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Sean Murphy

Henry Chinaski's Horses

He couldn’t face the words, he wrote,
until he made it back from the track.

For a man famous for his refusal
to use metaphors, telling it straight like a tire iron,
this one kind of crept up on him, like they do.

Sort of the way the so-called real world punches suckers.

But perhaps that’s still too affected by half, since
the only thing, we know, worse than too little
Truth is too much of the same old shit.

Anyhow, Hank had his horses and his handicaps,
like all of us, no matter what we tell ourselves.
Whether it’s humping a desk or hustling the Morning Line,
or finding other ways to avoid assenting to work
altogether, we all need patterns and schemes.

Because by regulating our routines, they free up aspects
of ourselves—otherwise unengaged, like our dreams and

Or else we’re out of time, out of our minds.

So Hank had his horses and they told him who he was
on any given day: a winner, a loser, a player—and blinkered
or busted or flush, he returned to his humble post position and
that typewriter, waiting for him and placing its own bets:

Was the master in form? Pulling up lame? Wielding his whip?
Could he coax them through the muck, past the front of the pack?
Ending with the ultimate trifecta: booze and women and words.

(Then pause for a money shot, parading past the Winner’s Circle.)

Success is a salve that quenches a cultivated kind of thirst, and
what matters, finally, isn’t how you walk through the fire, but
the resolve to put your feet forward in the first place,
urging all those ideas to sneak up like solved secrets:

Reminders that even Long-Shots need somewhere to go,

Some way to live.

*gratitude to JMWW for publishing this poem

Billie Holiday’s Deathbed

(On May 31, 1959—as she lay dying at the Metropolitan Hospital in New York, aged 44—Billie Holiday was arrested, handcuffed, and put under police guard for possession of narcotics.)

This busy bee, at the end of a life like clockwork,

a symphony of service to everything but herself—

wings snatched in a world blinded by the way it is—

slowly expiring in the sweet nectar of stillness, stung

with bittersweet poison, an alchemy of blinded faith.

And even this they could not abide.

Their white-hot burden, unappeasable,

like anti-gravity drawing light inside

its sense of self: righteous, obdurate,

enfeebled from all their inherited fears.

Who are these men that know nothing

about the blues? Inspiring jinxed history

with officious ink—corrections bled red

outside the margins, ignored or overcome—

their shared voice, warning: Be more like me.

Or worse still, stay separate, apart, unheard;

entitled or at least allowed to live: strange fruit

that rots inside dark spaces, or gets torn down

from trees, weeping their weary psalms of silence,

caustic smoke signals blown from burning crosses.

What do they know about beauty, their hatred the only thing

honest about them? What do they know about the helpless

ones: helpless for song, helpless for love, helpless for a fix,

helpless for joy, helpless for hope? God bless the child that

backward men would scorn, ignore, or erase—if they could.

*gratitude to The Decolonial Passage for publishing this poem

Both of these poems appear in Murphy's collection The Blackened Blues.


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