On a Saturday night last month I went to hear some live music in Greenwich Village with my friend The Mail Order Santa Claus of Jazz. I am fairly well steeped in the classics of that genre, but Santa has mounted a valiant campaign to bring me into the present. As we made our way on foot to catch the tenor saxophonist David Schnitter at Smalls, whose cover charge was music to my bank account, Santa talked about really wanting to hear Tom Harrell, whom he called the greatest living trumpet composer and who was playing at the nearby, legendary and legendarily expensive (well, not really) Village Vanguard. Nonetheless we went to Smalls, which, living up to its name, was so packed that the front row was the only place left to sit. What a boon. We were maybe eight feet from the sixty-something Schnitter, whose breaking-down body took nothing away from his warm, fluid tone, and we were even closer to the club owner/house pianist Spike Wilner, a dead ringer for the young Elliott Gould and a player with some of the same wistfulness as the late Vince Guaraldi. I got mesmerized watching his fingers on the keyboard, seeing his face as he worked to anticipate and complement Schnitter. At the break I turned to say as much to Santa, but he was gone, and even more surprisingly, he wasn’t back when the music started again! The longer the band played, the more I worried. Had Santa, in a moment of dreaminess brought on by the beauty of the music, fallen and cracked his head in the john? Had he stepped out for a breath of the fresh air of our storied city and gotten mugged? I went to look for him, but he wasn’t stretched out groaning on the sidewalk or lying unconscious between the sink and the toilet. I pulled out my cell and left a message on his, and I was still in the bathroom when he called back to say, very apologetically, that he had slipped out to hear Tom Harrell. I went back, laughing, to hear the rest of the Schnitter set, and I made a mental note to check out the music of this Harrell, apparently worth ditching one’s friend for.
And so it turns out to be. I downloaded Harrell’s Number Five (2012), and while I will need a few more listens to write anything worth reading about the trumpeter’s compositional prowess, I can tell you right now that it’s a very, very fine jazz record. Number Five features a quintet, but a number of the cuts have wonderful pairings. Some standouts for me: Harrell’s trumpet and Johnathan Blake’s nimble drum work on the opening track, “Blue ’n’ Boogie”; “Journey to the Stars,” on which Harrell plays a beautiful middle-range solo to Danny Grissett’s spare, deft piano accompaniment, making for a tune so deceptively simple that it brought to mind the best modern paintings, the kind with just a few bold colors; and “Preludium,” which has Harrell playing alongside the tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, whose distinctive tone has a kind of . . . shine to it, and who, like Johnny Hodges and Dexter Gordon before him, is able to do a lot without a lot of notes (though he has them when he needs them). Then there’s Harrell’s version of “Star Eyes.” The best way I can think of to describe his solo on that standard is to say that if the original melody is a well-worn footpath, Harrell tunnels underneath it, every so often poking his head up through the dirt. Thanks for pointing the way, Santa!
On September 22, 2013 I participated in a panel on nonfiction at the Brooklyn Book Festival, along with George Packer, Svetlana Alpers, and the moderator, Phillip Lopate. Below are remarks I prepared to deliver at the panel but, because of the format (readings from our books, then a general discussion), did not get to.
Before I begin talking about my own approach to the essay—and, actually, by way of doing so—I’d like to acknowledge my friend Albert Murray’s passing on August 18, at age 97. In books including the essay collection The Omni-Americans, Mr. Murray supplied several generations of thinking people, especially thinking black people, with a big piece of the American puzzle that had gone missing. The hole in the puzzle is what has led some of us over the years to change our names, put on dashikis, and declare ourselves to be Africans who happen to live on American soil. While I do not disapprove of that course, it does leave open the question of how, if you’re black, you relate to that soil, the scene of many crimes against people who look like you. But a closer look at that soil will reveal a history not only of pain but of resilience, achievement, and artistry in the face of that pain. Not only that: this soil, which for better or worse produced you, also bears your imprint, your trademark, your copyright symbol. To put it succinctly, you are an American.
