Howlin’ Wolf’s Harp

He licked it, not like a lollipop, but with intent,

the burden of royal tasters, back in bad old days:

tongue artists whose job was to absorb poison

and ensure it was palatable for noble appetites—

Wolf’s music his way of explaining: I asked you

for water and all you’re giving me is gasoline.


He would lick that mouth organ as if eating

the blues, taking a bite out of this hard life,

as a Black man living always under suspicion

of the same things he sang about: killing floors

& moaning at midnight, white eyes expecting

you to play the fool—or prove your innocence.


He licked the harmonica only because he had to

spend the rest of his time swallowing the gristle

of separate but equal, and all the things awful

about the South—and North; no safe haven then

(& now); either sitting on top of the world or else

you’re going down slow, one spoonful at a time.


Sean Murphy has appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and has been quoted in USA Today, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and AdAge. A long-time columnist for PopMatters, his work has appeared in Salon, The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, The Good Men Project, Memoir Magazine, and others. His chapbook, The Blackened Blues, was published by Finishing Line Press in July, 2021. This Kind of Man, his first collection of short fiction, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press. He has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, twice for Best of Net, and his book Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone was the winner of Memoir Magazine’s 2022 Memoir Prize. He served as writer-in-residence of the Noepe Center at Martha’s Vineyard, and is Founding Director of 1455, a non-profit literary organization (www.1455litarts.org). To learn more, and read his published short fiction, poetry, and criticism, please visit seanmurphy.net/ and https://twitter.com/bullmurph

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