Art by Rodney Ewing
(Louis Armstrong had a livelong obsession with laxatives. He took Swiss Kriss daily for the last three decades of his life.)
To lunch with my African skinfolk, I pull up
an Ashanti stool beside Gold Coast
Prime Minister Nkrumah and his kente-
clothed cabinet. “Mr. Minister you’re still
under the thumb of a foreign power. Think
of the British as bacteria colonizing your belly.
This packet, this European Eureka—with anise
caraway and peppermint oil—this Swiss-Kriss
will help your intestines gain their independence.
Passing gas will be like passing laws: a bit funky
at first, but trust me it’ll help clean out all of Accra’s corruption.
An Honest Airplane
(Tuskegee Airman Harry Stewart, Jr. training with the North American Aviation AT-6)
This was look right/fly right honesty. man-
ipulated honesty; unwanted instrument
honesty; wanton honesty; this was
churning, idiosyncratic honesty;
ornery honesty at attention. smack-
dab honesty—the kind that could
make you or made you or break you
and braid you; this was quicksilver
unwavering honesty, cockpit honest,
alluring wing-witty fuselage truth.
Personality type-A (for air) honesty.
The heavenly threshold of honesty; buck-
toothed honesty; this was unmonitored goggle
honesty; this was more honesty than honesty
could handle. This was honest to goodness and
honest to badness. This was some cool down Papa
honesty. Lone Star North Star honesty. Straighten
up and fly right honesty. This was cylinder after
cylinder of honesty. (Nine to be exact.) This was
horse-powered honesty, advanced and intermediate
honesty. air-cooled peculiar honesty. This
was controlled honesty on the Ides of March.
This was open wide and say ahhhh-
After Tuskegee Airman Harry Stewart and A. Van Jordan’s definition form in his book Macnolia)
Element (elementum) n 1 a: any of the 4 substances air, water, fire and earth formerly believed to compose the physical universe.
Airborne: as in Harry was born for the air but sauntered on Earth to go through Tuskegee’s baptism by black fire
b: pl weather conditions esp: violent or severe weather (battling the ~) c: the state or sphere natural or suited. 2 a person or thing (at school she was in her element)
b: as in the violence of splintered but equal as in the severity of wind and pigment, as in battling the biases, the elements
c: the state or sphere natural or suited to a person or thing (at school she was in her element)
as in Harry was in a chocolate cockpit:: a blue womb::
2: a constituent part (component)
As in Harry was as much a component of his Little Coquette as that plane’s stick and rudder
a pl: the simplest principles of a subject of study: RUDIMENTS (a basic principle or element or fundamental skill)
as in Harry traveled to Tuskegee to learn the ABCs of air, as in as basic as basic training
as in simple: Harry’s blood: spit-shined to fly
b (1): a part of a geometric magnitude (an infinitesimal ~(element) of volume
the sheer magnitude of the Tuskegee Airmen, the magnitude of Negroes going head-to-head
with the heavens
(2): a generator of a geometric figure: also a line or line segment contained in the surface of a cone or cylinder
As in, in part Harry was the quotient of what hate generated: a triangle trade: a trade
a triangle; dark geometry. obtuse angles…
as in a white line stitched in black sand, as in a granular, segregated surface
(3): a basic member of a mathematical or logical class or set
As in Harry’s training was a byproduct of the white man’s logic. Just down the line
the Mason-Dixie line. A clipped class: Harry sauteed by second-class status
(4): one of the individual entries in a mathematical matrix or determinant
As in Harry:: an individual, a Negro entering an imposed formula. Bigotry:: math
that doesn’t add up on either side of a mind’s folded coasts.
(An element that identifies or determines the nature of something)
As in this southern system has identified Harry’s without with not a soupcon’s concern for his within
C: one of a number of distinct groups composing a larger group or community (the criminal~in the city)
As in a northern Negro in the deep South. As in we’re all sapient, legged sapiens. No?