A moment ago I mentioned artistry in the face of pain. That is a serviceable definition of a black-created art form: the blues. Then there is the blues’ fraternal twin, jazz, the improviser’s art. At its best, improvisation is new action based on knowledge, experience, and guts, three elements at the heart of the American—and black American—stories. Improvisation, or making a way where none existed before, produced both the Declaration of Independence and the Underground Railroad. Jazz serves as both example of, and metaphor for, such improvisation; jazz is part of every American’s, particularly every black person’s, cultural inheritance and identity.
Albert Murray helped me to understand this. But his work left one question open. Now that I know what I am, what do I do? My approach to the essay represents, in part, an attempt to answer that question.
Surely one of the benefits of knowing who and what you are is having a position from which to relate to others. Identifying elements from one’s own artistic culture that are similar to those of other cultures ultimately underscores the interrelatedness of all humanity. That is a large part of I try to accomplish with essays. What are examples? It seemed to me, as I wrote in one essay, that the music of the tenor saxophonist Lester Young is similar to the writing of Ernest Hemingway; just as Young’s spare, graceful melodic lines merely suggested underlying chord structures, Hemingway’s equally spare, equally graceful sentences left to our imaginations the pain felt by his characters. To quote a different essay, “It occurred to me as I listened to the work of the bassist-composer Charles Mingus . . . that it bears similarities to the films of Robert Altman: that the films, with their many characters crowded into a single shot and their simultaneous conversations, might be mere exercises in cacophony but are instead works of power and beauty—pulling off a feat similar to that accomplished by Mingus’s polyphonous compositions.” In still another essay, I found a parallel between the career progression of the novelist Zadie Smith and that of the actor and filmmaker Clint Eastwood.
In addition to cultural connections, I try to address in essays what I sometimes call “the general problem of being human.” How do you deal with the knowledge that the close, loving family you are raising will one day cease to be a unit, will one day cease to be at all? What features of middle age—if any— compensate for the refusal of your eyes and knees to work the way they used to? What do you and your close friend do after something like 9/11, when it’s all either of you can think about, and you think about it one way, while he has a completely different view?
And when I’m really lucky, I can locate a connection between the cultural and the personal. Hence my approach to discussing Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days, one that includes my recollection of singing a song about John Henry as an elementary school student in music class. Engaging in this mix of the cultural and the personal, I see myself as the beneficiary of what seems to me a trend of the last several decades: the synthesis of various nonfictional and even some fictional forms, which has assured the continuing vitality of the essay. There was the introduction of dialogue and close-third-person point of view into feature stories, by New Journalists such as Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe; there was Wolfe’s playfulness with things like onomatopoeia, effects echoed recently in the typographical tricks of Ander Monson; there was the insertion of the personal into the story, as pioneered by Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson and carried on today through the do-it-yourself-ism of bloggers; there is the tradition of the “outsider” perspective on such mainstream subjects as presidential politics, as seen in the past in the works of essayists including James Baldwin and today in the nonfiction of Zadie Smith, among others. As alloys can make metal both stronger and more flexible, so this combination of the objective and the subjective, of erudition and confessed fallibility, makes the essay form capable of nearly anything.
But first you have to write it. I remember reading an interview with the late Kurt Vonnegut, in which he advised young writers that they need only have something to say, and the paragraphing would take care of itself. While I respect Vonnegut’s work, I found that statement to be wrong on two counts. Having “something to say” will not lend beauty and rhythm to your passages, will not prevent the flattening effect of ending two consecutive sentences with the same word, will not help you judge whether a sentence is lyrical or simply too long, will not provide the image that hangs on in the reader’s mind. And I have found that having something to say plays a small part, sometimes no part, in saying something—since it is often in the act of putting words down that the writer comes to understand his own thoughts and feelings. Having something to say does not make you a writer; writing does.
Finally, there is the subject of essays vs. fiction. Essays fall under the heading of nonfiction, an unfortunate term that in itself might seem to indicate an inferiority to novels and short stories. Pity nonfiction, named for what it isn’t! A friend of mine who is a short-story writer, a normally thoughtful woman, once expressed the opinion that a good fiction writer could knock out a personal essay in her sleep. This, too, like the term “nonfiction,” seemed to indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of the form. The implication, I think, is that the essayist is spared the work of constructing a reality, that his subject—like a trust fund—has been handed to him, and all that remains is the spending. But just as there is more to a blues performance than standing before an audience and crying, there is much more to an essay than simply writing down what you have experienced or observed, and because of this the essay and fiction forms have more in common than is generally acknowledged. Both have as their building blocks human experience, and the task facing both the essayist and the fiction writer is to interpret and order that experience; in doing so, both kinds of artists—yes, artists—have limitless possibilities and exactly one restriction: truth, be it actual or virtual. With these possibilities and this requirement, one can succeed or fail, plummet or soar.
