My father wore his sorrow like a hundred millstone weight.
I seldom saw him angry and I never saw him hate.
And though he dressed for mourning, I only saw him cry
Once in anguish, once for love, and once when Louis Armstrong died.

This song is for a miner’s son, sung in a minor key;
Whose purposes and promises for life would never be.
Some dreams he’d given up on and still others he denied.
And all of them returned to him the day King Louis died.

When time was once upon a time, when blue moons bloomed
In June of 1950 he became the perfect groom.
He promised half-formed dreams beneath his half-closed lids.
They disembarked and for their mark left half a dozen kids.

In June of sixty-eight my mother took the kids away.
I saw my father kneel and sob, begging her to stay.
He died that afternoon even though his body lived.
He took to drink with the creed: forget first, then forgive.

In summer seventy-one on our annual vacation
When our meetings were constrained to rights of visitation.
We headed off to Flagstaff, to see his boyhood town.
Even the asphalt sweated as the desert sun beat down.

We walked beside the railroad tracks where once he’d gathered coal.
Along the desert’s rim we found a rattler’s sun-bleached skull.
He took us to the tenement where he and grandma stayed.
He drove us by the gravel pit where as a child he played.

That night outside our cheap motel a neon scribble shone
While from the local FM station country music droned.
Then the deejay’s voice broke in saying Louis Armstrong died.
I watched as for the second time I saw my father cry.

I can only half-suppose the bond between the two:
The trumpet blown with lively notes ransomed from the blue.
Perhaps the rhythms carried him back to a land of dreams
When life stepped in rhythm and love was what it seemed.

But this world isn’t for the faint: and when his heart attacked
He coughed up blood and downed more drink to fight his demons back.
Once as he filled his whiskey glass, he wept for where he’d sunk,
And asked me if it hurt to have a father who’s a drunk.

The human soul is only built to hold so many notes.
My father’s breath became a fist, it clenched inside his throat.
No, this world isn’t made of mercy: so when my father died
I looked into his casket but somehow I couldn’t cry.

An angel is an angel still, by any other name.
There’ll be no more excuses when we find we’re all the same.
The reasons to strive for heaven are the people that we’ll meet:
With Louis playing trumpet and my father at his feet.



Martin Hill Ortiz is a researcher and professor at the Ponce University of Health Sciences in Ponce, PR where he lives with his wife and son. He has three novels published by small presses: A Predatory Mind (Loose Leaves Publishing, 2013),  Never Kill A Friend, (Ransom Note Press, 2015), and A Predator’s Game (Rook’s Page, 2016). 

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6 Responses

  1. Rob Crisell

    A powerfully moving poem. Some of the images will stay with me for a while. Your poem immediately reminded me of Eliot’s lines from “Preludes”: “I am moved by fancies that are curled / Around these images, and cling; / The notion of some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing.” Well done.

  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I like the pace and rhythm of this heartfelt poem which rapidly unfolds into a truly moving story. Mr. Crisell is spot on with his comment on the images portrayed. I love the musicality of “… blue moons bloomed/In June…”. I only have one complaint – the sob in my chest and my streaked mascara.

  3. Joan Erickson

    Great Poem!
    Brought tears,
    Brought back memories
    of the songs.


    A beautiful tribute – so moving! It reminded me of a few years ago, when I was in New Orleans and stumbled upon the Louis Armstrong exhibit at the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park. His music definitely touched many, for a variety of reasons. You capture that well in your poem.

  5. Jasmine

    Touched my heart–took me along to a journey and I could see it all

  6. Martin Hill Ortiz

    As you may have suspected, it is from a true story. The only minor detail that I invented is that my father gathered coal from along the railroad tracks. That’s a detail from a Louis Armstrong biography (he gathered coal that had fallen from train transports and took it home to keep warm).
    My father did show me the humble home he lived in in Flagstaff, near the railroad track and, knowing how cold Flagstaff could get, I transplanted that anecdote.
    I’ve recited this poem at poetry readings and slams, and sometimes I break down.

    This is a recent, non-rhyming poem about my father:

    My father is the splinter I grew my flesh around;
    The wooden spit that holds my meat and bones.
    I could never be a man until I learned
    That a drunk lying on the
    Floor can stand taller than a lectern.


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