Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Cecil Taylor (1929-2018)

Another one of the greats, Cecil Taylor, is gone. He passed away on April 5. As longtime J's Theater readers know, I've posted about Taylor many times, including on his 86th birthday, back in 2015; when he appeared on NPR back in 2012 (along with my poem about him and his music, "Dark to Themselves," which appeared in Jazz Poems, edited by Kevin Young); my afternoon in 2007 watching the marvelous documentary Imagine the Sound with Northwestern colleagues Kevin Bell and Ed Robersonback in 2005, on his 75th birthday; and again in 2005, when I saw him perform live at the Blue Note, in Manhattan ("Apraxia, apraxia, apraxia!"). (I wanted to meet him then but only got a glimpse of him peering out through the crack in his green room door.)

I described how he opened the performance like this (the Keith I mention is Keith Obadike, who was there with his wife and fellow artist Mendi, as were Christopher Stackhouse, his partner Kelly Kivland, and a friend of theirs named Luke):

Taylor, as Reggie H. and others have described, entered dramatically, this time in his striped socks after his bassist and drummer had opened the set as a duo, Balgochian doing some interesting moanful bow-work with the lowest portion and register of his bass strings. Then he extracted a handwritten score/graph/chart, which I assume, in my gross musical ignorance, contained the melodic kernel he was going to develop and improvise off of, as well as some harmonic guides and cues, some text and the gods know what else (scribbles? quotes?), CT proceeded to recite an opening poem that riffed off "Chinampas 1," which I listened to again today. Then he and the trio launched into this long and furious set. Afterwards I told Mendi and Keith that it reminded me of a player piano that had caught the Spirit (and spirits) and was revved up by multiple motors. Keith put it more succinctly: "A player piano speaking tongues." Krall, who appears on CT sessions from around 1996 forward, seemed to flow well with CT, sometimes pacing, other times mirroring, other times chasing CT's polymetric races along the keyboard, but Balgochian sometimes seemed out of sync as if he couldn't catch up or missed some of his cues (sometimes his expression betrayed this) or just wasn't up for it, though he gave it a valiant effort. He did know enough to stop on a dime, like Krall, when CT (maybe giving a visual cue) ended the pieces.

Reading some of the obituaries of Taylor, I appreciated how they captured differing facets of who he was and what he accomplished. He was, as the 2005 performance demonstrated, at his very core a poet--experimental, searching, daring, profound, uncompromising, his medium and grammar extending from words into space, and onto the keyboard, via notes themselves. Sound and time were his true media. Pushing the evolving jazz conventions from the very beginning, Taylor kept developing and trying out new possibilities, individually and with ensembles. A native of Queens, he deftly combined a wide array of influences, drawing from the blues, other African-American, Euro-American and European sources--he studied at the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory--to an often sublime invention, and though one could draw throughlines from his early career to the works of the last few year, Taylor almost never repeated himself.

Among the musicians Taylor recorded with are innumerable greats: Earl Griffith, Steve Lacy, Buell Neidlinger (who passed earlier this year), Sunny Murray (who passed late last year), John Coltrane, Gil Evans, Jimmy Lyons, Andrew Cyrille, Mary Lou Williams (!), Max Roach, Dewey Redman, Elvin Jones, and Peter Brötzmann. He also performed with dancers, including Min Tanaka and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Taylor's detractors, including Miles Davis (another great innovator) and Branford Marsalis, were legion, but so were his admirers, including former President Jimmy Carter, who invited him to perform at the White House. (Just imagine the current resident even vaguely considering such a thing.) One of my favorite albums of his is Great Paris Concert of 1966, which includes the masterpieces "Student Studies (Part 1)," "Student Studies (Part 2)," and "Niggle Feuigle." I also love his late-career trio recording with Dewey Redman and Elvin Jones, Momentum Space, particularly the songs "Is," "It," and "Spooning." One commemoration I especially appreciated was Jason Moran's discussion of Taylor's artistry, and how it took him years to grasp what Taylor was up to.

