This entry is part 21 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


Saved by a banjo, she turned
into someone forever glancing
in the rear-view mirror,
someone given to sudden,
unpredictable spasms of laughter.
The amount of space
her arms now claimed with
their emphatic gesticulations
alarmed even herself:
how unladylike!
She stopped smoking & enrolled
in truck-driving school
because, she said, she didn’t
ever want to slow down.
She’d pull into rest areas
on the high plains, hold
the banjo in her lap & listen
to the non-stop wind.

Medicine Show (3)

This entry is part 22 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


The banjo knows
what it’s like to be sky,
how high pressure brings
the clearest sound.
I read about a woman
without a vaginal opening
who still conceived
& gave birth through a Caesarian.
This is more or less
how a banjo makes music,
is it not? She had lovers,
oh yes. And one of them,
jealous, had stabbed her
in the stomach,
permitting his rival’s semen,
which she had taken orally,
to find & fertilize
her unsuspected egg.
Maybe this is
an urban legend but
it sounds like something
that ought to happen
in a world with banjos in it.
Who needs root-workers?
The streetcorner pusher,
the New Age huckster,
the Big Pharma barker
all prescribe the same
white bomb
for everything,
expanding like a cloud
in a clear sky.

Banjo Proverbs

This entry is part 23 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


A banjo is clamorous:
it is simple, & knows nothing.

Banjos make a mock at sin,
but among the righteous there is favor.

It is sport to a banjo to do mischief,
but a man of understanding has wisdom.

He that begets a banjo does so to his sorrow,
& the father of a banjo has no joy.

He that troubles his own house shall inherit the wind,
& the banjo shall be servant to the wise of heart.

As snow in summer & as rain in harvest,
so honor & a banjo don’t mix.

A dream comes from a crowd of troubles
& a banjo’s melody comes from a crowd of notes.

For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
so is the music of the banjo.

A banjo’s strings enter into contention
& its head invites a beating.

A stone is heavy, a sandbag strains your arms,
but a banjo’s wrath is heavier than them both.

It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise
than for a man to hear the music of banjos.

Go from the presence of a banjo
when you perceive not the notes of knowledge in it.

As a dog returns to his vomit,
so a banjo player returns to his banjo.

Forsake the banjo & live,
& go in the way of understanding.

Banjo Origins (2): The Fifth String

This entry is part 24 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


It had been a drifter,
getting by on odd jobs:
guy wire for a weathervane,
the main spring in the crouch of a cat,
a corn broom’s binding cord.

It had learned to sing the wind’s several laments,
to play with its prey,
to teem.

It happened by
just when the banjo was holding
auditions for a new first string,
& unexpectedly
the fifth string got the part.
Its square tuning peg was a perfect fit
for that round & bottomless hole.

The banjo now began
to resemble itself,
like a forest that fills
the spaces between the trees
with more trees.

Medicine Show (4): A Spell to Ward Off Banjos

This entry is part 25 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


Fill a soup spoon with salt
& lower it into the Atlantic
singing: Dance, sailor,
dance with your captain,
your head’s too heavy,
your body’s too thin.
When the salt is gone
say in a loud voice
Are you thirsty now?
& wait for a gull to say Yes.
Walk backwards so
the incoming tide can’t follow
your footsteps home.

Repeat daily.
If banjos persist,
see a licensed hoodoo man.

The Silent Banjo

This entry is part 26 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


The silent banjo leans against the wall
like a movie gangster, casual, coiled,
ready for some chin music.

The silent banjo may or may not
be in tune—& in what tuning, who knows?
To some, this makes it alluring.
Its neck is straight, like a mute swan
culled by a marksman.

The silent banjo is silent because
it has seen too much.

The silent banjo is silent because
no one remembers how to listen.

Approach the silent banjo as you would
any other apocryphon:
brandishing the one true book of matches
& saying in your best Hollywood voice,
The jig is up.

Sugar Baby

This entry is part 27 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


I had total recall. I was
loitering at a strip mall
on the outskirts of town,
replaying Dock Boggs’
“Sugar Baby” in my head
note for note as I heard it
the first time, before I knew
what was coming next—
the red rocking chair,
the every dime.
Streetlights flickered on,
& they were a new kind
of streetlight that turned people
transparent, like ghosts
as they hurried from car
to store & store to car.
Every third person
was talking to someone
in their hand, saying
I’m in the parking lot &
Do you want the plain rice
or the fried?
I noticed there were those
who said honey
& those who said sugar,
but white or brown, they all
had something sticky
to keep solitude at bay.
I began wishing
I’d heard the song
from the master himself
so I could taste it too,
raw & unrefined.
I wouldn’t have to take
rides in cop cars.
My feet would find
their way to some
sweet home.

Banjo Origins (3): Jesusland

This entry is part 28 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


A child spotted it tangled in the branches of a tree like a lost kite. In fact, it might have been a lost kite, or perhaps an insufficiently aerodynamic helicopter, or the mummified body of a space alien. The fire department sent a ladder truck to get it down.

What was it? It twanged alarmingly when touched, and this led someone to suggest it might be able to generate healing vibrations. A preacher was sent for.

It had ten strings then, but after careful study, the preacher decided that this was against nature, and ordered half of them removed. After that it never flew again, although it did travel around the desert with a caravan for a few years, following the Grateful Dead.

When it came back, it went down to the shore & began to gather a posse. Things got crazy. A pig farmer accused it of drowning his whole herd. It got thrown out of the church for busking. A man came back from the dead, but he was never quite right again.

It became clear that just getting within earshot of this thing was dangerous. People were cured of conditions they didn’t even know they had, such as separation anxiety, agoraphobia & intermittent explosive disorder. The doctors & therapists began to feel threatened, so they got together & bribed a member of its entourage to call Homeland Security and denounce it as a terrorist.

An agent came out, took one look & laughed. You people need to get up into the mountains more often, he said. Where I come from, every backyard has a banjo tree.

Medicine Show (5): Shackleton’s Banjo

This entry is part 29 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


for R.R., who forwarded the story

Shackleton’s ship trapped in pack ice
went down without its banjo,
that “vital mental medicine” as
he called it, fished out
at the last minute & hauled along
to Elephant Island with the raffish
rest of the crew. Who included
one Leonard Hussey, meteorologist
& cut-up, hired for his quick wit
& repertoire of banjo tunes.
Picture them singing Stephen Foster
over slabs of seal meat, 22 men
confined to a hut with the one
remaining boat for a roof,
the southern stars swimming
over its hull. Picture webbed feet
frying in a pan on New Year’s Day
as the men hopped & shuffled
their cornball best. And years later
when Shackleton returned
with Hussey to the South Atlantic,
on the night he died he asked
for one last tune. Imagine that banjo
pale as a bloodless cheek,
the explorer’s watery gaze.
And in the silence that followed,
shadows from the oil lamp
continuing to dance.

Where Bluegrass Comes From

This entry is part 30 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


A road travelled every day
soon comes unhitched from the horizon.
You can switch roads or you can dance in place.

The fiddle player says:
I like to stare out the car window
& dream about staying put & growing roots.
You can dance in place or you can jam.

The banjo player says:
I never learn the tune as a whole, only its parts.
I remember the one little thing that’s different
& the rest takes care of itself.
You just keep jamming until something jells.


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