Playing Levee

“That's what you is. That's what we all is. A leftover from history.”
                        – August Wilson, from
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

One…two… you know what to do
            
                                      The white drama
teacher pits my friend, William
and me against the other: two trains
running on the same track.
We master our instruments
of silence and embrace
when cast into roles. We are told
to let our tongues stutter
like a graveled road. 

One…two…you know what to do

                                     we brothers
so we bandstand
among hallway lockers:
intervals of gold then blue. 
Three entrances
of sneer, sex, and swag
William carries to our school
auditorium, lifts his script
from a back pocket. Auditions. 
I follow like a rumor.

I want to see the dance you call the black bottom

                                      I keep
the character with a name
like an embankment built
to prevent a river’s overflow. 
William slips his voice
into Toledo, a piano player,
his gap-tooth smile
like a black key. My hands
palm a brass horn. We begin
to finger the valves
of seventeen

 I want to see the dance you call the big black bottom

                                        We are told,
by Aunties and O.G.s, every decade
in the 20th century, the blues
begets again Ma Rainey’s
bottomless alto, dignifying
a minor scale, bending radio  
waves round the ears of August
Wilson, shining the Florsheims
of hope until a boy can see
himself and his friend
when he hangs his head.

It puts you in a trance

                                        and there at the top
of memory’s spit-polished shoe
William’s face and fresh cut
from when we first met
his skin’s recursive black
like a singularity, like beauty
compressed to its darkest
inside the mouth of a trumpet.
His beauty like a one man band.

It puts you in a trance

All the lines for Levee
lead my switchblade
through my friend’s belly
as cool and laconic
as muted trumpet.
The script calls  
for a backstab up to the hilt
but we ignore
this, tilt and embrace instead
chest to chest.
Our drama teacher claps
his offbeat praise.
There is nothing to say,
over a lost love
and loved brother. 
What becomes
of a man’s song
when there is no record? 

You ought to learn that dance



Rutherford Selig Stops for Gossip in Green Country
 

Local rumor claims every tree
is an immigrant. Course, no
one would say it to your face. 
Folks sooner swallow a bullet
or blaspheme, than admit anything
wrong with creation. Surely Tulsa
sits at the edge of God’s own chaise lounge;
the dammed Arkansas river runnin’ down
the city’s thigh like a seam in a stockin’
and breezes get hot as a mole on the Devil’s ass, make
rust-red mud rise in griddle cakes.
 
Some dish dirt that oil derricks arouse the earth
toned men. I can’t rightly say. Day fat with sun,
midnight like a starvin’ crow perched on horizon
preaching the Good Book: evenin’ and mornin’
and it was good. Here is land as land is
rarely seen. Heard the Muskogee whisper
desolation without desert,
many fields and few lilies to consider.
Even the old bats stuck in walnut
rockers know tough grass
twists to stubble on a hill’s chin and dawn
lathered in rain, gives way
to lightning and fire
stiff as a two bit straight-razor shave. 
 
To mention weather is next to godliness.
Got a tornado horn that’ll take a year
off your life. What a rush:
one hard freeze will bring a curse of black
ice to your lips. Snow on tribal casinos glows
neon and the bible schools illuminate the text
of billboards. In fall splotched geese slant
the sky, a clear matte sky hung like dryin’ linen.
 
The moon’s pinched light holds
like God’s own clothespin.
Night throws us under the revival tent.
The dead are raised
in rumor. There are no graves
we won’t exhume.

Steven Leyva was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and raised in Houston, Texas. His poems have appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Fledgling Rag, The Light Ekphrastic, The Cobalt Review, and Prairie Schooner. He is a Cave Canem fellow, the winner of the 2012 Cobalt Review Poetry Prize, and author of the chapbook Low Parish. Steven holds a MFA from the University of Baltimore, where he teaches in the Klein Family School of Communications Design.