Scattered Clouds: New & Selected Poems is a volume of lyrical, emotionally forthright meditations on love, loss, and longing. The poems are often sobering, but they are not, to quote Langston Hughes, “without laughter.” Scattered Clouds contains the complete text of the author’s award-winning first collection, fingering the keys; his nationally lauded poem, “For Trayvon Martin”; and his wry, unabashedly romantic suite of ruminations on a long-time and deeply missed friend, the late barbershop owner Amir Yasin, and his widow Khadijah Rollins. These poems, exploring Amir’s late-life romance with Kadijah, became a national internet sensation. An introduction by poet Abdul Ali (Cave Canem alumni and author of Trouble Sleeping) places Jackson in his rightful context as a Black American poetry elder, who has influenced generations of younger poets with his musical wisdom as well as his poetry.
|Publisher:||Santa Fe Writer's Project|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Reuben Jackson was born in Augusta, Georgia and grew up in Washington, DC. A music scholar and critic of national reputation, he was archivist and curator with the Smithsonian’s Duke Ellington Collection from 1989 to 2009; his music reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Washington City Paper, Jazz Times, Jazziz, and on National Public Radio. He was host of Friday Night Jazz on Vermont Public Radio from 2012 until 2018 and makes frequent appearances on WPFW, Washington DC’s publicly-supported radio station dedicated to jazz and justice.
Read an Excerpt
fingering the keys
on the road
(columbia, south carolina, spring 1959)
i remember enormous teepees,
neon indians dancing and dancing around them.
i did my best to convince father that he was tired
and that we should spend the night at the frontier motel.
fine southern cooking the sign said,
columbia, south carolina's best.
we could call aunt bertha,
assure her we'd arrive in augusta tomorrow,
i would spend my savings on ribbons for maureen's hair.
so why did he return without room keys?
i watched the village disappear from the backseat of his ford.
"a roll of paper towels,
mr. shankman —
and a roll of necco wafers for herschel."
he would climb that ladder like moses ascending sinai
he joked to old ladies with mysterious accents,
he was less amiable to my brother;
limping from a war wound courtesy of hitler
a man I heard shankman refer to as evil
two weeks before he called my brother boy.
albert james was black long before me and the rest of the fellas; he was black when black was worse than being poor.
i'm talkin' hair that gave the finger to drugstore pomade,
eyes as red as georgia's famed clay hills.
it was 1960.
we were children.
still, his presence in our homes was tantamount to treason in our parents' eyes.
albert, forgive us.
we did not know about lumumba and miles davis;
neither knew nor loved any shade below northern negro tan.
albert james was black before nationalists praised his shade
and extolled the benefits of fire,
i saw the flophouse where you od'ed likewise turn to ghost.
he was an evil motherfucker with a curveball that didn't.
his passes wobbled like the legs of his junkie friends.
stardom eluded him until he donned the garish colors of gangdom,
when he did,
our frightened loyalties and pocket change were his.
but they were not enough.
he took to firing pistols in supermarkets.
the next time i saw him,
i was fast approaching manhood,
and taking shit from no one.
he was mercedes bound,
selling love boat, reefer,
collecting dollars once again.
who killed him?
no one uttered names once their smiles faded
like those bad pitches of his we'd muscle in the direction of heaven.
edward never grinned;
not even when his team won by a million runs.
even if he'd managed to sail a homer into the blue,
he refused to marvel at the baseball's flight.
tried to get my hair to flop like ringo's
so i could impress sheila watkins
whose inability to ship kisses to england
led her to announce that she'd settle for a reasonable facsimile
provided he could also play drums
i owned a snare and cymbal
four adjustable rings
each day I would try forcing my locks into action
the tight curls were forever sleeping
i asked my barber what he could do about this
aren't you proud of being negro he asked
sure i answered
but what if sheila doesn't change her mind?
those jewish boys whose yarmulkes gleamed like diamonds in sabbath sunlight were not allowed to play with schwartzes.
they watched our football games.
one day ira checked for elders,
darted across the asphalt
where for the briefest of moments,
he got a closer look.
his father is displeased with his three-day-old stubble, another fence between himself and the boy who once lay beside him,
wanting to know the answers to everything.
he calls to the second floor for advice:
what will we do with him:
acid rock music,
— mother says —
i'm out of pickles.
he takes his car to safeway;
his son cannot go.
sometime between the turkey and apple cobbler,
he mentions that he bought a straight razor.
no he continues,
i'm all right.
partially or completely?
my mother peers over my shoulder in search of answers
please say you're dedicating that poem to a woman
you don't seem to know any
listening to ella fitzgerald does not count
so I think of someone call her
she says the wind's blowing from the south-southeast at 15 miles an hour
barometer is 30.7 inches and rising
yeah I whisper wear that strapless French number
see you at 8
too white for the black folks,
too black for the white folks.
comment ça va,
the hills are alive with the sound of boiling grits.
it's the first cold november evening.
i am out driving and there is a hitchhiker bearing a sign at a quiet intersection.
i ignore the cecil taylor on the radio to read it.
perhaps they are bound for some exciting destination,
or a place that I have been.
as I drive closer, the words become legible.
