Monday, July 04, 2022

'We Ought to Finish with a Tune for Him'

Bob Barth had David Leightty, publisher of Scienter Press in Louisville, Ky., send me a copy of Warren Hope’s chapbook Moving In (2004). Hope died in May at age seventy-seven. Like Barth, he was a Vietnam veteran, and some of his poetry was devoted to that war, as is the title poem in Moving In: 

“The tent was up but still unoccupied

When I moved into it. I put the cot

Down at the far end of the concrete slab,

And made it up with clean, fresh-smelling sheets,

And shrouded it with the mosquito net.

I slid a clip into the M-16

And pulled a single round up to the chamber,

But then made sure I had the safety on.

My duffle bag had made itself at home,

Leaning against the cot down at the feet

Or, rather, where in time my feet would be.

I sat down and then smoked a cigarette,

Dead-tired and yet afraid to go to sleep.”


Blank verse, matter-of-fact language, nothing “poetic,” no cheating. Drama, if any, implied. When I started reading the poem, part of me was waiting for the payoff, some revelation, a touch of melodrama in the form of a punch line, as in a joke. It’s not there. I’ve been conditioned, sorry to say, by decades of American free verse, first-person lyrics with their cheesy appeal to acceptable, predictable emotion. That’s not Hope’s (or Barth’s) style.


In 1988, Barth published Hope’s ten-poem Recordings. Included is “Between Sets.” The subtitle is “Muggsy Spanier addresses a patron of Club Hangover.” For non-jazz listeners, Spanier (1901-67) was a cornetist; “Fatha,’” the pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines (1903-83); Miff Mole (1898-1961), a trombonist:


“Fatha’ and I still have this steady gig

And nightly crank the old machine. Why not?

It keeps the hawk down and the wolf away.


“I hear Miff died and they sold his horn

To help pay for a pauper’s funeral.

It’s no good your complaining of such things:


I notice how the shifting of the tide

Leaves flopping creatures stranded on the beach;

My guess is they don’t curse the fickle sea.


“At times I almost envy Miff his end:

If you believe, he’s sure in heaven now;

If not, well then, at least he’s been released.


“Safe in the bosom of Abraham either way.

He’ll never play another house

Or pray for one more string of one night stands.


“We ought to finish with a tune for him.

I better split, and go tell Fatha’ Hines

We’ll take Miff home tonight with Didn’t He Ramble.”


Click here for Louis Armstrong’s version of “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” composed in 1902 by J. Rosamond Johnson, James Weldon Johnson and Bob Cole. It’s one of the songs traditionally played at the conclusion of a New Orleans funeral service, as the mourners walk away.

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