D (1) one of the necessary data or values on which calculations or conclusions are based
What conclusion should Harry come to when a dream is sifted through Dixie? Dark forgotten data. Mark time. The calculated calculations keep you in your place. (your position as a nigra—a uh digit—within a numeral: one’s place, ten’s place. Absurd, third grade math) Race theory? How to make the air understand? (Outside of math class) what is one’s place?
(2): one of the factors determining the outcome of a process (one that actively contributes to the production of a result)
You get out of something what you put into it. You get into something how you put up with it.
But in America blackness. (to be). Factored. (not to be). Multiplied. Harry knew: color and its woolly contribution to how people decorate you.
e: any of more than 100 fundamental substances that consist of atoms of only one kind and that singly or in combination constitute all matter
Periodically, there’s a break. Periodically, there’s a from; periodically, there’s a pain. Periodically, there’s also a maple table Harry sits at in his heart. Often, on a test, 100 the best score you can land. But for Harry life posed different tests. Segregation: a diaphanous exam. Bigotry’s elemental substance: a cerulean crucible for a man who only wants to integrate
and understand air. As in, can you see race on an atomic level? Indivisible. with liberty. Indivisible. its particles. Can materialism parse a grimace, a country’s cayenne? As in compose a system, a symphony of separates, a stammering chocolate sonata. Composed of three or four movements (some of which Harry and America had not yet reached: Civil Rights.) There’d been Reconstruction, then that other Civil: the War (the ruckus between the stakes); there’d been amendments (three in fact). But for Negroes, this movement: andante. Unerringly
As in a Tuskegee slur could make Harry feel subatomic, one fourth of a sable quark. As in
he would not venture into town where he might only be made to feel out of his element in
the elements. Alone at the dime and five, a small, dark particle where atoms ovulate. As in, in Harry there was dripping potential; as in, he was sunlight’s pus. As in what of atomism? As in this world we enter and interrupt is a congested manifesto, an invisible indivisible, a minuscule. A “the” and all a “the” entails
f: a distinct part of a composite device g: a subdivision of a military unit 3 pl: the bread and wine used in the Eucharist (spiritual communion with G-d)—a Christian sacrament in which consecrated bread and wine are consumed as memorials of Christ’s death or as symbols
for the realization of a spiritual union between Christ and communicant
As in Harry’s aerofoil: a distinct part, as in Harry and all the airmen: a singular part of the U.S. Army Air Corp
As in having never heard the word element deployed like this, we hover/arrive/hover, ultimately, over the denotation closest to Harry (2G: a military unit’s subdivision) as in Harry, the airmen, were considered a subclass, a unique unit, the inaugural Negroes fondling the air. not their feet swaying. not a poplar irked by a dark dangle. Here the penultimate definition: the ramshackle back of a dictionary’s stunned, troubling bus
(The Tuskegee Airmen training at HBCU Tuskegee University, 1940s)
When uniforms saturate a university
trainees home in on close—to—adult
ABCs, focus on reshaping the makings
of Booker T. During class, cadets’ eyes
drip dry light on the pages suck
up much more than the nothing they
poured out. Eyes at cruising altitude.
This learning: a higher type. Yet
black bumpkins don’t have
brains, just dark corridors from brow
to nape. Dogma. debunk. Debunk
dogma: a black lab should sit on
its hindquarters—“sit boy”—cause the notion
of conjurin’ a black squadron: blunt force
trauma to the South’s noggin; internal
bleeding in the country’s farther reaches.
Yet here at the house that Booker built
a chocolate operation blossomed. Here
in the house that Booker built who could have
imagined the first syllable of Washington’s first
name—the thing he hoped his students would
spend half their outsized hours buried in—
would one day include pupils who wanted
to notch the uncalculated edges of the sky.