Cecil Taylor was outed by the critic Stanley Crouch, and became one of the most high-profile gay figures in jazz, though he sidestepped that term while remaining unapologetically himself. His oeuvre, I would argue, queered jazz as we know it, and its influence continues to ripple out in instrumentalists who may or may not appear to have any direct ties to him. Taylor's relationship to his blackness was solid and complex, and was a topic about which he could be combative, as when, back in 1964 while participating in a "Jazz Weekend" at Bennington College, he defined  what jazz was and could be, avowing its roots in African-American life, culture and experience, to the displeasure of some on a panel discussion and in the crowd. In 2013, he received the prestigious Kyoto Prize; the Inamori Foundation, the award's grantor, praised his life's work, though "free jazz" only scratches the surface:
One of the most original pianists in the history of free jazz, Mr. Cecil Taylor has developed his innovative improvisation departing from conventional idioms through distinctive musical constructions and percussive renditions, thereby opening new possibilities in jazz. His unsurpassed virtuosity and strong will inject an intense, vital force into his music, which has exerted a profound influence on a broad range of musical genres.
A contractor he had befriended stole nearly the entire amount, before being caught, tried and convicted.

A few videos about Taylor, including one of my favorites, "Les grandes répétitions":

"Les grandes répétitions"

A fragment from Ron Mann's Imagine the Sound

Interview, from the Snapshots Foundation (full interviews here)

Cecil Taylor performing at Ornette Coleman's memorial, in 2015

Dark to Themselves

As I concluded in my poem tribute, "Their ears are still learning." 

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Poem: William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

In the American Modernist pantheon William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) looms large as one of its most important poets, and rightly so; from his earliest collections to his last writings, he cut a powerful path of experimentation, using everyday American language and rhythms, and an array of forms, not unlike a painter or sculptor, that has continued to influence English-language poets of all kinds ever since. He may be best known for his short poems that children still learn--I hope!--in grade school and junior high, including "The Red Wheelbarrow" and the often-parodied but memorable "This is just to say," among others.

A trained physician and native of New Jersey whose mother was from Puerto Rico and whose father was from Great Britain, Williams published poetry, fiction, and criticism, with one of his greatest works, the long, elaborate, mixed-genre volume Paterson appearing late in his career. At the end of his life he again turned to shorter forms, and his Brueghel poem, in dialogue with Auden's (which I posted several days ago), appears in his last collection during his lifetime, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), which received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. (Like many a great poetry pioneer, he deserved numerous awards but was overlooked for many of them for most of his career.) I am not, however, going to feature his Brueghel entry (and I should note, he published several poems based on Brueghel's work, including "The Dancers"), but instead, a poem from earlier in his career that I taught years ago and love: "The Great Figure."

Here the symbiosis differs from the usual poet's imaginative interaction with the art work. Williams wrote his poem, a Modernist pearl, first, and the painter Charles DeMuth (1883-1935), Williams' friend and one of many gifted artists who was conversant with the leading figures in the literary and visual arts in the first decades of the 20th century, painted his Cubist and Futurist-style oil painting, "I Saw the Figure Five in Gold" after reading Williams' poem, which despite its brevity brings a rainy city street at night fully to life though its flashes of imagery and its resonant music ("gong clangs"). Williams was on his way, after a long day at the clinic, to visit another artist friend, Marsden Hartley, and this poem, which could be considered exemplary of Imagism, was the result. DeMuth was enchanted, and produced his own memorable image in tribute. It has become a signature work of his and of the era.

by William Carlos Williams

Among the rain 
and lights 
I saw the figure 5 
in gold 
on a red 
to gong clangs 
siren howls 
and wheels rumbling 
through the dark city. 

