from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – Marco Sonzogni

Photo (CC) Andy Rogers @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Andy Rogers @ Flickr

.

Bye Bye Blackbird

.

……………………………………I know noble accents
……………………………………And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
……………………………………But I know, too,
……………………………………That the blackbird is involved
……………………………………In what I know.

……………………………………—Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen Ways to
……………………………………Look at a Blackbird’ (VIII)

.

……………………………………I’ve seen the waterdipper
……………………………………rise from the lightning rod:
……………………………………I knew him from his pride in flight,
……………………………………by his flutelike trill.

……………………………………—Eugenio Montale, ‘From a Tower’

.

…………………………………..Pack up all my care and woe
…………………………………..Here I go, singing low
…………………………………..Bye bye blackbird

…………………………………..—Mort Dixon, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’

.

SINCE HIS DEATH on August 30, 2013, tributes, memories, readings, poems and translations in memory of Seamus Heaney have been continual and rightfully so. Yet, one wonders what the man himself would have made of such attention. His “mixed feelings” about the celebrations for his 70th birthday—the sense of “elevation” and “obligation” weighed upon him—suggest he would shun this appreciation, distancing himself from the attention, reminding himself and others that the Antaeus in him could be outsmarted any time by Hercules.

Now, among the sincere praise and grateful remembrance, off-key notes have also been heard—the echo of a karaoke rather than a keening.

So here I remember Heaney as a gifted literary translator from Irish. The original text is a “weird little scrap of Irish syllabic verse” (Ian Sanson) probably from the IXth century. Consisting of just three syllables for each of the eight short lines—Heaney referred to its “staying power”—it epitomizes the challenges of writing and translating poetry:

……………………………………Int én bec
……………………………………ro léc feit
……………………………………do rind guip
……………………………………………glanbuidi

……………………………………fo-ceird faíd
…………………………………..ós Loch Laíg,
…………………………………..lon do chraíb
…………………………………………..charnbuidi
 

There are many modern interpretations of this poem by Seamus Heaney, John Hewitt, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and more recently Ciaran Carson (who chose ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’ as the emblem for the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University of Belfast). This is Heaney’s version, with my literal—but longer (five syllables per line)—translation into Italian:

……………………The small bird…………..Un uccellino
……………………chirp-chirruped:……….trilla e ritrilla:              
……………………yellow neb,……………….dal giallo becco
……………………………a note-spurt.……………..fiottano note.

…………………..Blackbird over…………..Eccolo il merlo
…………………..Lagan water.…………….
sul lago Lagan
…………………..Clumps of yellow……….Spruzzi di giallo

……………………………whin-burst!………………..della ginestra!

The blackbird features regularly in Heaney’s poetry. In Field Work (1979: 52), for example, the title-poem opens with a landscape snapshot where we find both “the small bird” and the “whin”:

…………….Where the sally tree went pale in every breeze,
…………….where the perfect eye of the nesting blackbird watched,
…………….where one fern was always green

…………….I was standing watching you
…………….take the pad from the gatehouse at the crossing
…………….and reach to lift a white wash off the whins.

The blackbird appears several times in Sweeney Astray (1983: 37, 43, 82), where the maddened king-turned-bird describes “green watercress in thatch on wells / where the drinking blackbird goes” and admits to preferring “the elusive / rhapsody of blackbirds / to the garrulous blather / of men and women”; and “the blackbird singing on the hill / and the stag loud against the storm / to the clinking tongue of this bell”.

Also, the ghost of Terry Keenan—the young missionary priest whom Heaney had met in his youth and whom he reencounters on his purgatorial stations in Station Island (1984: 69)—is likened to the shining black livery of the blackbird:

……………….I saw a young priest, glossy as a blackbird,
……………….as if he had stepped from his anointing
……………….a moment ago.

Heaney was clearly very familiar with the blackbird and its behaviour, taking notice of both its “composure” (‘Drifting Off’, Station Island, 1984: 104) and its “dart and dab” (‘Alphabets’, The Haw Lantern, 1987: 2).

It is thus no surprise that the blackbird is the protagonist of two of Heaney’s key-poems: ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ (The Spirit Level, 1996: 20-21) and ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ (District and Circle, 2006: 75-76). Heaney describes the extraordinary, miraculous story behind ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ in his Nobel Lecture, Crediting Poetry (1995: 20-21):

“Anyhow, as Kevin knelt and prayed, a blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree. Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder. Manifesting that order of poetry which is true to all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.
………..St Kevin’s story is, as I say, a story out of Ireland. But it strikes me that it could equally well come out of India or Africa or the Arctic or the Americas.” 

