A Repertoire

‘Play us one we’ve never heard before’
we’d ask this old guy in our neighbourhood.
He’d rosin up a good three or four
seconds, stalling, but he always could.
This was the Bronx in 1971,
when every night the sky was pink with arson.
He ran a bar beneath the el, the Blarney Stone,
and there one Easter day he sat us down
and made us tape as much as he could play;
‘I gave you these. Make sure you put that down.’
meaning all he didn’t have to say.

All that summer we slept on fire escapes,
or tried to sleep, while sirens or the brass
from our neighbour’s Tito Puente tapes
kept us up and made us late for mass.
I found our back door bent back to admit
beneath the thick sweet reek of grass
a nest of needles, bottlecaps, and shit.
By August Tom had sold the Blarney Stone
to Puerto Ricans, paid his debts in cash
but left enough to fly his body home.

The bar still rises from the South Bronx ash,
its yellow neon buzzing in the noonday
dark beneath the el, a sheet-steel door
bolted where he played each second Sunday.
‘Play me one I’ve never heard before’
I’d say, and whether he recalled those notes,
or made them up, or – since it was Tom who played –
whether it was “something in his blood”
(cancer, and he was childless and afraid,)
I couldn’t tell you. And he always would.

from Dances Learned Last Night (Picador, 2000), copyright © Michael Donaghy 2000, used by permission of the author and Macmillan Publishers.

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