Copyright © William Carlos Williams. Used with permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Here is DeMuth's masterpiece:

Charles Demuth, "I Saw the Figure Five in Gold," 1928, oil, graphite, ink, and gold leaf on paperboard (Upson board), Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Wilson Harris, Among the Ancestors

Sir Wilson Harris, with his final novel,
The Ghost of Memory (2006)
Such is life, so death comes calling. Sir Wilson Harris (1921-2018), the great Guyanese-British author whose fiction, poetry and essays form a singular, ever experimental whole, left the earthly plane on March 8. I only learned about his passing recently, when Chris Stackhouse shared the news. Oddly enough, I had been thinking about Wilson Harris quite a bit of late, as returned to several longstanding fictional projects, and would wade back into various works of his for knowledge and fortification. He was and remains one of the most important literary artists in my personal firmament. His imagination, daring and craft really were peerless, as was his exacting inner aesthetic compass, which led him to write over two dozen books, at a steady clip, and it is fair to say that none of them are easy, but ever last one offers multiple rewards.

Over the years, I have invoked his name and work many times on this blog, particularly in conjunction with the annual folly known as the Nobel Prize in Literature, an award that almost completely debased itself when its jury gave the prize to Bob Dylan, arguably the most decision amidst a host of recent ones, while literary pathblazers like Harris, John Ashbery, E. L. Doctorow, and countless others died overlooked. One post from 2006 focusing on Harris bore the title "Four Books," and his was the second I discussed. I will repeat it verbatim here, because everything I said then I still believe, with even stronger conviction:

Speaking of passing through strange mirrors, I recently reread Wilson Harris's Carnival (Faber Faber, 1985, out of print) for the graduate course I'm teaching. I realized upon finishing it once again that it must be one of the most difficult novels written in English in the last 25 (50? 75? more?) years. Though it only runs to 168 or so pages, it serves up prose so densely lyrical, disorienting, distancing, and taxing that I have to admit my reading strategy involved pausing, then rereading, then rereading again certain passages, even though I'd already read the novel several times in the past. My conviction remains that this is a work of manifest artistry that manages tosimultaneously embody multiple genres and modes while also functioning diegetically as an allegorical narrative. I also think it stages, from the level of syntax all the way up to the level of the plot, a very complex textual embodiment and performance of epic and ritual, as a revisionary "Carnival" site in prose (Carnival and the carnivalesque, masking/masqueing, transformation and metamorphosis, performance and performativity, trauma and recovery). In this work, Harris employs a relentlessly dialectic, fractal, negative capability in writing the social, economic, political, and spiritual "history" of Guyana, the Western epic tradition, the Diaspora and diasporas, society and the self. I also suggested to the class that though he was (and is) interested at the time in quantum theory, which is most evident in The Four Banks of the River of Space (yet operative, in terms of ways of reading time and space in Carnival and the carnival), he seems also to have anticipated string theory in this book, at least as I understand it from many articles and Brian Greene's and Lisa Randall's books on the topic (which isn't very well). Harris brain nevertheless strikes me as having been on the branes before almost anyone else--in the literary world, that is.

I again looked at Carnival last fall, as I was mentoring one of my brilliant graduate students, Simeon M., and shared, by reading aloud, Harris's opening to that novel, a series of passages that seem to take metaphysical flight as the eyes and voice box move from word to word. It is a remarkable performance, refined in that novel to sublimity, and for it alone Harris should have received every award under the sun. As these things go, of course, it did not work out that way, but he kept writing, and published right into his 80s. I have his final novel, The Mask of the Beggar, and though a late(r)/last work, it glimmers with his distinctive genius. In his work, Guyana, the Caribbean, black diasporic and mixed people of the new and old worlds, the spiritual and scientific, the metaphysical, the cross-cultural imagination, as he once put it, all take flight.

