before you comment, yes, I know I am the worst. Sorry for missing yet another week of spring. Yesterday I was driving a decent part of the time; I’m sure we can all agree that weekly poetry group reading does not justify the use of a smart phone while traveling at 75 mph on America’s worst piece of concrete. I have enough coordination problems simply trying to manage the steering wheel with one hand and the flipping off of truck drivers with the other.
Well, I arrived home to a peaceful house and a new magazine with a new Yusef Komunyakaa poem, so it was a fulfilling poetry afternoon after all. You remember Yusef Komunyakaa, right? He’s the one of "Love in a Time of War" from 9/21/2005, and "The African Burial Ground" from 2/15/2016. He’s the one whose name is an anagram of "Make a funk, you say?" He’s the one I discovered in a grad school contemporary american poetry class, the one who I recently claimed teaches at IU (when in fact, the New Yorker contributor page tells me he teaches at NYU).
This is a cool poem about current times, filtered through the musical memories of a character referred to as "Old School." There are so many good jazz, blues, and soul references here. I thought it might be fun if readers pick one out and talk about their personal connection to it–some tiny insight into your soul’s soundtrack. I’ll go first.
Late in the poem he talks about the Church of Coltrane, of which I’ll consider myself a smorgasboard member. I can’t remember the first time I listened to his live take on "My Favorite Things," but I can remember that it blew my little mind. I’m pretty sure I got my first Coltrane album via a pirated tape, December 1994. It was the reissued Giant Steps, with outtakes, that made it seem the album just went on in endless variations…never quite beginning and never quite ending. Shortly after that I moved to Pittsburgh, and I’m guessing it was at Jerry’s in Squirrel Hill that I picked up a "Greatest Hits vol. 3" that had "My Favorite Things" on it. It has come to be one of my… favorite things. He first recorded it on a studio album in 1961, but most people are familiar with the slightly faster take from the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival. How did he manage to bring a sinister, obsessive-compulsive edge to a nice song from a pretty musical? I don’t know, but I can no longer think of it in any other way.
Also, this poem kicks ass. Enjoy, -ed.
THE SOUL’S SOUNDTRACK
When they call him Old School
he clears his throat, squares
his shoulders, & looks straight
into their lit eyes, saying,
"I was born by the damn river
& I’ve been running ever since."
An echo of Sam Cooke hangs
in bruised air, & for a minute
the silence of fate reigns over
day & night, a tilt of the earth
body & soul caught in a sway
going back to reed & goatskin,
back to trade winds locked
inside an "Amazing Grace"
that will never again sound
the same after Charleston,
South Carolina, & yes, words
follow the river through pine
& oak, muscadine & redbud,
& the extinct Lord God bird
found in an inventory of green
shadows longing for the scent
of woe & beatitutde, taking root
in the mossy air of some bayou.
Now Old School can’t stop
going from a sad yes to gold,
into a season’s bloomy creed,
& soon he only hears Martha
& the Vandellas, their dancing
in the streets, through a before
& after. Mississippi John Hurt,
Ma Rainey, Sleepy John Estes,
Son House, Skip James, Joe
Turner, & Sweet Emma,
& he goes till what he feels
wears out his work boots
along the sidewalks, his life
a fist of coins in a coat pocket
to give to the recent homeless
up & down these city blocks.
He knows "We Shall Overcome"
& anthems of the flower children
which came after Sister Rosetta,
Big Mama Thornton, & Bo Diddly.
Now the years add up to a sharp
pain in his left side on Broadway,
but the Five Blind Boys of Alabama
call down an evening mist to soothe.
He believes to harmonize is
to reach, to ascend, to query
ego & hold a note till there’s
only a quiver of blue feathers
at dawn, & a voice goes out
to return as a litany of mock
orange & sweat, as we are sewn
into what we came crying out of,
& when Old School declares,
"You can’t doo-wop a cappella
& let your tongue touch an evil
while fingering a slothful doubt
beside the Church of Coltrane,"
he has traversed the lion’s den
as Eric Dolphy plays a fluted
solo of birds in the pepper trees.