Reading across Komunyakaa’s “Changes; or…”

Changes; or, Reveries at a Window Overlooking a Country Road, with Two Women Talking Blues in the Kitchen” is a two-columned jazz poem by Yusef Komunyakaa (from the New Poems section of 1994’s Neon Vernacular) that, like a great piece of jazz music, I get something more out of with every reading.

On the left side of the page, Mary and Eva Mae, friends from childhood, are “talking B-flat blues” in the kitchen, catching up on the (cheating) men and (loose) women they used to know. Meanwhile on the right, Mary’s grandson, “just dragged in / From God only knows where,” and “Nice as a new piece / of silk,”  is thinking about jazz, all kinds of jazz from Philly Joe Jones to Billie Holiday to Charles Mingus to John Coltrane, and memory, and black culture, and the way thoughts move between them. The poems starts with an “A-one, two, three” of men’s names, “Joe, Gus, Sham . . . ” putting us in music territory from the start.

Both sides of the page would make solid poems on their own. On the left there’s the heartbreak and hard-earned wisdom of the old women, with the awful revelatory last story (“I hate to say this, / But she had Arthur / On a short leash too. / Your Arthur, Mary.”) and the negating silence after “But it don’t hurt / To mention it now, not / After all these years.” And on the right, a complete poem of its own, a young man figuring it out through the music, letting the music instruct him and prepare him, “The limbo & bridge of a solo . . . / trying to get beyond the tragedy / of always knowing what the right hand / will do . . . ready to let life play me / like Candido’s drum.”

But put together, both sides of the page keep moving in and out of each other, resonating. If you read first the women’s column, then in the grandson’s you hear echoes, the resonance of topic (heartache in life, heartache in songs, things said and unsaid, men and women) spelled out so differently in parallel: from the grandson, “Time & space, / painful notes, the whole thing wrung / out of silence. Changes. Caesuras,” and “You heard ’bout Jack / Right? He just tilted over / In prayer meeting. / The good & the bad go / Into the same song” from the grandmama.

You can read one column, then the other, then read them both again. But you could also read across each whole line, straight across the page. Much of the poem doesn’t make sense that way but there are moments throughout when the two halves together say something both coherent and beautiful, and totally different from the larger sentence context of their own columns. (Maybe you have to add a comma in your head, or overlook a period, but that’s so easy to do as to be a negligible barrier for this kind of reading).

Six lines from the top Eva Mae’s lines are, “Those Johnson boys / Were only sweet talkers / & long tall bootleggers.” The grandson at that same moment is thinking about Philly Joe Jones’s drumming, “Rhythym / like cells multiplying . . . language & / notes made flesh. Accents & stresses, / almost sexual.”

But read those lines all the way across and you get the following (left column lines are bolded here, though in the book there is a font size difference between the columns, because size formatting within a single line makes WordPress twitch and protest), “Those Johnson boys  like cells multiplying . . . language & / Were only sweet talkers notes made flesh. Accents & stresses, / & long, tall bootleggers. ” It’s not quite a proper sentence, but it’s close enough to make sense of, and it is fascinating language.

Put together the voices are saying something wholly different than they were by themselves. Typed out with the punctuation it would need if it weren’t embedded in two entirely separate thoughts, I think it would read, “Those Johnson boys, like cells multiplying language & / were only sweet talkers, notes made flesh. Accents & stresses, / & long, tall bootleggers.”

“Accents & stresses & long, tall bootleggers,” what a lovely image for talking about rhythm! And describing the Johnson boys’ physicality using “accents & stresses,” the language of language, what a lovely way to talk about the men.

It doesn’t hold up for more than a few lines at a time, reading across this way, which to me feels like what jazz so often does, with moments of ‘coming together’ in the middle of what sounds like (though usually isn’t actually) chaos. And one of the reasons this poem works so well is that those moments aren’t just accidents of sense; when they come together they’re speaking of the fundamental ideas underlying both columns of this poem.

Another few lines down you get “Tell the truth,  talking B-flat blues.” Forty-some lines down it comes together into, “He just tilted over in tongue-tripped elegies for Lady Day / In prayer meeting. & Duke. Don’t try to make any sense / The good & the bad go out of this; just let it take you / Into the same song. like Pres’s tenor & keep you human.” A few lines later “& she wanted sharp edges. Dark harmonies. Bright / To divorce him for that.” And how’s this for a description of jazz itself? “Perfect tension. / & loose as persimmon pie.”

There are two more right at the end of the poem. “I hate to say this, a matrix of blood & language  / But she had Arthur   improvised on a bebop heart / On a short leash, too. that could stop any moment /  Your Arthur, Mary.  on a dime, before going back.”

“But she had Arthur improvised on a bebop heart, / on a short leash, too, that could stop any moment, / your Arthur, Mary, on a dime, before going back.”

And then the last eight lines: “She was doing what women do to save us from ourselves.  / Even then. I saw them   The limbo & bridge of a solo . . . / With my own two eyes, trying to get beyond the tragedy / & promised God Almighty of always knowing what the right hand / I wouldn’t mention it.  Will do . . . ready to let life play me / But it don’t hurt like Candido’s drum / To mention it now, not / After all these years.

In the by-column reading, it’s the “limbo & bridge of a solo” that are getting the grandson “ready to let play me / like Candido’s drum.” In the combined reading, Candido’s drum is what hurts more than Arthur’s betrayal. And what Charlene, the loose woman, did, was “doing what women do to save us from ourselves, even then.” Followed by Arthur and Charlene described as “the limbo & bridge of a solo,” “trying to get beyond the tragedy.” Lovely, lovely stuff.

And one last aside: it’s a great ‘voice’ moment in this poem, that Eva Mae’s final statement, “not after all these years,” ends with a period instead of an ellipses. An ellipses would imply a trailing off, that she’d realized the hurt she’s just caused. But instead, a period. She’s sure “it don’t hurt.” It’s the silence on the other side, the grandson listening in to that moment, and Mary’s silence, that tell us she’s wrong about that.

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