Johnny Cash scowling,

Gillian Welch strolling by

In the sultry glow of neon,

Heartbreaker bright. . .


A poem inspired by Unbroken Line

by Joseph O’Connor     

A cowboy on a business trip,

In the Shadowroads Motel,

Bought a tape by a singer whose work he didn’t know. 

Lonesome as a freight train.

He bought it for its cover.

As he rode the streetcar homeward,

His eyes filled with snow.


And late that night,

Alone in his room,

He played those songs over

And the world burst alive.

In the voice of a power he thought he’d never see

Passionate and eloquent,

Longing to be free.


And he dreamed of the badlands,

The Fahrenheit high,

Johnny Cash scowling,

Gillian Welch strolling by

In the sultry glow of neon,

Heartbreaker bright,

And the heat-shimmer playing

Strange tricks with your sight.

Emmylou on the sidewalk

As the white busses stare

While out from the shopfronts

Blast vents of cold air

So that Allison Kraus

Has her hair blown a wild

But the breeze on O’Connell Street’s

Subtle and mild.


Sun Studio’s roasted.

There’s a fever in the town,

Up in Max’s Kansas City

Carlene Cash is getting down,

And the feedback of power-chords blasting out a fuse

As she stumbles to the stage singin’ ‘Hearbreaker Blues’,

Sweatin’ like a Viking, pawing at the air.

Hank Williams is deciding if he’ll dance… or if he’ll dare.   


And the Scarlet Town girls

Their tattoos and their kisses

And their long, lithe limbs

In their calico dresses,

While Italian old ladies of various ages

Fanning their faces with magazine pages

On a night blue and humid and tropical-showery,

O’er the dimestores of Irishville, the dives of the Bowery. 

September in a dream, but the weather still swelters

Down by Bob Dylan Boulevard and the homeless men’s shelters.


Scarlet Town in summer

Is wearing her shades,

The sun goes down but the beauty never fades.

The temperature’s roaring,

The taxi cabs screech,

All around you the soaring of Scarlet Town speech.

‘Yo Bro…Que paso?…Whatcha know…Gimme call.’

The Unbroken Line dancehall stays open to all.

It’s bluegrass, it’s newgrass, it soars and it howls,

A whole city dancing calypsos of vowels. 


In Birdland. Gorgeous Wordland.

If you can’t stand the heat,

Then burn down the kitchen,

Cool your mind on the street,

Dip your hands into the music that murders the pain.  

Here’s Townes Van Zandt. Here’s Tom Verlaine.  

Here’s Johnny B Goode on the lead guitar.

Loretta Lynn singin’ ‘Fever’ in the punk Irish bar.


Here come Ava and Romy down Avenue A,  

Steve Earle busking; Dermot Bolger rapping rhymes,

While on Broadway and Grand, with an amp in one hand, 

John Prine is laughing at the Scarlet Town Times

And a beat-cop from Finglas

Is chewing the breeze

With a guy in a dress

Hanging down to his knees,

And by Dolly Parton Station,

Trading honks with a train 

There’s a cat from the Bronx

Playing John Coltrane

On a saxophone gold as the ochre of the sun

As it sets on the harbor where the ships came in

From the countries of famine and murder, to be free,

Now he’s playing ‘Gentle Jesus, Just a Closer Walk With Thee.’


The cowboy heard it all.

The patois, the pizzazz,

The slangs of meshing languages, throbbing, sweet jazz,

Down in Guy Clark Park,

A Congolese Reverend Mother

Gives food among the hungry:

‘Every poor-man is my brother.’  


Cowpokes in leather and wannabe stars 

And smooth Puerto Ricans in honky-tonk bars,

Near the Trouble-Come-Find-Me, someone drawls: “It’s all good.”

Handsome firemen are flirting with girls from the ‘hood.


And inside the Tower of Song,

The homeless and the scholars,  

Breakerswept. Waterlogged.

Eyes streaming with typographies.

In billows of numbering. Dazed by work and reading.


Through depths of pasts. The glittered, graved tiles.

Through everything written in water.

Through Atlantics of stories, by the corals of a thought.

Love poems. Tracts. Archipelagos of facts. 

Melodies reminted. Love affairs sung.

The small things recorded, for no other reason

Than a fellowship with the possible; a faith-keeping. 

To say: there are importances.

Other solidarities; versions.

We are not here to be advertised-to, or lied-to, or to hate.

To grub in dark spaces, afraid of ever knowing.

We are here to be better. To know more deeply what we are.

Old maps. Forgotten bindings. We too are bound.

I don’t want to be alone. I want to hear her music.



The ghosts of old security guards in the elevators at midnight,

Riding up and down the lift-shafts, swopping balladry and harmonies,

While out on Forty Second a man gazes up at the windows

And sees lights he doesn’t understand.   


‘God is a library,’ John Donne wrote.

He shall gather us together. We are enfolded.

The metaphor tolling; it deepens; an echo,

Like the ohs in ‘John Donne’. Sonorous. Resonant.

God is a jukebox in East Texas.


Gutta cavat lapidem. A Latin line from Ovid

Tiled on the wall of the cheap saloon.

‘Dripping water hollows stone.’  

We might yet be translated

By the everyday mercy.

By the written-on-the-wall,


And the Etta James Building

Is glintingly kissed

In her ball-gown of neon

Illumined through the mist

And the lasers go sweeping

The Scarlet Town sky

And the stargazers gaze

As the starlets stroll by.


And the songstress comes wearing her brilliant disguise:

A glittering tiara,

Zorro-mask round the eyes.

She’s a boy dressed in drag,

She’s a badass in Versace

With a painted-on smile

Like the sad Pagliacci.


Soon, soon, it will be Halloween again.

Fall-time will come

To Scarlet Town.


And on Considine Square

As the dusk brings on lights

In Victorian houses, remarkable sights

Can be seen in the park

Where a spruce shakes his hair

And a girl carves ‘I. love. U.’

Into the bark.


O say can you see by the dawn’s early light

Patsy Cline and Tammy so joyously rapping

‘Frankie and Johnny’, a-wailing the blues

And the hands of freed people brave gospels are clapping

And the rockets’ red glare, over Considine Square,  

Were turned by her magic to rhymes true and rare.

Mother-city, loveland, o island of songs,

The boy stands in your windows,

As the thunderstorms roll

On a season of thirsts, of replenishing waters.

By the towers raised high by the immigrants. 


And to this flag he holds,

To the music raised here,

The exile of hatreds,

The banishment of fear.

To a town built of beauty,

In its shimmer and its myth,

Where the horses of our dreaming

Were shod by Patti Smith.

Cos like Tom Waits sang,

In the whole wide world

Ain’t nothing really matters

When you love a Jersey Girl.

We are part of better angels,

Something greater, redemptive. 

And when all of the rubble

Is gathered and cleared,

The jewels mined here

Might save us.


He believed it, then,

With a passion and a will.

Certain nights in Scarlet Town,

He believes it, still.

So, if your baby leaves you

And you gotta tale to tell?

I’ll see you on Sidine Street,

Where the wonders shall be well.