Speechless the Magazine

 To render. Be rendered. Awestruck. Awesome.
A magazine of poetry and related arts straight from L.A.

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Peter Harris

Peter J. Harris is a nationally published writer who has since the 1970s taught writing and conducted creative writing workshops in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and California. He's the author of Johnson Chronicles: Truth & Tall Tales about My Penis (a body memoir); founding publisher/editor of The Drumming Between Us: Black Love & Erotic Poems, a Los Angeles magazine (1994 to 1999); and his book, Hand Me My Griot Clothes: The Autobiography of Junior Baby, won the 1993 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award. His radio show, "Inspiration House: VoiceMusic for Whole Living," featured poets reading spoken word to recorded music, and aired weekly on KPFK-FM from 1999 to 2003. Harris is the Program Director of The Heart Project, an LA nonprofit organization that sends professional visual, literary and performing artists into continuation high schools to teach art. He's a member of the World Stage's Anansi Writers Workshop and PEN USA.

 

The Lost Song of Donny Hathaway

 found on unlabeled reels
laying deep in the hidden pockets
of the Sunday Best worn by my mother and father
in their matching caskets

 muffled music called out to me
just as the delicate ushers
began draping the veils & lowering the tops
over the cold faces of my parents
piano moaned under Donny’s gospel touch
just as I began to drown in grief

I stood up
“listen,” I said
the certainty in my voice
sliced through the ushers’ official reverence
stopped the ceremony
I walked from my mourning bench

ushers stood aside like parted white curtains
I stopped before the bodies
of the immortal man & woman
who gave me my life
“listen,” I said
driven by the aching joy of Donny’s final voice
to ignore the reprimanding murmur
of the deaf bystanders

I unbuttoned my father’s jacket
reached under my mother’s blouse
I patted the tailored lining behind the seams
of his wool breast pocket
traced the path within the folds
of her favorite summer silk dress
I raised his still head from the satin pillow
lifted her stiff arms from her sides

jostling him
rearranging her

ignoring
challenging
the rising hysteria of the community of sorrow
disenchanted suddenly
with the No. 3 son
who always seemed
so cool charming & destined
to roll with the Kool Aid & caramel of every catastrophe

even this one
even this one

I plunge right arm up to my elbow
into an invisible slit
open to the left of daddy’s rib
my left arm is hidden
in a shadowy crease in the cloth gathered
at my mother’s throat
I touch the pulsating tapes
& summon them toward the light of day

my head rings
Donny sings
harmony with the choirful of my parents’
advice   told-you-sos   jokes
preaching & encouraging authority

that bumrush my memories
a ribbon of tape connects the reels in my hands
I raise them over my head
mourners bite their tongues now
my erect back quiets the chaos I’ve caused
the minister waves the ushers away
to their rigid places against the wall
the reels begin turning in my hands
the church singers stand
& without not one instant of rehearsal
sing their parts of Donny’s lost song
the pianist cannot help but solo quietly & perfectly
the song brightens the dim rainbow of pain
arching over all of us
the casket tops slowly close
Ma & Daddy say good-bye through undertaker marble
widows rise to their feet
(they unveil themselves)
orphans feel peace of mind
feuding brothers reunite
distant sisters remember junior high commitments
old neighbors open their mouths with memories
of midnight card games & fellowship
during emergencies of life & death
the reels are turning
tape is looping over my head
& suddenly I know the story of the
lost song of Donny Hathaway

he was mourning his life
needing to be in places
that had given him peace
searching for the love
where is the love
5 hours on I-95 took him from New York to D.C.
needed to touch the D.C. in his past
the supper club on Georgia Avenue
the acoustics by the riverside
the echoes of the Southeast hills across the bridge
a place to sing the last song
where for years appreciating ears had smelted the early tunes &
the only feedback was rock steady applause & swaying bodies

who could be vessels for a final song?

handmade people
unafraid of their scars
fingering their seams & stitches without shame
well worn people   young & old
clothes out of style but draped in perfect fit
people sure that laughter & crying were the same thing
raised their own children & made
sons & daughters out of the friends
of their sons & daughters

man a beacon
woman a landmark

their lives pulsating so strong
that a melancholy composer
could hear & follow the evidence
right to our family home
where he knew the welcome mat was not bullshitting
& the fried chicken was greasy
but perfect for a traveling musician
in search of the right arms to hold him tight
where the meal was in the air
as much as on the table
where before he left
never to return
the tapes could be placed
in hands that made food grow from the city’s backyard ground
in hands that made words march across wide savannas of paper

since 79
I have always wondered
why I could hear rippling water
in my mother’s whistle & my father’s hello
until I heard the same surf
playing from the tapes turning & turning & turning
in my hands at their funeral
I pull down the reels
hook them on the sprockets of my nipples
with each revolution
song melt deeper into my skin until tape disappear
song perfume the chamber of death with reason for living

I open my mouth
sermon swirl among dedicated bouquets
flowers testify in swooping colors
exhausted mourners breathe again
church renewed within a shower of electrified petals
spring erupt from people’s eyes
standing with naked joy on their faces
carnations sprout from the men’s lapels
baby’s breath dust the profiles of the women
children pluck falling roses & stuff their pockets with velvet
satin drape heaving shoulders & revival weep onto unstained floor

I clap my hands   steel pan exhale jump jump
I snap my fingers   tabla whisper tap tap
I roll my hips   cymbal sizzle kiss kiss
I blink my eyes   castanets come chit chat
I raise my hands   choir rumble ooohhh ooohhh
I nod my head   fingers coax milk from piano keys
rhythm flood my grief   rhythm full of peace

I turn around
my tears fall & hit the ground
like tambourines
until there are no more strangers
& we pledge to face our next daybreak
waking up through all the pain
stomping on silence & through the rain
shouting the lyrics of our worthy lives & of our family names

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