[Offered at the year's end, as one of its highlights.]
June 2018, Alice Notley reading at King’s Place, just down the road from King’s Cross station, glass and sculptures in the redevelopment haze rearing more and more every year – in the evening of the eventual summer heat, at the summer launch for the then-current (summer) issue of Poetry London, which has a black-and-white watercolour portrait of Notley’s floating head on the cover and includes a couple of recent Notley’s poems, one a sort of self-reflection on the composition of her epic Alma, or the Dead Women, and its relation to 9/11, which somehow manages to do self-reflexivity without ego (the poem’s called ‘Creating the Memory Collage’, and is available online here), the other a ‘Jimi Hendrix Anecdote’ from the 1960s, of which more below.
Notley’s set might have been twenty minutes, could have been two hours, time stopped even as the temporal rollercoaster in the shifting vortex of the last poem she read accelerated and decelerated with intense attention to rhythm, pacing, timing, all of that – the minutiae of their shifts within an intense sense of overall architecture, of knowing what and when to say but with an openness to exhilarating destabilisation at almost every turn, as a fundamental aspect of poetic method. (I’d say the reading was probably around twenty minutes by clock time.) Notley, the final reader, stepped on stage, hesitant up the stairs, stood at the lectern, said that if she did an intro, she wouldn’t stop talking and would use up her slot, is the microphone working, there’s a self-conscious but genuine and funny play with the conventions of the either overly-assertive or falsely self-deprecating mode of certain poetry self-intros, but when she reads, she’s possessed of such total assurance, she reads without looking at us, no placation, total devotion to poetry – as she writes somewhere, “poetry is my only value”, and while poetry isn’t exactly transcendental here, it almost is, for what it can say and do in relation to and in defiance of the mendacities of ‘the world’, of which it is very much a part.
I guess part of the problem in writing about this, conveying the experience, is that Notley invariably says it better than anyone else, whether in interviews, or, most often, in the quotably declarative statements that pepper her voluminous output (and especially voluminous recently, perhaps since her move from the United States to Paris, a prodigious outflowing that totally blows away the usual characterisations of what ‘late style’ is or the convention of resting on your laurels – she earns more and more laurels with each book.) Yeah, she’s a big deal, and it was surprising that there wasn’t more buzz around this, though the event was pretty well attended, and it was especially beautiful to see her interacting with Denise Riley after the reading. So she read three poems, a clearly carefully-planned set, no hesitation or on-the-spot decisions about order, but choreographed precisely. First, the afore-mentioned ‘Jimi Hendrix Anecdote’, more ‘New York School’ in style than the other work – the inevitable tag that comes up and which Notley herself has sought to evade, but which her own placement, along with Ted Berrigan, at the centre of a locus of poets in that city at a particular time, still conjures up (she spoke at a New York School conference in Birmingham a few weeks after the Poetry London reading, for example). The poem sees a lot of names dropped (in an in-joke about that kind of name-dropping); it’s about going to a Free Timothy Leary benefit in New York 1969 and seeing Hendrix perform shortly before his death. Maybe we can in part understand this poem as in line with and as a joke about the New York School and Notley’s placing with New York bohemian / literary scenes. O’Hara and others might write, often, about mythological figures or famous literary figures or about celebrities and celebrity iconography / identification (James Dean, Billie Holiday, et al), they’re probably most famous for writing about people you, the reader who isn’t a part of their friendship circle, don’t know, connected by first name at the bar or the party or on the phone: people who are only retrospectively famous as part of the canonisation that that way of writing about the coterie to some extent jokingly anticipates. But Notley’s poem is about someone who, even at the time, would have been familiar to everyone. So this is about the recuperation of that coterie style and we all know those people are famous now so it’s a kind of in-joke about in-jokes. And then again, isn’t Notley’s thing the rejection of ‘school’ altogether? – The creation of alternative ensembles which might encompass real poets, publications, ties of friendship and love – let’s avoid the word ‘networks’ here – as well as ensembles that only exist in poems (as in the dead women in Alma)? In this poem, a play within, or adjacent to, a style that gets named as a school, in any case – or just the form of the anecdote, if you like, owned by no one but its teller.
Beyond the ‘New York School’ then, the poem is called ‘Jimi Hendrix Anecdote’, and the twist is that there’s no real anecdote, just that she had a bad trip and felt there was a white thread inside her that needed to be clung to or she’d be annihilated – would that be possible, she muses later in recollecting how she recollected this incident to her sons and friends on her 60th birthday – and Hendrix looked at her in the crowd and seemed to be the only one who’d understood – he performed solo and died a few months later – ultimately the poem concluding “there is no anecdote”, ending with a parody of the narrative structure the anecdote assumes, the final lines “this thing that happened this is this thing that happened”. So the poem is clever, it’s about the anecdote structure in itself and like lots of her recent shorter poems that aren’t part of larger sequences or book projects, has this kind of digressive storytelling thing, often about the dead, and often concerned with dreams (her Lorenzo Thomas poems or the other poem in Poetry London, about 9/11 and the composition of Alma) – so in that sense the anecdote has something here to do with recall, with memorialising the dead as if they were still with us – the anecdote tends to be something told about the live person, but then it also has a structural role in posthumous tributes, documentaries and the like (think the talking heads in a Hendrix documentary, say). It’s about life and mourning and holding on to a thread against annihilation in a way that movingly belies the jokiness of its (non)anecdotal structure, and in that sense anticipates what Notley would do to a more extended extent in the last poem she read.