I never had the opportunity to meet Wilson Harris, but I did work with him quite pleasurably for a brief period in the early 1990s, when I was the managing editor of a literary journal that was planning to dedicate an issue to him. This involved written correspondence, and I noted then his graciousness and warmth, but also his exactitude when it came to how his work should appear and what we would include. What provided me with a lesson I had never gotten before was to see his edited manuscripts, and to note how, perhaps more so than any other author I had ever read, he distilled everything on the page down to an intoxicating brew.  Covering the typewritten text like a spiderweb, his penned cross-outs and substitutions suggested a continuous search for concision not with the aim of efficiency but of discursive precision was incredibly instructive. To put it another way, Harris was not in search just of the right word, but the combination of words through which the force of his narration, his ideas, the presence of the story, would resonate most fully. To give an example, here are two paragraphs from my quotation, back in 2011, of his Four Banks of the River of Space:

"The flute sings of an ancient riverbead one hundred fathoms deep, far below the Potaro River that runs to the Waterfall. Two rivers then. The visible Potaro runs to the Waterfall. The invisible stream of the river of the dead runs far below, far under our knees. The flute tells of the passage of the drowned river of the dead and the river of the living are one quantum stream possessed of four banks. We shall see!

"So deep, so far below, is the river of the dead that the sound of its stream may never be heard or visualized except when we clothe ourselves with the mask, with the ears of the dancer in the hill. Then the murmur of the buried stream comes up to us as if its source lies in the stars and it may only be heard when we are abnormally attentive to the mystery of creation and the voice of the flute within the lips of three drowned children.

Out of that interaction came an intermittent dialogue, and I made sure to send him my work as it appeared. He also did one of the kindest things an established writer can do when back in 1994, I sent him a copy of the manuscript of my first book Annotations, and, busy though he was--and though we had never met in person and only communicated via letter or electronic means--he sent back a one-page assessment that both summed up the novel in impressive form, affirmed what I was striving for, and provided me with my first blurb. It was a generous gesture, which he did not take lightly, and I will be forever grateful to him for doing so.

Theodore Wilson Harris was born in New Amsterdam, British Guiana, now Guyana, in 1921. He studied at Queen's College in Georgetown, Guyana, then worked as a surveyor in the country's interior, an experience that informed his work for the rest of his life. One can see the landscapes of his native country in his first novel, The Palace of the Peacock (1960), which made his reputation, and in one his late-career masterpieces, the beguiling, trenchant Jonestown (1996), which explores the US preacher Jim Jones' religious cult and its subsequent mass suicide that took place outside Guyana's capital. Harris took up a career as a writer and editor in the late 1940s, publishing poems and essays in journals such Kyl-over-Al, and emigrated to the UK 1959, primarily to foster and further his literary career.

Wilson Harris in 2006 (The Guardian)
The Palace of the Peacock also demonstrated his interest in an approach to narrative that broke down the strictures of realism, which he had linked in his critical work to the rise of colonialism, empire and the global slave system, in favor of storytelling which was more fluid in temporality, metaphorical and metonymic, speculative, oneiric, and philosophical. In as much as Harris took Guyana's multilayered history as his template, he also drew upon numerous European canonical texts, re(-en)visioning them so that his work entailed less of a rewriting and more of a dialogue with the prior texts. In this debut novel, the quest story leads to a profound reckoning for its characters but for the Caribbean novel, and Anglophone fiction, going forward. This was a new kind of mythic fiction, and Harris would, in all his subsequent work, demonstrate its numerous possibilities.

The Palace of the Peacock initiated what came to be known as the Guyana Quartet of novels, which appeared in rapid succession: The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962), and The Secret Ladder (1963). In each he explored aspects of Guyana's colonial history and present, while also delving into aspects of its indigenous past and the complex merger of cultures that opened up spaces within and beyond reality. The rainforest, the plantation, the bush, and the river become not just the sites where the novels unfolded, but chronotopes permitting an innovative mode of literary and critical exploration. Through the 1960s Harris would publish roughly a novel a year, the subsequent novels often centering on women protagonists grappling with various forms of loss, as the mythic component already present in the work moving ever more fully toward the forefront of the texts.

