the Banjo Player explains

no. he weren’t no kin of mine. not my pa
or grandpa. no grey-headed uncle neither.
just some drifter mister Henry paid to be painted,
same as me. but he was told to really teach me
how to pluck and strum—told it made it
“more authentic.” so I set there listenin’
to one mumble ‘bout frets and timin’,
the other natterin’ on ‘bout the balance
between two worlds, or somethin’ the like.

mister Henry was particular ‘bout the details.
I remember how the window shade had to be
just so. the hearth castin’ more light than heat.
see how I’m perched on his lap, like the cast iron
skillet on the table’s edge? Jesus, I felt his hot breath
on my nape for hours. I pressed and picked a few chords
good enough to earn a grunt ev’ry now and then,
but my fingers ached by the time we were through.

seein’ it now for the first time—lookin’ more
like that man than the boy I was—brings it all back.
the details I mean. the buttons on the suit coat
mister Henry never took off. the way his spectacles
set on his nose, how he pushed them back. the smell
of pomade in his hair and mustache. French I think.
the man was dressed exactly like you see,
same as me. but the room is different.

there was no white china behind us. no sun-yellowed
cloth beneath. no framed painting on the back wall.
yeah I’m sure. that half-eaten loaf was from the lunch
we shared in silence midway through the second day.
silence, until mister Henry—staring into the canvas—
said something about those two worlds. he looked
me in the eye. said someday I’ll see it all clearly.
the old man nodded, grunted once, and tuned to play
a sad, sad song.


-after Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson


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