Learning Old-Time Banjo
Custodians with rusted keys keep the carved box locked that holds the creak of hickory in the wind or rocking chairs. Whatever came out with the gnats and fireflies on long summer evenings put rotting logs in the air, the smell of Cripple Creek and moonshine and Old Molly Hare's cigar. The twang of rusted strings drifted into sagging porches where God only knows who kissed whose cherry lips over all those years. I drink in moonlight parsed by oak leaves. Once on my way back from the outhouse an owl brushed my face, like some sort of night angel, its low note in minor key. I stood there like a pause between tunes. But then the other insomniac in the house began thumping on his banjo’s skin head. I started in again, clogging in perfect time. All I could think was Time Drawing Near. But the beat was syncopate and I knew my time was not come. Nor is Africa a library catalog with drawers for drumbeats or masks or mystical ancestors. With each downbeat, the keening of the drone. Playing Shoes and Stockings is like drawing taffy from the deep past. Sweet. Say some old man leaves behind the broken bits of his fiddle: pegs and screws, neck, bridge, button and tailpiece, chin rest, side rib, peg box, fingerboard, f-hole, and gut strings, and say the only tune that it could play was Drunken Hiccups. Pluck and knock, pluck and knock and at the end of a long night, the ringing silence.
PRISCILLA LONG is author most recently of Dancing with the Muse in Old Age (Coffeetown, 2022). Her second book of poems, Holy Magic (MoonPath Press), won the Sally Albiso Poetry Book Award. She is a Seattle-based writer of poetry, creative nonfiction, science, history, and fiction, and a long-time independent teacher of writing. Her awards include a National Magazine Award for a science-based feature. Her first book of poems is Crossing Over: Poems (University of New Mexico Press). Her other books are The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writer’s Life (University of New Mexico Press), a collection of memoirist essays, Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (University of Georgia Press), and Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators (Coffeetown). Her first book was Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry. She grew up on a dairy farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Artwork by David Dodd Lee.
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