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About this Poem 

“‘Charlie Parker (1950)’ is a villanelle about the legendary American saxophonist, one of the most fascinating figures of the twentieth century. The poem sketches a few biographical details—cities he lived in, Harlem clubs he habituated—but mostly tries to capture a voice, a rhythm, a musical style. That style would be the midcentury syncopation of bebop, with its bluesy underpinnings, which the poem plays against the traditional strictures of the villanelle, in the hopes of echoing, however distantly, Parker’s virtuosic integration of improvisation and formal structure.”
Campbell McGrath

Charlie Parker (1950)

Bird is building a metropolis with his horn.
Here are the gates of Babylon, the walls of Jericho cast down.
Might die in Chicago, Kansas City’s where I was born.

Snowflake in a blizzard, purple rose before the thorn.
Stone by stone, note by note, atom by atom, noun by noun,
Bird is building a metropolis with his horn.

Uptown, downtown, following the river to its source,
Savoy, Three Deuces, Cotton Club, Lenox Lounge.
Might just die in Harlem, Kansas City’s where I was born.

Bird is an abacus of possibility, Bird is riding the horse
of habit and augmented sevenths. King without a crown,
Bird is building a metropolis with his horn.

Bred to the labor of it, built to claw an eye from the storm,
made for the lowdown, the countdown, the breakdown.
Might die in Los Angeles, Kansas City’s where I was born.

Bridge by bridge, solo by solo, set by set, chord by chord,
woodshed to penthouse, blue to black to brown,
Charlie Parker is building a metropolis with his horn.
Might just die in Birdland, Kansas City’s where I was born.
 

Copyright © 2015 by Campbell McGrath. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 3, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2015 by Campbell McGrath. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 3, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.

Campbell McGrath

Campbell McGrath

Campbell McGrath is the author of ten collections of poetry, including XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century, In The Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys, Shannon, and Seven Notebooks. His third book, Spring Comes to Chicago, won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.

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La Serenissima, in morning light, is beautiful.
But you already knew that. 
Palette of honeyed ochre and ship’s bell bronze, 
water precisely the color of the hand-ground pigment
with which the water of Venice has been painted for centuries, 
angled slats of aquamarine chopped by wakes to agate, 
matte
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I'm the original two-hearted brawler.
I gnaw the scrawny heads from prawns,
pummel those mute, translucent crustaceans,
wingless hummingbirds, salt-water spawned.
As the Catalonians do, I eat the eyes at once.
My brawny palms flatten their mainstays.
I pop the shells with my thumbs, then crunch.

Just watch me
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Green and blue and white, it is a flag
for Florida stitched by hungry ibises.

It is a paradise of flocks, a cornucopia
of wind and grass and dark, slow waters.

Turtles bask in the last tatters of afternoon,
frogs perfect their symphony at dusk—

in its solitude we remember ourselves