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Eric Priestley—In Memoriam: California Poets Part 7, a Tribute by Suzanne Lummis

Eric Priestley (1943-2021)

July 1st, 2024

California Poets: Part VII

Eric Priestley

Three Poems


On the Poems—Three by Eric Priestley

They look and read like performance poems, and they are—good ones, good by way of the vitality and inventiveness of the language, plus focus, cohesion, clarity maintained within that richness, all that lively talk. It is not always the case with such poems, or any other kind either. You have your performance poems cast in a flat, literal language, everything stated in the most obvious way, and—heading up the other end—the murky ones, so much happening at once they’re like sticky balls of scrapbook clippings. But not these, not these three by Eric Priestley. I call them performance poems because it seems impossible to read them without hearing, under the printed word, a human voice. It has something to do with the pitch-forward momentum and use of repetition, and dialog—particular in the tributes to his parents where the characters’ own voices burst into the poems. We might even sense that on the page we’re not getting the whole experience, not until we hear them, just as with plays, no matter how well they read on the page, we know we won’t grasp their full meaning or experience their impact until we see them staged.

—Suzanne Lummis


Nobody Dies

wake up brother

and tell us

when you died

did your synapses fail to pass acetylcholine to the next nerve junction on that day

hangman’s knot crimped your sphincter & turned your

bowels to water in the bigot’s clay?

did they whip your head till it flayed in the maw?

was it the wrong place wrong time?

did they smoke your hood?

were they yoking you to the bone raw?

did you take your sapping good?

wake up, brother!

tell us how you died!

or was it a drive-by?

were they rockin’ & sockin’ highrollers claimin’ & jackin’ for a spizot tizerritory when they put you down?

like they put a dog down when the rabies got ‘em

were you unarmed

standing still, or runnin’

when the li’l cowards drew a bead down on you?

you get it in the back?

or did they do you in a dead bang?

tumble when you fell

did you say anything

feel anything

when the gunshot rang?

was your chest stickin’ out big?

was your wag hard?

squealin’ like a stuck pig, punk?

running from the mob

were you gripping for the last feather burned to your

arse in

the boiling tar?

wake up brother!

tell us how you died!

oh wake!

you die like Emmett Till

where your own mama couldn’t figure a feature of your


in the coffin?

or did they catch you slippin’,

smokin’ and jokin’ on the corner?

did you buy it like Malcolm

standin’ tall and blowin’ hard?

did the Mississippi drink your blood that night the


hounds were set on your tail

& you hid from the lapdogs sought you out?

were you swallowed up in swamp suckin’ sassafras in

cypress through a bamboo straw?

what was your scaffold? Cottonwood? Willow?

old gum tree?  tipporrari?


oh wake!

tell us how you died!

where your bones lay

where that marrow festers now?

what shallow grave?

what hidden bed of stinkin’ rot with mold do your red

corpuscles thrive?

South Carolina? Georgia?

Louisiana? or here in L.A.?

what godforsaken clay do your lost remains lie?

wake up brother!

tell us how you died!

oh wake!

& when you do

know you’ll smoke a monkey for me!

what?   you die a sucka’!

trickin’ with some whore would never love you back?

you die a cuckold believing your old lady’s lies?

go on chump don’t be shy! Give up the drums!

wake your dead arse up!

tell us how you died!

oh wake!

die for pride?   outta’ spite?

or did that honor crap bring you down?

were you on your knees

beggin’ for a last chance square up life?

or did some sucka’ just pull down on you?

make you get naked ‘fore he robbed you for nothin’?

maybe do a little dance!?

oh wake!

you die a thief?

tell us how cheap a grift you were

how sweet was your lie?

you hold your mug

or did you die a snitchin’ sucka?

them same pennies you sold out for give it to you in the

back baaybaay bunko?

oh wake!

they plant an empty rosco on you after they told you to


maybe take a li’l walk pal?

did they take you for a ride buddy?

were you eyeballin’ ‘em outta’ body in the bright light?

when they called it suicide

did you lynch yourself in the cell?

justifiable homicide?

tough guy huh?

so you won’t talk?

wake up brother!

tell us how you died!

when you do know you’ll smoke a monkey for me!

nobody dies

but don’t tell it to the dead

‘cause the dead




Note on “Nobody Dies,” by Suzanne Lummis:

Well, wow. Let’s start there. It’s a political poem, or, by more current terms, a sociopolitical poem, or even more current, a social justice poem, what was once, decades back, called a protest poem—except it’s not a protest poem. It doesn’t protest—not with any words or phrases you could put your finger on. Nor is it quite like any political, sociopolitical, social justice poem I’ve seen. I’ve seen many. Few break out of the predictable, but when they do… Wow. 

It’s not the content that sets it apart, the figures of Emmett Till and Malcolm X appear in other poems, as do references to anonymous victims of countless atrocities, lynchings, police malfeasance….  It’s the tone, the manner, that’s startling—fierce but pitiless. There is a refusal to weep, a “refusal to mourn.”  We do not think the undeclared and invisible “I,” AKA the poet, doesn’t care about the murdered cascading down through history and down the page. No one thinks that. But, for the purposes of this poem, the invisible “I” affects a hard-hearted, tearless stance. It’s damned convincing.

“Nobody Dies,” both refuses to weep and to behave in the way we have come to expect of such poems. It avoids the self-righteousness that ruins many writings, yes, but goes one further, doesn’t even lay claim to plain rightfulness! Doesn’t even hand in its ticket to get the rightfulness it’s rightfully earned!

The voice, and what a voice it is, does not promise change, does not ask for it, does not call for vengeance, does not seek solace. It does not ennoble the dead. It mocks them: “did you say anything/feel anything/when the gunshot rang?/was your chest stickin’ out big?/was your wag hard?/or did you check out wiggi-wobble/squealin’ like a stuck pig, punk?/running from the mob…”

And then, together with the victims of criminal, racist whites, less blameless, more tarnished casualties begin to roll in, tumbling down the page with the others, the victims of small time criminals who might be criminals themselves, and their killers who might themselves soon die of their own folly: “tell us how you died!/oh wake!/die for pride? outta’ spite?/or did that honor crap bring you down?/were you down on your knees/beggin’ for a last chance to square up on life?/or did some sucker just pull down on you?/make you get naked ‘fore he robbed you for nothin’/maybe do a li’l dance?”

Most poems of this realm don’t trade in ambiguity—usually, they don’t harbor three possible meanings, or even two. This one’s different. Readers must come to their own understanding of this one, and with that playground bully voice that jeers at the innocent and not-so-innocent dead who roll through the same space, undifferentiated.  Many will say the violent racist crimes referenced in “Nobody Dies” foster the street crimes described, but the poem doesn’t say that, or imply it—at least, not in any words or phrases you can put your finger on. It avoids the explanatory “That therefore This” construction. It doesn’t give us that reassurance, that consolation, that familiar message we can relax into.

“It’s a bright, guilty world.” Philandering seaman Michael O’Hara delivers the famous movie line to defense attorney and murderous husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane)—but they’re in pressed, white linin suits, standing above the glittering waters of Acapulco. “Nobody Dies” surveys a sour, dirty, guilty world. Where can one run? What does it urge us toward, with its playground taunts?  Resistance? No. Empowering rage? No. Love and compassion? No. Self-respect? No. Forgiveness? No. Hope? No. This poem’s a bit of an asshole. 

I love that about this poem. It doesn’t even care if it has any friends. 

Pocket Machine Gun Shorty In honor of my father: 1905 -1984


Say hey sporty-olee

oh Louisiana boy New Orleans born

he say “hot stuff! Commin’ through! Come on!”

say “I’m five feet one inch & a half in my stockin’ feet!”

hit himself in the chest

he say  “& all man!”

he go “gimme a five-eights nine-sixteenths & a half-inch”

& “come on boy!  I don’t mean next week! lend me a hand!  gimme a vernier son

& that vice with a ring!”

gave him a wrench

you mean this thing?

‘na mind boy move out the way!

‘clare for god

you ain’t worth a nickel today!

‘gimme a rat tail file!

& a carterpin!

That’s the wrong wrench boy!

I need an open-end!

gimme a pair of pliers

& turn on that lathe

know damn well I’m machinist by trade!

with his Phillip’s screwdriver big ring of keys

flashlight bicycle sprocket

down on his knees

used a ballpeen hammer

& his teeth were fine

tote a German luge

shot nine times!

they said he run whiskey

when he lived in Chi

stabbed in the thigh by a whore named Georgia

some say it was beer

most said it was rye

hit by a yellow cab drug nine blocks

claim he run the liquor for Al-K-Pone

oh Louisiana boy New Orleans born

went “Hot stuff commin’ through! Come on!

& “don’t get to hoopin’-holleron’ my way

‘cause pocket machinegun shorty don’t play!”

still you wanted to try ‘em

go “say li’l daddy you gotta a dollar?”

tough hombre li’l one

 sure sky dove

where you at Chappy?

your country li’l home

he go “I know what you mean jellybean!

hot stuff commin’ through come on!”

old Louisiana boy New Orleans born

only saw once the year he died

winked me a smile

& said “take it easy greasy

got a long way to slide”

can still see ‘em

when I shut my eyes

best li’l daddy a guy coulda known

old Louisiana boy New Orleans born

he went “hot stuff commin’ through come on!”

