Monday’s Poem: ‘Dead Shrimp Blues,’ by Diann Blakely

 

 

And I’ll night-prowl like Maggie the Cat

From porch to bedroom, with my red fingernails

Arched prayerfully inside soon-peeled white gloves;

 

Or, like young Tennessee when shipped to Clarksdale

For summers with his preacher granddad

And, craving boys and delta love,

 

Scratch at slammed windows with tears on my breath.

O goggle-eyed perches.  O I’ll undress

Down to my humid white-girl slip, like Cat,

 

And we’ll yowl blues for limping, crutched husbands.

We’ll yowl for lost altars and hearths

Where, baby, we served our best bait;

 

We’ll yowl like you, in vain, as slouched patrons

Sway past your tears. Past your pale clouded eye

That sees Cat, Tennessee, and arms open

 

Like ours in every neighborhood.  O exiles–

Why do you hear me weep and moan?–

From Jesus-love and baptized children

 

Curled shrimp-like at our breasts, we’ll skip the hymns

To echo your last cry at slammed front doors

That had you posted out.  Doors like your in-laws’,

 

Who swore the blues brought stillbirth to their daughter

And death’s blood on her slip.  Like homes

We craved, but whose sole raised windows

 

Were scratched with crossroad views. If tears still fall

When love slams its front door and our nails shred

The crimson air, should we–the devil’s best bait–

 

Serve jukes where no one’s home?  Let’s bow our heads

And unwind nightly choirs of yowls:

O torn white slip; o unsheathed tail.

 

© Diann Blakely.  Printed by permission of the author.

 

The poet, essayist, and reviewer Diann Blakely is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Cities of Flesh and the Dead, winner of Elixir Press’s 7th annual publication prize after being distinguished by the Poetry Society of America‘s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, given for a year’s best manuscript-in-progress.  She has taught at Harvard University as Seamus Heaney’s teaching assistant, Belmont University, Vanderbilt, and the Harpeth School, and maintains a Web presence at http://www.diannblakely.com/. With about three-quarters of her new book, Rain in Our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson, finished, in this, the centennial year of his birth, Blakely is on the lookout for any new material that may come to light while also completing a series of elegies and a sequence about Helen Keller.

Arts & Academe‘s poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes:  The biography of blues icon Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938) is as mythic and elusive as the timbre of his haunted voice.  Just two extant photographs of Johnson are verifiable, and he was often itinerant, moving from town to town, occasionally under false names.  His two marriage licenses give two different birth dates.   His generally accepted birthday, however, is May 8, 1911, and this year officially marks Johnson’s natal centenary, an occasion celebrated worldwide by musicians, writers, and admirers of the mysterious and profoundly influential guitarist, composer, and singer, whose devotees include musicians as various as Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Jimi Hendrix, and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats.

Several dates in the Johnson “life” are certain, and they include the famous makeshift studio sessions, one in San Antonio, Texas, in 1936, and another the following year in Dallas, during which Johnson recorded most of the 29-some songs that comprise his oeuvre.  For the better part of the past decade, I have been following with interest (in Bomb, Southern Humanities Review, Harvard Review, Callaloo, and elsewhere) Diann Blakely’s latest poetry project, a series of “call and responses” whose various narrators engage in what might be called duets with Robert Johnson (in his recordings, Johnson often sounds as if he is in dialogue or duet with himself; one listener to a Johnson recording is purported to have wondered, in fact, who was on the second guitar in a piece which featured Johnson alone—he possessed a hair-raising  multiphonicity both in his playing and his singing).  With the refreshing and uncanny empathy for which she is admired and respected as a critic and poet, Blakely offers a fresh attention to Johnson’s music (her poems take their titles from his extraordinary compositions) in relation to her own abiding concerns with what she once called, in an essay about Eleanor Ross Taylor, “oh, dear God, let us outgrow those terms of race, class, and gender, but for now they’re what we’ve got—the hand life deals us.”

“Dead Shrimp Blues” is not one of Johnson’s better known songs, at least not to me, who first came to Johnson’s material through covers, by the Rolling Stones, Clapton, Steve Miller, and others, of compositions like “Love in Vain” and “Cross Road Blues.”  “Dead Shrimp Blues,” recorded during the San Antonio sessions, is an exceptionally mournful, skeined song, even for Johnson, who complicates the traditionally rendered blues idiom and subject matter (another man stole my woman—“someone is fishing in my pond”—and so I got drunk—“myself unwound”) with very particular, anguished images of the female mouth and genitalia, sexual jealousy, spurning, pining, and impotence:

I got dead shrimps here, someone is fishin’ in my pond

I got dead shrimps here, ooh, someone fishin’ in my pond

I’ve served my best bait, baby, and I can’t do that no harm

 

Everything I do, babe, you got your mouth stuck out

Hole where I used to fish, you got me posted out

Everything I do, you got your mouth stuck out,

At the hole where I used to fish, baby, you got me posted out . . . .

