Wednesday, June 10, 2009

for helene johnson (10)

for helene johnson

that’s what they done to this
shine, ain’t it? bottled him.
from “bottled.”

yr poems were brown grains of sand in a
bottle washed up on harlem’s concrete
beaches. was the bottle ceremoniously
enjoyed? a special bottle of wine shared
at sunset or a flask of fiery African
spirits passed around among friends
before filled with sand and thrown into
the sea? u never said. yr concern was for
the sand, brown sand taken from the

yr poems were disdainful & magnificent
negroes dressed to kill in yellow gloves
& swallowtail coats dancing on harlem’s
seventh avenue pavements. Did their
shoulders tower high, were their heads
thrown back & wide mouths full of
orikis & juba songs? again, u didn’t say,
but demurred to their flying supercilious
feet too splendid for harlem’s streets.

yr poems were full of jazz & race & u
swung from severing sonnet to
syncopated vernacular line to
scatological petitions to the sacred,
rushing in where no woman & only
langston dared to tread, throwing
discretion into the harmattan’s teeth or
jazz-age harlem’s substitute winds to
write verse womanly wise, womanly wet
& sobbing with song.

©Joseph McNair; 2009


  1. Helene johnson was every bit as good as langston hughes in capturing the rhythms of jazz in her poems and using the scatological language of the streets. I really like what you did in this poem, how you recaptured a small bit of her "feel." A worthy tribute.

  2. I wonder if good writing reads the way the execution of good music feels and sounds to the musician playing.