"Lines in Memphis, Tennessee"

A weekly poem, read by the author.
Jan. 18 2011 7:04 AM

"Lines in Memphis, Tennessee"

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Joel Brouwer read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

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Defying the prominent signage, I took
a picture of the flophouse from the balcony
and a picture of the balcony from
the flophouse. School group kids with juice boxes.
Disgusted because I couldn't make it
poignant. A fucking dandelion growing from
a cracked brick wall. A thousand clouds.
The waiter urged me to select my choices
of mini pastries, juices, and hard fruit
from the breakfast bar. A man in the paper
dreamed of building a new house to replace
his old house. That might not seem like news but
here's the twist. He wouldn't tear the old house
down, he'd build the new house up inside
the old one as it crumbled. Engineers
were intrigued. I didn't understand it.
My hotel's shadow brawled with the river's
flexing pewter currents as I photographed
melancholy barges pushing corn or coal.
Swaddling my fancy camera, again ignoring
posted rules, I handed dollar bills to every
homeless guy who asked. Which did I prefer,
dream or mountaintop? I'd seen videos
of each at the museum and I said something
stupid and true: Both choke me up. But I like
best his final speech, for the moment
he finishes the "if I had sneezed" litany,
allows the laughter—it's such a weird,
bathetic passage—then builds a new silence
inside the crumbling old silence: "Now
it doesn't matter now. It really doesn't
matter what happens now." He'd die
the next day. He knew it would be soon.
I'd rushed through most of the museum,
ignoring the old pictures and newspapers.
I thought I knew everything already. Now
now now
. The present a pivot. He keeps
repeating it. "What are you waiting for?"
A girl in a tank top and shimmery orange
athletic shorts bicycled by, talking
to herself or the Bluetooth rig blinking
in her ear, and I thought I knew the other
dream of the man in the newspaper was
to marry the hooker he'd seen every week
for years and have her work for him instead.
Why did I think that? That and "melancholy
barges" and the dandelion? My eye's
not right. The homeless guy recited choice
selections, even mimicking the cadences.
"It's all right to talk about the new
Jerusalem, but one day, God's preachers must
talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta,
the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles,
the new Memphis, Tennessee." I gave him
a twenty and took his picture. In the film,
you can see Dr. King stumble as he takes
his seat, as if something's shoved him.
A shadow or current or choice. The girl
lay in the grass beside her bike, talking
up at the clouds. I took her picture too.

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Joel Brouwer's most recent book is And So. He teaches at the University of Alabama.