DESTINATION, REUBEN JACKSON'S ARMS.
OH, HOW I MISS THEM SO.
i am jubilant, flustered.
squeal to a stop. it's donna!
i thought she was married and happy in philadelphia.
we do not speak, but embrace.
i produce tears, she produces a butcher's knife and quickly accomplishes her deed.
she is careful to wipe the blood from the seat covers,
and wipes each finger in sanitary gauze.
i still love you, she cries.
a final kiss and that still potent smile.
she still loves me, i moan before dying.
she is still neat and considerate as ever.
my pupils lock on her lovely thumb pointing northward across the avenue.
a lonely affair
even the most die-hard liberals have their moments;
like the man wearing the end apartheid button who followed me across his bookstore;
like the woman who interrupted me in the middle of a poetry reading to say
she'd read tons of african-american writing,
well, alice walker,
and i had it all wrong.
she may still be there pontificating.
i went home and watched the redskins,
pigged out on beer and nachos.
came to realize that unlike the mass screaming at rfk on sunday,
revolution is a lonely affair.
big chill variations
he gives me a handshake more complicated than logarithms,
tells me my black english has fallen on hard times,
and how he was serving molotov cocktails to white america
while I was chasing its daughters in vermont.
a disgrace he calls me,
but still somehow worth dinner,
a ride in his bmw,
which he swears is an acronym for
"black male warrior."
"you are the first poet ever to dine in this club, reuben."
"that fork is for the watercress salad."
his treat —
paid with an american express card.
but with black trim.
it was a long way to go for a party.
15 minutes from canada,
moon just above my right hand.
it was winter.
she was a schoolteacher who smelled of jasmine.
stevie wonder sang
"looking for another love"
while jeff beck spun gorgeous fills and solos.
we danced as well as our cumbersome boots would allow.
she would gaze through the darkness,
whisper toward the man drinking from the center of her body:
what are you doing?
there were times when I wanted to answer.
out of the ordinary,
so that maybe she'd remember
thinking of emmett till
stars winked above the diner where I asked a blonde waitress for sugar,
and got threatened by a local
with a bloodthirsty smile.
(for jeff cole)
you goddamn fool,
there was always beauty within you.
your wit and nervous laughter,
bouquets for the rainy winters of your friends.
you who spent so much time cursing the mirror,
envying jim rice, sonia braga,
duke ellington's lady killing charm.
I think of those solos of laughter that heaven is hearing so soon.
52 west 8th street
(for nancy seeger)
we take sixth avenue to the village, pause for hot dogs in washington square park,
rush past the weekend crowds on pilgrimage.
part of my tour of new york includes pausing at a potbellied building beside the 8th street playhouse,
nancy snaps a photograph.
jimi hendrix's studio, i mumble to passing tourists who don't remember seeing this on their list of downtown hot spots and to nancy, who notices posters of jimi and mozart in an upstairs window, snapping them just as it begins to rain.
by now I am tripping. i see a man cross macdougal who looks like billy cox, jimi's last bassist. i am weaving like a blue note laced with strychnine, the air smells of patchouli.
It is late august 1970.
jimi emerges from the studio, talking with a woman about management and final mixes, which he'll supervise when he returns from england.
i ask if he'll pause for a picture.
his turquoise belt is beautiful in the sun.
courtney slugging a beer,
two-tone stacy adams out the partially open window,
the percolating ostinato in "young and fine."
we were city boys running wild on rockwell's canvas,
and those were our theme songs,
"ain't no friday night square dance band come close to these basslines,"
he screamed into air thick with rambling foliage.
"we call ourselves writers,
and here we are,
learning how to do it in classrooms!"
"jaco tours the world,
makes records, headlines,
got poems in his hands."
open letter to gato
our affair is over, gato barbieri.
you have abandoned the tango and those searing mambo themes.
herb alpert has dressed your horn in gaudy funk arrangements.
the melodrama is gone.
who designs your album covers now? and the liner notes about "sensuality"?
gato, you never had to say it before!
fire them all, they've buried the latin percussion like stolen money.
were they afraid of attracting illegal aliens?
when it was humid and i felt shitty,
i'd gaze at your old eight by tens;
you were dressed in frills like a matador.
but i've thrown them all out.
a friend is coming over to play your new record today.
i refuse to like it.
your playing on "odara" is okay i guess;
you and lani hall sound good together.
herb must have taken a leak during the mixing —
some of the old fire comes through.
emotion! profits will decrease!
radio stations won't play this album!
and you will return to me a broken artist.
i will demand an apology.
a few choruses of "para mi negra"
quicas whimpering like grieving widows.
but this will not happen.
i guess i am grateful you are still around at all.
perhaps another lover,
will uncover your heart.