Harry had enlisted in Washington’s initial
syllable, because he’d come here to dream
and debunk. He’d come here to unleash
to collar the dogma, to teach its commands
commands: here (white) boy. Here. sit. kneel.
Be fair. be reasonable. Be just. For once. Just.
1. Swiss-Kriss Opening Number
(Armstrong had a livelong obsession with laxatives. He took Swiss Kriss daily for the last three decades of his life.)
My laxative jones started young: three
bottles of Pluto Water daily. Years later
laid some of that French Lick, high-mineral
stuff on my band. Marty Napoleon sipped
and was grateful he had the day off. Then
my dear Lucille hipped me to Swiss Kriss—
a laxative from Zurich called to mind
the leaves my physic-minded mother
would pick down by the tracks. Gayelord
Hauser, self-proclaimed food scientist—a minus
as far as medical credentials go—invented this
concoction of dandelion, strawberry and peach.
I bought and took a tablespoonful: my
butt sounded like a sitting ovation, had to
crawl back to bed. (I was hooked.) Double-
doses nightly; come morning, bomber on my lips,
I’m on my throne, getting high while my behind’s
leaving it all behind. I become a lifelong convert
a walking endorsement for this butt-wonder drug.
Ol’ pal Joey Bushkin played a one-night stand
with my one-nighter band. Gave him a packet.
He might’ve thought it was marijuana cause
senna calls to mind sun-dried tea leaves. He
smoked it. Struck me as a kind of herbal adultery.
Either way his butt improvised on a toilet for two
days straight: it all nearly ended right there at his
rear end, everything came to a head from his tail.
Before and after—Before
hot jazz could probably end the cold war
—Louis Armstrong, 1955
After our set at the Boom-Boom Room
after the opening-night audience clamored
for “Mack the Knife.” All I could say was
“Come back tomorrow. We’ll lay it on you.”
But this was an artistic emergency: cause I
didn’t have the sheet music. Zippity. I ushered
the All-Stars around the Floating Staircase
to the Chez Bon-Bon where has-beens’ schnozzes
drifted over cups of Black Velvet coffee.
I got a month of coins in one pocket a brick
of sheet music in my teeth. Brecht might have
only needed three pennies to write an opera;
but I needed 50 dimes to combobulate a pop
hit. (My valet Doc Pugh lost the arrangement.
Twice.) So, we could transcribe that commercified
murder melody, Trummy, Hall, Squire, Kyle
Deems and me huddled ’round the coffee
shop jukebox as if it were a college quarter
back who had to keep repeating the same damn
play. My gatormouth face facing me in the box’s
mirrored display and behind the juke’s glass
(pleated like a Spanish-hand fan) nothing
but hits from the hit parade. I’m worried
a Flamenco dancer might leap stomping
and waving from that box. Spotted “Mack’s”
green octagon sticker, the Coronet record
label. Dropped a dime in the slot, punched
the “E” then the “5.” “Oh, the shark has...”
Dotted quarter eighth, three halves. Glare
of the night’s footlights still needling
my eyes. Drop a dime in the juke “Pretty
teeth dear:” ditto dotted to halves. Each
All-Star copying his part. Drop a dime
in the box. “And he shows them pearly
white.” Ditto that last ditto then add
a dotted quarter, eighth whole and a half.
For starters: my voice had four measures
of rest. Drop a dime in the slot. “Just
a jackknife has Macheath dear.” Dotted
quarter eighth, three halves dittoed. Errol Garner
refused the tune saying it was just the same
eight bars over and over: “cheeky pop.”
But I smiled when I heard the score.
Drop a dime in the juke. “And he keeps it
out of sight.” Dotted quarter, eighth, three
halves, two quarters, a whole and a half. Drop
a dime in the box. I recorded it because I marinated
with cats like Mack back in the Big Easy.
They’d stick a knife in you fast as say hello.
“When the shark bites with his teeth, dear.”
Double ditto the dotted quarters to halves.
