By Elton Glaser
The perfect ear, the technique, the great gift
All have come down to this one ghostly phrase. –Donald Justice 1925-2004
In the cab on Poydras Street, after
Your play at the poker table,
A tape rolled out
Some Orpheus of the bottleneck
Testifying to the blues,
I’m a gambler, baby, and then
A high wild run down the frets—
I can’t begin to calculate the odds
Of that tune at that time. . . .
Not your kind of music, but
Your kind of night—
Good food, good booze, good luck.
In town to honor by our words,
And his, that late poet
Who was your student, my teacher,
We took a few spring days for ourselves,
As I led you through
The Quarter and its oyster bars, and down
St. Charles in the green sway of a streetcar,
And to Commander’s patio, where we ate
A long Creole meal that made you sigh.
I’d kept your poems close even before
We met in a California classroom–
Their dry-eyed tenderness of tone,
Their languid, mordant charm, their pang
For a South of lost opportunities
Refined in a minor key.
Once, after a lifetime of taming
The disposition of syllables
In a thousand cranky lines,
You told a friend how your work
Would sift into history:
In the first wave of the second rank.
A man from Miami and its oversalted sea
Should know something about waves. . . .
Here, you stepped aboard the Flamingo,
That floating crap game and house of cards
Docked all day and dark
At the crook of the Mississippi.
For an hour, I watched you
Lay down hand after hand,
Folding the risky pockets in seven stud.
Patience and cool and an eye for
Any edge you could bet—
What did it matter if
The others dropped or raised around you,
You who might spend years
Nudging a stanza towards the finish line?
And at last you locked into
A spread that left nothing
To the loose ends of chance.
Turning the down cards over, you heard
A click off chips
Falling your way, and raked in
The one pot that put you
Far enough ahead to tip the dealer
And pull up all your stakes.
This originally appeared in Dogwood 2008