Old Eddie’s face, wrinkled with river lights,
Looked like a Mississippi man’s. The eyes,
Derisive and avuncular at once,
Swivelling, fixed me. They’d seen
Too many wakes, too many cathouse nights.
The bony, idle fingers on the valves
Of his knee-cradled horn could tear
Through ‘Georgia on My Mind’ or ‘Jesus Saves’
With the same fury of indifference,
If what propelled such frenzy was despair.
Now, as the eyes sealed in the ashen flesh,
And Eddie, like a deacon at his prayer,
Rose, tilting the bright horn, I saw a flash
Of gulls and pigeons from the dunes of coal
Near my grandmother’s barracks near the wharves,
I saw the sallow faces of those men
Who sighed as if they spoke into their graves
About the Negro in America. That was when
The Sunday comics sprawled out on her floor,
Sent from the States, had a particular odour,
A smell of money mingled with man’s sweat.
And yet, if Eddie’s features held our fate,
Secure in childhood I did not know then
A jesus-ragtime or gut-bucket blues
To the bowed heads of the lean, compliant men
Back from the states in their funereal serge,
Black, rusty Homburgs and limp waiters’ ties
With honey accents and lard-coloured eyes
Was Joshua’s ram’s horn wailing for the Jews
Of patient bitterness or patient siege.
Now it was that as Eddie turned his back
On our young crowd out feteing, swilling liquor,
And blew, eyes closed, one foot up, out to sea,
His horned aimed at those cities of the Gulf,
Mobile and Galveston and sweetly meted
The horn of plenty through a bitter cup,
In lonely exaltation blaming me
For all whom race and exile have defeated,
For my own uncle in America,
That living there I could never look up.