Banjo Proverbs (videopoem)

This entry is part 11 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


I made a videopoem in support of my chapbook Breakdown: Banjo Poems, which is now at long last officially out and available to order. Here’s the blurb from the judge, Sascha Feinstein:

These captivating poems unfurl from associative narratives about banjos, yet the series far exceeds merely clever variations on a theme. Since no instrument can choose its player, music connects humanity at its most diverse, and these poems take full advantage of that simple truth. Through unusual settings, believable personification, and strong movement, these banjo poems invite us to consider the origins of the instrument and its history, the diversity of its players, the politics of race and religion, and a great deal more. It’s a concert that’ll make you say, “Oh yeah” and “Wow.”

Click the PayPal button to order a copy here.

The Banjo Apocalypse

This entry is part 12 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


Revelation 8

And I saw the seven angels
which stood before God:
& to them were given
seven banjos.

Their necks were nickel-
fretted mahogany,
& they were strung
with steel.

Heads like almost-perfect moons
had one clear patch, one sea
where the frailer’s fingers hit,
regular as oars.

Thumbscrews gleamed
on the rims of resonators,
those round holds that once
were ocean-going gourds.

A vine climbed the neck:
inlaid mother-of-pearl
leaf & tendril to distract
any potential Jonah.

And the seven angels
which had the seven banjos
prepared themselves
to sound.

Medicine Show (1)

This entry is part 13 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


“The banjo is a well of souls.”
—Scott Didlake, gourd banjo maker

The first mate goes round
unlocking the ankles of 20 at a time,
a wet cloth tied over his face against the stench.

Now come the crackers,
now come the leather-tongued snakes.
Welts rise like anthills on calves & shoulders.

Get up! shout the pink-faced men
as they drive their rapidly declining stock up on deck.
You’ll die if you don’t start moving. Dance!

Those with chained feet make music
for those with chained hands.
And half-atrophied as they are

the muscles remember
what the human being wills itself to forget,
claw finger, hammer thumb,

the firmness of a taut-skinned earth
trembling under the organized tromp of feet.
The calabash carries

the burden the singers croak:
going, going, gone.
Legs like flames on the savanna flare & die.

How Jefferson Heard Banjar

This entry is part 14 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


“The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.” —Thomas Jefferson, 1781

Banjar, he wrote, because he found it jarring
to his cultured ears.

Because he was thinking of nightjar, &
how the whip-poor-will
disturbed his slumber with its
monotonous omens.

Because the singing was in
a nearly incomprensible jargon.

Because its roundness & depth
seemed sufficient for the keeping
of treasured things, as in a jar.

Because of its striking resemblance
to that drinking vessel in the sky,
which also empties itself
every night.

Because of the way it summons one
to the cut-out or Virginia jig, & that door
in the slave quarters
left ajar.

Catskin Banjo

This entry is part 15 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


The shack was hers,
every plank & plunk of it.
In heat when they treed her,
bleary with need, she had let
the dog get between her
& the door.
She went up the tallest
walnut she could find,
but the man struck
the bark with the flat of his axe
& listened—
she felt its long deep shiver
as if it were her own.
We’ll take ’em both,
he told the slobbering hound,
& began to chop.
With each blow
her claws dug farther in
& her sex pressed down
like a third & spellbound ear.
She rode it to the ground
where the dog & the axe were waiting.
A lifetime later
her hide still held fast
to the walnut wood.
The shack was hers,
every plank & plunk of it.
Five strands of gut
thin as claw marks
stretched from top to bottom
of the only door.


I am indebted to Foxfire 3 for information on making catskin (and other) banjos. Their older informants were recalling practices from their youth in the southern Appalachians around the beginning of the 20th century.

The Dueling Banjo

This entry is part 16 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


Don’t be fooled:
this whitefaced smile,
these nickel-plated teeth,
this laughter can fuck you up.
Just ask the sadistic master
whose slave put the banjo on him
composed a devastating satire
with a rolicking tune.

