NOTE BLUE or POEM FOR EIGHTIES BABIES
(~also for T.P., 1950-2010)
If it’s Teddy singing it—don’t leave me
this way—it’s not that version of the song
your parents spun themselves through, becoming
one of those strobe-lit dervishes. Listen
as it pounds. Think of them not dancing but stilled
in a corner, buttressed by their own sweat
and clairvoyant uncertainty. Every plea
and atonement that reaches
sweet and hard from Teddy’s vocal folds
is ambivalent towards their present’s
travails—the night humid and reduced to tissue
paper’s fragility. It’s June, 1976, years before
code like mother and father—before either
is prepared to admit they could never imagine
the uphill slope of love after disco
wore its vinyl tongue unfurrowed
and the babies—babies that began
as mere exchanges
of pheromones on a dance floor—
began falling into their young laps.
It isn’t your fault. You did not stop the music.
Or if you did, it was Thelma Houston’s cover,
not this bearded prayer of negative capability—
the pleaseplease under each footstep your parents took
beyond the cusp realizing that nothing so good
could stay that good so long.
© Kyle Dargan. Printed by permission of the author.
Kyle Dargan is an Assistant Professor of literature and creative writing at American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Logorrhea Dementia (University of Georgia Press, 2010), and the founding editor of the online review POST NO ILLS.
A&A poetry editor Lisa Russ Spaar notes: Dargan has been praised, in the New York Times and elsewhere, as a poet with a hip, original take on the ways in which musical textures stalk the language and culture of poems. This rich, nostalgic, forgiving piece – part address to the speaker’s brother and sister children of the 1980s, part portrait of the unwitting disco-gen parents who created them, part elegy to the magnificent drummer and vocalist Teddy Pendergrass, who passed earlier this year – reveals another of Dargan’s poetic gifts: a kinetic stereoscopy that allows, in any one poem, a provocative conflation of personal and public histories, of past and present situations (“If it’s Teddy singing it—don’t leave me / this way—it’s not that version of the song / your parents spun themselves through, becoming / one of those strobe-lit dervishes” . . . but rather “Thelma Houston’s cover” that by the mid-70s defined the disco craze). In this way, Dargan manages to conjure vividly the parents both before they were parents -- in strobe-lit, pheromone-driven dancefloor heat – and later, on the “the uphill slope of love after disco” into parenthood and responsibility. The poem also invites the reader – implicated in the “you” of “Eighties Babies” the poem addresses – to attend to the vulnerability tissued within the syncopated clubglitz soundtrack of that earlier parental generation, and to find there origins of mutual, cross-generational desire, disillusionment, and need for absolution (“It isn’t your fault”). All generations do the best they can with what they inherit, and I love how the poem enacts a kind of (un)“covering” as it moves among its players, Pendergrass and Houston included. Because of Dargan’s pop-cultural breadth and savvy, I rarely read one of his poems without subsequently seeking out a book, an historical figure, a song he’s mentioned. If you can locate your Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes Wake Up Everybody LP (or check it out on YouTube), with Pendergrass on vocals, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is worth a spin. There’s so much poetry even in the humming with which Pendergrass starts off and in the rap with which he concludes the song. I confess having had to interrupt the writing of this comment several times in order to dance to the “bearded prayer of negative capability” that saturates the yearning bridge of that song, Dargan’s poem, perhaps all art.
(Arts & Academe illustration incorporating promo photo of Teddy Pendergrass and images by Flickr users Thunderchild7 and Sabrina Campagna)