Here’s what I remember: Coleman Hawkins
in the Village Vanguard, quietly talking.
He’s finished a set in which he was unable
to summon even one unbroken tone
from the bell of his once-clarion saxophone.
But now that’s over and he feels all right.
He’s smoking because he’s wanted to all night,
drinking cloudy cognac from a tumbler
and coughing ferociously; his voice is weaker
than his cough; he’s barely audible, mumbling
to me because he knows I’m from Topeka.
He says, “That’s where I learned to tongue my horn.”
I know, and that’s the only thing I hear.
It’s 1969; in half a year
he’ll be dead. In three years I’ll be born.
Poet’s Notes: Coleman Hawkins spent his early teens in Topeka, and in the mid-’90s I became kind of obsessed with finding his house. Eventually, I tried to write a long poem about the search. This was the last section of it and the only one that survived.
Editor’s Note: A good poet can twist time to his advantage, creating a four-dimensional experience for the reader. I especially enjoy the way McHenry does that here. “Vanguard” was first published in American Literary Review.