Then I snuck up behind a sleepy John Coltrane
and slowly unzipped his skin, starting at the point where his brain
meets the spine I peeled him lengthwise
to the tailbone, silent, breathless, he never woke
and even as I slipped my fingers inside his,
even as I gently placed my eyeballs behind his lids
he never woke and there I was, lying
face down on a bed, John Coltrane.
I take a heavy breath and push my lips to the mouthpiece,
blind behind the glass, I hear a voice, firm,
beginning to lose patience, a wailing siren;
keep breathing, keep breathing, keep breathing.
You snort when you chew, John’s wife says to me.
I’ve never noticed this. She is more trouble
than John’s old wife, but I can tell she loves John
by the way she watches him sleep, even with
the snorting and the ulcers and the drinking, she still
watches him sleep and when John’s allure
begins to fail and I resort to signing his name
with an X and suing every newspaper
with his image, she watches him sleep.
I knew the game was over, even before they came back
with the scans and textbooks
the size of tables. What’s wrong?
I said dutifully. They glanced over to the light box
and flicked through the pages; light box, pages, light box.
I sat for an hour in that hospital gown
a chill running up and down my white, lumpy spine.
Mr Coltrane, a small-eyed doctor finally said
grasping my hands between his knees,
I’m a huge fan, his doctor’s breath, glancing over
at the other doctors, wheezing on my face.
He looked so tired in his dead, floppy skin.
I left him in a sweltering bus shelter
in Hamlet. I felt like stuffing him.
Newspaper, leaves, my shoes, whatever
I could find, anything to bring the old Coltrane
back, the old Coltrane I knew who spoke directly
to the mic, politely, calmly, as cool as you like.
Bill Nelson grew up in South Auckland and now lives in Wellington. He won the Biggs Poetry Prize for best MA poetry portfolio at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2009. His writing has appeared in Hue & Cry, Sport, The Lumière Reader, Blackmail Press, 4th Floor and Swamp. He has also guest edited at Turbine and Blackmail Press.
Nelson comments: ‘“Giant Steps” was written to the theme of Hue and Cry 4: Champion This! – The Biography Issue. At the time, the only thing I knew about John Coltrane was how effortlessly cool his music was and how effortlessly cool his name sounded, which seemed like enough to go on.
‘I was also interested in the notion that biography quite often says as much about the author as the subject and seeing as poetry is never quite biography, autobiography or fiction it seemed like the perfect place to chase, and with a bit of luck be runover by, “The Trane”.’