The ordinary, autobiographical genesis of ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’—set in his home at Glanmore Cottage, where he “found a blackbird nest in the hedge at our gable”—is described in an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll collected in Stepping Stones (2008: 198, 408):

“The last poem in the book, ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, contains a memory of my young brother Christopher. The first time I came home from St Columb’s College, when he was just about two or three, he actually frolicked and rolled around the yard for pleasure. That stayed with me forever and came up more than fifty years later in the poem.”

When translating Heaney’s translation of ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’ I was mindful of all these associations and especially of Heaney’s definition of himself as “something of an earth man”, “somebody with his poetic feet very much on local ground”. So when the multisyllabic nature of standard Italian made it plain obvious that it would be impossible to match the three syllables per line of the Irish original and of Heaney’s translation, I went back to my home ground—to its landscape and its language.

The water of the Lagan—river-water as well as lake-water (Belfast Lough or Lagan: Loch Laoigh in Irish; Bilfawst Loch in Ulster-Scots)—thus became the water of the Cavone, the stream that winds its way across Cergnago, the small village in North-western Italy where I grew up. The curt clusters of syllables of both the Irish and the English texts matched the staccato of my dialect (cergnaghese). And the sight and sound of the blackbird, black feathers and yellow beak, gold-yellow like the flowers of the whin (or gorse or furze or broom) are familiar presences in Cergnago—and in the Italian literary turf too.

This little exercise in literary translation exemplifies what translation is expected to do: to shift words and meanings from one place to another.

So here is my version in dialect, in grateful and loving memory of the Bellaghy Bard:

…………………………………Cip-cip-cip
…………………………………fa l’uślìn:
…………………………………spüda nòt.
…………………………………………..’l bèch giald.

…………………………………’n mèral
…………………………………sül Cavón.
…………………………………Sprüss d’or dla
……………………………………………ginestra!

.

*

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marco Sonzogni (born in 1971) lives in Wellington, New Zealand. He holds degrees from the University of Pavia (Almo Collegio Borromeo), University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Auckland. He is a widely published and award-winning editor, poet and literary translator, now Senior Lecturer in Italian with the School of Languages and Cultures at Victoria University of Wellington, where is also the Director of the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation. His literary translation projects include Swiss-Italian poets (Oliver Scharpf, Alberto Nessi, Pietro De Marchi, Fabiano Alborghetti, Giorgio Orelli), New Zealand poets, and the collected poems of Seamus Heaney (Meridiano). 

Advertisements

from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – John Dennison

Photo (CC) Rebecca Cox @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Rebecca Cox @ Flickr

.

I’VE SPENT THE BETTER PART of the last six years devoted to Seamus Heaney’s work and thought. I say devoted, but, as for many, Seamus was first an object of study, a lofty mouth who moved and shook us with his persuasive eloquence, who stood on the mountain of his own saying. Perhaps because of that loftiness and because I was striving to master his prose writings in some measure, the name Seamus Heaney made me fluctuate, sometimes wildly, between praise and het-up, over-emphatic critique; it was the occasion for a measure of self-knowledge of my prevarication and academic disingenuity.

            But in our brief meetings, mostly to talk over small matters about his history and past reading, the object of my study became a subject proper, a person to whom I found myself answerable, even as, taking him at his word, I weighed and criticised his prose writings. More than once I came away moved by his largesse, and resolved to ensure the act of criticism was more fundamentally an acknowledgement and honouring of the poet’s integrity.

            June this year found me in Dublin to look at manuscripts, and Seamus very graciously invited me down to Strand Road. I can’t gloss my afternoon there a great deal more than I have already tried to in ‘Grace note’, except to say that I found myself subject to my subject, and in that, was appeased. Most profoundly, Seamus addressed me as a poet, an address that I now can’t shake off. I left all teared up, and wandered home rather aimlessly in the high summer light, pausing for a breather with Kavanagh by the Grand Canal.

            I meant to write in thanks, and delayed too long. The postcard I meant to send, a reproduction of one of impressionist James Nairn’s paintings of Wellington Harbour, for me came to frame Seamus’s absence after his death. Surprised by grief on the 30th of August, I found myself a day or so after out at the line, getting in the washing under a dusk of high-blown, underlit cloud. The blackbird spoke up. Delighted, and remembering Seamus’s love of the bird, I waited for its regular benediction to come again. It didn’t, and that absence keeps on going through.

 .

*

.