band plays an intro sad as the end of summer
a saxophone answers
it's shiny and tilted like the moon
her voice rises like sun sometimes
dips like fortune or a mountain road
she knows love's two faces
like i know the way to market
and she knows some other stuff i feel
guess that's why she's a star
crossing the country with a flower for her trademark
and music for her flame
for duke ellington
music is your mistress;
demanding constant love and international settings.
as always, you stroll beside her.
again, grumpy orchestra springs into elegance at the drop of your hand.
even so, there are casualties.
the years pass.
you bury rabbit and swee'pea,
run your fingers across the black keys,
dip the color into your hair.
cancerous nodes rush toward a harrowing cadenza,
pen kisses paper,
a lover in no particular hurry,
the music reveals itself a negligee black note at a time.
i didn't know about you
(for johnny hodges)
that alto horn could be dreamy
unabashedly blue and sassy
salty like when you go down on a woman
lyrical as spring's unpretentious grandeur
its full bouquets of brief supple flowers
in the distance
new lyrical ballads
and hip-grinding chestnuts
whose basslines i remembered from father's
saturday night with bon ton
potato chips dip
and beer parties
where someone was always
asking for lucille
today stevie sings
where were you when i needed you
buzzy feiten follows every synthesized turn
with lovely guitar licks
where are you randy asks
wiping a denim sleeve
across my brow
sometimes your love is like the dark side of singing
handcuffs in the form of a smile you offer when surprising me at happy hour,
as i gossip with a friend whose voice is all too rare.
i love you more,
i am sitting beside you at some testimonial dinner.
my body rumbles with hunger even as my stomach is filled.
when leroy went shopping,
clothes danced off the racks parading before him like call girls.
the shine on his italian loafers glistened clear to naples,
not to mention southeast d.c.
with ultra-smooth multisyllabic words for the ladies,
and the latest romantic albums,
he'd spread his arms like christ of the andes,
while the rest of us mortal brothers
put our love lives on hold.
cool strongman —
you still stroll through my infrequent recollections.
days when weekends meant 25-cent double features,
and you were always first in line.
grandmother's stern interpretation of the scriptures ruled our house,
but has no impact on our next-door neighbor's penchant for lusty tunes by the likes of willie mae thornton and hank ballard.
grandmother, undaunted, growled ominous warnings,
saying that the ill-fated tower of babel was nearly as high as their backyard assemblage of beer cans,
before god tossed mankind into chaos,
out of which grew indecipherable tongues like those currently babbled in the name of music,
or as you young folk call it,
battle of the bands
in this house,
lite rock dukes it out with charles mingus for air space.
it is not pretty.
we rush from our respective bunkers to survey the damage.
a flute solo from eric dolphy's last tour is drowned by the likes of kenny rogers.
only in america,
i think to myself,
dragging those wonderful choruses back to the basement.
in this house,
carly simon takes on the entire ellington orchestra and wins.
i say no.
for he swung like branches in a march wind.
reached down into the warm pocket of tenderness.
"little rootie tootie"
makes me dance a fat soft-shoe,
makes me sail.
but no bizarre,
he tilled song like it was earth,
and he a gardener hell bent on raising
any beauty waiting on the other side.
after the dance
are you an ethnic poet?
(eyes glued to my zipper)
what do you mean?
i mean do you fry your imagery in fatback whose silhouette is illuminated by an inner-city streetlamp under which several young brothers most of whom will soon die or go to prison harmonize until dusk when they are called in by overweight heads of households who can cook like crazy and are heavily
involved in the baptist church?
she said sadly,
then walked away.
i know it is only a simple counterclockwise turn of the drain valve,
but for this moment at least,
i am not a librarian at the mercy of mechanics,
i am my father.
i am every calloused-fingered master of automotive technology
who ever donned a shirt with red-stitched lettering above the pocket;
call me joe.
when a neighbor passes,
ii nod, affect the pose of a man for whom this rudimentary task is but the beginning.
there is a space shuttle in florida just begging for my touch.
Excerpted from "Scattered Clouds"
Copyright © 2019 Reuben Jackson.
Excerpted by permission of Alan Squire Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Self-Portrait with Blue Shades On,
1: fingering the keys,
on the road,
a lonely affair,
big chill variations,
thinking of emmett till,
52 west 8th street,
open letter to gato,
for duke ellington,
i didn't know about you,
battle of the bands,
after the dance,
donald in love,
21st and p,
old cape cod,
my imaginary sister gets married,
late october blues,
running, far northwest,
fingering the keys,
in a silent way,
2: city songs,
white flight, washington, dc, 1958,
little man, september 1963,
Latisha's House of Beauty,
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pit Bull,
3: sky blues,
Amir & Khadijah: A Suite,
For Trayvon Martin,
For James Dean,
My Mother in the Afterlife,
If You Met My Mother,
For Frank Sinatra,
For Ben Webster,
Elegy for the One Step Down,
Cancer Poem No. 9,
How to Be a Black Man,
Variations on a Theme by Danez Smith,
Kind of Blue,
Are You Going With Me?,
Coming Back Home,
A Skinny Trio,
This African American Life,