Fattening Frogs For Snakes

Decoration Day

for John Hall

Rice Miller
went to his grave
in the Whitfield Baptist Church cemetary
just outside of Tutwiler, Mississippi,

on or around Decoration Day,
1965. He died in his sleep
on May 25th
of natural causes, meaning

his life ran out
before someone with a knife
or a gun or some poison
could cause him to leave here

before his time. He lived his life
to the full,
brooking no interference,
asking no quarter

& certainly giving none. Robert Lockwood,
his sidekick from the 30’s
& on through the years
called him a “terrible scound,”

which should give you some idea
of what his enemies thought of him.
But Rice never cared
about his enemies, or his friends,

for that matter—he did
exactly what he wanted to do,
& let the devil
take the hindmost. He lived fast

for an awful long time,
& when he felt his time coming
he went back home to Helena
to die, where he got his start

playing his harp & singing
on KFFA radio. His friends were there,
& his sisters,
& what family he had,

& when he passed
they carried him across the river
to Tutwiler
& buried him next to the church.

12 years later,
in 1977,
Ms. Lillian McMurray
of the Diamond Record Company

of Jackson, Mississippi,
who cut his first records
for her Trumpet label in 1951,
reached into her coffers

& bought him a gravestone
& had it erected
in the weeds & bramble bushes
next to the river

behind the Whitfield Baptist Church
just outside of town. 12 years
he went unnoticed
& unmarked, a giant in the earth

anonymously haunting the town
where W.C. Handy first heard the blues
in 1903. Oh Sonny Boy,
Sonny Boy,

I’m down on my knees
by your grave
in the dark of night,
February 1984,

pulling aside the thorns
& the long grass & weeds
in the light of the headlamps
of my car, with John Hall beside me,

geeked-up pilgrims from the north
on our way to New Orleans,
stopping by to say good-bye
baby, just one more time

— Detroit
January 21, 1985