For all these similarities, there is perhaps one major difference, besides the obvious one, between the essay and fiction forms: ultimately, the function and purpose of fiction may be more in the nature of performance, while those of the essay involve communication. All eyes are on the fiction writer, while the essayist, with perhaps more humility, or perhaps more brashness, with, in any case, greater warmth, has sought you out to convey something. That “something” may be concrete or ephemeral, but the basis of its conveyance goes back to what I mentioned in a different context a minute or two ago, which is the interrelatedness of all humanity. The strongest essays have this at their root, and those essays are, to put it simply, great works. And so I belatedly advise my fiction writer friend to read the essays “Canal Street,” by Ian Frazier; “Dreaming of a Black Christmas,” by Gerald Early; “The White Album,” by Joan Didion; “Against Joie de Vivre,” by Phillip Lopate; “The Hottest Water in Chicago,” by Gayle Pemberton; “Upon This Rock,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan; “Consider the Lobster,” by David Foster Wallace, “Equal in Paris,” by James Baldwin. And if you think that in your sleep you can write works like these wonderful mixes of the cultural, the social, the historical, the political, and, above all, the human, then drop what you are doing and run, do not walk, to your bed.
There is an essay I want to write about my friend Albert Murray, who died at 97 on August 18, 2013, and this isn’t it. The essay I have in mind will require re-reading Murray’s books about race, jazz, the blues, literature, and American identity, the books that led me to seek him out two decades ago. It will require me to think hard about those works and the man who wrote them, to recall my conversations with him, to explain what he meant to me and what I think he meant to the world . . . but in the meantime, here are thoughts (most of them good) about his memorial service on September 10 in the Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center:
If you have to depart this life — and we all have to — this is the way to do it. Behind the stage of the 463-seat Allen Room is an enormous window that looks out onto Columbus Circle, Central Park, and the Manhattan skyline, which Murray loved. On each side of the window, on a large screen, a rotation of black and white photographs showed Murray and his wife, daughter, and friends at different points in their lives, finally freezing on one of Murray in his later years, wearing a fedora and his signature grin — an image that brought to mind his throaty laugh.
Now came the sound of horns. Marching in from stage left, playing a New Orleans–style dirge, was the seventeen-piece Lincoln Center jazz band, led by Murray’s disciple Wynton Marsalis. From there, the celebration — and that is what this service was — began. More musical numbers, including an achingly beautiful bass clarinet solo by Joe Temperley, alternated with personal remembrances and with readings from Murray’s work by people including Judith Jamison and Jimmy Heath. (Marsalis’s reading from the novel Train Whistle Guitar made me think that if the trumpeter hadn’t settled for becoming the face of contemporary jazz, he’d have made a pretty decent actor.)
The only parts of the service that gave me trouble, and for reasons that rest entirely with me, were the personal tributes, most by people I’d never heard of. They were funny and poignant, they evoked Murray in all his loquaciousness, warmth, and irascibility, they made me miss him and feel happy that I’d known him, and they made me . . . okay, here it comes . . . jealous. Because Albert Murray was both a great man and something less than a household name, a small part of me always felt — ridiculously — as if I’d discovered him. (Click HERE for my tribute to him at City College back in ’97.) So who were these guys at the memorial service, talking about my friend? All right, so they had known him even longer, read his work even earlier, than I had; fine, so they had worked with him closely on some of his major projects, such as founding Jazz at Lincoln Center, and I hadn’t. What’s your point?
And then, unexpectedly, my inner adult piped up. Mr. Murray had a great many friends because he was very generous with his time, and it was owing to that quality that I got to know him at all. His generosity was in part what I was at the service to celebrate; as one person there put it, his willingness to give of himself probably cost him three or four more books. Maybe the way to repay him is to reflect just a little of his influence in works of our own.
