These are two of my favorite poems.
The first one I wrote it after a visit to Larry's cousin Mike, an amazing musician who is content to play when he wants where he wants and what he wants. One evening we were visiting Mike and Willie (his girlfriend) at their house high above the Kanawha River in Putnam County--a lonesome ridge much like our own.
We drove up late, it was after nine pm.
The road was long, dark and winding
Across a ridge the followed the bends
of the Great Kanawha River.
The light on the porch was on.
Willie sat in the swing, watching to be sure
we didn’t miss the place because the road
took a deep bend and it was a little hard to see.
The little house with blue siding
sheltered under shading oaks and maples,
a work in progress, it was plain to see
and lots of finishing still to do.
Mike pulled out his guitar and a bottle of vodka,
both tools of his musical skill,
and played songs from old country music
about betrayed love, love lost, lost hope,
while Willie sat and listened
and talked about the great deals
she got at Goodwill,the table and chairs
and Old Curiosity Shoppe dishes.
Sing us a song? Mike asked,
and so I did, the ones I like the best,
old ballads and mountain songs
of betrayed love, love lost, lost hope,
sitting at Willie's kitchen table
while Mike picked out the melodies
on his old guitar, sipping vodka
from Willie’s Goodwill glasses.
About a year later I met Junior Holstein at Mike and Willie's place. Junior is Mike's older brother, and he plays fiddle mostly; he was featured by Augusta Heritage Recording on a DVD called Music of Heaven. That night at Mike's house Junior played and sang, and he and I tried to find songs we knew in common. We found a few, and the evening stretched into the early morning hours.
I remember Junior Holstein that evening as a quiet, gentlemanly fiddle player who wore a soft old jacket and a felt hat pulled low over his face. His voice was soft too, rising into the night air like the mountain fog that surrounded us as we huddled around the bonfire.
This past summer we saw Junior again, and the change in him shocked me. Junior believes the superstitions so prevalent in the mountains that link music, and especially fiddle music, to the Devil. He is certain that he is doomed and cannot be saved. It was sad to see this fine musician in such a sorry state. He did not recognize us at first, and when he did his conversation was rambling and disjointed and it was clear he wanted us to leave. Which we did.
I haven't seen Junior since, although I think of him often, and his troubled eyes look out at me right now from the cover of the DVD.
So in his honor, I post this poem,
Soft felt hat slouches low over darkened eyes,
shoulders curl protectively
as arms cradle the fiddle's curves.
Bow touches lightly and strings reply
with shrieks and whines.
Tune and test fiddle and bow
firelight dances on flying fingers.
Rebel Soldier, Soldier's Joy
Music loosens arthritic hands
and shy tongue.
"I been to church four times this year
because I like to drink, you know.
Told the Lord I'd try to keep away from liquor
but couldn't promise him I'd quit, because
I like it. He knows.
I try and that's all a man can do."
Firelight flickers across his face,
carving lines in shadow.
The fiddler's bow
rises and falls, rises and falls.
Foot-tapping darkness deepens as
sparks fly from fiddle strings and fire.
"Play one more, Junior, play one more!"
I'll Fly Away, I'll Fly Away
Let's Go Down to the River and Pray
Fiddle cries and mourns,
notes hang in the smoky air
and drift away.
"Play one more, Junior.
Do you know Amazing Grace?"