ETA

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—

and

—stout as a peasant in the Bread-and-Cheese War—

said,

“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.   

If,

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.

 

The

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;

then

—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.

Twice

the barnyard eagle answered the Solar City wight;

thrice

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

Q

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)
More Poems by Melvin B. Tolson