Nothing but the Oldies

“nothing but the music” (2020, Blank Forms Editions, Brooklyn) is a kind of compilation, a box set, of pieces composed by Thulani Davis over the years 1974 to 1992, lines written while listening to live music or reflecting on the experience of an avant garde art form as it’s happening, and before it might be neutered by mainstream commercialization too influenced by those with control of the means of production. Most of the Davis pieces appeared in poetic form in alternative press issues over the years and some were set to music. The scores are informed, and may be read with reference to, performance and theatre, jazz and punk, R&B, and mixed forms or art form synesthesia, the courage and risks found in the places music is born, but the rewards too of achievement, however much that success may appear to some as failure. The music’s codification (its reliability, approvals, its aesthetic argument) might be seen in the cost for a ticket to get in: $20 – for a 63 page paperback, made possible in part by support from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Is the music now artifact? The oral argument, written or recorded, becomes a document. What the music feels like, in words, what it stands for, and stands against. The importance of the work, these pieces, these entries, is found in the subtitle: “Documentaries from nightclubs, dance halls & a tailor’s shop in Dakar.” Or, in the words of the book’s epigraph:

“to the artists
& dharma guides
who coax us
minute by minute
from retold pasts
& possible futures
ever
to the present
moment”

Each piece is sourced at its end with a date and location and often the names of the musicians. For example: “1982, CBGB, New York”; “April 27, 1977, The Rogue & Jar, Washington, DC. The players: David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett, Charles “Bobo” Shaw, Fred Hopkins. The poet: Ntozake Shange”; “April 15, 1975. Five Spot, New York. The Cecil Taylor Unit: Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, Andrew Cyrille.” That last piece just cited, “C. T. At The Five Spot,” begins:

“this is not about romance & dream
it’s about a terrible command performance of the facts
of time & space & air”

…and moves on:

“ripple stamp & beat/ripple peddlin’
stomps taps of feet slick poundin’ out
tonal distinctions between/keys & sticks”

…and ends:

“I have heard this music
ever since I can remember/I have heard this music”

(22-23)

If music is a cultural argument, an aesthetic fight, it must come complete with a thesis statement about which some will disagree, backed with claims with examples, illustrations, supported with evidence and sources. It’s not enough to dress the part and go punk for an evening; one must want to be hardcore punk, and harder still. The wall does not give way so easily. It’s not enough to listen to the radio or buy the recording; one must enter the mosh pit. Who can survive it?

“the punks jumped on the stage
and dove into their friends
let their chains beat their thighs
the crowd thought death
in two-minute intervals
heavy metal duos and creaming murder

the band of twelve year-old rockers
wished they could do it
come like that on the refuse
of somebody else’s youth”

from “Bad Brains: A Band”: 1982, CBGB, New York

We find, in “nothing but the music,” in addition to the music itself, criticism, analysis, reaction, conclusions, as well as questions for further research. What happens when the avant garde becomes tradition?

“Not just history not just Trane
No not what we heard about
What we heard
Just what we hear
It always being night
We’ll still be there
Dancing the dissonant logic
The loneness
Just playing music
He speaking to himself
Really paying us no rabbitass mind
Digging what himself was doing
T-monius and ‘al-reet'”

from “T-Monius”: February 17, 1982, 122nd Street, New York (50-51).

In a life of disenfranchisement, art may be the only place to find certain freedoms: of expression and voice, enjoyment and creativity, play and work coming together in a spirit of desire and interests, not of servitude or boredom, and where one may object to a status quo in a statement with examples of new possibilities. And beauty, where beauty may come to rest, looking tired and worn out, where she can mix with the crowd and feel at home and dig the music. And truth hangs out in the rhythm section. Some hep young cat might ask, “What was it like?” And the answer is important, how we answer, what we say, what we hold back. We are old now, and passing, older than we ever imagined. You can’t breakdance at 70 like you could at 17, Cornel West said in his ten minute section of Astra Taylor’s Examined Life: “Time is real.” Yes, and you can find it in the music:

“giving a spring to the dance
of who we are/unexpected beauty
beauty we have known ourselves to be
like reaching old age & infancy in a breath
of this is the music
knowing we can’t be us
& be afraid of who we are”

X-75-Vol. 1, Henry Threadgill “Side B (Air Song/Fe Fi Fo Fum)” (31-32).

Fragments Strung Together to Make a Whole

Cold, clear morning. Just below freezing. Frost riffs across roofs and grass the sun has not yet touched. The hoary, grey-silver stubble of winter blades, stiff. The skinny, rigid jogger skips by again, down the road, round and round she goes. A squirrel. No birds. Quiet. Clarity. Wind nil. Across the street on the sidewalk guy wearing black beard pulling red wagon up the hill in the wagon a child sitting holding the rails.