Triptych

Grace note

17 June 2013

……………………………………The walls stepping back apace;
……………………………………the late, high, western sun
……………………………………declining any impulse to grace

……………………………………ourselves, be otherwise than
……………………………………our falling shadows, our homing faces
……………………………………reveal we are. And then:

……………………………………a drink? A whiskey? The capacious
……………………………………front room, quiet talk, the telly
……………………………………cutting to Obama in Belfast,

……………………………………while the critic in me
……………………………………is weaned. Dublin Bay
……………………………………takes up the slack—the

……………………………………incarnation sets us free for play
……………………………………(sure, no truer word spoken);
……………………………………I’m suitably censered, you might say.

……………………………………Poet, bless me three times, even!

.

Postcard

James Nairn, Wellington Harbour, 1894

………………………..Dear S, meant to send this some time back.
………………………..Thought you’d recognise the scene well enough:
………………………..in the foreground, a woman walks with a stick,
………………………..set in her own shadow as in her love,
………………………..the face a heavy dab of grief, a desire
………………………..to be elsewhere. Lately the waters rise,
………………………..and in brightness the sheds and the wharf lower
………………………..as the man, darkling, is held. What remains
………………………..is that a gulf exists; and the true poem,
………………………..our boat beyond all making, floats adjacent,
………………………..its shocking mast crossing the horizon
………………………..so that we might see, in this moment,
………………………..how truly the water gives us back the light.
………………………..Hope all well; not sure if you’ll get this alright.

.

Touch and go

i.m. Seamus Heaney

……………………The day remembers itself to a sky-blown dusk,
……………………light still coming off the small cloths which ride
……………………the sagging line. Inside, the family play hide and seek,

……………………all our early numbers mounting so confident
……………………to the coming ready or not, while everybody scatters,
……………………loses themselves so easily. And with this: blackbird,

……………………his brief wise-o exile song, a smatter
……………………of grace notes struck out at the gable-end.
……………………So: we’re held, heart-pegged, hung in the matter

……………………of things counted out, and hid, and found—
……………………appeasing knowledge of song, and of our folly.
……………………Wait here over-long for what doesn’t come again,

……………………translates away, across, and up the gully.

.

*

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Dennison is a poet and literary critic, and a chaplain at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, where he lives with his wife and young family. He holds a PhD in literature from the University of St Andrews, research which forms the basis for a forthcoming monograph on Seamus Heaney’s prose poetics. Recent poetry by John Dennison has appeared in PN Review, New Walk, Poetry Proper and Broadsheet (NZ). His poems also featured in New Poetries V (Carcanet, 2011).

from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – Iggy McGovern

Photo (CC) Sean @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Sean @ Flickr

.

I WAS MIDWAY in a letter to Seamus Heaney when I learned that he had died. I was writing to invite him to the launch of a new book, a sonnet sequence based on the life of the 19th century mathematician and poet, William Rowan Hamilton. I was aware that it was one of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of letters that pled for Seamus’s presence, an endorsement of this or that event. I had some hopes of a ‘yes’ for he had come to a related event of mine the previous year. This was a seminar called “Science Meets Poetry”, part of the European Science Open Forum, the centrepiece of Dublin City of Science 2012. Seamus had contributed to the seminar discussion and had read his poem ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ (see Marco’s piece, a few pages ahead). I had talked about the Two Williams, Hamilton and Wordsworth, and when I had finished, I was cheered by Seamus’s “Bravo!” from the front row.

My first contact with Seamus was in 1997, when I was, in his phrase, “newly cubbed in language”. I wanted to obtain a Visiting Fellowship in Physics and Poetry at Magdalen College, Oxford. Mutual friends had advised that my chances would greatly increase if Seamus, an Honorary Fellow of the college, would provide a reference. Although we had not met, Seamus obliged; he also added some generous comments on the poems I had enclosed with that first letter to him; the last will have to be sent in a different way.

Seamus had been billed to give the opening address of the “On Home Ground” poetry festival, part of the Derry~Londonderry City of Culture 2013 celebrations. After his untimely death the organisers converted this event into a tribute, in which a dozen or so Irish poets read their favourite Heaney poem. I chose to read ‘The Haw Lantern’, the title poem of his seventh collection published in 1987. This beautiful sonnet begins memorably –

The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people

– but the small light then morphs into the classical image of the lantern of Diogenes, who is seeking one just man. It is a poem about being tested and Seamus was himself tested and not found wanting. I was pleased to find that this is the Heaney poem on the official website of the Nobel Prize (http://www.nobelprize.org). It seems so appropriate given Seamus’s complete lack of hubris, his dignified bearing of the heavy load of fame.

The organisers had also asked for a second choice, to avoid possible duplication. I had nominated ‘Fosterage’, the penultimate poem in the sequence ‘Singing School’ from the collection North (1975). This poem is the bridge between four hard-hitting pieces (‘The Ministry of Fear’, ‘A Constable Calls’, ‘Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966’ and ‘Summer, 1969’) about his (and my) sectarian home place and the more contemplative poem ‘Exposure’, his magnificent hymn to his refuge south of the border. ‘Fosterage’ recounts a meeting with his mentor (and former employer) the teacher and writer, Michael McLaverty. Seamus is offered the timeless advice “Don’t have the veins bulging in your Biro” before being sent out “with words / Imposing on my tongue like obols”. It is also the source of the phrase “newly cubbed in language”.

Which brings me back to the beginning. An act of kindness and the start of an unequal friendship. Where we might have found the balance, a chance to centre the bubble in the spirit level, was in the swapping of jokes. And I was all set to sweeten the latest request with such, one that I was sure he would have loved. So I put that in the poem, as well.

.

 *

.

To Seamus Heaney in Heaven

When word came I was midway
in a letter to yourself…
“What’s he after now?” you ask.
I had begun like Kavanagh’s swan,
“head low with many apologies”,
As Hamilton once wrote to Wordsworth
Occiditque legendo!
And keeping to the last
The joke I knew you would enjoy,
The one about the Greek tailor:
Euripides? Eumenides?
But you were already beyant, like Gunnar
Sharing poems with The Greats
Miłosz, Brodsky, Lowell, Auden, Yeats.

.

*

.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Iggy McGovern was born in Coleraine and lives in Dublin, where he was Professor of Physics at Trinity College until retiring recently. He has published three collections of poetry, The King of Suburbia (Dedalus Press 2005), Safe House (Dedalus Press 2010) and the new sonnet sequence A Mystic Dream of 4, based on the life of the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton (Quaternia Press, autumn 2013). Awards include the Hennessy Literary Award for Poetry and the Glen Dimplex New Writers Award for Poetry. Iggy edited the anthology 2012: Twenty Irish Poets Respond to Science in Twelve Lines

from Issue #4: Memoir and Poetry by Mira Peck

Photo (CC) Tobias Akerboom @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Tobias Akerboom @ Flickr

*

The Vaulting Horse

ON A BLISTERINGLY HOT DECEMBER DAY, I stand in a line of high school students, my first gym class in a new school and a new country. The vast polished hardwood floor and exercise equipment along tall walls remind me of the gym I left three months ago in Poland. In the centre, atop green rubber mats, waits a vaulting horse, a leather-padded bench on four wooden legs that reaches up to the waists of the two teachers stationed at each end.

The familiarity comforts me. I have made many jumps over just such a contraption, and I’m eager to resume my athletic life. I hear the instructions in the foreign tongue, and then watch each girl, in turn, trot to the bench, place her hands on its surface, and bounce to the top onto her knees. The teachers then grip her forearms and help her slide down.

It’s my turn. I inhale, sprint, jump high, clear the top and nail the landing on the other side. I’m happy I haven’t lost the skill during my idle months in transition. I stretch my arms in the dismount, straighten legs and back, and run to the end of the line, ready for my next turn.

Then silence. My classmates’ puzzled faces signal that something is wrong.  I gaze towards the teachers and see them both standing still, staring at me.  One of them says something in the noodle-chewing English that will take me months to comprehend.  An earlier Polish arrival translates:  “What you did is very dangerous for girls.  Next time watch the others and do as they do.”

But I’ve done this many times! I am bewildered. What’s gender got to do with it? Maybe they think it’s a fluke that I jumped over. If I do it again, surely they’ll realize I know this routine and change their minds.

At my next turn, I begin the sprint when a loud voice calls, “Stop!”

Too late. I’m already clearing the bench and landing. The teacher extends her arm to block me from returning to the line. I look up at her as she barks unintelligible commands and summons the interpreter.

“You’ll be suspended from school if you don’t follow the rules.”

My throat constricts. Being a functional mute has made me feel helpless many times, and this is one of them.

I want to bolt, fly back to Poland where I belong, where I can run and jump and become my country’s president. But I’m stuck. I’m only sixteen and ten thousand miles away.

How can I forget the exhilaration of the fast run, the high jump, the thrill of accomplishment on the other side? I don’t know how, but I must.

