Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit
            after a photo of Billie Holiday
            by Robert Willoughby
Tough life, yeah it’s been hard; sometimes
I felt so desperate, I couldn’t see tomorrow.
My parents were children, bringing me
into this heart-breaking life. Eleanor they
called me but she died a long time ago.
Strange, yes. I’m 106, a ghost, a spirit
that succumbed too soon, gone at 44,
and yet the chapters crammed sideways
into those 44 years defined what I became.
Abused at 9, taken from my mother, dad
long gone; I was passed around, a scattered
childhood moving always moving. Strange,
I see you looking at me. Billie, Eleanor
long dead by then. 1951, I’m 36, years
from leaving, years after spending a year
in jail, and here I was caught unaware,
snapped in black-and-white mid-croon
at the Tiffany Club in LA, no shadow
to hide my vulnerable side. No time
to pose, to check my make-up, no chance
to wonder if the fake diamond drops
in my ears glistened just right, if my collar
of ersatz carats is centered. Sill, I love
this photograph, not for the tiny pinprick
of hope in my left eye, not for the eyebrow
arched in despair, the roots of heartache
barely concealed between teeth, lips pursed
for the next stone thrown at me. Black and
white, so strange. And yet.
Prison, yes. a year of incarcerated
contemplation, a sentence for drug abuse;
a penalty perhaps for climbing a white ladder
of fame, of singing with saints playing
to my dark, slow tempo, my lucky days
with Benny Goodman, Count Basie,
and Artie Shaw, but ebony and ivory, I
was segregated, a table in a dark corner
off stage, left in the dark when the spotlight
clicked off. White black strangers.
Can’t have a cabaret license with a record;
“Pick up your tempo,” I’m told. “You’re
dragging your beat.” But, if I’m gonna sing
like someone else, I don’t need to sing at all.
Good days before prison,
solo performances after. Life before Billie,
hardships buried with the name Eleanor. 
Digging heels in, climbing up from the abyss,
learning there’s lots of greyscale between
black and white. Life after prison, after spotlight,
cloudy with a chance of alcohol and drugs. 
Where to go from a standing ovation
at Carnegie Hall but to heaven. 
No way to wait for the world to be
what I need. Strange fruit indeed.
That was black and white 1959; I wonder
what color you’d photograph me in now…
~ J R Turek

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