Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Ahmos Zu-Bolton II

I did not know Ahmos Zu-Bolton. I heard him read one time, but I do not remember the context. We spoke a few times, and that was all. He was a man of enormous presence and charm, one of those people that you just liked and respected at first contact.

Ahmos was born Oct. 21, 1935, in Poplarville, Mississippi, and he died March 8, 2005, at Howard University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He was 69 years old.

Solo Press published A Niggered Amen: Poems, in California, 1975. Ain’t No Spring Chicken: Selected Poems, was issued by Voice Foundation, Inc. in New Orleans, 1998. He was co-editor, with E. Ethelbert Miller, of Synergy D.C. Anthology, published by Energy BlackSouth Press, 1975.

Ahmos ZuBolton II and Haryette Mullen

Here's a post from Ethelbert Miller's blog:

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Miss Walker, Miss Walker, your true love is dead
He sent you a letter to turn back your head

Ahmos Zu-Bolton was the author of A NIGGERED AMEN (1978) and AIN'T NO SPRING CHICKEN (1998). Yep. Little Zu was born in 1935. So he leaves us in his 70th year.

Here is what I wrote about him in my memoir FATHERING WORDS:

"He carried a bag of magazines or maybe it was just a pouch filled with goober dust, cat eyes and rabbit feet. The man was southern in the way he walked, dressed, and spoke. If it were earlier in the century, it would be a perfect example of the Great Migration. Here was the type of guy Langston Hughes would meet while in high school in Cleveland, the guy who spoke in the rhythms poets wanted to capture on the page. Henderson had introduced me to the blues and African American folklore. Ahmos Zu-Bolton introduced me to himself."

And here are three pages at Chicken Bones: A Journal:

the first, about Ahmos


the second, a poem by Ahmos


the third, announcing a candlelight vigil for Ahmos


Ahmos was part of the Mass Transit scene, and was in a couple of the mags.

Here's a poem:

The Basketball Star

We define:
Livewire Davis. The one
with the million-dollar jump-shot.

Livewire as bebop star:
torn between his body's genius
for fast breaks

and a questionmark
called rage. Stumbling
thru a lifetime of all-star games

(he never hit the winning points
but was always a frontpager.

Livewire's days

were lawless theater

(except for the 8 o'clock class,

except for the poetry of bullshitting

with the women,

except for the ritual of practice:

run jump "shoot their eyes out"


except for the terrible puzzle of books

he was free.

& here is another

into my final books of poems

this is to say that i am
coming round the bend. the darkness
inside your flashes of light know me,
i throw you curves because i wanted to be
a pitcher, a sidearming hero you could turn to
in the late innings. (i would save the game
before my wounded brother got to
the shower.

but this ain't no playground
they told me - that & the fact
that i never mastered
the screw-
is the reason i am here.

I was always an admirer of open parentheses.
& I will always be an admirer of this poet.

I need to get another copy of
the Synergy D.C. Anthology, as well as copies of the two books by Ahmos.

If any of the Mass Transit folk would like to add more about Ahmos in a comment, that would be a big plus.

& here is more from Ethelbert Miller: some notes for an article on Ahmos Zu Bolton
that was published in Eugene Redmond's Drumvoices Revue a few months after Ahmos died:

Spacedream Struggle

In his poem “Spacedream Struggle” one will find the use of Zu-Bolton’s favorite word- that word is “struggle.” One would have to look at other Zu-Bolton’s poems as well as his life to understand how he defines struggle.
Is it simply a racial one? It is an inner struggle to better define oneself?
Is it similar to the Muslim concept of Jihad, a struggle in which righteousness is a goal or objective.

Zu-Bolton’s three part poem begins after the conflict. If the first stanza we notice immediately that narrator of the poem is on a space ship. And he is heading home. One must ask the question – where is he coming from, and where is home? Is it earth? In the literature of many African American writers, the concept of home is a very important one. It can be a way of talking about the South as well as Africa. I think Zu-Bolton’s poem forces us to look at home in a much larger sense.

We find the narrator not in control of the ship and relying on music to determine its definition. Notice the reference the general reference to music in the poem and not to jazz or blues.

In the fourth stanza of the first section of “Spacedream Struggle” Zu-Bolton make one of those “Zu” leaps in his poems. A twist that defines logic and opens the door to his creative imagination.

“I am in the memorybanks/of the ship’s psychiatrist”

Why a psychiatrist? Why a person who treats mental disorders? Is this the person responsible for the care of everyone on the space ship? Why is there a psychiatrist on board in the first place?

And now one might wonder if this is a poem about inner space instead of outer space. We find the narrator becoming linked to the psychiatrist.
A joining of doctor/and patient; someone sick with someone well.

“He goes to sleep mumbling
and my voice takes-up
where he left off

In the second section of “Spacedream struggle” we find the narrator/psychiatrist fighting the Christians. So here it seems as if the use of the word “jihad” would not be out of place, in describing the conflict. What we find in Zu-Bolton’s poem is that Jesus is on his side fighting the Christians too. The narrator seems to have a kinship with Jesus, even as he rejects Jesus’ suggestion of turning the other cheek. Here Zu-Bolton places the words turn the other cheek in italics, as if spoken by Jesus. These words seem to be punctuated by the use of the word nigger.

