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An Ode to Funk

A new book pairs Michael Abramson’s photos of 1970s South Side juke joints with original poetry by Patricia Smith.

When Midge Wilson, the partner of the late photographer Michael Abramson, commissioned Richard Cahan and Michael Williams of Chicago-based CityFiles Press to publish a book of Abramson’s photos, the duo faced a quandary. Many of the images, gritty portraits of South Side juke joint dancers in the 1970s, had been included in the 2009 book Light: On the South Side. “We wanted to give the pictures new life,” says Cahan. Enter the acclaimed poet Patricia Smith. Cahan had worked with Smith at the Sun-Times in the ’80s and had followed her career after she left journalism in 1998 in the wake of a scandal involving stories she had fabricated at The Boston Globe. Cahan asked Smith, whose father had frequented such clubs, to write something in response to the photos. The result is Gotta Go Gotta Flow ($45, November 5), which combines 82 pictures with 78 equally evocative poems. Here are six of the pairings. 

This is what she came for—the head thrown back,
the drenched breastbone, gutbucket notes going directly
to the backside. It’s the blatant redefining of joy
when nothing outside the door can get in—no Hawk,
no clacking factory line, no quick blades or empty
wallets. This is what she came for—the dance that
changes from sway to engine, the dance that doesn’t
end, the love he probably doesn’t have left to give.

Who needs a Cadillac or Deuce and a Quarter,
a Lincoln Mark, all that clank and gas money?
Once you know what’s it’s like to feel an engine
groan and grow right through your hips, once
you zoom up to the club, cracking the curb
with your own chill, once you figure out how
to stand the funky perfection of your own arrival,
once you know the sugary addiction of making
a scene, who needs to zoom backward into
regular, into just like you, into ordinary again?

Chicago men got a swagger that says they
know alleyways and a hundred ways to tame
salt pork. They know how to cut loose, how
to double a negative and clear a room,
Chi-town men mean every explosive thing they
mutter to a woman. The shock in their words
is real. They smoke a sweet particular poison.
Afraid that the eyes might really be windows
to the soul, they wear shades smudged dim.
Behind the glasses, their wants are wide open.
Chicago women got a swagger that says they
know the ways of Chicago men. They come up
in the shadows of lumbering boys, the women
built themselves up on doubledutch and swigs
of cooking grease from sinkside jars. When they
dance, their unbridled hips bellow like fists,
overwhelming whatever the music thought it was.
What did the music think it was? In charge.
But no Chicago woman has ever met a dance
floor, or a man, she couldn’t buckle and break.
She smiles because she knows that

We dance demurely in our seats
while waiting for partners. We know
we’re the best chance in the room.
When there’s a soul pop in the 45,
we just have to pump our fists, not
enough to conjure a sweat, but just
enough. We’re counting under our
breath, because coordination counts.
Our breasts are hinted at, our hair is
paid for, we are pretending surrender.
This is your luckiest unlucky night.
Consider, rehearse, do not approach.
Songs are written about us. We are
chorus, bridge, hook. Go on ahead,
dance with us. We’ll be right here.

The befurred warrior, guardian of the handbag,
surveys his kingdom in a manly way, hoping
the toothpick and lean hide his irritation as his
woman dances without him. If he’d worn a shirt,
if he’d only worn a shirt, he wouldn’t radiate such
heat, and a slice of the floor could be his. Instead,
he is becoming a smell, a tangle of funk and envy,
not believing that woman just had the nerve to say,
Watch this, baby. Imma be back. I’m fixta dance!

The question is whether or not a woman ever
really knows her own beauty,
whether she can stand facing a city
that’s fixed on finding ways to change her,
and say her own life aloud.
That name, a slow unfold of southern light,
is the name her daddy gave her—and when he did,
he knew she would spend long hours
asking her mirror to give something back.
He knew she’d be a Chicago girl
who’d one day drive her fist through the reflection.

It’s the beginning of the night.
There’s a roar every time the door opens
and another player walks in, there are hand slaps
and fresh drinks being slammed down
in greeting. The women still smell
like Maybelline and smashed roses,
the men like tobacco and spice and spice
and peppermint they crush in the back
of their mouths. The music is slow
right now, giving everybody a chance
to find the battery in their bodies.

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