That was the warmup, anyway, then an earnest we the people poem from the 2006 collection Certain Magical Acts, revisiting her earlier “I the people” and more insistently meditating on what that collective pronoun might mean, its inclusions and exclusions, with the we both a cry for togetherness and an acknowledgment not forced, of what the pronoun we actually does in terms of identity as reinforcing exclusion – and here it’s a kind of planetary eco consciousness too, with plant and animal life – it was read with true seriousness and intent –
And then – but then! – the third poem (‘Malorum Sanatio’ – her own Latin coinage meaning “the healing of evil”), which is from a recent Canadian chapbook, Undo, published by Rob McLennan's Above/Ground Press with an A5 card cover but with the pages huge and expanding out beyond that cover (in that sense maybe reflecting its title). She prefaced the reading of this poem by saying, ‘this is going to be hard to read so I’m going to count to ten first’. Then she launched in, and it was amazing, like six voices at once[*], modulating tone and inflection within the space of phrases, words, lines, sometimes dialogues between characters, sometimes within one character, it’s got a humour but you never quite laugh, it’s never quite a joke, and a deep deep seriousness and personal integrity – lost in the words when she reads, authoritative and with audience in palm of hand but never playing to them – that trance state she says she writes in. Or as she puts it in an (even-more) recent poem: "Syntax of / The instantaneous I’m trying to write three or four flashes per line". (The Speak Angel Series, Book VI: Other Side of Fabric, published by The Equalizer, 2018))
So she read with skill and clearly prepared and rehearsed and she knows how to read it backwards (and sometimes it does feel like it’s being read from, or in fact is written from all angles at once, backwards and forwards and sidewise in slantwise purposeful linear motion, around the insistent motif of healing, but an aggressive healing, ending movingly with Notley positing this healing as a healing of the loss of loved ones (as ever in the recent work, Ted and Doug and Kate and her brother and father behind all this), the suffering of women, the exclusions and deprivations and depredations perpetuated on planet and people (a narrative of her as the traveller going to a different planet and aggressively pursuing this purpose of healing and not being understood), and if there’s a spirituality it’s that sometimes the dead do seem to still speak and to be with us, no cosmology, no goddess (that interview with CA Conrad where she goes “fuck Hecate!"), she reads this last poem fast, so many ideas and she just keeps going and going, but not in a way that feels exhausting or like coasting as it can do with some extra-prolific writers / musicians, but really just she has this mountain of ideas, like what Elvin Jones (if I'm remembering correctly) says about John Coltrane, that it was like he was sitting on a mountain of ideas and they would just flake off every few seconds. In a recent interview Notley says “I'm trying to destroy the line, or make the words and thoughts in it as simultaneous as possible, or make all the parts of the poem be simultaneous, yet still be voiced.” That makes sense when you hear her read, totally.
A few days later, looking back at the text of the poem, the setting seems to be a different planet – or maybe a different version of earth. Notley uses the ghost of the sci-fi framework the way sci-fi’s always been useful for, not only as vehicle for imagination but as a way to gain different perspective on the fundamental alien-ness of fucked-up structures on earth. Alien beings are speaking to the narrator, or speaking through them (Spicer’s Martians?):
we have a different year on Jupiter
These transgressions in their authentic beauty digress
The poem is partly concerned it seems with both the healing from toxic masculinity by those gendered female or non-normative at its expense and the healing of toxic masculinity from against itself – continuing the theme of Alma;, and of what we could say was the care work of women having to heal men, registered with sarcasm in the opening stanza:
I want to know if I’m healing
Him oh so talented dead man illiterate unlettered I say
In the dark club playing his unlettered guitar
The character / speaker in the poem knows they have to heal this figure but not how. We seem to have a meditation on how masculine framings of artistic genius are created, disentangling them from the ‘pasted’ and ‘pressed’ letters of their pasts:
I’m supposed to know why in order to heal you or him am I
Let’s not concentrate on what it means dead guys with
Past to be unpasted pressed over with letters who can
Later the speaker asks:
have I healed you yet I’ll continue to try
On the street corner behind broken ice whatever planet
They are not sure
If it’s a feeling I have to heal or if it’s a disease
These are affective boundaries, albeit ones which have real material effects. Language is key here – Notley again:
Come in here a voice said but I have brought back every dimen-
Sion that I am mentioning till I find the one in the pun you are
No one gets out of here unhealed
no one gets
Out of here unhealed battered by grief
Playing on terms of violence, aggression, destruction – Jim Morrison’s ‘no one gets out of here alive’ becomes ‘no one gets out of here unhealed’ – the language of masculinity is itself distorted, appropriated, reclaimed, as words break across lines (‘pla/net’) in dizzying shards and fragments, crystal-clear, rock-hard. The healing is a healing but also a living through of grief – if we read the grammar that way, so that to be healed (the converse of unhealed) is also to be battered by grief. The negative is reclaimed as the space of that which heals:
I claim everything as my abyss in order to heal you