Some weeks later, mentally disengaged, I move forward in a line of girls, listlessly, without momentum. At my turn, I trot up to the vaulting horse and find it large, looming, so tall that I can barely muster the courage to hoist myself all the way up onto its precarious surface. Once I kneel on top, I grip the hands of the two teachers who ease me back down.

But there was a time when I was able to jump over this colossus. Wasn’t there?

Tears press under my eyelids. I squash them down, all the way down to my aching belly, where they will hibernate with my spirit.

Grandpa Ben

He lived in the days before movies

Horse-drawn carts clopped on cobbled streets
Bands of musicians braved heat and snow
trudging to play in distant towns

He wore a long black beard
black hat and long coat
and a Torah tucked under his arm
as befitted a wizard of his day

The town carousel that he built
whirled with swans and ponies
in white red green and blue

Young boys squeezed into its core
to propel the spokes with bike power
sending the carousel on its merry twirl
children’s squeals blending in happy dance

The boys were paid not in cash but in the joy
of riding bikes Ben offered for rent

The carousel soon burned like the town
the horsesthe childrenthe swans

Ben died to the sound of mazurka
kicked to his knees
dragged by his beard

He lies buried somewhere unknown
like the children and the carousel boys

Only we who would have loved him miss
honouring his name, marking the place
where he helped young men
speed on new machines.

 *

Ditta 

She is
Eight years old, 1944
Skipping down a Polish city street
Polka-dot dress, white patent shoes
Red bow clasping ponytail.

I am
Eight years old, 1954
She is on a movie screen
Skipping away from me

Dark shadow, German uniform,
Black-gloved hand with a gun
Steel grey, shiny death
Points at her flying tress

I grip the armrest
Scream a silent NO
The gun blasts staccato
She is me, I am her

The film blurs red and grey.
I walk out shaken
Crying inside for Ditta
Who could be me

Father tags my brown ponytail
Lovingly pulls me close
“Ditta,” he calls me softly
With a sad, vacant smile

He loves me, but she died!
Is he thinking I look like his mother?
Is he saying I ease his pain?
That I live for the children who died?

I force a smile, carry the burden
Alone, like a brave girl should.
I am eight, twenty eight, forty eight.
In unexpected moments I am still

Ditta.
And she is me.

*

ABOUT THE POET

Mira Peck is an author of poetry and prose that blend her interests in science, art, family and justice. Her inspiration comes from a wide range of experiences, including the fields of chemical engineering, business, music and law; living in Poland, Australia and the USA; and hitch-hiking across Asia and Europe. During her twenty years of creative writing she has edited and published a quarterly newsletter, arranged literary workshops and public readings, and coordinated local critiquing chapters. Her multigenre collection, Sour Cherry Tree, was published in 2012 and received recognition from the San Francisco Book Festival. Her first novel, My Men, was published in 2013. She received the annual Goldfinch Prize for poetry in 2011 and for prose in 2010. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children and travels widely.

from issue #1: ‘Darkness Come Down’ by Floyd Salas

DARKNESS COME DOWN by FLOYD SALAS

HIS NAME WAS PANCHO and he messed with me the first day I was put up in C Tank in the county jail. A white-skinned Mexican dude in his thirties probably who had a bunch of knife scars on his pale, pink body. I checked them out when he took off his shirt for some reason, maybe to take a shower though I don’t recall him ever getting into the shower when I was in C Tank with him that couple of months or so.

In fact I was the only guy of about twenty guys and more who took a shower every day, every morning in fact. I was eighteen and didn’t even shave and weighed about one-fifteen with my clothes on. Five-five with a wiry body, small-shouldered bone structure but with a big chest and thick shoulder muscles, not shaped like a body builder but full-formed, a fly-weight novice amateur fighter, had a handful of fights when I was seventeen. Dark brown wavy hair, not curly, wavy, with big curls that waved back from my temples, medium complexion, big hazel green eyes, a speck of yellow in the iris softening the green. A prisoner said, “Good body,” when I had to take a shower in B, the incoming tank on the first floor of the jail, the thirteenth floor of the county courthouse, down below the C and D tank, which were on the fourteenth floor. That was when I first got to the jail to face a superior court trial for two counts of strong-arm robbery and an aggravated assault against an off-duty cop who saw me and three other guys in a street fight in East Oakland, Ninety-Eighth Ave, and chased us down ‘til we skidded to a stop and jumped out and fought him, too. And he lost the fight and covered up with his arms and bent legs, but chased us when we first drove off from the fight and ran to a cop phone on a boulevard street corner and put out a calling-all-cars alarm and pretty quick we were in jail, thinking we just had a street fight with two guys.

