Runner-up 2017 Prime Number Magazine Award for Poetry
Judged by Rebecca Foust
Followed by Bio and Q&A
Howlin’ Wolf at the Fillmore East, June 7, 1968
(for Robert Palmer, 1945 – 1997)
Three songs into the set and the Wolf—
sober-suited as an undertaker—is still sitting
on a hard-backed chair center stage,
one huge hand cupping the harp to his mouth
as if he’s going to snack on it, one benchmade
size-16 rising and falling like a drop hammer,
his belly-deep growl pleading and threatening,
the corded tendons and veins bulging in his neck
as if each word were a stump that has to be winched
out of the earth; the grunts and falsetto moans
that cap the verses, part field holler,
part freight train: wooo, wooo, wooo.
By now the mostly white audience is mostly
on its feet, almost clapping on the beat,
while the Wolf stalks across the stage, shrugging
and rolling his shoulders like a heavyweight,
dropping to all fours and throwing his head back
on the last chorus of “Howling for My Darling,”
while Willie Dixon leans into his standup bass
and Hubert Sumlin slashes out a solo on guitar
that’s all bite and sting. The Wolf’s back
in his chair, trying to ease his kidneys
without letting the audience see: 300 shows
a year, a decade or so on the chitlin’ circuit
grinding out 10,000 miles per, bucking
and bouncing between Indianapolis and Cairo,
Shreveport and St. Pete in a pre-war Pontiac bus
whose shocks were gone by V-E Day,
and it’s no wonder his kidneys throb and ache.
They’ll kill him in a few years, despite
his ferocious will, his cutting back to six songs a set,
the dialysis machine rolled into the studio
for his last sessions. The band snakes into a slow-drag
version of “Smokestack Lightnin’,” the Wolf pointing
deep into the auditorium, the horn section rocking
side to side, and now—50 years after the club date—
I start to hear what’s been there all along:
not the flatted thirds and fifths the jazzers borrowed
to build a language, but the steady, bone-jolting work
that goes into art.
~ ~ ~
Aaron Fischer is an online editor for a politics and public policy website. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Blue Lyra, The Chaffin Journal, Hudson Review, Redactions, Stonecoast, and Sow’s Ear. His chapbook, “Black Stars of Blood: The Weegee Poems,” will be published by Main Street Rag in the spring. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Writing about music gives me a way to not write about myself.
What is your favorite dietary pleasure?
I think food is my favorite food, with all the attendant issues. Easier to mention what I don’t like: Cream of Wheat, which my father ate every morning. Draw your own conclusions.
You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?
Debbie. We need to a cosmos with a human face.
Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?
All. I’m glad to be above the ground.