, , , ,

Wine-poured Paolo Veronese

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”


They sat me at the table of nowhere-else-to-put-‘ems
and partnered me with the only other poet, who’d shut
his yap—I’m quoting here—at the unholy age of 43
for pissing off politicos, all of whom own, if they
haven’t eBayed them, signed first editions from 1973,
when he still had the poet’s voice and spark.
The wedding theme was chicory blue. He wore
his bloom pinned to a loose embroidered
shirt like old Cubans wear in the city park.
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

Excuse me? Since he already knew my name,
I didn’t grasp the question was for me. He carried
on. You still swallowing that rot of privilege, still
buying the schtick of downtrodden versus you?
I despise the cliché, but how’s that workin’ for ya?
When I was young, I parked rich men’s cars
to pay for the smoke that brought the muse—
until the money came. Then, hell, all the freedom
I’d protested & pushed against, I threw behind bars.
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

The open bar ran out of wine halfway through
the night, which cleared most of the hall. The groom
announced an open mic and looking straight at me,
requested a miracle. I turned a sweaty crimson.
My de-versed friend leaned over. Relax, every poet
comes to the messianic borderland. He tapped my heart.
It’s part of the gig. Trick is, to write your way through it
like you own the place. Now, dilettantes and debutantes,
watch ‘em, they’ll stand at the border and humbly fart.
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart.

To my horror, he took out a Sharpie, the same
blue shade of the chicory centerpiece and started
drawing on the white linen tablecloth like a kid,
like a buffoon. What are you doing? Shocked,
I spilled the last of my bordeaux. It’s okay, he said.
The bride is my niece. I paid for the stars
and the waxing moon. He kept drawing. We do love
to bitch about our families, to throw spit wads and
stones in so-called solidarity against whatever jars.
I am the Negro, bearing slavery’s scars.

Okay, so what? Am I not the slaver too?
The tyrant spewing dictates from my place
of knowing best? Tell me, how long am I obliged
to hold everybody’s cloaks of feeling bad? What if
I’m ready now to feel fine? Every day, every minute
marks the anniversary of some historic stand
that got knocked over bad, of unities turned down
in favour of shame flipped over—we call that pride.
Broaden your horizons, we all wear the brand.
I am the red man driven from the land.

The tree he’d sketched was a great spreadsheet.
Count back half a dozen plagues, and we’re all kin.
Genghis is your Asian uncle; you’ve got Cleopatra’s
depressive tendencies. Let the cousins howl, sure,
but sing what you got to—kindly, loud or soft. We’re
all indigenes, so let the voice of our common genes speak.
While I was studying the tree table, the guests who’d left
returned, each carrying jugs of the very best. The poet
got up to pour, and I felt rhyme like tears begin to leak:
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—


In the traditional glosa, a writer uses four lines of a master poet’s quatrain to weave a 4-stanza collaboration. In this instance, Langston Hughes’s poem insisted on my including two extra lines as prologue. For those of you who haven’t heard of the glosa and would like to know more, here are links to a couple of books, by me, on that very topic.

© Elaine Stirling, 2014
The painting of the wedding at Cana is by Paolo Veronese, 1528-1588.