Billie Holiday Poem
Part I: What Billie Heard
—for Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong
Billie Holiday heard the meat packing industry
and she heard New York.
Billie heard New York weep all the colors of an Alabama sunset.
Billie heard the water rinse across the blades at the slaughterhouse.
Billie heard industry inside that whore house in Harlem
where she listened to the fluids of animals wash through the drain.
A mans voice can stain the skin.
Billie heard the steel factory
in their grunts—their soprano grunts
carried the rhythm of hot metal shredding into liquid.
Billie heard the shipyard
in their moans— their moans crooned
with bass, a symphony
of waves knocking against docks.
She heard the coal mines,
in their thrusts— their thrusts synchronized
the movement of trolley over tracks.
Billie heard the meat packing plant
in their cries—their cries squealed
like rendered fat.
Billie heard broken men,
the sons of immigrants
grandsons of slaves—war on their faces.
Broken from using metal and cement to erect new plantations
Broken from building their own cemeteries
and calling it America.
The factory smoke, a gust of dreadful song
cycling through their dark eyes.
Broken men break things.
She was thirteen, Billies ears were breaking.
Her legs— crutches for men on a death march.
One night, near the window she heard
Louis Armstrong spilling across a crowded street.
She listened to him shape darkness into sunlight,
she heard New Orleans and the songs of ghosts living in trees,
Billie heard a trumpet untie noose knots.
Billie heard the cotton thorns in Louie’s throat.
Billie heard his voice paint Atlantic blues
and gorgeous greens,
She heard his voice paint bruise-neck-purples
and sunlight yellows.
Billie heard it say, “easy girl”
Billie heard love.
Billie heard a trumpet.
Billie heard something like love.
Billie heard something like a trumpet.
Billie heard love inside a trumpet.
Billie heard Louie.