:: Article

Smokin Joe

By Norman Savage.


I just heard
on World News
that Smokin’ Joe
had entered
Liver cancer
will take him
How they go,
how they go,
all the ones you thought
would never go,
but they do. In this case
a rogue white cell
got to him; for others
it’s simply old age
and a natural decay.
For still others
it’s a loss
of bravery
or spirit. Others still
feared a drying up
of what made them
who they thought
they were
and took
an early
themselves, like Ernie.
No matter,
how they bought it
it cost all of us
something: a diminishment
of a world
that has less and less
of stick to the ribs nourishment.
It is all TV now,
all scripted.
Fighters fight
once a year, maybe.
Poets are sucked
toward mics;
artists, auctions.
While junkies junk
and alchies drink
the sickness spreads
to precincts without

I saw Joe
up close once
in front of the old
Americana Hotel
on Seventh Ave.,
in the fifties in
the mid-seventies.
He wore a full length
white mink coat
and a black felt pimp’s hat
in a pimp neighborhood
before Disney
destroyed it
by making it safe
for fat Minnesota tourists.
I saw him fight live
four times–three
on closed circuit.
I rooted against him
the first three
and for him
at Nassau
when he fought Foreman.
He came out that last time
in white satin.
His head
had soaked
in brine,
as usual,
for half hour
before he dressed
for combat.
He danced, he bounced,
he rolled his arms and shoulders,
took off his hood and shone
his stubbly head and face
to the crowd. Nobody knew
how much Ali had taken
out of him
until Foreman
marched across the apron
and hit him
and he slid back
as if he was sucked
into a black hole
and landed against
the ring post and slithered
like wet brown cement
to the canvass
and stayed like that
until they came for him.

He tried to fight
a few more times.
And lost them all
badly. Even
the crooked doctors
would not sanction him
after those fiascos.
He opened a gym
in the poor slum
he came from
and slept near
the bags and lineament
and the scars and the wins
and the cheers
and the women
and the men
and the jewelry
and the clothes
and the parasites
in a tiny room
with fight posters
in the back.

He said he hated Ali
but I don’t think so.
The cruelty, yes;
the stupid humiliation
to sell seats, yes.
But not the fights, brother.
Not the fights.
To view them is a coward’s sport,
a spectator’s high.
But to be in them!
My God! To fucking be in them,
round after round
and know
that nothing else existed
except death
is something most of us,
will live without,
never knowing
that kind
of bravery.

He was broke, of course.
But he had it once:
ate well, tipped well,
made love
to all manner
of creatures,
slept in beds
under silk
and perfumes,
and talked talked talked
to the shoeshine man
and presidents.
And that beats
not ever having it.
And so tonight, Joe,
as you dine
on morphine
instead of rare steak,
sip tepid water,
through a bent straw
instead of champagne
in a flute,
I salute you
and those other heavyweight gods
who came before you
and the very few
who have yet
to arrive.

Tell Mama

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.”

I’m gonna miss ya mama.
I’m gonna miss ya.
I’ve always loved whores,
those angels of kindness,
those nighttime angels,
and mama,
you were one of the grandest,
one of the best, in your face whores
I’ve ever had the pleasure of tumbling with.
You mighta been born Jamesetta Hawkins,
but Peaches fit
for me and other
one nighters; you mighta been fathered
by a pool stick hustler,
but everyman who ever laid down a bet
or grabbed what they could,
when they could,
had a piece of your action
and wanted more–
didn’t matter the odds,
didn’t matter the price,
didn’t matter the cost.

I fell for you
when your body
and when your hair was dyed
a black rooted whore’s blond,
and when it sprouted red,
like a cockscomb,
when your eyebrows arched
and when your lipstick ran
into your mouth’s cauldron;
I loved you when your tits were giving
and when your thighs and ass
turned as big and thick
as a Montana mule’s.

And through everything,
you felt the painfulness of the air
rubbing against your skin
and made that sing, too.
I know nothing
made sense
unless you were singing
and sometimes
not even then.
There was drink
of course
and there were men
to get you through,
but never enough
and never for long:
drink took too much out,
and men took too long
to come
and go.
The ones you wanted
to stay
never did
for long, but you knew
that no one
can ever stay
that long. At some point,
the point that rusted
in part of your heart,
you didn’t know who
you were fucking
or why. But then, by then,
it was survival
nothing else. And it was time,
the time eaten up
between shots
until forgetting
was not even an option.
Your arms became
scarred and your hands
blew-up and swelled
when you missed
a vein.
But that was all right,
with you, too. By then falling
was welcomed
as much as flying was.
Each offered a different repetition
of repetition; breath
of another beat.
You fell
and got up,
and fell some more.
And landed better.
You were Beckett’s queen:
perfumed, dolled-up,

At the end
you didn’t know
who you were
or where you were,
and that
was a good thing.
who could be sure
of such things?
This country
and this life
makes fools of us all.
But even most of us fools
knew the wrong star shone
Inauguration night
and starting tonight
will not come out

The Bathroom at Slugs

in the far east,
on third, between B&C
was hot. It was over forty years ago
when even taking a piss in there
fucked with your imagination. It smelled
of sex, quinine, morphine, reefer, body odor
and wastes. Before sets, in between, and after
there were lines to get in: singles, often times couples
of the same or different orientation.
There was a kind of understanding: sometimes it took longer
to get hard, or find a vein,
or role and fumble with a stick, and so you waited.
The ones with priority were the musicians. They needed
to do their business and get the hell back. Besides,
in truth, that’s why most of came to Slugs
in the far east village. The other joints
where cats could work ideas into riffs
for weeks or a month or two at a time,
like The Five Spot or Half-Note,
were already dead and gone.

One night late Lee was on the bandstand
blowing hard
sweating into the collar of a stained white shirt,
pin-pricks of dried blood
in the crook of his arm
when his common law entered. She walked up,
opened her purse,
took a gun out,
and shot him dead
during his solo.
She turned, walked calmly back to the bar
and placed a revolver on pock-marked wood
and ordered a drink–scotch, I think. And waited.
Frankie, the bartender, served her without saying a word.

After while people started to breathe, some whispered,
and others went back to the bathroom.
“That no good motherfucka sonofabitch deserved that killin,”
an older chick nearby me said,
“that junkie bastard usin her bread for his vein was bad enough,
but his bitch’s vein too, that’s even worser…
someday he be back though, hope he learned
his motherfuckin lesson.”
The ambulance came, and so did the cops.
They took out one living and one dead;
which was which I couldn’t say.

I don’t know if Lee ever did come back.
But this I know:
men will be men,
and women women;
that is the task,
and that, my friends,
is the terror.

Norman Savage has lived a life of madness and mayhem. He grew up in Coney Island and has been living in Greenwich Village most of his life. He’s had diabetes for 50 years and has been addicted to one substance or another for 45 of those years. It has been a beautifully joyful and painful schizophrenic ride: drugs, booze, women, music, and writing. His poems try to come to grips with all of his fractures and contains everything–even you.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 25th, 2012.