Sunday, July 20, 2008

In Which His Poems Tell The Poet Things About Himself That He Never Suspected

Of course I carry a favorable image of myself: less than noble or heroic or of prime importance to the course of the world, but at least I see me as confident, productive, comfortable in my self; a humanist-atheist-materialist, if there is such a category of person; at seventy-two glad of my life & not overly concerned that most of it has been lived. But several months this spring were occupied with the preparation of my first book of poems in over forty years. It's called Things I Must Have Known, out in mid April from Coffee House Press, & the days spent inside these lines fixing miniscule flaws, throwing trash images overboard & bringing better ones on have been shockingly revelatory to me. These revelations are the subject of this piece.

But first I'll digress briefly by way of those four & a half decades of not publishing. There's an important point to be made here if only to a limited audience, in this case those artists who drifted into the Sargasso Sea of arts administration, surrendered their creative production, & never caught a tailwind to bring them home. I went to work at the National Endowment For The Arts (NEA) in 1975. There's a lot to say about that, & perhaps in other pieces I will, but the thing here is that federal conflict-of-interest rules forbade my publishing in the not-for-profit press, or reading in not-for-profit sites, including colleges & universities (where I couldn't even lecture) as they were eligible to apply to the agency. As a result of this deadly situation, as well as the usual middle aged - middle class pressures of rearing & educating children, I stopped writing. Then somewhere in my mid-sixties it occurred to me, perhaps in a dream, that if I were to die, my children would have to put on my tombstone, "Here Lies A. B. / He Wrote Great Guidelines." In other words, I could no longer call myself a poet as you are what you do. So I started on the long hard struggle to get my chops back, a bigger deal than you might think, as administration atrophies the right brain; worse, it utterly corrupts one’s prose as it occludes one’s poetry. I won't enumerate all of the frustrations that I went through before I had a real, live poem as I want to get back to what the damn things said to me as I got them ready for the book. I only want to make this one point to people who master an artistic discipline only to give it up for some other profession: don't do it. I don't mean that no one should ever leave the field for whatever exigent reason, I mean that you don't have to throw away the art making to do it. It's too damn hard to tame the piano or the canvas or the page, to take space where there was nothing & put art there, to give it up for a job. The fact is, it's the hardness of it that lets us accept the excuse of the job & family as a reason to let it slide. Procrastinations don't give you the psychological pass unless you can convince yourself that they are more urgent than the creative work at hand; the kids, the office, etc, are just more convincing procrastinations. You can squeeze in some hours for your discipline if you are committed to it. I get evangelical about this because I know so many talented artists who have liquidated their craft for the vicarious life of the arts administrator, noble work indeed, but the rewards are not the same as completing the poem & saying to yourself, "damn, that's good."

Back to the names that my poems called me: I mentioned above that I am an atheist. I’m not hardassed about this; I don’t consider people who believe in god to be stupid or na├»ve or misguided, else I would have no friends or much family. I’ve even reared a daughter, the younger one, who is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ of whom I am immensely proud. I was brought up under the commandments which are, of course, good basic values. & I know many people who have benefited from their faith. It’s just that I don’t think that there is a god or an afterlife or that real answers can be found outside the material world. I am quite content in my beliefs.

Then why is it that religion is mentioned in twelve of forty-eight poems, & that doesn’t even count the Adam & Eve poem or the one about astrology, which I loathe (astrology, that is; not the poem about it.) There’s a set of five poems called Out Of Nazareth. There’s also one entitled Ghost about a woman who sees her husband’s spirit everywhere after his accidental death:

spirit. she called him that: spirit
her faith held spirit to be outside of time
& space, for all dimensions failed
in a state where his spirit walked
beside & inside her while her own
suddenly friable soul disintegrated
into sparkling atoms
of nothing…
does that to a love…

Yes, Ghost is about the uncopeable devastation of abrupt loss of one’s most beloved, but this kind of supernaturalism occurs in Things I Must Have Known much too often for my comfort.

In Matrarie I write of a Vodou ceremony:

all know to be taken, be danced
from the spirit out, tell what
the loa tell in voices they cannot hear
they speak in the glossolalia of serpents
from a puissance
that is stronger than chains
loose the spirit
from flesh in the hub of the dark…

Do I believe that the loa, demigods of the Vodou religion, actually mount the practitioners & speak with their tongues? No, of course I don’t, but I’m reminded of that day in Haiti when the late poet Larry Neal & I were walking by a field & I bent down to pick up a curious looking bottle. A little boy ran frantically up to us shouting, “don’t touch that! If you do a zombie will come out of it & beat you up!” I didn’t believe him either, but I didn’t pick up the bottle.

& then in After Vallejo, which begins, “i will die in havana in a hurricane”, I write:

when you come for me come singing
no dirge, but scat my eulogy in bebop
code. sing that i died among gods
but lived with no god & did not suffer
for it. find one true poem that i made
& sing it to my shade as it fades
into the wind…

Unlike Ghost & Metrarie, After Vallejo is written in my voice, so that the reader has no reason to doubt that I mean every word, the orisha (Santeria demigods who are the first cousins of the Vodou loa) who rise in the first stanza “…lifted / by congueros in masks of iron, bongoseros / in masks of water, timbaleros in masks of fire / by all the clave that binds the rhythms of this world…”

It’s all metaphor, of course; but then, what isn’t when you get right down to it? But I have to ask myself, “who is this guy with the fading shade whose death is supervised by “the mother of waters” & “the saint of crossroads”? (This saint is the former St. Christopher who lost his canonical status several decades ago, I forget why.)

