(excerpt from CRAZY BRAVE, LOOKING FOR A VISION, c Joy Harjo 2010)
I was following Sandra Cisneros and her mother through their house in Chicago, making introductions, when I heard my soul singing.
“What are you doing there, soul, I asked?” I felt naked and blown open without my soul fastened in its usual, hidden and dark place.
I heard Sandra’s brothers talking behind closed doors of their rooms. It was Saturday morning. They were supposed to be cleaning. I heard the traffic and the city. I heard everything as if it were singing. And above them and over and through all of us, weaving the song together, I heard my soul, a saxophone.
Who is that singer of my soul? I wanted to ask. Instead, I asked, “Who’s that on saxophone?”
“It’s my brothers’ music”, said Sandra. “It’s Gato Barbieri.”
I had wanted to play saxophone since junior high school. I loved the sultry sound and longing of the sax. It is in adolescence you begin to come into full consciousness of your sensual being.
I’d played clarinet in elementary school, one hour a week for a few years. I used the same couple of reeds and labored with the rest of the small group of students who played either clarinet, flute or trumpet without enough practice and with lots of squeaking, missed notes, and inattention to the beat. What kept me going was that perfect song I kept hearing, just beyond the field of knowing. I felt moments of it, as my breath attempted to make the clarinet into a living being.
At the beginning of my first junior high semester when the band teacher asked for students to play alto sax, my hand shot up. Girls can’t play sax, he explained as he choose boys to be players. I gave up then on saxophone. I walked away from music. And then I met Gato and his sax in Sandra’s house in the late seventies.
Gato and I make a circle with our spirits. I tell Gato and his saxophone that I have escaped from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for the weekend. I tell him I feel lost without mountains, desert and the memory of white birds. I confide in him the longing I am afraid to name. I tell him I write poetry to leave tracks so that love can find me. I tell him that poetry is lonely without the music. I want to tell him and his saxophone everything, the way you do when you meet a lover who is going to open up all the doors in your heart. You compare stories. No, you intertwine them so they can grow together for a while.
And then I argue with myself. You cannot say everything, what will he think of you? Besides, to speak everything is to exhaust mystery.
Or is it? Can everything ever be spoken? Or are some things better spoken without words?
Whenever a saxophone begins to sing in a story it signals the door opening to romance. Soon there will be lovemaking. We will see a blur of bodies caught in an urge to experience the joy of creation of joy. For a time we will no longer move about so lonely here, far away from the house of the sun, moon and stars.
Gato listens with his horn perched on his lap. Like most men, he keeps his thoughts to himself when it comes to women and love. And he’s Argentine. He loves women ferociously. And he’s a horn player. He hears melody in longing. He hears how the rhythm of the heart plays against the rhythm of traffic in a northern city on a Saturday afternoon. He feels the fire at the center of the earth.
One time I was making love, I wanted to tell him, and I forgot myself and gave in to the music. I saw cities full of lovers and how though the earth held them close with gravity, they became birds, flying together above the city, their jobs, their bills, the why-aren’t-you’s and the “you-should’s”, into openings in the sky that only two people can open together.
“Ah, but what about the earth and how we move about the earth”, he sang with his horn? And he broke my heart with his longing.
It was some years before I picked up a horn and blew spirit into it.
The first horn I played was a King Super tenor saxophone. My then lover, a horn player wrote out the G blues scale for me and I began there, in the heartache of the Americas. In that scale are ships from Africa and Europe. In it are my people dancing in a widening spiral beneath circles of star nebula, giving birth to the swing. I walked up and down the scale, past babies crying in the night for milk, lovers waking in the dawn for more.
I left that relationship, that apartment, that city and kept going with my horn and with the bottom line of that gee blues.
I still talk with Gato whenever I pick up my horn. He’s older, and wiser in the way that we all become wiser when we lose what we love and learn to keep going.
“One way to look at it”, he told me one day as I sawed through scales to make muscle for flying, “is we are all lost, we were already lost the day we were born. In music, we can become tragically and beautifully lost, and found again.”
I thought of all the doors that had opened and closed. I thought of how Sandra’s mother and father were no longer on this earth. I thought of all of my mother’s songs looking for a place to live, I thought of all the Saturdays in the world and how terrified I am of opening my heart again. I started with “G”, and rounded the bend at B flat. I followed my soul.