But they were calling it armed robbery because we took a bottle of whiskey from the guys we were in the street fight with in the first place—when the off-duty cop first saw us—and, big crime, a paper sack with men’s socks in it.

But the real reason they were over-charging us was because we beat up the cop even if he was off-duty in street clothes and we didn’t know he was a cop.

In any case, here I was, in jail with a huge bail of fifteen thousand dollars on me and a lawyer that wanted a thousand dollars to take the case and this was in 1949 when it only cost thirty-five cents to go to the show and I earned a dollar fifteen an hour as a kitchen helper at Duchess Party Foods. I was put in this jail tank on the fourteenth floor of the Alameda court house with a bunch of adult felons and didn’t know what I was doing or going to do since a trial date hadn’t even been set yet. When it was finally set, it would be four months away.

So, I was a kid in a barred tank, a big day room with a stationary iron table and two iron benches on each side of it secured to the concrete floor in the middle of a jail tank full of felons, ex-convicts and soon-to-be convicts when they got sentenced and here’s this guy Pancho in front of me talking nasty like I was nothing, insulting me, telling me to get off the mop-wet floor or something and I didn’t even know what he was talking about but I knew he was spewing bullying hate with his spittle when he talked at me—not to me, at me.

He wasn’t big. Average size man, about five-eight or so, probably in his thirties, medium build, one-fifty say, and brown hair that fell straight across his forehead sometimes and was combed to the sides from a part in the middle, old-fashioned style in a way, foreign, like he was from Mexico.

C Tank was the best tank to be in the four tanks of the county jail—I’d find that out the hard way when I got transferred out of it. C Tank faced south and got the sun most of the day. It had a view of the South Bay over the roof tops if I’d climb up the bars a few feet and peek past the barred hallway that separated the tank from the outside walls of the county courthouse.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do on that first day and suddenly here’s this guy in front of me talking nasty and belligerent with his thick lips spewing out spit, saying, “Get off the floor!” or something like that and I said something back and he must have pushed me because I threw a punch at him and he reached out and blocked the punch and we struggled for a moment when this older guy named Jim Fox jumped in and got between us, stopping the fight.

Maybe he was trying to protect me because I was smaller, but I could think, I was smart and I could fight, too, and I feared no one. I could drop any guy I hit with one punch, no matter how big, and had never lost a street fight in my life and I’d had about twenty or so of them by this time.

I’d gone to nine public schools before I finally graduated because I acted like a big guy which could rile some dudes. If there was a bully in the crowd, itching to vent his anger at being alive and having to fight for survival every day, he’d decide to take his pecking order instinct out on me, the smallest guy around. I was smart, too, and had skipped a grade so looked even smaller for my age around the older kids, and acted like I belonged to any crowd.

But after a fight or two, I didn’t have to fight a lot because I always won. I had athletic talent, graceful movement and was always a leader and could hit hard for my size and could drop anybody I hit, no matter how tall, and every school I went to I got a reputation as a tough kid who didn’t mess with anybody but would fight if he had to. There were boxers in my family on both my mom and pop’s sides. It was in the blood.

Usually I was the sharpest in the crowd and knew more about the adult world because my older brothers had both taken me with them on their adventures, both intellectual and physical, and treated me like an adult while still watching over me. I kept my mouth shut and got along with the older people I met through either of them, my big brothers, and learned about the big world.

I had dropped that cop after those three big guys I was with, my friends Dexter McGee, Corky Bible and Bill Waters, couldn’t put him down. I did it by reaching up between them and dropping him with a single left hook to the chin. They then each booted him once as he covered up like a ball. I saw the only unprotected part of his body and kicked him right between the cheeks of his ass and he yelped and we then jumped into Bill’s car and sped off.

But the cop jumped in his gray Ford coupe and chased us and, as we sped down San Leandro Boulevard through a mile-long section of East Oakland that had the Frisco Bay and light industry buildings on one side and houses and fields on the other, I saw him brake, jump out of the car and run to a police phone near a gas station.

“That guy might be a cop,” I said.

But Bill said not to worry about it—he’d report his car as stolen. We’d just had a fight—no big deal—Dexter said, so we decided to go get a big bottle of Coke to mix with the whiskey at an all-night drugstore market on Nineteenth and Broadway and party.

