DUKE ELLINGTON, SANTA ANA, EL SALVADOR, 1974
He paces the cool and dusty classroom,
hands in his pockets, rows and rows
of chairs, sixth grade children looking
straight at him, his big band walk.
At the black board, he turns around
and breaks the silence, “instead
of trotting through an oriental garden,
picture a dessert under a devil sun.”
He snaps his fingers two plus one
as if to say one more time.
We shout back a demented version of Caravan,
crashing cymbals, drums and horns
muffled rhythms from a line of saxophones.
Edwin Martinez gets on his feet,
tortures the trumpet and leans over the music stand,
pouring all his memories of Egypt from history class.
Douglas Diaz slaps the bongos
exactly the same way he taps
the cans of coffee and milk at home.
Señor Ellington claps his hands along,
dancing a two-step blues, stomping
in the center of everyone, like a traffic cop
conducting a busy city street.
Before break, he will tell us
stories of a smoky blue spot
called the Cotton Club.
We will learn all the Harlem rhapsodies
from the Latin Quarter up to 125th Street.
He will punch the piano, a syncopated phrase
and we will listen: no need to study war no more.
He could be my grandfather,
a black boy from Chalatenango—
an indigo-blue family
from the Caribbean through Honduras.
He could be the one to write
a tone parallel to Sonsonate
a trombone to roll to the wheels
of a cart and the wrinkled man,
toothless, pulling his corn.
I want him to come back
more than a Congo drum in a cabaret
more than a top hat and tails before a piano.
I want him and his orchestra
to pound the doors of a ballroom
by the side of Lake Coatepeque.
I want the cracked paint to peel off the walls
the lights to go dim, the floor to disappear,
a trumpet to growl
my country to listen.
—from Rattle #15, Summer 2001