“You’re my dad,” my older daughter said, smiling in amusement and patting me on the shoulder. She had found me in nerd heaven: sitting at our dining table, Volumes 1 and 2 of the H. W. Wilson Company’s excellent World Film Directors open beside me, filling unlined pages of a very large notebook with information about foreign filmmakers whose works I had seen. Along with other facts, I wrote under each name who the director’s influences were, to see what patterns emerged, which names repeated. Roberto Rossellini was The Man in Italy, which was not news. Slightly more surprising, at least to me, was how many French directors idolized Charlie Chaplin. But the real discovery, the point of the whole exercise, was the number of French filmmakers—including Jacques Feyder, Julien Duvivier, and Alain Resnais—who had worked under or simply been inspired by one of their countrymen, a man whose name had been on the blurry edge of my mental radar screen: Louis Feuillade.
Feuillade (1873–1925), it turns out, is best remembered as the director of serials from the pre-sound era, including Les Vampires, Judex, and Fantomas. I recently checked out the ten-part Les Vampires, from 1916, and I’m glad I did. The story concerns not vampires but a Paris newspaperman’s pursuit of the titular gang of thieves and murderers—a key member of whom is the harmless-looking but ruthless Irma Vep. (Rearrange the letters of her name and see what you get.) Les Vampires is atmospheric and entertaining: the scenes in the Vampires’ club/hideout, the Howling Cat cabaret, are evocative of the after-hours pleasures of a bygone era; and the shots of the Vampires stealing and doing other no-good deeds in blue-lit rooms late at night, then scampering away across Paris rooftops, are fun to see.
I’m not going to tell you that these silent, thirty- to sixty-minute episodes match, say, The Usual Suspects or Drive in terms of tension and intrigue, but I will say that part of the series’ charm is the refreshing absence of certain movie conventions, which Les Vampires does not so much eschew as predate. In a contemporary Hollywood version of the story, the newsman, Phillipe Guérande, would be played by Hugh Jackman (unless the movie was produced and directed by that racist, sexist loser Mel Gibson, who would insist on casting his too-old self). But in the 1916 version, Philippe—who appears to live with his mother!—is played by Édouard Mathé, whose earnest expression and slightly stooped shoulders make him look less like a leading man than like, well, a newspaper reporter. Then there is Irma Vep. She is portrayed by the actress/writer/director who went by the name of Musidora, a dark-haired, large-eyed woman with a body that, while perfectly nice, was not born from the marriage of a personal trainer and high-priced dietician; similarly, you don’t get the feeling that her every movement is calculated to arouse the men in the audience. The result is that Irma’s sexiness seems inadvertent, which makes it all the more powerful. (That said, she does sometimes don a form-fitting black jumpsuit for nighttime capers.) Plus: today it would be necessary, practically from the first scene, to establish sexual tension between the male hero and the female villain, but Philippe and Irma don’t have time for that foolishness; he has his work to do, she has hers. There is one movie convention that Les Vampires observes, and very well: comic relief. As Oscar Mazamette—the former, reluctant Vampire who now helps out Philippe—the balding and gigantic-nosed Marcel Lévesque makes me laugh just by showing up on the screen, and when he starts moving his face, fuhgeddaboudit.
If you need your heart to pound, you might want to stick with Ryan Gosling, but if you feel like something a little different, maybe a pleasant trip to the early days of cinema . . .
The part of the book I personally found the most strange was the chapter “The Most Racist Thing That Ever Happened . . .” Airing his own feelings, sharing the thoughts of his interviewees, [Touré] essentially equates contemporary blackness with a state of perpetual self-consciousness, fear, and suspicion, with being stuck in the Harrison Ford/David Janssen role in a version of The Fugitive that has no ending. From wondering what plum job racism may have cost you without your knowledge, to worrying that you’ll confirm stereotypes if you eat fried chicken or watermelon in front of white people, blackness is presented here as one blood-pressure-raising moment after another, from the time of waking until your head hits the pillow. I read this chapter with rising discomfort, feeling as if I were having dinner with someone who kept turning to address a third person I couldn’t see. I know, everyone knows, that racism has not gone away. Like every black person, I am forced to think about it; sometimes I think about it a lot. Does the subject make me angry? Damn right it does. But it is not the center of my life, which means, to my mind, that it has not defeated me.