That’s when the cops hit. Bill parked his car on the corner of Nineteenth with his back-end on Broadway, the main drag in Oakland, and Corky jumped out and went inside the store to buy the Coke. The store had two doorways, one facing Broadway and the other Nineteenth. My father’s restaurant, the El Patio, was right across the street from the Nineteenth Street side door, but it was closed this late at night, after midnight. I was sitting on the passenger side of the front seat when the next thing I know I see a man through the glass window standing right outside my closed door, bent over, wearing a rumpled dark suit and hat. And he’s got a black pistol aimed at my face. He’s not a big guy but he’s not kidding. I know he’s a cop and do what he says, “Get out.” Bill and Dexter get out of the car, too, and then I’m standing on the sidewalk with Dexter and Bill and cops standing all around us—guns pointed at us.

There’s some reporters and a photographer, too. One of them, some guy I can’t see too clearly standing between two cops in the streetlight on the corner, starts bad-mouthing us, talking tough, and when he says something real wise-guy like, Dexter says something back and they trade smart remarks for a few wise-cracks. Bill and I keep our mouths shut.

I think I’m in trouble for getting in a street fight, no major thing, even if I’m going to jail. I don’t want to be there, but I’m not freaking out either. I’m glad my father’s restaurant’s closed though.

Then I’m in jail and the long nightmare starts.

*

HE THUMPS HIS BLACKJACK down on my thigh. A thick-bodied cop, thinning black hair spreading back on top his head from his wide face—pushing up against me on the bench where I’m waiting to get booked. I still think I’m in there for a street fight, no big deal, but they’ve taken my pants off for evidence from a spot of blood on them and now I remember Dexter in the back seat of the car leaning over next to me, dripping blood on me from his bloody nose. I’m in red boxer shorts and bare-legged and feel the heavy hardness of that blackjack on my skin clear to the bone. He got me good.

Then he does it again, in the same spot. I wince, whether I want to show that it hurts or not.

I wait for another shot and tighten my leg, but just then a gray-haired guy in civilian clothes, dark slacks and sport shirt, probably an inspector, walks in from the next room and looks at me when he walks by with what seems to be an amused smile or smirk and the balding cop leans back away from me and against the wall, playing it safe so he won’t get in trouble for brutalizing a prisoner, I guess. The booking room is the bottom floor of the city hall, which is twelve stories high, with a drive-in right next to it in the building where they drop the poor suckers off who are going upstairs to the top floor of the building, the jail, and that includes me.

I used to carry a hair brush to keep my scalp and hair healthy. Baldness ran in the family on my father’s side, but not on my Mom’s side and I was a scholar and had worked in the library as a page for a buck an hour on my first job after high-school and studied hair among other subjects like dreams and Freud and novelists like Richard Wright and so carried a brush because brushing your hair every day was healthy, I’d read. I did it so I’d never get bald when I got older.

But when the cops had me strip naked, one cop picked up my brush and with a bright look in his eye told me to turn around. I said no and wouldn’t turn or obey him because I knew he was going to poke me in the ass with it.

*

THAT WAS THE BEGINNING of jail time. First they put me in a separate, single row of cells that faced an enclosed yard in the middle of the main jail floor which was the twelfth floor of the city hall. The elevator stopped there.

I sang out in the middle of the day, pretty pop songs a young man just entering manhood with thoughts of mating would sing, like Louie Armstrong’s

I found my thrill
on Blueberry Hill
where I found you.
The moon stood still
and lingered until
my dreams came true.

Once, I was taken into a room with two detectives. The big fat detective in a dirty, rumpled suit, gray with age, asked me what happened, and I told him about the guys shouting at us and us getting out to fight them and picking up the bottle of whiskey and the bag with the socks and driving off and getting chased by this guy and then driving off, never mentioning that I dropped that cop with a left hook to the chin, underneath his guard and in-between the bodies of Dexter and Bill and Corky while they were throwing punches from all sides at him and couldn’t bring him down.

Then the cop says, “You sign this and we’ll charge you with petty theft and let it go at that.”

I signed and felt pretty good. Both cops that grilled me were in their forties, at least, and sloppy in their dress, and the one fat cop, who grilled me and got me to sign right off—a dumb kid who didn’t even know that I could ask for a lawyer, me just thinking it was a small charge, petty theft thing, like the cop said, no big deal—talked real civil, without education, but high-school English level, street level language, fat cop sitting opposite of me in the cubby-hole of a tiny room, and wrote down my story and got me to sign it at the end of the long yellow sheet.

I was in the cell when I was called out into the hall in the middle of the second day or so to face the two cops and all three of us, me and Dexter and Bill, were handed felony warrants for two strong-arm robberies and one aggravated assault. Their hypocrisy and deceitful behavior in over-charging us in every way, left me standing there in front of the two cops, knowing there was nothing that I could do about it. Nothing. Strong-arm robbery? Assault? He chased us. At least they didn’t charge us with attacking a cop, but that was small consolation.

