The Hoodoo Honky Tonk

The Hoodoo Honkey Tonk

for Stev Jam*

Taking the backroads from Allendale
to Statesboro, I spotted
a hand painted road sign that read

“Hoodoo Honky Tonk two miles ahead.”

Beneath it, nailed to the same post,
a smaller sign, with two words:

Cold Beer.

It was just now getting dark.
I was about halfway there.
Hey, why not? A couple of beers
might do me good, so I
slowed down so not to hurtle
past and have to turn back around.

There it was, just ahead,
on the right, a tar paper
shack with a rolling sign up front,
a couple of letters missing:
Ho Doo Honk Tonk.

The door was propped open
with a brick and a window
with a lit-up Bud Lite sign.

Dark inside, a roughhewn bar
in the back. Against a wall sat
a conked-out jukebox you could tell
quit working a good whiles back.

One customer on a stool.
A fat boy behind the bar.
The customer a woman
facing out. Couldn’t
of weighed more than eighty pounds.
Something bad wrong
with her, late-stage cancer
I would guess.

“Hello, stranger,” she said.

Her voice – how to describe
her voice? – imagine two sheets
of sandpaper soaked in ‘shine
scarping against one another
rasping raspier than a rasp.

She wore an Atlanta Braves cap,
her stringy grey hair pulled back
into a ponytail, a fashion faux pas
cause you could see her jug ears
sticking out like a satellite dish.

“Good evening, Ma’am,” I said.

“All we gots is beer.
Pabst, Bud Lite, Miller, Miller Lite,
and Schlitz Malt Liquor in a can.”

“A Bud,” I said, “that sounds alright.”

“Lonnie” she rasped, “get this gentleman a Bud.”

“I ain’t deaf.” he snarled.

“You own the place?’ I asked.

“Yep, but not for long. Doc says I got days left,
a week or two at the longest.”

Damn, what do you say to that?

“Damn, sorry to hear,” I said.

“Look, Mister. I need a favor, a huge one.
I wouldn’t ask if
I wasn’t desperate.”

“Oh shit,” I thought, “stopping here was a mistake.”
I could see now she was all drugged out
or drunk or both.

“I need you to make love to me,
a man to make love to me
one last time, to remember
what it feels like. Ain’t no one
come in here no more. I ain’t got
to kin, no friends, just Lonnie
over there who is as sick and tired of me
as I am of him.”

Damn, what do you say to that?

“Um, I wish I could, could accommodate you,
but I have this fiancée. (A better lie
would have been that I was gay,
but I’ve never been too good
at thinking on my feet).

She sort of snarled a smile.
“It would be a saintly act,
but I understand.”

In the long silence,
a couple of trucks swooshed past.

“How much do I owe you,” I asked.

“On the house, baby doll. Money don’t
mean nothing to me no more.
Nothing means nothing
to me no more. No friends,
no kin. In a year my memory
will disappear, nobody will
remember that once I was a pretty
good looking redheaded gal.
No trace of me left.
Nobody will remember me.”

“Wait, a minute,” I said.
“I’m a writer who sometimes
gets shit published. I could write
this story, and in the story
make love to you, pick you up
and carry you like a child
to that trailer across the road.
People would read the story
for years maybe. You’d be
remembered.”

She looked at me long and hard.

“Fuck you,” she said.
“It’s time for you to run along.”

So, I left but halfway wished
I’d given it a try.

“A saintly act” she had said.


  • I.e., the blues guitarist Steve James

In Memory of Seamus Heaney

When you get to be my age, i.e., the ol’ “three score and ten” of Psalm 90, the years can seem like a blur, so when I opened Facebook this morning, I was surprised that already nine years have passed since the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s death at 74. Although it is commonplace now to hear somebody call 70-something sort young for death, Heaney’s mortal dress was more than a little tattered – he looked frail, every bit of three score and fourteen – and it appears that a mere fall did him in. 

among school children

I first became enamored with Heaney in 1978.  Ashley Brown, a former professor, invited me to dinner at his house on Barnwell Street not long after he had garnered a bit of fame for appearing frequently in The Habit of Being, a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters.  It was a memorable evening with Dr. Brown as he hauled out personal photographs of him and O’Connor and also of his dear friend Elizabeth Bishop, whom he had brought to South Carolina for a reading when I was still in graduate school.[1]  During the evening, he asked me if I had heard of Heaney, and when I admitted I hadn’t, he whipped out a couple of poems, so as soon as I returned to Charleston, I purchased Heaney’s second collection, A Door into the Dark.

