Because you make heaven blue, Koko Taylor,
tomorrow, so goes the whole sad world.
But I need a beat right now to stay even
with this night I carry on my back, inside
my chest it all shines back at me, back at me,
like an old fist up against a loud bare light.
And I keep my radio on loud, too.
And it talks at me and sings up a background, and it
needs no attention like a friend does, or a bad joke
needs its chain of stupid lips to breathe.
Hey radio, I just inhabit here.
I inherit nothing I can use but my own skin
and your tunes. So you, radio, pray with me we got
to pray like a pair of funky sadhus. I’m moody
for a blow of spirit an de riddem too, hey I want
a beat to slap me upside, bounce me back to lost
now, mama. Radio, you can call it plain talking
or just a groove, whatever you need is OK fine with me.
You are heart to me, radio, bet you didn’t know
that one. You are sea and heart to me.
So I twist a tuning knob by this reflex
in my finger, tune the whole band down, ear cocked
for some gentle, for some fine slowhand and a wail –
nothing else works that good – and listen,
There it is: my blues queen, Koko Taylor, spreads
me out there with her big grim song, again,
spreads me wide and sails through my skin, eight
bars and again, she owns me so she thinks, and she
pushes me way out there close to heaven.
Close to the apogee of my sea and my heart.
Well, I think your own tongue ought to bleed, Koko Taylor.
What made you queen of the pain song, anyway?
And the sin song, too, what about that one?
I suppose you’d say it’s your own kind of reflex.
Or provocation buried in your skin, or a beam
come from heaven tattooed with your own name.
Well for me, the same thing makes my sea dark
and my heart burn this night down all night long,
for me it’s some kind of altar, a true emergency,
‘til light and morning crack the world’s blue skin
away: into nothing, into need, it’s loud engine, need.
And I can’t duck it either. All at once the slow light
rolls me over, too, and Koko, she gets all scarce
again, because I know she won’t let low-rent light
scar up that foxy jewel a-quiver in her throat.
So I call down a redbird, a stray angel,
to my windowsill. I holler at him, redbird, this
is an emergency hop on down here dance
for me on your red sticklegs, hurry up.
I’ll open up to you, redbird.
I know I’m nothing but a stiff too-gone, but I’ll
giggle if you’ll dance right here, right now, maybe
sing up just a little.
And will you look at that.
This redbird lands on my windowsill, and he
dances, and he sings three times just for me.
Three times on his red sticklegs, Tripitaka
dances three figures each, and sings up
the triple form of refuge:
Budam saranam gakchi
Darnam saranam gakchi
Sangam saranam gakchi
For my own heart, and my dark sea, I bow
to you, redbird. Your song’s the only wine
I got this morning, and your dance makes
this new light matter just for me.
Then my lips let go of their own song, all
at once, my sea flexes, and my heart, this harsh
love becomes a true emergency,
all at once.
© 2017, John Sullivan
Originally published in Hayden’s Ferry Review