By Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966
Her neon sign blared two Harlem blocks.
In Aunt Grindle’s
Elite Chitterling Shop
the variegated dinoceras of a jukebox
railed and wailed
from everlasting to everlasting:
Come back, Baby, come back—I need your gravy.
Come back, Baby, come back—I’m weak and wavy.
The talk of the town, I’m Skid Row bound—
and I don’t mean maybe!
(O scholars)
this is the ambivalence of classical blues—and the
coins came from the blue-devils’ pocket of Dipsy Muse.
Across an alp of chitterlings, pungent as epigrams,
Doctor Obi Nkomo
the alter ego
of the Harlem Gallery
—as a news-waif hallooed, “The Desert Fox is dead!”—
clicked his tongue
—a residual habit from the veld—
—stout as a peasant in the Bread-and-Cheese War—
“The lie of the artist is the only lie
for which a mortal or a god should die.”
Because nobody was a nobody to him,
when from his thin charcoal lips
irony escaped, it was malice toward none.
The therapy of his slips
by design into primitive objets d’art
humanized the patrons of the Harlem Gallery
as much as the masterworks
he salvaged from the Lethe
of the American Way in Black Manhattan.
Mr. Guy Delaporte III cried out before the Regents,
“Mr. Curator, what manner of man
is this?”
Unharassed by the ignis fatuus of a lost job,
Doctor Nkomo clicked throatily and, with a chuckle
whispered to me, “It’s not this buckle-
head’s right or wrong if he does right or wrong.”
Like a humming disk came the strophe
of a rebel Bantu song.
Hubris is an evil the Greeks
(Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus)
boned and fleshed to wear the mask.
Pride is the lust-
sinewed wench the churchman speaks
of first in the Table of Deadly Sins:
Doctor Nkomo’s All hail to Man
was a vane on the wing
to winnow the grain
in person, place and thing.
Too many (perhaps) of the Regents’ corralled hours
Doctor Nkomo and I
left gored in bull rings of pros and cons:
without a horse-opera god, the Ultra dons
the matador’s black of the wherefore and the why,
or hoists the white flag
and lets the red cells in the marrow die.
His idée fixe ebbed and flowed across the dinner table:
“Absurd life shakes its ass’s ears
in Cendrars’—not Nkomo’s—stable.   
anchored like hooks of a hag-fish to sea weeds
and patient as a weaver in haute-lisse tapestry,
a Rivera or a Picasso,
with a camel-hair alchemy,
paints in fresco-buono
the seven panels of a man’s tridimensionality
in variforms and varicolors—
since virtue has no Kelvin scale,
since a mother breeds
no twins alike,
since no man is an escape running wild from
self-sown seeds—
then, no man,
judged by his biosocial identity
in toto
can be
a Kiefekil or a Tartufe,
an Iscariot or an Iago.”
Is philosophy, then, a tittle’s snack?
History, a peacock's almanac?
He laughed down at me,
a kidney without anchorage,
and said: “You must see through the millstone,
since you’re not like Julio Sigafoos and me—
an ex-savage.”
His ebony forefinger an assagai blade,
he mused aloud as the box played in Harlem’s juke:
“Curator of the Harlem Ghetto, what is a masterpiece?
A virgin or a jade,
the vis viva of an ape of God,
to awaken one,
to pleasure one—
a way-of-life’s aubade.”
Black as cypress lawn,
the crag of a woman crabsidled in.
The breath of a fraxinella in hot weather,
her unlooked-for grin
evaporated; then,
like a well’s spew
of mud and oil and raw gas,
she blew
her top.
Dipsy Muse slumped like Uhlan
when his feet failed to prop,
his squeal the squeal
of a peccary ax-poled in its pen.
stem and stern
of the Elite Chitterling Shop
pitched and ditched
in the chatter and squawks, in the clatter and guffaws,
as a
Yarmouth yawl yaws
when struck by a rogue-elephant sea.
Scragged beyond the cavernous door,
clamorous as a parrot against the rain,
Dipsy Muse’s vanity scrabbled in vain
like an anchor along the neck-gorge of a sea-floor.
The jukebox
railed and wailed:
The black widow spider gets rid of her man,
gets rid of her daddy as fast as she can.
If you fool around, I know what I’ll do—
like the black widow spider I’ll get rid of you.
A giraffine fellow whose yellow skin
mocked the netted pattern of a cantaloupe
opened his rawhide pocketbook
to sniff of dope a whiff,
with a galley curse and an alley gag;
then—laughing, choking, brimstoning his spouse,
he caved in like Ben Franklin’s beggarly bag.
Doctor Nkomo sighed:
“The nicks and cuts under a stallion’s tail
spur him to carry it higher;
but the incised horsetail of a man
drains the bones of his I-ness drier.”
A black outsider with all his eggs but one
in the White Man’s basket, he quaffed his beer,
stretched his beanpole legs;
—a rubberneck Robin Hood in a morris dance—
readied a hobby with another color for a ride
beyond the Afrikaner’s stance.
“O, Romeo,” he said, “O Casanova,
prithee, what is chivalrous—what, barbaric?
(Why gnaw one’s thoughts to the bone?)
When a cavemen painted a rubric
figure of his mate with a gritstone,
Eros conquered Thanatos.”
His eyes glistening dots of an ice plant,
he said: “My Western friends
—with deserts to be turned into green pastures—
rent diving bells to get the bends,
curfew morals, incubate tsetse flies,
stage a barroom brawl of means and ends
in a cul-de-sac.
(Eagles dying of hunger with cocks in their claws!)
That rebel jukebox! Hear the ghetto’s dark guffaws
that defy Manhattan’s Bible Belt!
Aeons separate my native veld
and your peaks of philosophy:
I made the trek, Curator,
on Man’s vegetable ivory,
in threescore years and ten.”