Of course, the 60’s were the decade of confessional poets like Plath and Lowell, poets whom my teacher James Dickey once referred to in class as “scab pickers,” poets who more often than not wrote in free verse and who demanded from the reader – at least in Lowell’s case – the patience to unravel seemingly random associations, many of which pertained to his private life.[2]  

Heaney’s verse was different – musical, earthy – its subject matter a mixture of the mundane and the political strife of Northern Ireland.   Here he is in “The Outlaw” describing in loose iambic couplets a bull mating with a cow:

Unhurried as an old steam engine shunting.

He circled, snored, and nosed. No hectic panting,

Just the unfussy ease of a good tradesman;

Then an awkward unexpected jump, and

His knobbled forelegs straddling her flank,

He slammed life home, impassive as a tank.

Dropping off like a tipped-up load of sand.

“She‟ll do,‟ said Kelly and tapped his ash-plant

Across her hindquarters. “If not, bring her back.‟

I walked ahead of her, the rope now slack

While Kelly whooped and prodded his outlaw

Who, in his own time, resumed the dark, the straw.

Heaney, standing, fourth from the left

Many of his poems deal with childhood experiences on the family farm right outside of Castledawson in County Londonderry.  Here’s a segment from the title poem of his first collection, “The Death of a Naturalist”:

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Of course, Yeats is the standard for any Irish poet and an impossible one at that, but it’s certain that Heaney was the greatest Irish poet since Yeats and one who belongs in the same pantheon with the postwar English master Philip Larkin. Heaney is one of the four Irishmen to receive a Nobel prize in literature along with Yeats, Shaw, and Beckett – rare company indeed.   His loss is a great one for poetry and for Ireland – for all of us really – but old men are destined to die as Yeats reminds us on his very tombstone.  

Nevertheless, like his hero Beowulf, Heaney will live on in his verse.

Personal Helicon

for Michael Longley

As a child, they could not keep me from wells 

And old pumps with buckets and windlasses. 

I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells 

Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss. 

***

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top. 

I savoured the rich crash when a bucket 

Plummeted down at the end of a rope. 

So deep you saw no reflection in it. 

***

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch 

Fructified like any aquarium. 

When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch 

A white face hovered over the bottom. 

***

Others had echoes, gave back your own call 

With a clean new music in it. And one 

Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall 

Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection. 

***

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime, 

To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring 

Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme 

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.


[1] Brown had also in his youth visited Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, so being in Brown’s presence put me a mere two degrees of separation from my heroes Joyce, Eliot, and Hemingway. You can read about Elizabeth Bishop’s visit to USC HERE.

[2] I witnessed a dual reading featuring Dickey and Lowell in 1974. Afterwards, I learned that Lowell detested Dickey, so there’s that.

Ain’t Got You

A aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, so what shall I do with this absurdity, O Heart, O Troubled heart, decrepit age that has been tied to me as to a dog’s tail? What am I gonna do? Make a fool out of myself, that’s what. Here’s exhibit A. The Old Scarecrow Boogie.

Ain’t Got You

I’m sixty-five, got cataracts,
Hump-forming on my back,
A candidate for a heart attack,
But I ain’t got you . . .

Got nurses to the left of me,
Nurses to the right of me,
Nurses all around me,
But I ain’t got you.

Got a wheelchair, a walk-in tub,
Teeth ground down into little nubs,
Got a membership to the Rotary Club
And you lookin’ good in your hot pink scrubs!

Got a closet full of robes,
And no matter where I go
Got hair in my nose.
But I ain’t got you.

But I ain’t got you.
No, I ain’t got you.

The Folly of Living on Folly

art by Wesley Moore

The Folly of Living on Folly

With apologies to DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin[1]

Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined.

Tennyson, “The Lotos-eaters”

Summertime,
And the living is queasy,
Traffic’s stalled,
And the rent’s sky high.
Our landlord’s rich
And constantly bitching,
So, c’mon, sweet baby,
Let’s stiff the bitch and fly.

Up ‘26,
there’s the hipster haven of Ashville
with its majestic mountains
‘neath a blue Carolina sky.
But come to think of it,
We’re pretty awful lazy.
So, never mind, sweet baby,
We’ll stay right here and get high.


[1] Gershwin wrote the song “Summertime” on Folly Beach.

For Caroline, on Her Birthday

Caroline Tigner Moore

Although she doesn’t publish, my wife Caroline Tigner Moore is an elegant, accomplished poet, one who embraces Archibald MacLeish’s dicta in “Ars Poetica.” MacLeish argues that poems should embody abstractions in images rather than merely stating themes.

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

Archibald MacLeish from “Ars Poetica”

Caroline is a craftsperson, one who eliminates every extraneous word so that her final product is imbued with meaning.

