My review of Jeffrey Bean’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is up at Smartish Pace, check it out. (Spoiler: I think it’s great.)
I previously wrote about Bean’s poem “Minor Seventh” for June’s music poems post.
A. Van Jordan’s “Que Sera Sera“ — this month’s Music Poems post. Oh, this is a great poem. The music descriptions are great, the stream-of-consciousness build of momentum is great, the dual layer descriptions of the experience of being pulled over for “driving while black” are great, the circular pull back at the ending is great. For instance look at how many different ways you can read the words “light” and “color” and “within your flesh” and “you’re on your feet” in this passage, after the speaker, who has been listening “to what / sounds like Doris Day shooting / heroin inside Sly Stone’s throat” (this song) while driving through Black Mountain, North Carolina, is pulled over by a police officer, and the questioning makes his hands “want to ball into fists.”
But, instead, I tell myself to write a letter
to the Chief of Police, to give him something
to laugh at over his morning paper,
as I try to recall the light in Doris Day’s version
of “Que Sera Sera”—without the wail
troubling the notes in the duet
of Sly and Cynthia’s voices.
Hemingway meant to define
courage by the nonchalance you exude
while taking cover within your flesh,
even at the risk of losing
what some would call a melody;
I call it the sound of home.
Like when a song gets so far out
on a solo you almost don’t recognize it,
but then you get back to the hook, you suddenly
recognize the tun and before you know it,
you’re putting your hands together; you’re on your feet—
because you recognize a sound, like a light,
leading you back home to a color:
And then the poem goes into its long and excellent dive into memory around the color rust. Great stuff.
This month’s Music Poem post, Matthea Harvey’s “The Oboe Player” from her 2000 collection Pity the Bathtub its Forced Embrace of the Human Form.
“His lips are full, but to play he must fold them in, / make a tight line of those wet curves” begins Matthea Harvey‘s sensual “The Oboe Player”. “It is shocking to see / them sprout out again when he finishes playing a long note” it continues, opening a poem full of luxurious descriptions.
The poem moves between the audience’s reactions to the power of the oboe player (“Those who pick / at their programs wish his solo were over, others look down / thinking he would only have to look at a bundle of green twine / and it would burst into flower”), the other musicians’ and the conductor’s reactions (“The conductor who approached the podium resolving / to rein him in abandons his brisk baton strokes, succumbs / to swaying”).
And the oboe player’s relationship with his own playing: Continue reading
Briefly Reviewed: Martin Sixsmith’s Russia and The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade.
Martin Sixsmith’s Russia: A 1,000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East was just what I wanted it to be — a basic survey, condensed, of course, but not dumbed-down or super gappy, of 1,000 years of Russian history, emphasis on the 21st century, written in lively, easy-to-read prose with his particular point of view on things argued well enough to disagree or agree with with clarity as you’re reading. If you already know a lot about the USSR, this book will probably bore you. If you have forgotten what happened while you were alive if you’re old enough for that, or what you learned in high school European history if you’re younger, and are interested in the Cold War again because you are watching The Americans (and if you aren’t watching The Americans, you should be because it’s one of the best tv shows out there right now), it’s a good choice.
By a poet, though not technically a poem, “Memphis Minnie on the Icebox” is this month’s Music post — a hell of a great piece of writing by Langston Hughes penned originally for the Chicago Defender newspaper in 1943.
All of it is fabulous. For instance, the description in this paragraph:
Then, through the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy old swamps, Mississippi dust and sun, cotton fields, lonesome roads, train whistles in the night, mosquitoes at dawn, and the Rural Free Delivery, that never brings the right letter. All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions — a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.
You can hear it, even if you’ve never heard Memphis Minnie (or possibly even if you don’t know what the blues sounds like — hard for me to say on that one, but I’ll venture it’s so).
And then the turn the piece takes from the music to the world from which the music comes, with the gesture of the question, the mindset, “It was last year, 1941, that the war broke out, wasn’t it?” and then that end bit, about the men who take the money. Chillingly, thrillingly good little bit of writing, this piece — it seems to me it does everything a good short essay should. Sets the scene and puts you in it, has something to say, says it, and leaves you feeling your life has another before and after to mark, before and after you first read this.
Minor Seventh” is a prose poem, it’s a list, and it is built (built of various materials, built so it holds up, and built in the way you talk about someone in very good shape being built). And like all the best list poems the items in it cohere, surprise, make sense logically and make sense in the other ways amalgams make sense (the “poetry” kind of making sense).
And so too do the sounds. They cohere, surprise, make sense and make sense. Listen to how, at the beginning of “Minor Seventh,” the ks and rs and ns in ricochet, kitchen, mixolydian run together then modulate into the ns, ms and fs of Mississippi, blues, smokestacks, hymns, grief, hiss, then swing back to timber and trucks and crawling:
Foghorns, grackles, wheat fields sighing in wind. The night hawk’s ricochet. You better come on in my kitchen. Mixolydian trumpet runs boiling up the Mississippi turning into urban blues and smokestacks over Gary, Indiana. Hymns. Grief. The hiss of sprinklers in timber yards, brawl of log trucks crawling up Mt. Hood. [...]
It’s hard to talk about a poem like this without devolving into analogies of music in your description, but it really does work that way, Continue reading
Each day in April, on account of National Poetry Month, I tweeted a tidbit about a poem that means something to me personally (not just that I admire or recognize the greatness of).
It’s funny how often in a conversation with a stranger (or in last week’s case, a barista) in which it comes up that you write poetry the stranger (or barista) says something about not knowing anything about poetry and not understanding it at all, but then a few beats or a bit later, inevitably, the stranger (or barista) remembers a poem they really liked. In a high school class, say, or from college, or heard read at a wedding or funeral that stuck with them. Every time it seems the first reaction is backing away, but then there’s always at least one that they remember, that means something to them. Does poetry just have the worst marketing ever? That everyone’s first reaction is to back away? (Until they remember there was at least one time they didn’t have to?)
Anyway, I thought maybe I’d see some style thread running through them all, other than a basic love of words, but I think that analysis might be for someone farther removed to pull. But here’s how those 30 stand in relationship to me. Continue reading
For this month’s Music post, I point you to A.E. Stallings again (and why not?), this time to “Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, Aged Three.”
I don’t know how she does it, is part of why I re-read Stallings, how she uses such formal (here rhyming triplets for goshsakes) forms but sounds so natural and contemporary so, yes I’ll say it (and why not?) accessible. Shouldn’t this poem be sort of boring? But it’s not.
It’s a small domestic moment, the action of “Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, Aged Three,” taking place at present, and the detailed look it’s given, quite perfectly described — but not at length. I mean the moment, the listening to the music, the speaker’s reaction to the child’s grave and logical pronouncement, is not expanded to make some much larger point or dwelled upon philosophically, expounded or held up from all angles. Continue reading
There are poems about the sound of the music, and there are poems about the musicians, and there are poems about the experience of music. It’s probably true that all music genres have a special hero worship to their culture, but it seems like jazz in particular has HEROES. (Rock music I guess more has rock GODS.) Both Matthews’ and Levine’s poems are about their jazz hero Bud Powell in less-than-stellar form. Continue reading