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Vol. 24, No. 3: Music & Protest

The Rime of Nina Simone

by Tiana Clark


How a Slave Ship was driven by capitalism and racism inside the triangle of the transatlantic slave trade; and of the strange things that befell; and in what manner Nina Simone came back from the dead to her own Country to stop a graduate student on the way to workshop.

* * *

I didn’t recognize her at first,
but felt urgency inside her glittering
eyes—grotesque and morganite,
melting blooms. Her skin, stabbed

with hammered copper, afro nimbus,
the luminous gaze, an X-ray swishing
at my skin with metronomic waves.
Timeworn but regal, her spine

made of satin and salt, her bolted
black back clutching every battle-born
ballad: a lone column of glissandos
and thunder snow, booming and bright.

                                   Come here, she says.

Sorry, I can’t—I’m late. I’m—

                                   I need to tell you something        about yourself

                                   Listen, little girl:

                                   For every pain
                                   there is a longer                  song

                                             The body pours

                                                                                 its own music

                                                              I wanted
                                                              to play Bach
                                                              and Beethoven
                                                              for endless encores. But

                                   they wouldn’t let me
                                   and they won’t let you

* * *

The art of tamping—espresso—folding dark meadows inside
                    my throat: fluttering uvula, lone pink hibiscus in praise.

                                                                           I unbuckled my trauma
                                                                           one note at a time
                                One note at a time
                                                                           I un-buck-led
                                                                           my trauma.

                    Woke up
                    drenched in cold sweat
                    and furiously
                    tried to remember
                    my only dream:


                    playing a Bach
                    cantata at Carnegie Hall


                    the audience would
                    shut up and listen

                    in the way
                    I needed them to listen            to me

                    All                                      quiet
                    as fresh snow muffling
                    early morning trees,
                    a hushing frost
                    on the meadow sparkling
                    with untracked fondant.

                    But it never happened. They only
                    wanted cocktail jazz, folk, and blues,

                    for me to bleed negro, a signifyin(g)
                    monkey from my classical piano.

                    They only wanted that Swing low,
                    Sweet chariot strain, but I smashed it all

                    together anyway, making and breaking
                    forms on the bridge between my foice

                    and finger play. My vinyl sorrow spinning,
                    spinning the grind against cuspate needle.

                    My records swarthy as the beloved skin
                    of Cain, bitten. I silenced the audience

                    with one                 long                glare

   She pauses to show me her famous Midtown stare.

                    Like a ghost ship, I wandered from stages to states
                    and countries and colleges, concert after concert.

                            I unglued
                                           in hotel mirrors
                                           until I disappeared
                                           visions of laser beams
                                           and skin, always skin
                                           sliced with heaven,
                                           lingering scent
                                           of a burnt-out
                                           the weirdness.

                    They said my blue note
                    baritone could find the tiniest sack

                                                                                    of unsent tears         inside
                                                                                    anybody. Any           body.

                    Called me Black Bitch: Diva. Demanding. Difficult.
                    Depressed. Genius. Monster.

   They don’t call me that here. Well, not to my face.
   I can write about anything I want. I think. Here . . .
   here are the dead bodies and bullets in my work.
   Here are the four little girls, I say as I hold up my poems.

            Look, if you can write about anything                  you want,
                           Then write. About. Anything.                You want.
                           Why do you keep panting & hunting     black hurt,
                           black scars like a slave-breaker?                 Why scratch
                           the white page, a master,                             for old blood?
                           Like a god, you are                                        so thirsty,
                           hell-bent on carving beauty                       from dead bodies
                           from sacrifice                                                  on the altar.


I listen to the trees
humming through the Poplar leaves

and Southern magnolias. Bloated faces,
these beauteous forms, still swinging,

limp pendulum, waxy bleach-white blooms,
egg whites inside hardboiled eyes

sway and rock, roll forward, fragrant.
I’m ready to find the ruined churches.

I have a second stomach now. Now
I can look at my dead          and listen.

Listen, I’m transcribing the soaked,
splattered leaves—

                            You sound so tired, my darling . . .
                                                                                             You weary yet?
                            she whispers in my ear, of creating and fighting . . .
                            can you stay a dog chained
                            barking at every threat, out of breath
                            in the darkness—and the darkness
                            is always you—panting for more food
                            to get published, for what? This?

Yes. This:
I need to be here—in the workshop.
I must look them in the face
and tell them when their words
and worlds are making me uncomfortable.
Tell them my body is real—not imagined,
not a prop or sieve or a literary device. 

I must tell them that I. Am. Here. You cannot
write around me. The periphery is also mine.
I’m not afraid to take up the space I need to survive.
I’m not afraid to write what I need to survive.

                       Mmmmm . . . write what you need, ha!
                       Be careful now. They might snatch that money back real quick
                                                     when you start talking revolutionary—
                                                     what’s your compulsion?

The Slave Ship :: war machine.
Robert Hayden’s Jesus     Saviour     Pilot     Me.

I can’t talk about the trees
without the blood.

Tiana Clark is the author of I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018) and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016). Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from the New YorkerKenyon ReviewAmerican Poetry ReviewNew England Review, and elsewhere. A shortened version of “The Rime of Nina Simone” first appeared in the Music & Protest Issue (Fall 2019).

Illustration by Natalie Nelson

Editor’s Note: “The Rime of Nina Simone” is excerpted from a poem of the same name in I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, by Tiana Clark, © 2018. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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