The narrator and Jesus team up like a dynamic duo. They are fighting inside the spaceship and not outside. Jesus is fighting while standing on the narrator’s desk. It seems an interesting place to do battle.

If one was to look at the some of the larger questions raised by “Space Dream Struggle” one would find that Zu-Bolton is critical of the church and organized religion:

“I /had my back to the wall/sidekicking their preacher.

As Zu-Bolton describes the conflict taking place he relies on the visual use of white space on the page. He pulls in the folkloric reference to John Henry.
Along with a word like struggle, Ahmos would also frequently use the word dance, here we find “the ghetto in my eyes/was a firedance .” Dance must be viewed as ritual, as a term of engagement. Dancing underscores the movement of life as well as the language of the poem.

In the third and final section of “Space Dream Struggle” one finds the psychiatrist waking up, screaming and turning the narrator’s voice off.
It is the psychiatrist who gets up to leave and not the narrator. Payment is a bible. Why is payment a bible? What is the psychiatrist doing with a bible
in the first place? It’s also obvious that it is the psychiatrist who is not well.
Ahmos Zu-Bolton’s poem raises a number of philosophical questions about
religion as well as Jesus, and the role they play in political struggle.

Now,what follows the third section of Zu-Bolton’s poem is nothing but white space; about 2/3 of the rest of the page is blank. The absence of words seems to lead the reader back to the “weightlessness” mentioned at the beginning of the poem.

What one finds missing from the end of Zu-Bolton’s poem is a reference to the space ship. The narrator seems to be lost in space. One wonders if and when the music will lead him to his destination.

Spacedream Struggle


It has been a long day

and I am on a spaceship
going home.

I am not
at the controls, so I lean back
in my weightlessness
and let the music
carry me.

will disarm me, but
I surrender to it, being
the direction of the music
that the ship
I am in the memorybanks
of the ship's psychiatrist.
He is on the couch
spilling his life
to me.
I take it all down
in a shorthand that I can't read.
He goes to sleep mumbling
and my voice takes-up
where he left off.


I fought the christians today.
Me an my man Jesus, who is
on the mission with me.
and who would have me
turn the other cheek
we teamed up this morning, with
love in his heart and rage in mine
we turned the sky of this ship
into a battleground.

Jesus stood on my deck
turning both cheeks
at once. I

had my back to the wall
sidekicking their

We fought the good fight.

The heat of battle
my body
like sweat,

the ghetto in my eyes
was a firedance
my fist
became John Henry's hammer
and the side of my feet
became the switch --
they say we all


The psychiatrist woke up
and turned my voice off. He
left convinced that he
was not as sick
as me.

(unable to reproduce the spacing of the original poem).


Lally said...

Ahmos was one of the sweetest, kindest, most humble poets I ever met in a lifetime of meeting poets. I loved his work, and as I said in another comment, I'm truly sorry I didn't include some in None of the Above, the anthology I edited in the early '70s. I did publish him, as did others, in Mass Transit, the mag that came out of the weekly reading series, and we hung out quite a bit. Whenever I was with him, I felt less antic, more peaceful than was normal for me back then, because of the peace in his presence. It was like some jazz musician friends said they felt in the presence of john Coltrane after he cleaned up and got deeply spiritual. Ahmos could smile in response to something I said and I'd know right away to take a deep breath and talk more slowly and make sure I meant every word and wasn't just riffing. We shared poems, he even asked my advice on some, and would be honest about what he thought of mine. He also gave me things—books, music, poems, etc. and once, when he was in my studio apartment on Florida Avenue, he admired a carved wooden sculpture of an African figure that had been given to me by my best friend in the service who I ran into on a street in Boston after not having seen him for years, where he was selling these figures he had carved, big heavy figures, maybe three feet tall and a foot or more in diameter, he was selling in order to raise enough money to make a trip to Africa, maybe move there. It meant a lot to me, but Ahmos was so taken with it, and he had always been so generous with me, I impulsively gave it to him on the spot, and the grace with which he accepted this gift and honored it was typical of every encounter I had with him back then. At the Mass Transit readings he was always a gentle but powerful presence, and his poetry was always good, always uniquely his, and always appreciated. I can't speak for others who were there in those years, but I loved being around him, and loved him period. Wish I'd seen him more after I moved away.

eastcoaster said...

I must echo Michael's description of what it meant to be in Ahmos' presence. The first poetry reading my daughter, Thea, attended was one given by Ahmos and Ethelbert at the MLK Library in DC in April 1974. I remember the date because Thea was 3 weeks old. Ahmos dedicated one of his poems to her that day. Recently, I've reread the few letters I have from him, as eloquent, melodic and gently spirited as are his poems. I always felt blessed by his friendship, and twice blessed whenever he called me sister. I miss him.