Back inside, a couple of books: “nothing but the music: Documentaries from nightclubs, dance halls & a tailor’s shop in Dakar, 1974-1992” (Thulani Davis, Blank Forms Editions, Brooklyn, 2020, but just out, pre-ordered & in snail mail about a week ago, January 2021, 63 pages); and “Paris: a poem” (Hope Mirrlees, first published in 1920 by the Hogarth Press, 175 copies, handsewn, this edition in 2020, also recently received, Bloomsbury House, London, 59 pages).

In an Afterword (long after, 100 years after), of “Paris: a poem,” Sandeep Parmar shares the setting: “Spring 1919 was quiet and cold….The weather put a dampener on the First of May demonstrations,” and she quotes from a letter, “Riots were expected but all fell flat and it was like an English Sunday – traffic stopped shops shut and nothing doing” (56-57). Sounds a bit like the morning here described above I just came from back inside to read and write. That’s not as easy as it might sound, at least not the reading part, not reading “Paris: a poem.” The poem itself runs from page 3 to page 23. The remainder of the book is Foreword (Deborah Levy), the aforementioned Afterword, and Commentary (by Julia Briggs, 2007, reworked to fit this edition), this last running from pages 25 thru 51, including Works Cited and an Addendum by Parmar. There’s also a page of notes apparently part of the first edition. For the aficionado of the obscure, this little book is a goldmine. And here I am, panning for gold:

The sun is rising,
Soon les Halles will open,
The sky is saffron behind the two towers of Notre-Dame (22).

The close of Parmar’s Afterword wants quoting in this little review just wanting to share what resources might be extracted:

“But it also startlingly brings to life a city lost to the past: the voice of an old nun chanting masses, American servicemen at jazz clubs, hawkers on the street, the sounds of newly opened metro trains and the glare of advertisements for exotic colonial products, the famous and nameless dead, as well as the living who have endured tragedy and survived, who must now inhabit this great metropolis side by side with those they mourn.”

(59)

Which might bring us back to today, what we began our little review with, still a cold, clear morning, now with cup of coffee, a couch, and “Paris: a poem” to carry us through to a sun low in the south noon and another early evening of thanks for the “nothing doing” of the moment. For we are doing as little as possible, still stuck in our own tragedy and attempts to survive, masked and not famous, inhabitants of this Earth, these cities, constantly renewing, so frequently we often miss what’s passing as it passes. And perhaps that’s the purpose of poetry – to still the passing for recording and reflection and renewal.

Tomorrow, or the day after, I’ll talk about the other little book recently acquired: “nothing but the music.”

Restless Nights

“Li Po’s Restless Night: Improvisations on a Theme” is now available in e-Book and paperback formats. Ideal reading for those with restless nights in quarantine, “Li Po’s Restless Night” includes 101 original variations on a theme of Chinese poet Li Po, with an explanatory personal essay, “Florence and Li Po,” though the essay may make better daytime reading. There was a time when I was able to close my eyes and not open them again for eight hours. Then the moon rose.

How to Relax

No point in pointing to made one’s way
each momentous breath passes coming
in spaces between arriving & leaving
you learn to breathe with the tummy.

To breathe is to fall loose
into mattresses of surf
full of air bubbles drifting
to shore with a slow tide
as light as moon goes
in the sky and on the sea.

Sitting on the wooden bench under the lilac,
while Chloe plays in the age-old schoolyard,
Papa awaits the second coming, not knowing
what to expect, unable to recall the first coming.

I will write you flowers
every morning to read
with your bitter coffee
a bright yellow squirt
of sun oily blue green
froth on top.

You sleep with a cat
whose soft purr
gives you pleasure
all the joy of color
impressions for the day.

You are soft like warm
butter barely melting
down a scone topped
with a couple of gummy
candy raspberries.

The butter wets the real
fruit jelly rounds to light
pigment an open place
for lips to play and tongue – wait
you didn’t think this
was really about flowers, did you?

Here are two flowers
the one calls a honey bee
the other falls asleep
petals open softly fictile.            

There is so much silence
hear the rustle of ants
hustling across the counter
for sugar and sweet
stuffs, see the apple
blossoms opening feel
the bees approach
touch the molten lava
freeze it you can
but no matter.

Once we admired multiple
uses of one another
of the now tossed
cast off laugh
tassels flipping
flopping bouncing
from rear view mirrors
windows all rolled down.

Now we adhere
to this new silence
deafens touch
asks for something
that is nothing
blends with the wall
wearing night caps
and socks to bed.

