(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