They said I wasn’t smooth enough
to beat their sharp machine.
That my style was obsolete,
that old rags had lost their gleam
and lunge. That all I had
left was a sucker punch
that couldn’t touch
their invisible piano man
with his wind up gut-
less guts of paper rolls.
And so, I went and told them
that before the night was through
I’d prove what the son of an ex-
slave could do: I dared them
to put on their most twisty
tune. To play it double-time
while I listened from another
room past the traffic sounds
of the avenue below.
To play it only once,
then to let me show
note for note how that scroll
made its roll through Chopin
or Bach or Beethoven’s best.
And if I failed to match my fingers
and ears with the spinning gears
of their invisible pneumatic piano
scholar, I’d pay them the price
of a thousand dollars.
And what was in it for Boone?
you might ask …
Might be the same thing that drives men
through mountains at heart attack pace.
Might be just to prove some tasks
ain’t meant to be neatly played
out on paper and into air,
but rather should tear
out from lung, heart and brain
with a flair of flicked wrists
and sly smile above the 88s …
and, of course, that ever-human
weight of pride that swallows us
when a thing’s done just right …
But they were eager to prove me wrong.
They chose their fastest machine
with their trickiest song and stuck it
in a room far down the hall from me.
They didn’t know how sharp
I can see with these ears of mine—
I caught every note even though
they played it in triple time.
And when I played it back to them
even faster, I could feel the violent
stares … heard one mutter
Lucky black bastard …
and that was my cue to rise,
to take a bow in their smoldering
silence and say, Not luck,
my friend, but the science
of touch and sweat and
stubborn old toil. I’d bet
these ten fingers against any coil
of wire and parchment and pump.
And I left them there to ponder
the wonders of blindness
as I walked out the door
into the heat of the sun.
Tyehimba Jess is the author of two books of poetry, Leadbelly and Olio. Olio won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and the Midland Society Author’s Award in Poetry, and received an Outstanding Contribution to Publishing Citation from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. It was also nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Jean Stein Book Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Leadbelly was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. The Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005.”