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David Huddle: Villanelle for Lady Day

She was arrested for narcotics possession in 1947 and made to serve time in jail. After her release, she sold out a show at Carnegie Hall. Still, she could not make a clean break from heroin and the police forces trying to punish her for it. As she lay dying in her hospital bed from liver cirrhosis in 1959, she was handcuffed and arrested for drug possession.

                  —The Writer’s Almanac, April 7, 2017


Hateful America, I wore your uniform

five years after Lady Day died in handcuffs–

Genteel racist, I was born to conform.


Discharged in 66 I wore my airborne

cap home, saluted my grandfather as if

he should have been proud of me in that uniform.


Billie said, “If I’m going to sing like someone

else, then I don’t need to sing at all.”  Let’s

just say I was white and knew how to conform.


I didn’t hear “Strange Fruit” until she’d been

long dead. By then even Ali’d gotten his 

notice and had to wear that hateful uniform.


He said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them

Viet Cong,” but they took him anyway, and Elvis, 

too–they made them stand up straight and conform


just enough to stay out of jail. My shame

is some of who I am–I’ve got my campaign 

badge, my honorable discharge–but just minutes

ago I learned her real name was Eleanora Fagan.


Copyright 2020 David Huddle

David Huddle’s ninth poetry collection, My Surly Heart, was published by LSU Press in 2019.

2 comments on “David Huddle: Villanelle for Lady Day

  1. joseph r witkowski
    June 21, 2020

    Not to be picky but Ali never served in the army. He refused and was stripped of his title. He persevered and was victorious at the Supreme Court.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Barbara Huntington
    June 18, 2020

    We learn, we change, we feel good about ourselves, we learn, we change

    Liked by 1 person

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