“Billie Holiday’s Deathbed” – a poem by Sean Murphy

May 31st, 2023

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portrait of Billie Holiday by Vakseen

art by Vakseen

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Billie Holiday’s Deathbed

(On May 31, 1959—as she lay dying at the Metropolitan Hospital in New York, aged 44—Billie Holiday was arrested, handcuffed, and put under police guard for possession of narcotics.)

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This busy bee, at the end of a life like clockwork,
a symphony of service to everything but herself—
wings snatched in a world blinded by the way it is—
slowly expiring in the sweet nectar of stillness, stung
with bittersweet poison, an alchemy of blinded faith.

And even this they could not abide.
Their white-hot burden, unappeasable,
like anti-gravity drawing light inside
its sense of self: righteous, obdurate,
enfeebled from all their inherited fears.

Who are these men that know nothing
about the blues? Inspiring jinxed history
with officious ink—corrections bled red
outside the margins, ignored or overcome—
their shared voice, warning: Be more like me.

Or worse still, stay separate, apart, unheard;
entitled or at least allowed to live: strange fruit
that rots inside dark spaces, or gets torn down
from trees, weeping their weary psalms of silence,
caustic smoke signals blown from burning crosses.

What do they know about beauty, their hatred the only thing
honest about them? What do they know about the helpless
ones: helpless for song, helpless for love, helpless for a fix,
helpless for joy, helpless for hope? God bless the child that
backward men would scorn, ignore, or erase—if they could.

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Sean Murphy has appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” as well as in USA Today, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and AdAge. A long-time columnist for PopMatters, his work has also appeared in Salon, The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, The Good Men Project, Memoir Magazine, and others. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and his chapbook, The Blackened Blues, is now available from Finishing Line Press. To learn more, visit seanmurphy.net

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Born in Athens, GA (1979) and raised in Jacksonville, FL, Otha Davis III (also known as  Vakseen) is a self-taught, museum-exhibited artist and a multi-platinum music executive, producer & songwriter.

To visit his website, click here

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Listen to Billie Holiday sing “Trav’lin All Alone”  [Columbia/Legacy]

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