Apostate by John Keene

Apostate by John KeeneFeatured in Issue 1 of Madcap Review

Miles Dewey Davis, Jr.

Unbroken, yet the pain of lifting
your right arm remains unbearable,
some terrible shit going down in your blood,
these young dudes, trying to be helpful,
can’t understand what you mumbling,
so they nodding, painting traces
of tired melodies that sicken you
to your soul—where the fuck am I?
following whatever it is
they think they hearing
cause you a legend, and you recall
how astonishing and cruel you once were
towards your elders and peers, still are, tearing
out thirds from Bird and Diz’s circle,
cutting lesser trumpeters, scolding Trane,
strafing tracks by Haden and Evans,
disassembling modal systems,
driving that sweet group with Herbie
and Wayne in the early 1960s,
then fusion, dropping out, funkalating, walking in
late, blowing whether you cared or not,
turning your back to the audience
when you felt it, chords
so cold they would send brothers
and Swedish gals into paroxysms
cause they could never get enough
of what you withheld.  Now
you struggle to cop a breath
to shape a clean note.
Death, keep on stepping.

Truth is, they don’t know a goddamn thing
about Alton, Illinois.  They don’t
know what really went down
with the wives and children,
the other women, all those sidemen
whose shadows you carry around
like passkeys inside your harmonies,
how like the tonic in sonata form
what comes around
goes around and payback surely
is a bitch you’re paying
premium right now.
They don’t know what it means
to be a Black dentist’s son,
a scion, trained at Juilliard
and in the dream logic of Harlem,
returning to your daddy’s farm
long past grown, him leaving
you to live or die
in the sweat of your nightmares
in your room above the barn
as you battle the past,
your ghosts and junk,
wrestling like Jacob
the relentless angel that yearns
to slay you, lay you out
so you keep swinging,
burning in those hazy blues
of backrooms and burning spoons,
turning back to every word
and tune that ever sustained you—

Don’t fail—
finding the breath
to wield a grace note:
Death, not yet.

Tonight: amped to decibels to blow
the eardrums clear of hearing,
bassists and keyboardists
whose names you never learned
or cannot remember,
ancestors and mojos and Ju-Ju
protecting you
even though your heart
keeps popping like a snare drum
and your ears register
only a red buzzing,
you mount the stage—
or was that yesterday,
when you prepared to state
with your horn what your lips
refuse to bear away,
how it’s not about being a genius
or merely surviving, how nobody ever
sees what goes down in the head
of a brother striving so hard
to make something beautiful
and impregnable and lasting
out of the margins of this blue life,
how the dues you pay never suffice,
and you play and play and play
thinking that moment will come
but it never does, or it came so often
you realized it only too late,
like now, so you’ll always blame
yourself, assume responsibility.
Passion is a song you sing
on your own terms: the set opens,
and you hold your breath
to map the evening’s destiny: sound.
Death, get ready.

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