In the 1970s, his novels shifted to the UK and other points across the globe, including Mexico, but the revisionary conversation with Guyana's past and present, the Caribbean and Latin America, the African Diaspora and Amerindia's multiple currents, only deepened, as did his exploration of reality's multiplicities culminating in the remarkable Carnival trilogy of the 1980s, which includes the eponymous novel, as well as The Infinite Rehearsal (1987) and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990). He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010, and received a lifetime achievement award from the Anisfield-Wolf Foundation in 2014. His wife of many decades, Margaret, predeceased him in 2010. He leaves four children by his first wife, Cecily Carew, as well as his sister, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Poem: Tyehimba Jess

Tyehimba Jess
Several years ago, Tyehimba Jess (1965-), winner of last year's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his innovative, rich and complex collection Olio (Wave Books), published the following poem on "Poem-a-Day." In it, he calls forth a sculpture by the famous 19th century African American sculptor Edmonia Lewis (see below), a pioneering figure in the world of Western art. Lewis was the first Black woman  artist and first woman artist of Native American ancestry to gain international recognition and acclaim, in no small part for artworks that depicted Black subjects, though often with the features tempered for her white patrons and audience.

Jess, a friend and fellow former Cave Canem grad and NYU alum, excavates American and African American history, often in relation to major and lesser known Black figures who are artists and performers, whether working in the fine arts or vernacular and popular forms. The poem below, while differing in form from the page-crossing sonnets in Olio, offers a sense of his poetics, particularly his skillful use of voice and imagery, which also are on vivid display in his award-winning first book, Leadbelly. What I also like about the poem below is how he merges ekphrasis and dramatic monologue; it is the sculpture, as well as Hagar, the Biblical figure serving as a metonymic stand-in for Black women, and Lewis, who speak through the lines, figuratively and literally bringing the art work to life.


by Tyehimba Jess

Carved Marble. Edmonia Lewis, 1875

My God is the living God,
God of the impertinent exile.
An outcast who carved me
into an outcast carved
by sheer and stony will
to wander the desert
in search of deliverance
the way a mother hunts
for her wayward child.
God of each eye fixed to heaven,
God of the fallen water jug,
of all the hope a vessel holds
before spilling to barren sand.
God of flesh hewn from earth
and hammered beneath a will
immaculate with the power
to bear life from the lifeless
like a well in a wasteland.
I’m made in the image of a God
that knows flight but stays me
rock still to tell a story ancient as
slavery, old as the first time
hands clasped together for mercy
and parted to find only their own
salty blessing of sweat.
I have been touched by my God
in my creation, I’ve known her caress
of anointing callus across my face. 
I know the lyric of her pulse
across these lips...  and yes,
I’ve kissed the fingertips
of my dark and mortal God.
She has shown me the truth
behind each chiseled blow
that’s carved me into this life,
the weight any woman might bear 
to stretch her mouth toward her
one true God, her own
beaten, marble song.

Edmonia Lewis (1845-1907) was an African/Native American expatriate sculptor who was phenomenally successful in Rome.

Copyright © 2013 by Tyehimba Jess. All rights reserved. This poem appeared in the Academy of American Poetry's Poem-A-Day on December 26, 2013.

And Lewis's "Hagar," also known as "Hagar in the Wilderness," 1875, carved marble, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., 1983.95.178

Monday, April 02, 2018

Poem: Cathy Song

Cathy Song, at the Island School,
April 17, 2015, from a post by
Peggy Ellenburg
(courtesy of The Voyager Voice)

Continuing the ekphrastic theme and poems about art, here is a diamond of a lyric by Cathy Song (1955-), a native of Hawai'i, whose first collection of poems, Picture Bride, received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 1982, making her the first Asian American poet to be so honored (a number of amazing poets have followed in her footsteps). She has gone on to publish four more collections, including Cloud Moving Hands, which appeared in 2007. She teaches in Hawai'i's "Poets in the Schools" program and says of her process and poetry as an art, "You've got to be willing to dismantle...to realize that poetry is something made outside of yourself." This poem, "Girl Powdering Her Neck," is based on Kitagawa Utamaro's ukiyo-e print "Girl Powdering Her Neck," which is in the Musée Guimet in Paris.


by Cathy Song
from an ukiyo-e print by Utamaro
The light is the inside 
sheen of an oyster shell, 
sponged with talc and vapor, 
moisture from a bath. 