For example, check this link out.

She prefers fixed forms, villanelles, sonnets, even limericks.

So perhaps foolishly, I have attempted to channel her methodology in a sonnet celebrating her birthday.

For Caroline, on Her Birthday

Modern poets eschew silken sonnets,
consider them passe, clichéd, old hat –
like antiquated Easter bonnets –
but Caroline Moore doesn’t buy into that.

When she puts her pen to paper, she seeks
to frame her words within a fitting form,
to render vaporous thoughts concrete,
even as they billow, swirl, and swarm

inside her head ¬– sonnets, villanelles –
fixed forms that demand strict cohesion,
apt rhymes and rhythmic syllables
befitting terrain and season.

Oh, how she has rejuvenated my life,
My discerning poet, my word-wielding wife!

Happy Birthday, my love!

Happy Birthday, my love!

Sonnet-ish: “What Can I Do, Dad?” “Nothing, Son”

Richard Tuschman, Pink Bedroom (Still Life at Night)

“Sonnet-ish: What Can I do, Dad?” “Nothing, son.”

He quit watching the news, quit his book club,
quit shaving. Let the subscriptions lapse.

Sleep became a hum, dreams dubbed
like foreign films, the phlegmy rasp
of his breathing a cause of concern
not broached by Mama or me.
He did trudge off to lecture
until the dean dismissed him.

Near the end he called out from his bed
Mama was out running errands. “Yes sir?”
I said, cracking open the door. “Sleep, I need to sleep.”
I was fifteen. “My dreams,” he said,
“all take place in this room, ghosts,
floating above the bed, gossipy whisperers.”

Wintry Mix

Here’s a brief video of me reading “Wintry Mix” at the George Fox’s Singer/Songwriter Soap Box at Chico Feo on 31 January 2022. The poem is printed below.

Wintry Mix

I’m not a fan of the wan light of winter, the weakening light of day, the marrow-penetrating 
wind off the river, the fallen leaves’ decay. 

I’m not a fan of hypocrisy, the politician’s flipflop, the post hoc ergo propter hoc array of fallacious thinking I hear every day.

I’m not a fan of fantasy, ogres, princesses, dragons, flying carpets defying gravity, flagons containing elixirs, mages with conical caps, sages holed up in caves.

I am a fan of poetry, though, even the darkest of wintery verse, Dylan Thomas’s father’s curse, John Keats’s death lament – that shiny black hearse in reverse.

The Freedom to Offend

The Freedom to Offend

“Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.” ― Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“[. . .] and above it the mouthing of orators,
the arse-belching of preachers.” – Ezra Pound, “Canto XIV”

Okay, so we don’t want to ban AK-47s because that would be unbarring the door of tyranny. On the other hand, we don’t want our precious, delicate children exposed to depressing historical events like the Native American genocide, slavery, the Holocaust – perhaps even Sandy Hook – because the truth might make them feel uncomfortable.

I’ll tell you what made me feel uncomfortable when I was teaching: crouching under a Harkness table stifling a fart with my AP Lit students during a live shooter drill.

And, O, my Brothers and Sisters, we read many a bannable book in those AP classes.

Oedipus Rex – parricide, incest, sacrilege

The Canterbury Tales – vulgarity, profanity, nudity, plagues

Hamlet – fratricide, adultery, vulgarity, a corpse-strewn stage

Crime and Punishment – murder, prostitution, crushing poverty, alcoholism

Madame Bovary – serial adultery, suicide, insanity

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – atheism, masturbation, prostitution, adolescent rebellion

The Sound and the Fury – promiscuity, suicide, racial epithets, abject cruelty

The Song of Solomon – premarital sex, vulgar language, murder

The Hand Maid’s Tale – dystopia, sexism, theocratic cruelty

And that’s not even considering the poetry we read.

Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
`Those breasts are flat and fallen now
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.’

`Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.

`A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’

~WB Yeats

That’s it.

Thanks for listening to my Ted Rant.

Wintry Mix

I’m not a fan of the wan light of winter, the weakening light of day, the marrow-penetrating wind off the river, the fallen leaves’ decay. 

I’m not a fan of hypocrisy, the politician’s flipflop, the post hoc ergo propter hoc array of fallacious thinking I hear every day.

I’m not a fan of fantasy, ogres, princesses, dragons, flying carpets defying gravity, flagons containing elixirs, mages with conical caps, sages holed up in caves.

I am a fan of poetry, though, even the darkest of wintery verse, Dylan Thomas’s father’s curse, John Keats’s death lament – that shiny black hearse in reverse.