a matter of once having been a girl, like Johnny Cash’s boy
named Sue. After all, he was a girl in name only.

Italy is a girl. Ask the Germans. They’ll tell you she is a bad girl,
or something like that, possibly a whore, but she is not a boy,
by golly, not one of them. It is the Americans who can’t handle it.
Married women in Russia obey their husbands, or are meant to,
but America is still a man’s world, absolutely, even if the men
are on the bottom. Watch a Hollywood movie. Men may piss
standing up but that is not how they make love. Men rule every-
where in the US, except in bed. American men are bottoms. Their
women are in charge. It may be a man’s world, but not after dark.

They are renaming Kennedy Airport after JFK’s wife Jackie.
Congress agreed to rename the capital after George’s wife, Martha.
They replaced spoon bread at the Captain’s Inn with corn tortillas.
Nobody drinks rum with Coke any more. Executioners have adopted
the Japanese custom of shouting “excuse me” before pulling
the trigger. Less than 17% of the people can tell the difference
between male and female. At this rate, it is estimated that in less
than twenty-five years no one will be able to tell whether they are
coming or going.

Catgut Ribbons

I remember going uptown to see this lady.
A dark brown woman from Chattanooga.
Back then, we didn’t talk much about having sex; said we had
business to do. Called it serious business.

Serious enough to end your life.
Serious enough to make you feel invulnerable.
Ready to walk out on your best friends and family.
I was ready to go off with her.

Even the blues gives me the blues.
Blue-grass music gives me the willies.
Country makes me feel I’m being sold a bill of goods.
Only Rock calms me down. Only Elvis makes me happy.

Southern Comfort ‘bout knocked me out.
Her old man came out of nowhere and cut me up.
I’m telling you; I didn’t see him coming.
Hit him over the head, smashing this here lamp to pieces.

She done told me she was nearly twenty.
She could handle herself; kicked and scratched, I kid you not.
Had a set on her look like the brake lights on a Studebaker sedan,
just like a princess riding the royal float int the annual parade.

Even the blues gives me the blues.
Blue-grass music gives me the willies.
Country makes me feel I’m being sold a bill of goods.
Only Rock calms me down. Only Elvis makes me happy.

I remember going uptown that day, sure enough.
She done told me she was close to twenty.
A dark brown lady from Chattanooga with the smoothest skin.
We didn’t talk about the business of human flourishing, no, sir.

It just happened. Serious enough to end a friendship.
I had no way of knowing she was young enough to be my daughter.
I’m telling you; I didn’t see him coming.
I better go now and you won’t see me again.

Even the blues gives me the blues.
Blue-grass music gives me the willies.
Country makes me feel I’m being sold a bill of goods.
Only Rock calms me down. Only Elvis makes me happy.

Friendly Skies

All those down-in-the-mouth looks.
Cheer up. Mayhem continues, but
I’ve decided to sing. Today, it’s Noel
Coward’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
Wit carries the day.

Today it is going to be Suzie Q.
I’m back today from the skinhead
convention in Leipzig and am in no mood
for sulking. I’m delighted after a night
of debauchery. We drank from the toilets.

I couldn’t sleep on the flight home. At take-off,
I listened to Stairway to Heaven and felt
transported even though I knew we were
barely moving. I miss Robert’s hair. To sooth
my advanced state of agitation, I put on Lou Rawls.

About three hours in, I asked the steward for a café
latte, only to be told none was available, not even
in Business Class. A good-looking youth, he sang
a fairly reputable rendition of You Can’t Always
Get What You Want. I fell asleep feeling robbed.

They turned on the lights at six and began a limited
breakfast service. Back in Economy, they threw
around some protein bars and offered cups of coffee.
When they brought us champagne, I felt like Goldfinger.
We all sang with Shirley Bassey over the intercom.

My neighbor was an Albanian honeybee keeper. He flies
zipped into his beekeeper’s suit but seemed ready to cry.
His voice sounded bitter. He spoke of having received
the shaft, but shocked me by being entirely ignorant
of Isaac Hayes. He’s never even been to Memphis.

“Just the right amount of cow bell.” I was ashamed
not to have caught his meaning. On cue, the man leapt
out of his chair, took all of his clothes, handed me his
underpants, and sang Tom Jones’s It’s Not Unusual
with all his heart.

I then heard an announcement regarding what I thought
concerned sympathy for St. Louis. I assumed another statue
had been taken down and we were being asked to express
our regrets or even our condolences, but no. They were
announcing vital news about the St. Louis Symphony.

This year, it was declared, the symphony would be honoring
the memory of female African American vocalists beginning
with Billy Holiday and ending with Nina Simone. With this,
passengers broke out in spontaneous applause and the pilot
diverted our flight from O’Hara to Lambert Airport.

Several women stood in unison and shouted their refusal
to attend. They would only join if the music of Amy
Winehouse was included. Then a group of portly men,
all champion bowlers from Alabama broke out in a earthy
rendition of Muddy Waters’ Baby Please Don’t Go.

Several men scattered about the craft began to protest.
At first, one had difficulty understanding what they
were saying, but soon enough their voices filled the
cabin. They were singing James Brown’s effervescent
This is a Man’s World at the top of their lungs.

Rest in Peace

A German farmhouse run by the relatives of distant monsters. Hearing
about the pus drained from his leg into used gherkin jars. Like Frida,
he lived the intense and prolific life of the semi-invalid. In a village
of angry Christians, set themselves the task of tearing each other apart,
a town ripe for sexual predators; no wonder the priests went after little boys.

From my father I learned the lesson that once a cripple always a cripple;
no one let him forget. The one group, which consisted of everyone else,
believed firmly in punishing those who broke the rules. Like a growth
passed down from generations, the story was told to me. It grew in me
like a tumor. The lesson was one of Biblical simplicity.

Any passing idiot in the desert might be able to grasp it. Exacting a just
reward must be one of the great experiences of one’s lifetime. Picture it:
the Taj Mahal. “Now, it’s your turn. What did you get for me?” Not
an Airedale puppy, one that doesn’t know how to stay clean. One wants
a puppy pristine as a cat and devoted to keeping it that way.

For that, my father made me come over, get on my knees, and open wide:
“Show me your tongue, come on.” He pissed straight down my throat.
He made me gargle with it. He liked to hear me try to talk with my mouth
full, an old childhood joke. He made me eat his toe jams. We all dreaded
the job ahead, of dealing with an invalid who couldn’t get to the toilet.

Fredericka, George, Hilda, and Emma. German Methodists at one’s throat.
Mother banged the girls’ heads against the wall, gripped their ears to gain
leverage. The boys were taken to the shed, where Uncle Frank used his bull
whip. There were chickens to be fed, stalls to be mucked. The work horses,
watered and brushed. Andrew Wyeth had an eye for this despair.

Between Kahlo and Wyeth, the horrors are covered. Fantasy and reality. The
fantastical and the mundane. The shriveled faces and the hummingbird, in mid-
air, aloft, thrumming. The adjacent bull, the erect cock, the tears. Art catches
the lost hopes, doesn’t it? The maddening torments after the washing up. That
moment when all one knows is that tomorrow will bring more of the same.