Friday, November 7, 2008

Poetry Friday - Song of the Signal Girl

Song of the Signal Girl

when its time to railroad
you must railroad
when its time to railroad
i will be ready

goodbye lovey
o the clouds are supported
at strategic points
by the tips of the skyscrapers
its nice to have met you
o the toes of the skyscrapers
are lost in mist
goodbye lovey
o the eyes of the skyscrapers
are lidded with frost
i won't forget you
o the skyscrapers shiver
in their thin new coats
of morning paint

a snap of my fingers
brings streetlights dancing
a clap of my hands
makes the sidewalks sing
a wink of my eye
blows down hurricane fencing
a tap of my foot
makes the doorbells ring

city was my cradle
city was my playpen
city taught my everything i knew

but the sun never rises in the city

Soft railroaders on your midnight trips
all i understand is love between my lips
and i want you there
with your javelin laid aside
to give me time to let me be your bride

--December 11-13, 1970

I'd been vacillating whether to post this poem or not. I feel vaguely embarrassed by it, though that is a reason to post it.

I know where it came from: I'd been listening to Laura Nyro, in particular to New York Tendaberry, and this poem was channeling her. The final stanza was probably inspired by "Gibsom Street", where she sings of sucking the juices from a strawberry a man had given her. Obvious fellatio imagery, though it now makes me think of Christina Rossetti's wildly oral "Goblin Market." I wonder if Nyro knew that poem, which is much better known now than it was then.

I'm not sure whether I wrote it before or after I saw her perform at Indiana University Bloomington -- there's a good chance it was soon after. She played in the university auditorium, with just a piano, which I sensed disappointed much of the audience who knew only that she'd written "Stoned Soul Picnic" and was expecting a full band. Some were fans, though: at one point a male voice called "He's a Runner!" from the upper balcony, but she didn't fulfill or even acknowledge the request. Her opening act was Jackson Browne, who, like her, was better known at the time for other people's versions of his songs -- he hadn't yet made a record of his own. I'd heard of him, but knew little about him, and was stunned when this beautiful hippie boy walked out on the stage with a guitar and began to perform.

"Song of the Signal Girl" seems very uneven to me now, at its weakest when it's most obviously Nyro. But there are some nice things in it. The first three stanzas still seem good to me. Maybe someday I should try setting them to music, and finish the poem/song according to its own inner logic, rather than as a pastiche.

(Image by Lawrence Housman from the 1893 edition of "Goblin Market"; via The Victorian Web.)