Drop a dime in the slot. We nothing but ink
and ears as the needle circles them wax
grooves so when we decorate the stage
tomorrow night our upright groove will be
tight. “Scarlet billows start to spread.” Halve
the dotted quarter to halves in half and add
a dotted quarter, eighth, a whole and a half
of High-fidelity vinyl. Drop a dime in the juke.
Some point Trummy’s imbibing eggnog bonbons.
“Fancy gloves though wears MacHeath dear.”
Dotted quarter, eighth, three halves. doubled. Drop
a dime in the box. Funny listening to my gut
bucket gravel—its pleated gusto—over
and over. Like I was listening to someone
else then someone else overdubbing
my singing with a trumpet obbligato.
“So, there’s not a trace of red.”
Dotted quarter, eighth, three halves;
two quarters a whole and a half.
Leaning against the juke’s marbly
plastic columns, drop a dime in
the slot. “On the sidewalk, Sunday
mornin’.” Dotted quarter, eighth
and three halves: dittoed. Drop a dime
in the juke. “Lies a body, oozin’ life.”
Ditto the last (ditto) as is. Drop a dime
in the box. Loosened my black bow
tie—wish Fontainebleau would loosen
its split Nigras check-in. “Some
one sneakin’ ’round the corner.” Ditto
the last ditto as it is. Drop a dime in
the slot. “Is the someone, Mack the Knife?”
Ibid the last ditto in half, plus two
quarters, a whole and a half. Drop
a dime in the juke, “From a tugboat,
by the river.” Dotted quarter, eighth,
three halves; ditto it. The Seeburg
juke’s chrome and glass tubes, its teal
and peach waves and circles wamble as
the record’s playin’. Drop a dime
in the box. “A cement bag’s droopin’
down.” Half the last ditto then add
a dotted quarter, eighth, a whole and a half.
Drop a dime in the slot. “The cement’s
just for the weight, dear.” Double ditto
the last dotted eighths to halves; drop
a dime in the juke. “Bet you Mack,
he’s back in town.” Ditto needs a breather:
dotted quarter, eighth, three halves;
two quarters, a whole and a half. Drop
a dime in the box; drop a dime in
the slot; drop a dime in the juke. Done.
My pockets shed five pounds. Half of
us had to catch a cab to Overtown’s
Calverton Hotel. (We could gig
but not snooze on the gold coast.)
In the jitney, I’m thinking, we
couldn’t keep our eyes off that arm—
with a penny on top and a needle
attached to it. See, if a record was
heroin, we’d just spent hours shooting
up a song.
David Mills holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and NYU. He has published four collections: Boneyarn, The Dream Detective, The Sudden Country, and After Mistic. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Brooklyn Rail, Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, Jubilat, Callaloo, the Common, Worcester Review, Taint Taint Taint, Rattapallax, and Fence. He has received fellowships from NYFA, Breadloaf, the Lannan Foundation, the Queens Council on the Arts, the Bronx Council on the Arts, Washington College, the American Antiquarian Society, and a Flushing Town Hall Grant. He lived in Langston Hughes’s landmark home and was a recipient of the Langston Hughes Society Award. He wrote the audio script for the Whitney Museum exhibition Reflections in Black:100 Years of Black Photography. The Juilliard School of Drama commissioned his play The Serpent and the Dove. He has recorded his poetry on ESPN and RCA Records, and had a poem displayed at the Venice Biennale.
Rodney Ewing (b. 1964, Baton Rouge) received a BFA from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, and an MFA from West Virginia University. Ewing is a grantee of the San Francisco Art Commission Individual Artist Grant (2016-2020). His multi-media works that re-examine human history, cultural conditions, and trauma, have been included in numerous group and solo exhibitions, including at the University of San Francisco, at Rena Bransten Gallery, the Museum of the African Diaspora, the Museum of Modern Art (all in San Francisco); Jack Shainman Gallery, NY; and The Drawing Center, NY.