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

(On May 31, 1959—as she lay dying at the Metropolitan Hospital in New York, aged 44—Billie Holiday was arrested, handcuffed, and put under police guard for possession of narcotics.)


This busy bee, at the end of a life like clockwork,

a symphony of service to everything but herself—

wings snatched in a world blinded by the way it is—

slowly expiring in the sweet nectar of stillness, stung

with bittersweet poison, an alchemy of blinded faith.


And even this they could not abide.

Their white-hot burden, unappeasable,

like anti-gravity drawing light inside

its sense of self: righteous, obdurate,

enfeebled from all their inherited fears.


Who are these men that know nothing

about the blues? Inspiring jinxed history

with officious ink—corrections bled red

outside the margins, ignored or overcome—

their shared voice, warning: Be more like me.


Or worse still, stay separate, apart, unheard;

entitled or at least allowed to live: strange fruit

that rots inside dark spaces, or gets torn down

from trees, weeping their weary psalms of silence,

caustic smoke signals blown from burning crosses.


What do they know about beauty, their hatred the only thing

honest about them? What do they know about the helpless

ones: helpless for song, helpless for love, helpless for a fix,

helpless for joy, helpless for hope? God bless the child that

backward men would scorn, ignore, or erase—if they could.


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 Pop Matters his work has also appeared in Salon, The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, The Good Men Project, Memoir Magazine, and others. His chapbook, The Blackened Blues, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and served as writer-in-residence of the Noepe Center at Martha’s Vineyard. He’s Founding Director of 1455 (www.1455litarts.org). To learn more, and read his published short fiction, poetry, and criticism, please visit seanmurphy.net/ and https://twitter.com/bullmurph