& don’t get me started on “soul”. The word is everywhere. In Toyin’s Sound, about my older oboist daughter playing the Mozart Adagio For English Horn, I write:

this is toyin chanting
the evening poem
at winter’s end
in the slow blooming city
mozart has drawn this image
from that hidden cortex
at the center of solitude
where edgeless memory
the soul’s summation

the holy call it holy
for it is contented
to be eternal…

The soul metaphor is all over my poems & I must confess a certain frustration with it. The word is so common in poetry that it seems lazy for me to employ it, & besides in a predominantly Christian society it carries all kinds of implications about eternal life. Liebnitz , that pivotal figure in Western metaphysics, thought that the notion that the soul might perish with the body was too grotesquely absurd to even think about. But I can’t find better words to use when I refer to that aspect of human existence that is not flesh but lives & dies with flesh. Some materialist I am!

Conclusion: clearly I wish for a benign god to whom all this madness makes sense, & I’m sorry that there isn’t.

& then there’s this sad introspective person who can’t get outside of his inhibitions. Who the hell is he? Neither I nor anyone else who knows the assured whole man whom (I think) I project would recognize me as:

the dormant you who
makes unwelcome speeches to yourself
in that annoying retrolingual voice
from beneath all those layers of mad choices
made & deferred
that comprise you, commanding
that you stretch at last
beyond yourself, deep into
the esoteric dimension of the living…

Clearly this is me, telling myself to get a life, which I was certain that I already had.

In the long autobiographical poem, The First Seventy, I say of the ‘60s, my mid twenties & early thirties, the most wide open time of my life:

i often think of the ‘60s in mystic terms
the sweet reflective plucking of lotus leaves
in search of the jewel in the obscure heart of me
in truth it was the opposite: a desperate sprint
down the long corrupted alley to the outer self…

Who is that guy?

There are other surprises as well. I did not know before the experience of Things I Must Have Known that I thought so much in music. I should expect this of myself, I suppose, as so much of my waking time has always been spent listening to music, particularly jazz, classical, & world music. I have even vowed never to write another poem to John Coltrane as I have published at least four, & that’s enough. What surprises me is how much music stands for in my life: the love of my wife “…music / that makes the darkness live…”.

of my daughter:

her horn
is toyin’s deep voice
singing through my silence
i inhale her sound: i
breathe it backwards
till the song sings me

Music is a metaphor for aging in all of Groovin Low:

…i bop to the bass line now
i enter the tune from the bottom up
& let trumpet & sax wheel above me

so don’t look for me in the treble…

Music is my metaphor for social change & the consciousness that brings it about. From The First Seventy:

bebop saved the ‘40s. a clear wind
blew jazzbo collins into my house
from his nest in the “purple grotto”
…the sounds were faint
on my philco. i had to press my ear
against the music to assemble those cycles
of fifths, flatted to the devil’s interval
those fractured chords, vertiginous changes
& bent arpeggios that swiveled around
in my head & shaped new consciousness

bebop was news that my people were moving

you can’t scat bop & bow to a redneck

Music is a metaphor for writing in Pearl 2:

writing is living strong in first person
in the revolutionary method of bebop
you make your phrases new
you swing hard through the changes
you break down the blues

Of course I’m aware that the experience of music is crucial to my sense of well being, of order, to my consciousness; that it is a favored subject of my writing. But it did surprise me in revising The First Seventy, an eight page poem, that a full page & a half was devoted to a single music encounter – attending John Coltrane’s breakout summer of ’57 at the Five Spot with Thelonius Monk. If the number of lines that I gave to nursing a few beers in that smoky dive night after night as Monk coaxed ‘Trane into gianthood are any indication of value, then this was the most important event in my life:

in such moments i understood the fear of art
it’s in the sudden departure to places i’d never heard of
when all i came for was a little froufrou
to tack onto the dimly lit walls of my consciousness
i did not hear this music so much as it occupied me
pulled me up, eyes closed to the sonic light
brain thrown hard against the back of my skull
in the sharp upward acceleration at more gees
than i could handle. my suffering silent reason yelled
stop! this air fires blue hot! there’s danger in this flight
but instead my mouth gaped in a numinous yes
in the smoky dark, screamed yes monk yes trane yes yes yes

Those are true lines. They state something of what it was like to hear John Coltrane live, not to mention Thelonius & Wilbur Ware, the bassist. I stalked John Coltrane around New York for the rest of his life, & telling people in conversation, poetry, or prose what it was like to be in a jazz room with all that power is like explaining to a young couple how their first baby is going to affect their lives: you can exaggerate all you want, but you still can’t say enough. The point is that I certainly know that John Coltrane’s music is important to me; I consider him to be one of the very few artists to achieve the sublime, a status that is so rare that I doubt that there are five originating artists on earth at any one time who get there. In Dear John Coltrane (yes, I inadvertently borrowed the title from Michael Harper) I write of his solo in ‘Trane’s Slow Blues after a similar effusion about Sebastian Bach,

now it’s your line that opens & opens
& opens, & i’m flying that way again
same sky, different moon, this midnight
globe that toned those now lost blue rooms
where things like jazz float the mind
this motion the still & airless propulsion
i know as inner flight, this view
the one i cannot see with my eyes

but I did not know that ‘Trane had provided the most important event of my life.

This is one of the services that poetry offers: it not only gives us insight into ourselves, it actually gives us ourselves, for we cannot write poetry with our defenses up. The armature of bravery, self-assurance, objectivity, wisdom, etc is real enough, but there’s a squishy middle underneath which is too delicate to touch with such material. It takes poems to stir it.