Outside cold winds blow
bare branches whip
the rain’s violence pours
mercifully out a kindness
allows for sleep and sleep.

The rain falls and falls all
night long soaks through
the ground walls fills
the basement rises
up the stairs
floods the living
room wicks up the wallpaper
and pours out the windows.

In Bed on a Needless Night

When a wicker burns-out quicker,
and another’s will burn no more,
nib a dry nub asleep in a wizened nest,
it’s nice to know, though cold indeed,

there’s no need now to heed
the urge and goad of goat heat,
no need to coax or be caught
to pressure, beseech and feel

the close reach up against the ropes.
A litany of no goes to plural of peaches
and peace is a rosary of yeses said
in the silences between diminishes.

When you come to admit, at rest,
it’s all over, bent, sore but soft,
relieved neither bothered
nor bother anymore will be,

breaths roses fall,
almost not fall, slow pink petals,
and a peaceful evening now alone
in bed on a needless night.

Dolce & Metallico

To sand a page of flat board, one abrades first metallico then brushes dolce, as the piece turns to canvas. That is a music lesson learned in the woodshop. On the guitar, metallico is played near the bridge, where the strings are tight and unbending and sound like the steel wheels of a train or fingernails on edge across a chalkboard – both sounds rarely heard these days as trains recede farther into the industrial inner city or disappear through the countryside, and chalkboards fill landfills. In the middle of nowhere one learns to listen. Dolce on guitar is sounded where the strings loosen, up the neck from the soundhole. Sweet is dolce, but the hard, long ē of sweet sounds more metallico, so soft is dolce, not sour, but balmy. Metallico, that steel rail sound, harsh and disagreeable, straightens the spine and tingles the neck hairs. For some listeners, dolce raises goosebumps; for others, metallico does the trick. Dolce is the sound of the short, soft vowel, metallico the sound of the long, hard vowel. Thus the meaning of a musical note changes with its vowel length. A bent line over the vowel illustrates the soft sound (ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, and ŭ), a straight line the hard (ā, ē, ī, ō, ū). Often, the meaning of a poem rests within its sounds, not seen in its definitions. One must listen to a poem like one listens to a piece of music. The reading question is often not what a poem means but how it feels when read or heard, what its sounds suggest. Some poems sand wood; others cut stone.

The Anglers

They line the streets, sitting out at sidewalk cafes, watching the passersby, angling for what they might catch. Patiently they wait, nursing a coffee through a first frost morning, almost napping off over a warm afternoon beer, coming back in the evening for a smooth glass of purple pinot noir or a shot of postprandial espresso. The burbling, gurgling, murmuring river of cars drifts along, punctuated by busses and trucks, bicycles, pedestrians crossing, a cop on a Harley, a delivery truck snagged on a rock, three buskers in an open boat. The anglers move along too, changing spots, carrying their birdcages of verbs, baskets of nouns, hooks and swivels and spinners tucked in their tackle box notebooks. And I move upriver, looking for a new hole, so hungry I will not catch and release a cliche, but will pick out its bones and pan-fry the fillet in butterfat in a cast iron skillet.

Poetic Fact

The use of metaphor is not pretentious. Most folks use metaphor, most of the time, in ordinary circumstances – metaphor is hardly limited to poems or wordsmiths. When we look at something familiar but see something different – the metaphorical mind engages. Advertising is grounded in metaphor, where images are often used to counterpoise logic (vintage cigarette ads will provide examples), and we seldom ask ads to explain themselves. Advertising traffics in pathos, which, while it appeals to the emotions, does so in logical ways. The Spanish poet Federico Lorca suggested other forms of logic (words used to reason) are available and frequently used to understand or make sense of persons, places, and things – and of events and experience. Lorca named one other kind of logic Hecho Poético. Poems are not puzzles to solve. They are facts. Poems are modes of experience grounded in common sense, mother wit, connected to mood: indicative, ordering, questioning, wishful, conditional.

Intermission: Two Songs

The song he sang bang bang
wronged his world in ruin.
The song he sang rang rang
in a public call box.
No one by picked it up
to hear his sad sack tale.

Who does not doubt
the flood zone maps,
the flow of the fire line?
One in trees, one underground.
One flies to the sky.
One climbs to a fallout shelter.

One portrays, one predicts.
In two camps the singers roam.
The songs below go gong,
in the trees so tinkle.
One pulls down, one pulls up.
One rises green, one drops red.

Intermission: Near the End

Near the end
his spindle
did him in

narrowing
down maelstrom
open mouthed

carnival
amuser
waits upon.


Intermission: A Dud

I dig it
he sd as
a dude does

no shovel
held his hands
one foot on

his barstool
warbling suds
next to us.