1977 and we four were all twenties
in that Pittsburgh dining room: my first wife,
our actress friend who vaulted a path to Broadway,
the friend’s friend, and me. The friend’s friend
played guitar, read music, trained to par.
I was in thrall, and uttered “Joni Mitchell.”
The guitarist shot a geyser: She’s not
a musician! She doesn’t know how to play!
I had no comeback to this abrupt rage,
her green-eyed effort not to yell out loud
at her grandmother’s dinner table.
My eyes shied. I drew back from the envy
embedded just below the surface of someone’s
everyday competence, ready to spring, claws out.
Trouble child. Her outburst soprano
arrowed at the exact blank I carried.
Why does it come as such a shock
to know you really have no one?
aimed right for that denuded space,
fringed in rags flapping fresh
with each failed crush, flunked
I set the needle down
at those grooves again and again.
They didn’t stitch me together:
they pointed me to myself, a self-
confused lover lacking an other half.
But listen. Joni Mitchell
never sang directly to me.
Meaning this: she never let me down.
I never proclaimed that she was peak
when this or when that or when some other.
She didn’t paint a Starry Night twice.
They didn’t teach Elocution in college. They taught
Oral Interpretation: literature out loud, on your feet
with feeling. I was a theater student but it wasn’t acting,
this grandchild of nineteenth-century platform reading.
It was 1973. I craved the chance to set Mitchell’s “Blue”
as a jewel in my song-lyrics final project.
What did I really know
about acid booze and ass/needles guns and grass?
The rhyme described a landscape I feared,
though I could pronounce all her sounds. But at Blue,
I love you – my voice unhinged as I heard her stratosphere
in my head, the heart of it embedded in my throat.
I gave up to sobs as I practiced, alone.
So instead I read “The Last Time I Saw Richard,”
which itself almost collapsed me with
I’m going to blow this damn candle out.
Blow out your candles, Laura never raised a sigh with me,
despite Tennessee Williams’ private tears.
But damn candle, that slicing rhyme,
seized my breath. How I wanted to damn
things back then. Be sure, I still do.
What with stardust, golden, I thought Mitchell
was a born baby boomer like me. But no:
Italy surrendered to the Allies two months
before her first vocal performance,
live out of the womb.
She inched into the world
just ahead of m-m-my generation, nine years
after my mother’s debut as infant Dorothy Helen.
In Summer 2022 – through these waves
of singe, White rage-murder, drought, flood –
she gives her tobacco-smoke alto
to “Summertime.” She’s two years older
than my mother was when an attendant
discovered her, in a nursing home bed,
Damn: in that Louis XIV chair
on the Newport stage, under that black beret,
back of those shades, she stuns
that Gershwin warhorse.
Maybe I’ll survive awhile to put my body up,
lay my cane down, uncage my voice too.