The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin may make the views stated above seem naïve. The jury in that case concluded that Zimmerman was not guilty of murder—not guilty, after pocketing a weapon, following an unarmed kid who had done nothing to him, and taking that kid’s life. Zimmerman’s acquittal—even of the manslaughter charge—can be seen as making a mockery of the idea of justice and confirming that black males are something approaching an endangered species.
It is hard, especially right now, to argue with any of that. But as we rightly feel hurt and anger, as we rightly caution black boys about what they are up against, as we rightly seek other avenues of justice (I applaud the Justice Department’s decision to pursue a civil rights case against Zimmerman), maybe we can remember something else too.
Newspapers and books are full of statistics about black men’s overrepresentation in prisons, and that is certainly cause for grief. But can I tell you about some of the black men I know, friends and relatives of mine? One is pursuing both a PhD and an acting career; one makes a living as an editor; one has worked long and successfully to prepare minority students for college; one is the assistant pastor of a church; one commands a SWAT team; one chairs a department at a major university; one has had careers as a musician, photographer, and technical writer; one is a celebrated jazz pianist. I could go on. These men and I have had good lives—none of which would have been possible if we had accepted the “truth” that we were doomed from birth. And we are not as unusual as one might be led to think.
When I hear hyperbole to the effect that we are living in times not much better than the slave era, I consider it an insult to the work, sacrifices, and achievements of everyone from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers to Geoffrey Canada and Barack Obama. Worse, I worry that this doom-saying could act as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Take a number,” my friend said when I confessed to having a crush on a woman named Louise. The case is even more hopeless than my friend’s response makes it sound, and not just because I’m married. Louise died at seventy-eight in 1985.
The Kansas-born Louise Brooks left behind one immortal film from the silent era and one very good book. I saw the film, the Austrian director G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), for the first time several years ago and again just the other day, and the second viewing stood up to my memory of the first. As Lulu, Brooks has her signature look: dark, wide-set eyes framed by black hair worn in bangs and tapered to single quotes at the sides, a style that revealed the neck of a goddess. Brought to life by Brooks, Lulu is a stage performer and kept woman whose sexiness is matched only by her innocence; she moves through life in Berlin happily and mischievously but not cynically, treating sex not as a matter of profit but as an extension of her vitality. Her beauty and lightness of spirit bring out the darker sides of the men and at least one woman around her: her former pimp and first seducer (played by Carl Goetz); the newspaper publisher who marries her against his better judgment (Fritz Kortner, resembling the middle-aged Charles Foster Kane); the publisher’s pining son (Francis Lederer); a stage costume designer (Alice Roberts, playing the cinema’s first lesbian); and, finally, after circumstances have driven Lulu to London, Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl). Pandora’s Box is a marvel in a number of ways, but I’ll limit myself to two: Pabst’s use of light and shadow, particularly in the London sequences, and Brooks’ performance as the charming, doomed Lulu, which is astounding when you realize that she conveys all that vitality, mischief, and innocence without speaking a word.
In a broad sense, life imitated art. Brooks, a romantic adventurer herself, was as much of a maverick in Hollywood as Lulu is in Europe, and when silent films gave way to talkies, a vengeful studio executive spread the word that Brooks’ voice was not suited to sound pictures. That lie effectively ended Brooks’ acting career. She was devastated, but her misfortune did not prevent—perhaps it even made possible—the discovery of another talent within herself.
Brooks’ Lulu in Hollywood was published in 1982 by Knopf and reissued by the University of Minnesota Press in 2000. The book collects the wonderful autobiographical essays and pieces on film that Brooks began writing in the 1950s. There are pictures, too, including stills from Pandora’s Box and Brooks’ other collaboration with Pabst, the 1929 film Diary of a Lost Girl (also considered a classic but marred by a hopelessly sentimental ending). Lulu in Hollywood is not the ghostwritten vanity project of a bubble-headed film star who got bored one day and decided it would be fun to see her name on the cover of a book. Louise Brooks was a born writer. Here, for example, is part of her take on Humphrey Bogart:
“[N]othing but searching ambition could have enabled [Bogart] to see in Leslie Howard’s quiet, natural acting technique a style he could adapt to his own personality, a style that would prepare him for The African Queen. In that film he developed his character with his voice alone. Nothing but inflexible willpower could have enabled him to tear down his ingrained acting habits in order to submit all over again to the self-conscious agony of learning to act.”
