Wednesday, September 30, 2009

standing in the safety zone (22)

standing in the safety zone

while strolling along the highway there rose a mighty

[roberta ]martin and [thomas a.] dorsey's
gospel according to songbooks
paused me/poised me
in the same way the photograph
chilled the native amerind.

songs heard sung before bore
small semblance to sonic symbols
imprisoned in printed bars & staves
how tragic the transliteration!
where is the soul,
the color,
the true form
to imitate
to sing my turbulent
to bend trees or tremble sinners?
where is the light & the lightning
the shakti shock, the tonic bludgeon
to lay out or transfigure
the faithful?

i heard a voice whispering
you're standing out there alo

The small
c. [olored] m.[ethodist] e.[piscopal] church
choir, a fractious but fragile social experiment
built around
one dour, middle aged & obese
but competent alto,
three other nondescript female voices
indeterminate of pitch and timbre --
sometimes alto sometimes awful,
sometimes mezzo, often messy --
whose major contribution was
their regular faithful presence
at practice,
at sunday service,
a palsied bass who sang so low
few could tell how off-key
he always was;
a u.s. army sergeant piano man
giving orders but afraid to offend;
honky left hand tonking,
spreading right hand chording,
dreaming of piano bars & juke joints,
trying with difficulty to sing & play
at the same time.

my sister faye, my twin soul
who has known music for an eternity
who has known just as long
how to shape her face into a mask
of comic censure,
the precocious twain
well met with me,
the puerile voice,
waiting to emerge
from the chorus,
from the chaos,
from the storm,
to embrace the solo,
rounding out that incompetent
but well-intentioned choir.
my inadvertant springboard
to stardom.

& then I thought of Jesus;
& there I folded my arms...

i can find no record oral or written
of a singing savior, no progressive
model coming out of nazareth
to imitate, so I took my cues from
the great ones of black gospel radio,
measuring my tones, technique
& phrasing against their recordings,
feeling freudian fear when I
likened my small vibrato,
my trivial tumescent timbre
to their larger than life instruments,
deciding quickly to be like
them rather than presume to challenge
them -- such a cutting contest was too
fearful to consider.

i started out for heaven
and stepped in the safety zone

© Joseph McNair; 1990-2009


  1. i remember the Roberta Martin songbooks. Every competent black choir had to have one or two. This one takes me back, thanks

  2. is there anywhere really safe?