Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Charles Mingus

photo © Mark Butkus 2008
A poem for my cousin Roby Zaher in Antwerp, Belgium

Did we discover Reincarnation Of A Love Bird at the same time?
Did we ever imagine that we would share the printed word,
Or strawberries and wine?

But there you did go, and there I went too.

Can I even dare imagine that the not-allowed thought is real, a
   Keepsake
In my family's twine
That we are connected over blood and time

How I want to storm back in time! How I want to be a blanket
For the Nebenzahls, how I want to rip free the doors and windows
Of Mechelen, and bring everyone home to America
To baseball, and ice cream, and fireflies on summer nights
In our backyard

If what we know of reality is only a child's game of
Chance, then to imagine that the pendulum, for that is what it seems to
Be, has swung back and opened the door to
Another perfect world, where
They
Seem to be
Us

(And not shape-shifting creatures, created in a lab
That Google must have somewhere, our replicant monster
Other selves in creation. A wax nightmare.
Faking our tears, our amazement, our wonder and grief.)

We stared in bewilderment, mutually. We went right to the source
Of our wonderment and stared it down, both of us
Filled with terror and awe.
We stitched together a new narrative, a new story
With gulls, and plugs and sockets, and
Candles of the sweetest odor

Did we know that Dannie Richmond, who didn't really play
Drums
At all, would be a dual backbeat as our heads
Expanded in 1973, with Jimmy Knepper and Mingus
Trading fours, and shouting at each other,
Propelling a smile — an all knowing, we'll be together
Someday
Smile,
At the corners of your mouth, and mine as well?

It Was At That Moment when an improvisation literally cracks open your
Mind, I looked at the clock.
It was precisely 10:37 pm. On September 4, 1973 and I was
Sitting in my family home
Listening to Mingus. I made a Note to Myself and then spent a
Considerable amount of time
Figuring out where I would be able to find it 40 years hence
When I decided to put it in a jar, and bury it in the backyard
Of our old place in Evanston

The Note must have said
I heard you
Through the needle of my record player
I detected a Sound!

My cousin
Under the ocean
Wanted a mitt like mine, and to fling the ball across the sandy lot
With negro children
And a Green River, cold as ice, and The Wolfman
Shown on a bedsheet,
At the Y down the street

And now, he's found
Mingus. He even read the Mingus autobiography
In English, even found Elmo Hope and Grant Green
Lurking around the docks with Toots, and
Henry Miller, and Jean Genet

Bingo!

My father would have filled his pipe, and smiled his impossibly
Handsome smile, and slipped a hand into the pocket of his
Yellow sweater
The lines of fathers, grandfathers, great uncles, old men
Old Nebenzahls
Gathering in the afternoon
Your Dad, and your David, and my David too
A Shabbat where the men are quiet, but easy among themselves
Proving nothing
To no man, nowhere
When Mingus went Crazy, nutso as a loon, and was Locked Up In
Bellevue, his thoughts went Clean as a whistle
That's when he knew that he could peel his skin off, and
Pass for a Jew,
Or an olive-colored Arab, or a Swede

It's why we liked jazz, and Mingus in particular. It fit our
Conformity
Expressed in my note, under glass, so to speak

And oh, dateline Antwerp!
You made possibly the same drawings that I was making with
John Nakazawa, of clouds that were also space vehicles,
Disguised as Clouds,
With major retro cool things that only John and I could draw

His dad had interrogated the pilots whom flew the Pearl Harbor
Bombings. His uncles were in the internment camps. That
Was
Big, bigger than the book we had about the
Jews
(We also had one about Negroes, as well, with my mother's leaf pressings
In every other page, brittle as dust, Negroes were a big deal.)

I knew someone's uncles and aunts had been dragged to their
Deaths
At the end of a railway line, off a box car, their
Coats
"No Longer Needed"
Their mouths curled in fear

I just never, ever imagined
Even when I was making that note about meeting you 40 years ago
That the people getting off that train were
Our
People
Yours and mine.

Now, I know that. It makes it hard to sleep. Also, when
You
Think hard in the
Morning, and I'm trying to sleep in the America,
It's pretty damn noisy, so pipe it down

My Cousin.


— Paul Nebenzahl


Paul Nebenzahl is a writer, musician, and painter who lives in Evanston, Illinois, and Sleepy Hollow, New York. Charles Mingus is from his 2014 collection of poems, Black Shroud with Rainbow Fringes: New Poems 2010-2013 (Silver Birch Press). As a performing multi-instrumentalist and composer, Paul has created works for film and television, and has performed extensively in theater, stage, and club settings.

In 2012, Paul’s poem, Gusen Station was published in English, Italian and German by the International Committee for Mauthausen and Gusen. His poem, Charles Bukowski appears in the Silver Birch Press Bukowski Anthology (2013) and Here’s to the Singer of Songs is featured in the Silver Birch Press Summer Anthology (2013).

Writer and performance artist Karen Finley writes of Black Shroud with Rainbow Fringes, "Nebenzahl discovers long-lost relatives that were displaced from World War II and the Holocaust. In this unearthing, Nebenzahl finds himself questioning his past and present to imagine a new future in elegiac dimensions. These expressions intertwine and mediate language as a process for divinity, humor, and truth. The poetry excavates with humanity the trauma of the unexplained and the mystery of creative response as an authentic gesture from the human hand and heart that is writing."

As for the title of this poem, Charles Mingus... he was an extraordinary jazz musician, composer and bandleader. In 1952, Mingus co-founded Debut Records with Max Roach to take control of his recording career. Charles Mingus was born April 22, 1922 in Nogales, Arizona. He died January 5, 1979 in Cuernavaca, Mexico where he had sought treatment for ALS. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River.