From later in the same essay:
“In The Maltese Falcon his part was uncomplicated, but too much dialogue betrayed the fact that his miserable theatrical training had left him permanently afraid of words. In short speeches, he cleverly masked his fear with his tricks of mouth and voice, but when, in this film, he was allotted part of the burden of exposition, his eyes glazed and invisible comic-strip balloons circled his dialogue.”
One word of caution: If you read Lulu in Hollywood (and I hope you do), leave Kenneth Tynan’s long introduction until last. Originally a stand-alone piece in the New Yorker, it tells, with less eloquence, much of what Brooks is about to tell you herself. And, anyway, when it comes to being in Louise Brooks’ company, three’s a crowd.
There is a state of excitement about experiencing and/or creating art — literary, visual, musical, or cinematic — that I refer to as being “plugged in.” In this state, which approaches the spiritual, one is moved equally by individual works themselves and by the very fact and possibility of exploration and discovery, present and future.
As with any emotional or quasi-emotional state, it is not possible to be plugged in continuously. The mood is broken by moments of ennui, skepticism, or despair: What’s the point of all this? How can anyone read every book, view every film, hear every piece of music — even in a specific genre — or see every painting, let alone appreciate it all sufficiently? Given the obvious answer to that question, what is the purpose of this constant search?
The point, I would argue, is not to consume the totality of art but to appreciate the totality — that is, the oneness. We can do this, savor the shared essence of all creative pursuit, by discovering the connections between and among different forms. I give a name to this aspect of being plugged in: plugdinism.
Here is an example — the first I can remember encountering. It is from Stanley Crouch’s 1983 Village Voice essay “Body and Soul,” reprinted in Notes of a Hanging Judge. In it Crouch observed the way in which the artist Giotto had upended tradition by focusing on the individual rather than the setting in his paintings. “In his own way,” Crouch wrote, “Louis Armstrong did the same. He discovered that his powers of imagination could stand alone, with the clarinet and the trombone of the conventional New Orleans band silenced, no longer needed to express the intricate and subtle musicality provided by the multilinear antiphonal style.” Crouch, an African-American like Armstrong, went on to write of “relaxing into the thought of how much of my own experience had been clarified by exposure to foreign forms.”
In my own explorations of books, jazz, film, and painting, and in my own writing, I have been on the lookout for such connections between seemingly disparate forms. (See my collection of essays or my essay “Notes on Notes.”)
And what, one might ask in a moment of cold-eyed skepticism, is ultimately the point of all that? Where does this idea lead in the end, except to ridiculous lengths and variations, to a kind of intellectual parlor trick?
The answer is simple. These disparate forms often arise from different cultures, and the connections among them underscore the commonality of the creative impulse — and of all humanity. This is an easy idea to ridicule in 2013. But I am ready to risk what David Foster Wallace called “the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists” to promote it. Plugdinism encourages work in all disciplines exploring links among arts and cultures, for the sake of celebrating our common humanity.
Announcing that Love for Sale and Other Essays, my nonfiction collection exploring books, race, film, painting, jazz, love, friendship, and more, is now an ebook!
Click HERE to read Bob Cashill’s review of the book on popdose.com.
And HERE to read a review on goodreads.com.
A while back, in a post called “Books for My Daughter,” I presented a list of what I considered essential reading and asked for suggestions of works to add to it. There were quite a few suggestions — good ones — leading one astute reader to comment, “This is, in the end, a list for Cliff D. Thompson.”
Turns out she was right.
