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Little Blue Transistor Radio

Issue 119, Winter 2022

Untitled, a mixed-media artwork by John Mullins. Courtesy Creative Growth Art Center, Oakland, California

I switch on the shiny radio hidden under
my pillow, & turn down the volume.

My bed smells like a grass sack of yellow
canning pears, as I wonder if my mama

will ever come home again. This radio
she gave me always casts a good signal

upon the dark night, a slow gray mist
in dank air, a whippoorwill’s signifying

down by the gully of tin cans. Earlier,
I was about to put down my left foot

as the rust-colored water moccasin
writhed there, making a muted noise

in the tinny slush. I saw & didn’t see.
I almost fell, but somehow my hand

grabbed-up a long heavy oak branch.
I was eleven & could hit hard as a man.

A bloodless thing laid there, the sun
setting. I went to my persimmon tree.

Grandma Elsie said she could see me
from the backdoor, & she asked, What

song was you singin’? I said, My own
words. She said, Next thing you be

wantin’ a lowdown guitar. Oh, yeah,
I was once hypnotized by fingers on

a banjo. Now, go wash your hands,
come in here, & say the Lord’s grace.

After my supper & a bath in a #3 tub,
I read twice Paul Laurence Dunbar’s

“We Wear the Mask.” I kneeled,
said the Lord’s prayer, & then crawled

into bed. I could feel the radio under
my head as I played the same yes & no

game, as if letting a talisman decide
my Fate. My fingers could always

touch the dial in the dark, seeking
one of the two stations in my head:

Fats’ “Blueberry Hill” on WWOZ
or bluebird at the Louisiana Hayride,

calling “I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
If Daddy Red would’ve gone there—

yes, something was in his blue eye
& gray eye that would’ve stopped

any disbeliever back then. Wesley
was his real name—a black man

who looked white, my step-grandpapa,
who’d say, “It’s alright to call

your mama’s name in your sleep,
even if she’s pickin’ Pima cotton

in Phoenix.” I still love any ballad
with a little dirt on raggedy roots,

even if it was Rose & her brothers
sleeping in concrete culverts in L.A.

Years later, the blue radio traveled
with me, truly a crystal-clear sound

all its own. I don’t believe in good
luck charms & magical potions, but

I took my radio with me to Chu Lai.
Why not? It had already traveled

like an old friend over to Panama
to jungle warfare school, a Saturday

I danced among tall trees. In fact,
it seems to have a mind of its own.

One night, I thought of my mama
when I didn’t wish to, & in my hands

was a screwdriver, & as I opened it up
I noticed how my small blue box didn’t

have wires, components, or numbers.
But It did have these words: Beware.

Raise a first & last question, praise
silence, & put flesh on every word.

If you love playing Country & Blues,
this unit will plug directly into you.

Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa’s books of poetry include Taboo, Dien Cai Dau, Neon Vernacular (for which he received the Pulitzer Prize), Warhorses, The Chameleon Couch, Emperor of Water Clocks, Night Animals, and most recently Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth. His plays, performance art, and libretti have been performed internationally and include Saturnalia, Testimony, and Gilgamesh.