Forrest Gander

LIFE OF JOHNSON UPSIDE YOUR HEAD,
a Libretto

from Lynchburg (1993)

     Came down along the road carrying his Stella
guitar like a misshapen child on his back,

     And stood at the side in dog fennel to watch the hearse
he’d heard for half a mile bottoming out on the rutted road,
sucking up a tunnel of dust in its wake, dust to dust,

     Approacheth and fishtaileth on toward Protho Junction.

     He passes into that cloud.

* * *

       She who turns old boards
in the dirt for worms
              peers through the blue bottle
                     tree as he strolls past.
                     Holds his glare. Elms there
       whitewashed beyond his reach,
                             ragged hens. The glabrous hog shrieking.
              So he goes. His own
                             steady footfall reverberant
              in the verdurous undergrowth.
       At either side,
the sandy road impinged upon
              by stumps rotten and flowered
                                    with fungus. His palms
                     flashing behind him.
       Before he arrives,
                            tramps beat the proprietor from his store
                            force him through the outhouse hole,
              cotton prices decline, neighbors
                                     to the suck hole
                     roll the drowned schoolboy over
              a log and revive him.
                                            Full sun. Bitterweed
on his tongue.
       In the distant field
                            two hanging figures, cattle
              standing below in a stare.

* * *

That it was evening because the west had gone red
and the chiggers had increased in his wrists.
From the flatbed he could see
a girl in a knee-length dress holding her hands
on top of her head, her face framed;
laundry staying out late.
He loved his sister’s skin.
As though he could blow on it and it would riffle.
How drinking shoe polish strained through white bread
lodged a peckerwood behind their brains.
Their father was soaking half a cooked chicken in Paris Green,
kneading in some Rough on Rats,
and limping out to find the mongrel
under the drugstore porch. Then the rumor:
he couldn’t no way have been their father.
The boy claimed, Two people
are inside me. A brother learned taxidermy
from a book. He played harp in the outhouse.
When you sit in the outhouse a while
you begin to imagine bad things
live in the shit and right this moment
they are looking up at your butt
getting an idea.
He married young.

* * *

At the time I met him
the so-called guitar player was fresh
out of Memphis, thumb out
where the roads crossed
and I thought he must have been teenage.
But he didn’t like that
title of being kid. Was a man
far as he was concerned.

I said, Now son, forget that
motion picture left hand, good evening,
my name is Tush Hog.
He said, I pick cotton for no man
and I ain’t skeared of you Satan.

* * *

                     She had looked in the crib
              to see a brown
                           recluse                       pulsing
                                  on her baby’s forehead.

             One of the cross
                    staves supporting the coffin
broke,
       so that it plunged
                           forward, splintering open.

             Between Calvary
                          Baptist Church Parsonage and the grave-
       yard, the reverend’s planking
addressed a muddy washout

                                  and the women in their meeting clothes
                                  walked over this now
       single file, their heads tilted
                     down.

He arrived of an evening
                            in a suit covered with road. Rags hung
              burning
                     in a corner, for the mosquitoes
       were bad. She let go
                                   a kettle of hot water, smoothed
                                   calico skirt to the backs of her knees.
Hilo, Dusty, she answered.

* * *

The Devil hummed around the tonic, the blue third and the fifth
he snatched this out of air
to cock it on the wall, controlling timbre
while planters plastered off like a load of bokros

Smashes the sound box with his palm
sheep went astray the moon shot an octave
a cruel glare floods his skull his voice
tinkered with a picker biting a raw yellow onion

Then screws up slab of face
distorting linear time severing brambles
and readjusts his mouth cavity
takes off his jacket to reveal a downpour

The Devil intimated to make a long piss short
he slides tone around axis dragging limp bags
through cotton fields railing in embers on levee chipped
tooth doing jake leg and yawns tin can over
what young plant awaiting the revenant’s
hallelujah immersed in 1932 brief, mosquito-bitten, gone.

* * *

In the night he rose
and came out to piss.
He moon smoldered like a burnt tick.
Turning inside,
he stepped on something he thought
was a clump of hair, a wolf
spider with her ball of children
whose thousands spilled
over his bare foot.

* * *

We’d be on the road for days
   and days sidestepping copperheads
    waylaid by noisome crows
      and buntings chasing us along
        fences, kick up the dust,
           I’m checking his head for ticks, June bugs
         squeak like bad wheels, sleeping off
             under bodarks with our guitars
               lying up and down our breast
               talking about women and him
           imitating goatsuckers, no money, then
                  come into town with gnats mashed in our eye
               and see nice posters for picnics


                  and band concerts and we’d play
                      on dusty streets or inside dirty places
                     of the sort you played in those times,
                       a couple stuffed raccoons in a corner, fried
                     tripe stinking to high heaven, field hands
                    screwing their heads on backways
                 of a Saturday night, and somebody
               might fall through the door laughing
                  with two or three rat snakes
               strangulating his arms and neck, I’d go
          get a cool drink, come back
               with splinters, rubbing up against how many
           women says she’ll squeeze my lemon for fifty
               cents and I’d catch my breath
                  and see myself looking purely
                  like a three-legged dog, there he’d be
               all clean as can be, looking like
                 he’s just stepped out of church.

* * *

I would just as lief you go alone, she answered.
Grinding coffee beans, dipping
a cup in the water bucket four times
to fill the porcelain pot.
Hot as a two-peckered goat. Morning.
The weight of her coppled breast.
Accused of burglary, pleading somnambulism.
The road was two deep ruts on either side
of a big hump. Misery runs on a broken leash.
As when the hypnotist says so, he remembered.
Shot herself while looking in a mirror.
One photograph: their infant in a coffin.
The Sliding Delta outside his door
in Tunica County, Mississippi, near the cemetery at Three Forks.

* * *

He cannot breathe
Wearing gloves, goes bare-handed
On the bitterest evenings.

* * *

The voice the dead man’s voice is young and tight and high
the naturalness of it as language a man’s voice
tuned a little sharp the image of the voice
a pressured high and letting out
the dead man’s falsetto counterpointing a drum beat
in lower register his guitar breathing the blinds
of syllables his chair squeaks voice undulating
outside the wire-thin loops of swallows in his voice
the diphtheria epidemic in his voice the barn fires
his father a drunk in the dark
mistaking carbolic acid for cough medicine
bottleneck slide groups of triplets
in the treble strings tuned sharp thumb
for hard rhythm intensity inside his mouth
a little slack the concentration inside
the voice an orphan who ate match heads
his wife on the cooling board his baby buried
pain’s medium voice contours of landscape eroded
moral erotic upwelling to warp as the degree
of emotion the power to be funny
jammed through oblivion like crowbar cotton
fields frog gig pissing in wild sweet peas
sweat lubricating voice sex speeding up the dead
man’s voice orphaned from its mouth

* * *

Came to St. Louis a stranger and heard Henry Townsend hustling a small crowd by the train station. Listened a bit, then said, "Look, I’ve heard about you. Where you playing tonight. Can I come over?

In fact, Townsend had a regular gig at Ernest Walker’s house party on Jefferson. Walking around the Nickel, working at a toothache with his tongue, he occasionally stopped to write something down in a flat black notebook he carried in his trousers. He watched out for the police. There at the side of Black Cats Drugstore, he was entangled in a game of pitch and stayed until he noticed bull bats overhead. Then he picked up his guitar, told everybody he was due at Ernest Walker’s house party where he was musicianing tonight and they should all come on over.

Townsend was tuning up in the backyard when he sat down next to him and proceeded to go over some guitar. Townsend’s eyes glowed dimly. He thought, This guy has it. He’s amazing.

* * *

Long tables out back and dogs
everywhere, maybe seventy people
slapping tables or winging bones
at the animals. Women
and men both lying around in bushes
on all sides dethroned
of their reason, or dancing. Thighs
in ceaseless friction.
Sweat washing all of them,
night sweat, clothing soaked, sterno sweat, blind
faces glowing like a new shoe shine
and he, set up precariously
in a chair on a frequently bumped table,
wearing a brand new fedora, eyes
hooded by his brow,
playing guitar with a broken bottleneck
and his left hand fingers bleeding across the strings.

He is still getting clear high notes,
still getting drunker, when a mulatto
on a bet wrestles down a pariah dog
and his friend pours a full lantern
of coal oil over it then touches a match
to its tail whereupon
half the first man and all the dog

instantly blow up, visions of hell each
howling and burning a brief passageway
through stumbling bodies toward the street.

* * *

                     You’d have radio
                  songs on he’d be long
                     in the tooth talking
                          note for note
                             thinking
                              to you
                        out of that idea  
                      he was just having

* * *

1.     Wood bench barrel on side two chair sunk
veranda Mose Brown’s Dry Goods semi-
retired men one soak feet bucket epsom salt water.

2.      Came town man electric machine you see what
was crank phone two wire come out he start
poker dealer voice soon decent crowd. Some mischief
unharness his standing team, boys. Nickel
bet how long Snead Noe his feet that bucket once crank.

3.      Look serious like take shit. Care come boy shout everyone
turn head Intermediary Christ Snead Noe rip pant barrel cinch
head hit wall rock back splash bucket water. Dust devil follow car
pull up Drugstore and Lemonade. Mischief hang back then
surround car, boys.

4.      White man slam door step butterfly cover horse dung kick
porch enter store cough three time proprietor most deaf read
magazine swat fly man cough heart attack proprietor raise head
lower glasses boys open door Snead Noe shout across street
I’m looking for a guitar player name of, white man says. What.

5.      Across street other man smile put feet bucket water nickel bet
Snead Noe shake head white man look get car back horse dung
butterfly electric crank machine men whoop car shift first
grind white man see last eight hundred pound hog boy lead
string knock house door open huge testicle too big fit under
hog out squeeze behind leg two watermelon tail open wide
door go boy string hog. Goddamn.

* * *

       A time in St. Louis
we were playing one of the songs
                            that he’d like to play once
                     in a great while.

                     He was playing very slow
                                   and passionate
       and when we quit
I noticed no one
              was saying anything. Then
                                   I saw they were all crying,
                           both women and men.

* * *

He ends here, a sort of omen. History accelerates. The excluded remains to disrupt the structures that would domesticate it. Unimproved, his voice turns away at the most intense moments of emotion. Into grooves. You bloodless and attenuated: here is the rufous prophet wailing a blue fuck. The prompt sound. Where the Mississippi embouchures. Sixty years ago, a voice that no longer exists in a room that no longer exists. Fugitive tendency. Erotic disorder. He woke up this morning and reached under the bed for his shoes. Material added by way of analogy. I lacks a nickel. The barber who clipped his nose hairs. When you get down to the lick log. Ruminations of sex without love, love without children. Undergrowth with two figures. Part of his earlobe torn off in a married woman's teeth. Pubic hairs shed in the beds of strangers. Ass curve moonlight. Stared into landscapes in ceilings, knots and their tributaries and lead-based paint unfolding moth wings. Reeling stars. Bulge in his pants at her funeral. Instead of a country a set of traps. There is not much time in the day between death and life. Tuning. His dogs, throat eaters, untamed and invisible. A weed under tongue. Wanted to be a living man.

© 1993, 2001, Forrest Gander

This poem originally appeared in book form in Lynchburg (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993). Reprinted by permission of the author.