Chain Gang

This song is not a language,
Not a thing to be remembered,
The field-holler tradition of
Teeth and knees
Cursing wind,
A concert hall of   bloody hands
Spilling the earth,
Strangling dirt,
Sledgehammer curses
Of  men busted open.

On Parchman Farm
You could hear it coming
Up through the trees,
The hammering pulpit of
Crooning men and sweat,
The tender meat of palms
Pulped like plums.

Them men gulped down the
Dawn dew air,
Let it catch in their throats,
Broke the sunrise up and
Sang hymns like hexes:

Be my woman gal, I’ll beeee your maaaaaaan    ...    

And the killing fields of  Mississippi
Fizzled down to juke joints and
The hothouse music of illegal clubs
With thick women they loved outright and
Played cards with and
Gave bourbon to when their hands
Didn’t hold sorrow like
Pickaxes and the railroad was
Just a railroad,
A way to ride north if  you could
Get your money right.

Redbone gals with rosewater sweat,
When they lifted their knees
Sunflower County was a heaven
They believed in.

Stick to the promise, gal, that you maaaaaade meeeeee    ...    

Steady now,
They turned back the clock on
Their hard, hard hands,
Let the memory of fresh linen and
Ladies’ slips like gossamer
Wings, a parade of  plump thighs,
The juju thrust of  furious bones
Spread like grease
Across starched-white sheets,
Midwife them out of ol’ Parchman Farm

And back to the cockfights and gambling,
Back when they had ambition,
Back when they had a sweet woman
To hold, her fat wrists
Soft as butter,
Limp as rain.

When she walk, she reel and rock beeeeeehind
Ain’t that enough to make a convict smiiiiiiiiile.

Mississippi’s where the cock crowed,
A hoodwink if ever there was one,
But see how a man can make a
Steeple outta his hands,

See how he can break away
From his hurt and be God
If  he wants to,
How he can keep his mind
Wrapped in yesterday,
Drown out memory
Like rain drumming
Down like hornets

Them Parchman men,
Ants in single file,
Draft dodgers
Digging trenches
Pounding concrete
Laying tracks
Pretending it’s Christmas
So they can keep their hands
Away from the colic of axe handles,
The sputtering earth
Snarling under their feet.
Warden says every man
Gotta pay his way on Parchman Farm
Same as the outside.

Yessuh. They remember what it was like to be a man,
To know that didn’t mean put a gun in your hand
Or go lookin’ for somebody to take down, naw.
They sang ’til the hurt was just an
Experiment in forgetfulness and they
Were back in clean clothes makin’ plans and

Tryin’ to get a little money
To buy tobacco and
A pint with a little left over
To get somethin’ sweet
For the women who were wet
Underneath them, crooning
A tumorless midnight.

The moans of  wild women
Are specific:
A whisper of  hell danced pink
By the rosewater sweat and mewling,
Questions they ask when
Their clothes are off.

When you gon’ take me to the movies?
We goin’ Saturday, baby
When you gon’ get you a steady job?
Workin’ on it everyday, baby
Why you love me anyway, man?
Ain’t a man alive who could help it

The dance, you know, the dance of  being a free man
That never shows its fullness to you ’til
It’s stripped down and gobbled up
By railroad tracks and guards in high towers
With rifles watching your back,
Bend to question mark
Under a sun that won’t mind its business,

When the only part of  your living life left
Is in the things you remember
About a woman who hung
Pantyhose off her porch to
Dry and made you peach cobbler
In the middle of the night
If you asked nice and
Danced with you to songs
Written on the back of a
Watermelon truck by folk who
Knew something about longing,
And those are the songs you give her now
While you bust the earth open.

Cuz your heart is a burial plot
So stony.

Can’t ask nothin’ of a grave.
Everybody knows that.

So you dig and
Pound and
Snatch and
Haul and
Scrape and
Lift and
Tote and

                    Lay it down, man!
                              Pick it up again, man!

You’re knuckles and
Dreams deferred in a place
Where every stone,
Every goddamn stone
Is important!

I go free, lawd, I goooooooo free    ...