Blakely’s “Dead Shrimp Blues” does not follow the traditional 12-bar AAB pattern of repeated lines, but rather adapts what is an already invitingly fluid form to her own purposes, keeping the four-stress line but avoiding phrasal refrain in favor of her own rhyme scheme, in which the last word in each paired tercet rhymes (gloves/ love, Cat / bait, open / children, and so forth).  She begins the poem with “And,” as though responding in the spontaneous moment to Johnson’s plaintive call, his “yowl” of sexual hurt, anger, and pain—and she does so by comparing her speaker first to another iconic southern figure, Maggie the Cat, from Tennessee Williams’ award-winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a woman full of her own fire and desire, whose husband, Brick, struggles with implied impotence and homosexuality – and then to Williams himself, “young Tennessee . . . shipped to Clarksdale / For summers with his preacher granddad / And, craving boys and delta love.”  This conflation of selves and points of view, with its rich sampling and mash-up of details from Johnson’s biography and other song lyrics, as well as from Williams’s play, reveals Blakely’s interest in the ways the blues speak across and within genre, gender, fictions, race, time, personal history, culture, and place, particularly the American South.  At times her singer is female, at other times possibly male [with Johnson himself, it seems, at least once addressing Blakely herself (“Why do you hear me weep and moan?”) and vice versa]; sometimes the poem is inhabited by a singular persona and at others by a plural chorus:

 

And we’ll yowl for limping, crutched husbands.

We’ll yowl for lost altars and hearths

Where, baby, we served our best bait;

 

We’ll yowl like you, in vain, as slouched patrons

Sway past your tears.  Past your pale clouded eye

That sees Cat, Tennessee, and arms open

 

Like ours in every neighborhood.  O exiles — . . .

 

Blakely’s poem pivots on the word “exiles,” and it is all manner of human, and particularly southern, apartness that is the subject of her barbaric yawp.  Her most profound empathies are with women—the female figures in Johnson’s life—the women he loves and leaves in various towns, his first wife, who dies in childbirth and whose parents blame Johnson’s secular singing and wayward ways for the death—as well as Williams’s Cat and any woman left alone “when love slams its front door and our nails shred / The crimson air.”   Johnsons phallic “dead shrimps” become, in Blakely’s poem, infants curled “shrimp-like at our breasts.”  Moving like a motif throughout the poem is the “slip”:  Cat’s slip, the speaker’s “white-girl slip,” Johnson’s wife’s blood-stained slip, the last “torn white slip” of anyone impoverished, violated, or bereft.  The slip that is the page, the poem itself.  Blakely culminates not with a swell of “I am woman, hear me roar,” but with a question—how and why serve up our feast, the best we might be or become, in a world of such seemingly irreconcilable “crossroad views”?—and concludes with a blessing/prayer (“Let’s bow our heads”—in shame?  in spite?  in honor of the hurt and vulnerable?  in petition?) that is at once vulnerable, sexual, keening, and unresolved:

 

If tears still fall

When love slams its front door and our nails shred

The crimson air, should we–the devil’s best bait–

 

Serve jukes where no one’s home?  Let’s bow our heads

And unwind nightly choirs of yowls:

O torn white slip; o unsheathed tail.

Louise Glück has written that if, in “striving to be free of the imprisoning self, the poet’s gaze trains itself outward, it rests nevertheless on what compels or arrests it.  …  [and w]here the gaze is held, voice, or response begins.”  The compelling poem, she continues, seeks the truth not of a single vision, but one which contains Whitmanian multitudes, paradoxical and as disturbing to the romantic notion of a restored self or to “the tribe’s automatic allegiance to itself” as these competing visions may be.  Blakely strikes me as being up to something very similar in this poem and in her Robert Johnson project.  Employing what Glück calls a kind of “spiritual ventriloquisim,” Blakely is less concerned with offering confusion-ending answers to the issues of gender, race, and region raised in her duets than she is with allowing the various, often contradictory cries of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters—across time, race, art form, and culture—to erupt through her own. The result in Blakely’s poly-vocal “Dead Shrimp Blues” is a refusal to allow any human voice to be shut down or posted out.

 

 

(Illustration by Alexander C. Kafka incorporating a photograph by Karl Struss at Flickr Commons)

Louise Glück has written that if, in “striving to be free of the imprisoning self, the poet’s gaze trains itself outward, it rests nevertheless on what compels or arrests it. . . . [and w]here the gaze is held, voice, or response begins.” The compelling poem, she continues, seeks the truth not of a single vision, but one which contains Whitmanian multitudes, paradoxical and as disturbing to the romantic notion of a restored self or to “the tribe’s automatic allegiance to itself” as these competing visions may be. Blakely strikes me as being up to something very similar in this poem and in her Robert Johnson project. Employing what Glück calls a kind of “spiritual ventriloquisim,” she is less concerned with offering confusion-ending answers to the issues of gender, race, and region raised in her duets than she is with allowing the various, often contradictory cries of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters – across time, race, art form, and culture – to erupt through her own. The result in Diann Blakely’s poly-vocal “Dead Shrimp Blues” is a refusal to allow any human voice to be shut down or posted out.
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