Then I was taken out of the line of cells that faced the small yard down below and put up on the top tier of that cell block, the back cells, the felony cells, five levels up, facing the gray blank wall of the opposite side of the cell block at the top of the city hall. This tier had the only windows in the cell block that opened out and let the cold air in. The guys on the bottom level sweated with heat and were always crying out for us to open the windows while the guys on the top tier like me wanted the windows closed because they let in cold air that the heat from the main floor down below didn’t reach.

A couple of things happened in the twelve days of darkness I spent there that stuck with me. I found a way to keep my cell door unlocked by sticking a magazine in the doorway when the trusty in the stairwell pulled the lever that closed off the cells in the row, blocking it from closing. At night, they’d close those cell doors but in the day time they were often open and the prisoners could move up and down the tier of their cell block and go into other prisoners’ cells. You could move around at least and even sneak down to the bottom tier level sometimes. It was there where some big black dude did some tough talking and I said, “You want to spar?” and charged at him and drove him back in his cell to the back wall, throwing just body shots to keep it from being a fight, but showing what could happen if he wanted to really tussle. He backed away.

Then there was Jesse James. That was his real name. A nice black guy, average size, one-fifty maybe, who was in on auto theft and had a cell next to mine. One night the wind’s whistling in the windows in that row of top tiers and I hunker down in my blanket and try to stay warm, but start sniffling from the cold every once in a while, in the dark. The lights are out, it’s sleep time, when I sniffle again and hear from the next cell, Jesse James’ voice: “You okay, Floyd?” as if he thought I was crying. It would come to that.

“Yeah, I’m okay, Jesse. Just a little cold. Thanks,” I answered.

*

BUT THE DARKNESS CAME DOWN. Twelve days in that dark hole and finally there’s a preliminary trial, but long before that, days before that, there’s the life in the felony cells, the floors of iron with the caged walkways. At night, a woman would sing from the women’s dorm, which must have been on the other side of the wall of the felony cells. Her voice would come down into the tank from the darkness of the night outside those windows. A sweet pretty voice that suited her name, Pearl.

My preliminary trial was coming up and the future was unknown and filled with threat and my fear. I was in Hell on Earth and had to survive it, and so did she and so did all of us. And yet she sang and there was something about the rich tones of her voice, like chocolate or blackberry wine, that was sweetness itself. It touched my spirit and that of those around me.

© 2012 Floyd Salas

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012

* * * * *

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Floyd Salas is the critically-acclaimed author of four novels, a memoir and two volumes of poetry.  His publications include Tattoo the Wicked Cross (1967), winner of the Joseph Henry Jackson Award and a Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship; What Now My Love (1970); Lay My Body on the Line (1978), written and published on National Endowment for the Arts Literary Fellowships; the memoir Buffalo Nickel (1992), which earned him a California Arts Council Literary Fellowship; State of Emergency (1996), awarded the 1997 PEN Oakland Literary Censorship Award, and his poetry books, Color of My Living Heart (1996) and Love Bites: Poetry in Celebration of Dogs and Cats (2006).  

He was a staff writer for the NBC drama, Kingpin, released in February, 2003 and a 2002-2003 Regent’s Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley.  He has recently completed a novel about 1940s Oakland entitled Seventh Street Jump. He is also working on Maverick:  Prayers of Heresy, a volume of new and selected poems from the last fifty years.

He is editor of Stories and Poems from Close to Home (1986) and other anthologies of San Francisco Bay Area writing, and the author of numerous essays and reviews about writing and the creative life.  Tattoo the Wicked Cross and Buffalo Nickel are featured in Masterpieces of Hispanic Literature (HarperCollins 1994).   His other awards and honors include a Rockefeller Foundation Fiction Scholarship, an NEA creative writing fellowship, and two outstanding teaching awards from the University of California, Berkeley.  His fiction, non-fiction and poetry manuscripts as well as letters and biographical information are archived in the Floyd Salas collection in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.  His novel, Tattoo the Wicked Cross, earned a place on the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Western 100 List of Best 20th Century Fiction.  He has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, University of California, Berkeley, University of San Francisco, Sonoma State University, and Foothill College, as well as at numerous writing conferences and at San Quentin, Folsom, Vacaville and other correctional institutions.  He is a founder and president of the multicultural writing group PEN Oakland, and a former boxing coach for University of California, Berkeley.