A whale of a man, I thought, a true,
but not a typical, mammal.
He absorbs alien ideas as Urdu
Arabic characters.
In a sepulchral corner, I glimpsed
a Scarlet Sister Mary on the make,
her lips dark and juicy like a half-done T-bone steak.
The giraffine fellow eyed us with a dog-ape look
and outed his impatience in a sigh;
a single-acting plunger
cast the die,
“Mister, who are you?”
His catarrhal eye
baited by Doctor Nkomo’s hair
(the silvery gray patina of a Japanese alloy),
he was but a squeaking Cleopatra boy
when the reply
came like the undershot of a Poncelet water wheel:
“Obi Nkomo, my dear Watson; but that is nil,
a water stair that meanders to no vessel. If you ask
what am I, you dash on rocks the wisdom and the will
of Solon and Solomon.
Am I a bee
drugged on the honey of sophistry?
Am I a fish from a river Jordan,
fated to die as soon as it reaches an Asphalt Sea?”
Not a sound came from
the yellow giraffine fellow—
not a sound
from the bowels
of this Ixion bound
to the everlasting revolving ghetto wheel.
Nearer the ground than Townsend’s solitaire,
Doctor Nkomo
raked his hair
… his brain …
but he did not blink the cliff of ice.
“What am I? What are you?
Perhaps we
are twin colors in a crystal.
When I was a Zulu
lad, I heard an old-wives’ tale
for seven-foot-spear Chakas to be.
In a barnyard near a buffalo trail
a hunter discovered an eagle
eating dung with chickens.
He carried the feathered rex to a mountain top,
although it raised the dickens.
The hunter explained, ‘You're not a chicken, Aquila.’
He launched the ungainly bird into space.
A fouled umbrella!
In the wing lock
of habit, it tumbled in disgrace
… down … down … down
a ghostified cock!
“Out of the visaing face
of the sun swooped the falcon baron
clarioning the summons of an aeried race.
the barnyard eagle answered the Solar City wight;
he spiraled the simoom-blistered height—
braked and banked and beaked
upward, upward, into transfiguring light.
Old Probabilities, what am I?
Mister, what are you?
An eagle or a chicken come home to roost?
I wish I knew!”
His character (in the Greek sense)
phrased a nonplus—needed a metaphor’s
translation. As an African prince,
kings and chiefs peacocked themselves
behind him;
and he, himself tough-conscienced, had slain
heathenism, the Giant Grim,
without a backward cry.
Scot and plot,
caste and class,
rifted right angles to the curving grain.
The dream of Abraham’s bosom bottled long ago,
he walked the Pork Barrel’s porphyry
street with the man in the ears;
and the glassy
rivers of talk
—Heraclitean, Fabian, Marxian—
in the lights and shadows of the illuminating gas,
bona fides,
limned a figure and cast
of Homo Aethiopicus who knew
all riverine traffickers pass
beyond the Seven Walls of Water—to join
… the Last of the Greeks …
of the Romans, the Last.
Once in a while
his apology
shaped itself like the symbol
in a skipper’s log.
During the falconry
in the chamber of the Regents,
Mr. Delaporte III flew
off at a tangent and off the handle.
Doctor Nkomo’s Dandie Dinmount terrier
epithet sprang
across the tables.
My gavel big-talked in slang.
Like a turtle’s head,
the session withdrew
into its shell.
The old Africanist bowed cavalierly and said:
“I’ve called the gentleman a liar
—it’s true—
and I am sorry for it.”
Wealth of the fettered,
illth of the lettered,
left his realism, like rock dust, unweathered:
one who eyes
the needle of the present to knit the future’s garb.
In his own buttoned guise
he seemed to speak to the man Friday in Everyman
boned and lined and veined
for the twelve great fatigues to the Promised Land:
“The golden mean
of the dark wayfarer’s way between
black Scylla and white Charybdis, I
have traveled; subdued ifs in the way;
from vile-canaille balconies and nigger heavens, seen
day beasts and night beasts of prey
in the disemboweling pits of
Europe and America,
in the death-worming bowels of
Asia and Africa;
and, although a Dumb Ox (like young Aquinas), I
have not forgot
the rainbows and the olive leaves against the orient sky.
“The basso profundo
Gibbon of Putney
—not the lyric tenor, Thomas of Celano—
hymns the Dies Irae!”

Melvin Tolson, "ETA" from Harlem Gallery and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1999)

Source: "Harlem Gallery" and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (University Press of Virginia, 1999)

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Poet Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Subjects Living, Life Choices, The Mind, Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Arts & Sciences, Music, Philosophy, Social Commentaries, Class, Race & Ethnicity

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Melvin B. Tolson


Known for his complex, challenging poetry, Melvin B. Tolson earned little critical attention throughout most of his life, but he eventually won a place among America's leading black poets. He was, in the opinion of Allen Tate, author of the preface to Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, the first black poet to assimilate "completely the full poetic language of his time and, by implication, the language of the . . .

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SUBJECT Living, Life Choices, The Mind, Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Arts & Sciences, Music, Philosophy, Social Commentaries, Class, Race & Ethnicity

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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