Another commenter pointed to works by contemporary black poets: two Pulitzer Prize winners, Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith (Trethewey is also the current U.S. poet laureate), and Nikky Finney, whose Head Off & Split won the 2011 National Book Award. Now, regular readers of this blog (all six of you) may recall a June 2011 post called “Confessions of a Poetry Dunce,” in which I complained that I find a great deal of work by acclaimed modern and contemporary poets to be incomprehensible. Several commenters on that post agreed with me, but a couple advised me, in essence, to stop getting in my own way when reading poetry — to worry less about literal meaning and, in the words of one commenter, embrace the “unintelligibility” that “turns out to be a new way of ‘sense-making.’”
Not for nothing is this blog called “Tell Cliff.” I decided to try to apply my readers’ advice when checking out the work of Trethewey, Smith, and Finney. Ironically, having girded myself for the opaque, I found many of the poems by these three women to be as accessible as they are elegant. They also, often, defied expectations. A confession: when I encountered the poem “Red Velvet (for Rosa Parks, 1913–2005),” in Finney’s Head Off & Split, I sighed inwardly, feeling that I knew more or less what was coming, that for a little bit I could have written myself the bland, fawning verse I was about to read. Man, was I wrong. “Red Velvet” honors Parks, yes, but hardly in the usual lip-synched, Black History Month/Martin Luther King’s Birthday kind of way. Instead, it focuses on Parks’s work as a seamstress to build a metaphor for her contribution to the freedom struggle: “. . . A nimble, on-the-dot / woman, who has the help of all things, needle sharp, / silver, dedicated, electric, can pull cloth and others / her way, through the tiny openings she and others / before her have made.”
Finney’s poem “Negroes with Guns” is likewise not what you might expect, with its portrait of a down-home, backwoods wife and mother who is able to “blow the x out the Maxwell House can” but for the moment has a “trigger finger slick & wet, wrinkled/ soapy, content for now, devoted for now/ to coaxing egg & cheese off a casserole dish.” Other poems in Head Off & Split tested my new willingness to forgo complete understanding. Reading the title piece, for example, was a bit like looking at an Expressionist painting; just as I feel an overall mood being conveyed by a painting without knowing the impulse behind every brush stroke, I failed while reading the poem to “get” every image, at the same time coming away with the idea of a grown woman who feels some sadness over the choices she probably wouldn’t undo even if she could.
The title of Tracy K. Smith’s 2011 collection, Life on Mars, gives a clue as to its concerns, which include the place — both physical and metaphysical — of the individual and the human race in the universe. The poems point to our smallness in the grand scheme and to our hubris, not altogether objectionable, in the face of that fact. In “The Universe Is a House Party,” Smith writes, “A conflagration of suns? It sounds like the kind of party / Your neighbors forget to invite you to: bass throbbing / Through walls, and everyone thudding around drunk / On the roof . . .” The poem ends, in reference to the universe: “Of course, its ours. If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours.” Still, there is no denying how little we know of it, as Smith suggests in “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” describing an astronaut adrift in space in the film 2001: “Is it still his life he moves through, or does / That end at the end of what he can name?”
Back on Earth, we have Native Guard (2006), by Natasha Trethewey, which includes poems about racial prejudice and atrocities as well as elegies for the poet’s parents and for her childhood in the South. The poems are sometimes formally structured, nearly always poignant. From “Graveyard Blues,” about burying her mother: “It rained the whole time we were laying her down. / Rained from church to grave when we put her down. / That suck of mud at our feet was a hollow sound.” From the title poem, which deals in part with black Union soldiers in the Civil War who were shot down not by Confederates but by white Union troops: “ . . . Smoke that rose from each gun / seemed a soul departing . . .”
Of all these metaphors, I find myself returning to Smith’s — the idea of the unknown, mostly unexplored universe, which is largely filled, for me, with books of poetry.
My new book, Love for Sale and Other Essays, has won the Autumn House Press nonfiction prize and is now available online! Click HERE to purchase your copy on amazon.com.
Love for Sale includes personal essays as well as musings on race and the general problem of being human. Best of all, it revels in the connections I find among the art forms I love: books, jazz, film, and painting. Explore them with me! (I did the cover art, too. Heh.)
My recommendation for reading this book: pour your favorite drink (I suggest straight bourbon); put some good, old jazz on your stereo or iPod; and lose yourself in ideas linking Zadie Smith to Clint Eastwood, Coleman Hawkins to Thomas Hardy, Charles Mingus to Robert Altman . . .