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Lay for the Day
20th January

1888, in Morningport, Louisiana – or perhaps on the 21st , or maybe the 15th, and maybe in 1889, or even 1885, and it could have been in Shiloh, Louisiana – the birth of Huddie Ledbetter, known to later times as Leadbelly, a solo performer with few peers in 20th-century popular music, a magisterial guitar player and singer, a one-man compendium of black American folk music, a poet and a genius.

Saxophone Plough

Dip the bell in ground
suck the ground notes in
soil and stones and trash

blows out roots — blows out
seeds and stalks — fat leaves
eyelash tender leaves

Dig the bell in hard
deep in the stone foot
of a bare white cross

knuckles a flicker
across the metal
mother of pearl stops

Stark hymns — damnation
plain and quick to save
foot stamps on floorboards

hand claps and palm raised
to rafters — head bowed
midnight — moving star

Undertone snigger
& sweat in the eyes
haunting the crossroads

the pickaxe handle
the piano wire
thirty-eight — twelve-bore

Cry of cracked and now
appearing — tough — strained
voice to paint weathered

off — to elastic
movements — aim to please
… announcements half torn

Twelve bar piano
dews sliding down cars’
bodywork rocking

till morning subdues
coming up — the still
reeling — slowly — grey

Mist in the bottoms
round under the fat
leafy thickets — shut

black tender eyelids
still rocking till the
light — still grooving till


John Gibbens
from The Improvised Version, Vol. 2

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar