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Peter Balakian

Little Richard

On a walk past bulldozers and trucks

pouring tarmac for the NJ Eisenhower highway

my grandmother said to me as we turned

into a market with olive barrels, hanging

meat, piles of sumac and coriander –

"he shakes away my blues". It was 1959,

and what did I know about starving

in the Syrian desert or the Turkish whips

that lashed the bodies of Armenian

women on the roads of dust. I wouldn't

have believed that she saw

those things. The radio

was always on the sink in my grandmother's

kitchen. "He's a whirling dervish" she said –

whirling dervish – the whoosh of the phrase

stayed with me. I too felt his trance –

even then – as she pounded spices

with a brass mortar and pestle.

The air on fire under him

the red clay of Macon dusting his bones.

What did I know about Sufism

Sister Rosetta or bird feet at the Royal Peacock?

In the yard the bittersweet is drying up,

the berries turning gold and red.

The way memory deepens with light.

His shaking gospel voice. The heart

going up in flames. My grandmother

survived the worst that humans do.

This poem was originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 9, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets. Peter Balakian is an Armenian-American poet, prose writer and scholar. He is the author of many books including the 2016 Pulitzer prize-winning book of poems Ozone Journal, the memoir Black Dog of Fate (winner of the PEN/Albrand award in 1998) and The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response, winner of the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize.

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