Men was a-singing it while cutting
trees out in the woods.
Women singing it in the fields.
Even the little children
played games to that song.
Pretty soon folks was singing it
all up & down the river.
Master Robert couldn’t go
nowhere among the slaves
without hearing something of it,
maybe just the tune without the words,
like they was humming it

so Richard Creeks remembered
decades later.

Why laughter? Because tears
were expensive, love meant staking
your happiness on a master’s good will,
but laughter was free.
The banjo doesn’t ask which star
turned a blind eye on your birth.
It doesn’t lullaby or sweet-talk
like some guitar.
And because its father was a goat
& its mother was a gourd vine,
all the while you’re shaking,
head tilted back, it’s climbing
& stripping your tree.


Italicized lines condensed and lightly edited from “Richard Creeks on Songmaking,” in A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore by Harold Courlander (Southmark, 1996), pp. 376-377.

Medicine Show (2)

This entry is part 17 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


The folk concept of a dancing crow pre-dates the Jump Jim Crow ministrelsy and has its origins in the old farmer’s practice of soaking corn in whiskey and leaving it out for the crows. The crows eat the corn and become so drunk they cannot fly, but wheel and jump helplessly near the ground where the farmer can kill them with a club. —“Jump Jim Crow,” Wikipedia

While a blackface
musician pays Jump
Jim Crow for
the assembled yokels, oh Lord—
the fake Indian sweating
in a scratchy blanket
holds up a bottle, holds it up:
pale blue universal nostrum of frost
whose patent can stay pending
almost indefinitely.
It’s impossible not to buckdance.
I swear they turn a key
somewhere in my liver
& banjo us with the bright
plink of coins.
This is one church where
we’re all in on the joke
& no one expects the wine
to be anything but whiskey.
A freight hurtles by & we rock
in its sudden wind,
its whistle better
than any pipe organ.
When your baby wails
like that, cracks Indian Bob,
it’s time for a spoonful,
& the banjo man winks & taps
his rawhide belly.
Somewhere John Brown
is plotting treason, & You—
You are with the sparrows,
rapt, watching how
comically they hop.

Backache and Kidney Mixture Number 20

Open-Backed Banjo

This entry is part 18 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


I am untroubled by serpents
or the marinated feet of pigs.
I bear no antipathy toward bears
or the bees they bedevil,
& the devil never tempts me
to any evil I can’t invent on my own
(forgive me if I don’t delve into the details).
What makes me break down is a banjo,
lonesome as our only god the clock
but with two hands, both of them fast.
Looking in its open back
can be disconcerting: What makes it go?
There’s nothing but a bare rod
& the smell of rain.
Where’s the balance wheel?
The escapement?
The gear train?
It calls to me, the ghost in its machine.
Play it, son!
Make it ring like a hammer on steel
& rattle like a Gatling gun
until it smokes.

Banjo vs. Guitar

This entry is part 19 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


The Banjo Player, by William Sydney Mount (1856)
The Banjo Player, by William Sydney Mount (1856)

Where guitar says body, banjo says head.

Where guitar says soundboard, banjo says membrane.

Where guitar says six, banjo says one for each finger.

Where guitar says bridge, banjo says keep going.

Where guitar says hole, banjo says full.

Banjo Origins (1): The American Instrument

This entry is part 20 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


One scant & skinny time
alone with the astrolabe,
Columbus had a vision of stomachs
blown up thump-hard
& strung with horsehair,
& when he came to,
his mouth was full of the taste
of bitter almonds. All day
his shadow crept around him
on the deck, seeping into
every godforsaken cranny as
he plotted his next voyage:
ascending the world’s nipple by ship.
Surely the Caribs hadn’t
gotten there yet & spoiled it
with their deplorable dietary preferences.
But he saw again
those stark ribs—
frets on a lute, rungs to the crow’s nest–
& below, that pot
in which by the cheerful sound of it
something was bubbling,
something irreplaceable
was being melted down.