Sunday, July 13, 2014


13 July 2014

To Greg Pond

Dear Mr. Pond…Greg…

I thanked you for the poems you read at The Sacred Grounds Café on Wednesday, 2 July 2014, all of them good, but, because I love her, I was especially taken with the poems about Billie Holiday.  I have been reading the rest of your poems too in the 2014 edition of The Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, and I like them all very much.  I was glad to hear someone read a poem about Billie, especially someone who admires her deeply.  It probably sounds too glib to people who ask me who influenced my writing that I always say, “Shakespeare and Billie Holiday.”  When we spoke and I said, “”Billie’s singing is poetry, I could see that you immediately understood what I meant.

The next day, walking around Lake Merritt in Oakland, I passed a tall, lean Black man who had laid out framed photos that were particularly good of many great 20th century African-American leaders and musicians.  We talked and realized we had been around long enough to marvel at our memories that almost become fantasies of the decades of changes in ever-changing San Francisco Bay Area, my memories beginning in 1959, while his knowledge were more extensive as he was born in San Francisco.  I purchased the photo shown here of a beautiful, happy, and healthy young Billie Holiday.

Around 1961, invited by a fellow soldier to his hometown, Hollywood/Los Angeles, while we were both on leave from Fort Ord (Monterey).  My friend introduced me to a Black judge whose first name was Benjamin.  His courtroom was televised daily.  As I expressed only a vague knowledge of Billie Holiday, he invited me to his apartment and, as if part of a necessary ritual before listening properly to Billie for the first time, we drank a bottle of whiskey  

Being gay and black was by far the more difficult challenge at that time, but I had my own troubled history, besides gay life being a secret underground at the time.  I had my share of abuse and empathy for harms others had experienced too so I had no difficulty feeling close to the pain in Billie’s voice, and it was a perfect introduction by a sensitive and discerning man in the same minority as Billie, a group whose history in the U.S. for hundreds of years was the path of the cruel lash of a whip.  Ben was a man who still, in torment, witnessed the ongoing racism in the laws he had to enforce where he could not exercise proper justice for other Black man; at times he felt the law gave him the terrible choice of releasing someone pathological or giving him a death sentence.  The effect of that ethical dilemma led, a year or two after we met, to his committing suicide, a memory that lingers as information as Billie’s own biography.

Anyone who has suffered abuse, estrangement, exclusion – you name it – may find companionship in Billie’s singing.  She can dig into us and converse with our sorrow and fear and, beyond the wealth and range of feelings she expresses, there is also something saving in her vocal technique of twists and pauses  (her caesuras are the best!) helps exorcize us through the strength of her singing as it, undoubtedly kept her going too.

I have a graphic elsewhere, perhaps on my blog, that presents a graphic yin and yang of two verses that seems complementary:  Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning, Heartache” and Emily Dickinson’s “Good Night – Midnight.” 

And your reading made me recall something I had forgotten and I dug it out of some old box – a rant I wrote before I had heard of rants. And I remember that I delivered it at the time with passion to a close friend.

Billie’s Blues
(Written in the 1960s, and first recited to Victor Gonzalez)

When it was all over, when the Chief White Fat Ass
Capitalist in America was found sitting midair,
his trousers dropped to his ankles, his hand reaching
for a roll of toilet paper, and toilet paper, stool, and all,
were blown away, he cried, but no nanny came to comfort him.

This time he heard it for himself:  Billie’s Blues,
Bessie’s Blues.  Wail out your rage, stolen Africa!
Sing him how his highest skyscraper almost
touches the bottom of your despair since it was
his skyscraper that dug it deep.  You want to be

my lover, and I hate you so, Big White Hunter!
You need only stop killing to see it.  If you see,
you have already stopped killing.  Oh, please,
dear Night.  All will sing Billie’s Blues soon
‘Cause when your own stomps on you

in the name of someone else, that’s Billie’s Blues.
Other, they said, is your enemy, the big strange Other.
He holds you in a long blue look, and your asshole
dances like cymbals.  When he flutters mascara’ed lashes
fingers run down your spine as if you were a clarinet,

and you blow if you can blow.  Other, brother, is The Human.
The Human means well, pushing us forever on
into some brighter and brighter vision, each time
tawdry in no time, each time everybody in one
vision hating and hurting everyone in another vision.

Enjoy the large feeling of striding through this world
freely under breeze and sun, but not always free to do
whatever you like.  Why would you ever bother to wake up?
Why not go on dreaming?  If in this dream of
a large feeling of the world as a place where a human

has a right to stride freely under breeze and sun –
you are in the place where the snake of time turns
against us – or Kindness begins; where our great
mother Justice is just the most precise cutter of cake
wedges you ever saw.  There’s a screwed-up

system, you see, and you happen to be mixed up in it.
Stand aside and let the thing fall.  Let fall whatever
it is that “just has to happen.”  Can you let go of
the Time machine and just be?  Wail, Billie!
with your white gardenia of black in-sight, wail!

-       James McColley Eilers

I see that you are available on the Internet, Greg, and look forward to reading and hearing you there.  Good luck!

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