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Tag Archives: John Coltrane

Divine Blue Light (for John Coltrane) by Will Alexander (City Lights)

Divine Blue Light (for John Coltrane) by Will Alexander (City Lights)

Like saxophonist John Coltrane, who this book is dedicated to, Will Alexander improvises his way through noise and chaos to explore the furthest reaches of his source material and thought process. And sometimes, although I love the late music of Coltrane, I can’t but help be reminded of Miles Davis’ retort in response to Coltrane’s extended soloing‘Why don’t you try taking the horn out of your mouth?’

The contradiction is that the lengthier poems here are the most successful, as they catch the reader up in extended riffs of ‘Language / as scaled erisma / as amplification that burns’ with energy, confusion and the ghost of incantatory poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Gil Scott Heron or The Last Poets whilst also drawing on the bewildering radical politics and mysticism of black artists such as Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton and Amiri Baraka.

Shorter poems, such as ‘Under Corporate Worship, reproduced here in its entirety, don’t cut it for me:

   Sunday
   being elliptically feigned
   tautological circumference

There’s not enough of it for it to establish a sound pattern or concept. The long works are often even more abstract (I hesitate to use that word, because of course, words always carry meaning[s], even when they are decontextualised or syntax is disrupted) but over a few pages one can start to grasp at ‘poetic current / not as inordinate savagery / but as refined alchemical emblem’ which works towards ‘mystical commencement’.

Alexander’s strength, beyond a clear freewheeling delight in language itself, is to reinvent or at least discuss spirituality by combining the vocabularies and ideas of cartography, science, nature and rhizomics, signs and symbols:

   I come not to ascribe or assassinate trans-regulation or intent
   but to subsist by vibration
   by hollow or vibrational design

   […]

   therefore
   I articulate through fog

with the aim ‘to burn away the drought within thinking’.

It is a strange read, that mostly I can only start to apprehend; these are poems that grasp at enlightenment and imagery outside my experience or imagination. What is ‘expanded helipause’? What is the meaning or symbolism of ‘suns appearing above suns / ignited via the blue fragmentation that is grace’? Does the poet really partake in the ‘Phantom Inter-Dimensional Activity’ which is the title of one of his texts?

Sun Ra’s Arkestra would often dress in sci-fi versions of Egyptian robes, and appropriate both gospel and mystical texts and tunes within their music; their leader himself claimed to have been born on Jupiter before travelling through time and space to Earth. Many critics argued then and now that this was a kind of diversion tactic: critics and audiences were so busy being mystified by the weirdness of the visuals and the music that they forgot the band were Afro-Americans intent on fighting racism and injustice. 

This mix of race, technology, and metaphysics is often known as Afrofuturism. Alexander’s mix of mystical aspiration and ability to ‘blaze as spectral reasoning’ sits squarely in this lineage, ‘being praxis that magically emanates and heightens the zero field’. It is a challenging and exciting read

   that insists on startling & consequential contour
   so higher emptiness concurs
   not unlike a rhetoric that swarms with declivitous capacity
   having an explosively strange assessment of itself

This is poetry as thought, as visionary experience, as stormy epiphany and epiphanic storm, ‘where power evinces the limitless / the arcane appellation of itself’, in ‘realms where the mind fails to match itself’. It is a generous, bewildering outpouring of language and ideas, an echo of possibilities, explanations and declamation: raw, militant, energising poetry, ‘perhaps a deafening colloquy by quarrel’.

Rupert Loydell 2nd March 2023

a book with no name by Ken Edwards (Shearsman Books)

a book with no name by Ken Edwards (Shearsman Books)

I have been anticipating this book ever since reading some of the texts on Intercapillary Space and in PN Review 230. It does not disappoint. The book comes with the back cover proviso that ‘It is not a book of poems. / It is not a long poem. / It is not a novel. / Nor a volume of short stories. / It is not a work of philosophy. / It is not an object – like a stone. / Yet it drops into the well of nothingness /and is never heard of again.’ The book ‘fuses the optimism of Beckett and the hyperrealism of Stein’.

The texts clearly make a sound, as indicated in the note, through a series of speech acts presented as prose poems, defined as continuous prose without line breaks. They are distinct from say the ‘non-generic’ prose of Richard Makin in his trilogy of novels, which read like knotted prose poetry without conventional novelistic devices, and the internal conversations of R.D. Laing’s prose poems, Knots (1970), on the other. In contrast, the text titles guide the reader into small areas of focus where the movements of attention are incrementally tiny, and call back upon themselves, as small acts, through the slow nature of the development. These small movements accumulate incrementally, as in ‘The facts’:

I have the facts. I have those. I have those facts. I have all those facts. I have all the facts. I have those I have. I have examined those. I have examined those facts I have. All those facts I have examined.

The small statements, each with their own distinct place within the developmental structure, become acts of possession and assertion along the narrative arc. Focus is thus upon the nature of each small statement as they occur. The poet, Lee Harwood, frequently drew attention to small movements within landscapes, climate, moods, and in so doing, also drew attention to the acts of being mindful. This attentiveness to the workings of the mind also occurred in Laing’s dialogues. Here Edwards is working with monologues and there is much less interest in any external world of relationships.

The impact is similar to some serial music, cumulative and entrancing. The reader is drawn into the artifice and drama of speech acts. There is sometimes a sense of inevitability to the conclusion, a sort of rounded closure, as if the text were on a loop. Other endings are much less predictable.

‘Live at Birdland’ subverts any sense of predictability that a list poem may engender by taking a finite set of verbs connected with the activities of birds. The title puns on the New York jazz club of that name and in particular, the John Coltrane album, ‘Live at Birdland’. Here the text progressions are gradual, slightly altered and repeated through the duration and eventually extended as in Coltrane’s music. So that after the verbs have been laid out the progression comes in the form of adverbs and repletion of verbs. Thus the birds that previously call, perch, jump, feed, kill, mate and so on, later do so erratically, willfully, lazily, strongly, madly, lazily and so on. The verb repetitions are innate to the activities of birds and this produces a trance like effect as if one had been intensely watching the activities of birds or indeed closely listening to some Coltrane. The singular image clusters serve to mark the poetic element of the prose narrative on the journey from a definitive opening to its seeming negation through the use of ‘Never’ in the final six lines. The overall impact of the piece is utterly beguiling and one is left enthralled.

a book with no name has a beguiling and absorbing quality. A poem, such as, ‘Dialectics’ based upon permutations from ten words produces a distinct music and elaborates a thought sequence around the propositional pronoun ‘this is’ and its negation with ‘not’. The gradual accumulation of the various propositions and their negatives produces a range of thoughts connected to the various definitions and possible use of ‘dialectics’. The concluding line ‘This is not the way it was supposed to happen’ employing all ten words for the first time together leaves the reader suitably engaged with the text and the subsequent development of the sequence.

I thoroughly recommend a book with no name.

David Caddy 5th September 2016

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