This week marks the anniversary of the death of the great blues artist Bessie Smith. Sixty-three years ago on a road in Mississippi, her car rear-ended a slow-moving truck and rolled over, crushing her left side. From that point on, the details are murky and hotly contested: Some claim she bled to death on the way to the hospital, others maintain that the nearest hospital was a white institution that turned her away.

It's a terrible story, but Michael Harper tells it gently, as a blues song--for the blues, as Ralph Ellison has written, are all about learning how to cope with helplessness and rage, how sometimes pain is more tolerable if you don't try to fight it but learn to live with it, even to "laugh just to keep from crying."

Last Affair: Bessie's Blues Song

Disarticulated

arm torn out,

large veins cross

her shoulder intact,

her tourniquet

her blood in all-white big bands:

Can't you see

what love and heartache's done to me

I'm not the same as I used to be

this is my last affair

Mail truck or parked car

in the fast lane,

afloat at forty-three

on a Mississippi road,

Two-hundred-pound muscle on her ham bone,

'nother nigger dead 'fore noon:

Can't you see

what love and heartache's done to me

I'm not the same as I used to be

this is my last affair

Fifty-dollar record

cut the vein in her neck,

fool about her money

toll her black train wreck,

white press missed her fun'ral

in the same stacked deck:

Can't you see

what love and heartache's done to me

I'm not the same as I used to be

this is my last affair

Loved a little blackbird

heard she could sing,

Martha in her vineyard

pestle in her spring,

Bessie had a bad mouth

made my chimes ring:

Can't you see

what love and heartache's done to me

I'm not the same as I used to be

this is my last affair

No other poet has embodied the riffs and modalities of jazz and blues more exquisitely than Michael S. Harper; sometimes the ellipses are so deep, the multiple meanings keep hitting long after you've turned the page. A Harper poem teaches how to think on many different levels, to hold one thought like a pianist holds a chord while the other hand goes about its business. He's a master of the double-take, as this bittersweet nugget of a poem demonstrates:

A friend told me

He'd risen above jazz.

I leave him there.

But beyond the brilliant turns and shifts of Harper's poems are their clear-eyed and compassionate dealings with the hard news of life, be it the example of his grandfather facing off a crowd of white neighbors agitated by the first screening of "Birth of a Nation," a young girl witnessing Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, or Bessie Smith bleeding to death at the side of a road. There is also the promise of what he calls the healing song--nothing less than the transformative power of art informed by history yet grounded in the full complexity of human potential--and tendered, of course, with "a love supreme."

(From "Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems." Copyright {copy} 2000 by Michael S. Harper. Used with permission of the poet and the University of Illinois Press.)