A pair of slippers 
are placed outside 
the rice-paper doors. 
She kneels at a low table 
in the room, 
her legs folded beneath her 
as she sits on a buckwheat pillow. 

Her hair is black 
with hints of red, 
the color of seaweed 
spread over rocks. 

Morning begins the ritual 
wheel of the body, 
the application of translucent skins. 
She practices pleasure: 
the pressure of three fingertips 
applying powder. 
Fingerprints of pollen 
some other hand will trace. 

The peach-dyed kimono 
patterned with maple leaves 
drifting across the silk, 
falls from right to left 
in a diagonal, revealing 
the nape of her neck 
and the curve of a shoulder 
like the slope of a hill 
set deep in snow in a country 
of huge white solemn birds. 
Her face appears in the mirror, 
a reflection in a winter pond, 
rising to meet itself. 

She dips a corner of her sleeve 
like a brush into water 
to wipe the mirror; 
she is about to paint herself. 
The eyes narrow 
in a moment of self-scrutiny. 
The mouth parts 
as if desiring to disturb 
the placid plum face; 
break the symmetry of silence. 
But the berry-stained lips, 
stenciled into the mask of beauty, 
do not speak. 
Two chrysanthemums 
touch in the middle of the lake 
and drift apart.

Copyright © Cathy Song, from Picture Bride (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983). All rights reserved.

Kitagawa Utamaro, "Girl Powdering Her Neck," ukiyo-e print, c. 1790, Musée Guimet in Paris

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Inter/National Poetry Month + Poem: W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden
Every month should be Poetry Month--and Fiction Month and Literature Month--we could go down the list, but since 1996, roughly a year after the Academy of American Poets, inspired by Black History Month (every month should be...) and Women's History Month (every month should be...), convened with poets, academics, booksellers, and poetry lovers to create a month dedicated specifically to poetry. During the first decade or so of this blog, I usually posted close to a poem a day each April, often inspired by one theme or another (poets in translation, etc.).

When I went to Cuba in April 2009, when it was almost impossible to post daily, I somehow managed to. (How did I manage to?) I've slacked off in recent years because the rest of my responsibilities have crowded in on my time, but throughout this month I hope to post some poetry, at least periodically. Though it may make "nothing happen," as W. H. Auden famously said, he also continued, if you stay with that same poem, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," it eludes the grasp of executives (unless of course it's set to music) and "survives / a way of happening, a mouth." That is, it gives voice to experiences, to visions, to feelings, in its particular form of representation, sometimes otherwise incommunicable, that we need and must listen to.

I guess since I have cited and quoted Auden's great poem, I should direct J's Theater readers to my post from 2012, which features it, and here, instead, is another Auden gem, "Musée de Beaux Arts," which I had to read in junior high and did not fully understand, though I get it now. As with so many of Auden's poems, the politics seem fitting for today; art offers a picture and mirror of the human sorrows we endure, and yet, at the same time, like the mundanities of life, it exists amidst the most unspeakable horrors, includes those enacted by the "torturer" whom Auden directly names. Sometimes, as in Pieter Breughel the Elder's "The Fall of Icarus," which Auden saw in 1938 at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, nearly a year before the start of the then-brewing Second World War, at the and which he discusses ekphrastically in the poem's second stanza, the two happen at the same time; there is the horror of the boy falling from the sky, even as the rest of life--and death--go about their business.

Perhaps that should be the month's theme: ekphrastic poems. (Have I already done that? Hmmm.) Happy Inter/National Poetry Month!


by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window
                                 or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Copyright © W. H. Auden, from Another Time (New York: Random House, 1940). All rights reserved.

And, the painting once attributed to Pieter Breughel the Elder, "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," oil on canvas, c. 1560s, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.