Duke Ellington, Santa Ana, El Salvador, 1974

William Archila

He paces the cool, dusty classroom,
hands in his pockets, rows of chairs,
sixth-grade children looking straight
at him, watching his big-band walk.

At the blackboard, he turns
and breaks the silence.
“Instead of crossing an Oriental garden,
picture a desert under a devil sun.” 

He snaps his fingers two plus one
as if to say one more time.
We shout back a demented version of Caravan,
crashing cymbals, drums, bent horns—
muffled rhythms from a line of saxophones. 

Edwin Martinez gets on his feet, leans over
the music stand and tortures the trumpet,
pouring all his memories of Egypt from history class.
Douglas Díaz slaps the bongos
exactly the same way he beats on
cans of coffee and milk at home. 

Señor Ellington claps his hands along,
dancing a two-step blues, stomping
in the center of every one like a traffic cop
conducting a busy city street.
Before break he will tell us
stories of a smoky blue spot
called the Cotton Club.
We will learn all the Harlem rhapsodies
from the Latin Quarter up to 125th Street.
He will swing the piano keys, a syncopated phrase
and we will listen: no need to study war no more. 

He could be my grandfather,
black boy from Chalatenango—
indigo-blue family
from the Caribbean through Honduras.
He could be the one to write a tone parallel to Sonsonate,
a trombone to roll to the wheels
of a cart, the wrinkled man,
toothless, pulling his corn.

More than a Congo drum in a cabaret,
more than a top hat and tails before a piano,
I want him to come back,
his orchestra to pound the doors
of a ballroom by the side of a lake.
I want the cracked paint to peel off the walls,
lights to go dim, floors to disappear,
a trumpet to growl,
my country to listen.

California State University, Fresno