La Patite (The Little One)

In Honor of My Mother: 1905-1978


with a scratch sheet & a magnifying glass & her eyes

dancing in her head

when la patite made gumbo

poets flocked like wild birds in hungry spring

she say “y’all come on now, cher…get you a serious

bowl…I just fille’ the pot, & the fille’ from home, yeah!

not Nachitoches & Front Street

but Natchez country & Cane River

lady say “hey gal, where your mama?”

she say “gal gotta name & a cow gotta tail.

mama got a whip to whip your tail.”

here she come with “well I’ll be switched” & “I Swanny”never saw that switch commin’

or knew Swanny was a river when trouble bit

she say “hot-tah’ mighty knows – no! but you know

god don’t like ugly & he ain’t too crazy ‘bout pretty.”

then “ but, listen…Just listen to that will you, people.

I’m tellin’ you the truth before god. Jesus, Mary &

Joseph…the lawd is my witness.

li’l chirrun’ don’t ask to be born, no!”

she was born in Aberville on Little River

 before they damned the Cane

Red River Girl in shotgun house by virgin cypress tree

near cottonwood in pouring rain

off bank by bog & bayou swamp

that was so old it did not have a name

never finished the first grade

taught herself to read and write

was 9 years in a convent ‘fore she met Chappy

married 52 years, loved baseball, Satchel Paige, Nat King

Cole & Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind she took in washing & ironing

 kept other peoples’ children,

knit & crochet, made a home that loved us all

& when she passed her hand there wasn’t a seat in the

church nor dry eye to be found when cousin

Raphel sang Ave Maria

still, whisper could be heard

when la patite made gumbo

poets flocked like wild birds in the dead of winter

she say “y’all come on now... I just fille’ the pot, cher…

& the fille’ from home, yeah…”

with a magnifying glass & a scratch sheet & her eyes

dancing in her head.

Notes on “Pocket Machine Gun Shorty” and “La Patite (The Little One)” by Suzanne Lummis

The portraits of Eric Priestley’s parents, affectionate homages, capture not only the personalities of “Pocket Machine Gun Shorty” and “La Patite,” their vernacular, their signature expressions and mannerisms, but also a region, a sense of a bygone time and place.

Beyond the charm of these remembrances, something else interests me—particularly as regards his father who, based on Priestley’s other, fuller account, was far from the “best li’l daddy a guy coulda known.” I’m interested in the degree of forgiveness required to write such a loving and uncritical tribute. Is it forgiveness, or did he just make the decision to let this poem be the repository of what was still left to love or admire about his father, and let his book, his more-truth-than-fiction work, present the darker story?

If anyone wonders why I’m assuming the “novel” can be relied on for anything close to the literal truth, well, there’s this. In Priestley’s Raw Dog, Papa also likes to declare he’s “a machinist by trade,” Mama also takes in washing. Papa’s favorite line is “I’m five feet one inch & a half in my stockin’ feet and all man!” (as he strikes his chest), and Mama’s refrain, uttered on all manner of occasions, goes like this, “God don’t like ugly and he’s not too crazy about pretty.” 

Almost everything in the poems appears in the book. But not everything in the book appears in the poems. Hardworking Mama loves her boy, adores him, and he her, and on at least one occasion she rises in strength, fury and fearsome dignity to protect him. But today, in these times, it unsettles contemporary sensibilities that she so often hits or whips this sensitive child for doing not much, it appears, other than behaving like a boy. It’s a crying shame, but it was not uncommon in that era, that place. It ought to be uncommon now, but…  Good luck with that oughta

Papa’s parenting style’s another matter. These days, if a father brought such pain upon a child the court would issue an order that he could not see that child again without another chaperone or guardian present—that is, after he was released from jail.

By the end of Raw Dog, protagonist Johnny Murphy hates Papa. But poet Eric Priestley wrote this poem. He chose forgiveness or he chose love, or he chose forgetfulness.

Or maybe he just decided to shelve his darker memories long enough to write this piece so that he’d have a pair, one for each parent, rather than write only one and leave a silence around the other parent, the suspended second shoe that never drops. Or…

…he chose forgiveness. Yes, I said that before. And I’ve come back to it. 

This interests me. It’s about character, Eric Priestley’s. I mean moral strength, that kind of character—fiber. I don’t know what he might’ve gotten up to in his long life, all that mystery—mysterious in some ways even to his close friend, Pam Ward—but his writing suggests Eric Priestley was a man of character. 



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