This is a negative framing of what is also utopian and enormous, as we’ll see below, a project of huge memory of all that’s ever been spoken or thought. Language, as the historical residue of that, even in its particular, in the language associated with dominant imperial and patriarchal paradigms, is still this healing ground, for its also where toxic masculinity and imperial domination is reinforced and enacted. But forgiveness is a part of this healing, and the healing language sought is also associated with the mother’s lullaby, or more accurately, the song beyond the individual mother or gendered individual or even individual per se but of any song:
I don’t care what you did or have I search for the one lang-
Uage to heal in which infants recognize when anyone sings
The poem at once seems to manifest a character-speaker who is not sure of their purpose, or at least, of how to accomplish it, of whether the desire and necessity to heal comes from their self or some other collective or even cosmic agency – but at the same time, matching the disruptive, anarchic formal assurance, an absolute self-belief of the insistently-reiterated I that is Notley and her life, but is no lyric pose no decentred subject subjected -- yes inscripted, violently written on by language but with the mobilising captures of that language to speak individually of collective import, that the spiritual discourse of the work may be sci-fi may be fantasy, that the zone of the spirits of the dead and ensembles of dead women or excluded is physical and not physical, that
if I’m telling
A myth or truth only a point of origination you can’t break
Here, the poet as leader, a role both wished for and wished for, turns on the pun on a word where sonic association itself dismembers and remembers the harm done in a language inflected and mobilised for patriarchal purpose:
Healing you leading you and healing almost the same word
Breaking open with something vulnerable to know
To memorize a motion a structure I am healing you
Inside the whiteness of your eyes
And in the final stanza that healing reaches a climax of personal and collective healing, every syllable of final line earned as it comes to resounding, concluding, unquiet clarion-calling rest. The desire to remember literally everything, to fall away in order to remember all words ever spoken, is utopian and impossible and enormous, it fits with alma’s project of remembering, to write a history adequate, but not commensurate or complicit with, the project of human life understood in terms of its violence, exclusions and framing definitions – perhaps too, beyond them.
All of us call come here and be healed of displeasure
Healed of extreme distress of disease imbalance and fit-
Fulness healed of every mark that hasn’t a source in your
Spirit healed of ruptures between substances these words
Are pure without cynical precedent or calculation
I obtain for you the blessing of others we heal and holding are you
Falling away so you can remember all words ever spo-
Ken in any language remember thoughts all thoughts
For you can in one instant be healed knowing everything
Remembering everyone and finally remembering who you are
Based in the Bay Area for years, a co-editor of the Poetic Labor Project, Alli Warren is also -- more importantly -- and for my money -- one of the best Anglophone lyric poets around. OK, yes, that's one of those blurbable statements that the business of evaluation and writing on contemporary work can tend towards, and what, anyway, is meant by lyric? Well one answer to that might be that we have to turn to poetry like Warren's to see how a term like lyric, at once vague and specific, might have a real purchase and a real purpose, and we have to turn to it to see how we can retain some faith in the real workings of real poetry without worrying about the other networks that structure its perception or reception. Which is just to say: her work is quietly singular; without fuss and with calm commitment, she has for the last few years been building up an achieved and purposive poetry, with none of the bravado or braggadocio that terms like ‘achieved’ build up in the bloated corpus of their own self-awareness, bestowing laurel wreaths in parades of categorising, crowning, dividing. It is particular work, attentive to particularity, but with plenty of space to breathe. Because of that it feels like it's in the air - it feels like Warren's poetry can sometimes get taken for granted -- and its specific details can get overlooked, it's such a great *ambiance* to be in -- but that closer look only serves to deepen a sense of (that word again!) its achievement. This that follows is a quick look at three recent pamphlets and books: Movable C, I love it Though, her second full-length, out from Nightboat, and (more briefly) Little Hill, the most recent, from the Elephants.
So Movable C, printed in an edition of 200 by Push Press a couple of years ago, is named after Ornette Coleman’s conception of the moveable central note (the 'middle C') as (non-)anchoring of the western pitch scale. As the closing citation from Coleman’s New York Times obituary puts it, Coleman retained “a lifelong suspicion of the rules of western harmony and musical notation”, formulating instead a conception in which, rather than subscribing to a universally-applicable centring of pitch, every person (and not just musician) has their own tonal centre. Coleman’s youthful misunderstanding of the difference between the C of his own instrument, the alto sax, and the C on the “concert key” of the piano (an A on the alto), has been used by even sympathetic critics such as Gunther Schuller to disparage his lack of awareness of conventional ‘western’ / European pitch scales, painting Coleman as a kind of outsider artist, a musical primitive whose unique musical conception arose out of happy accident. But for Warren, it’s instead a model for how the field of the poem – as of Coleman’s ‘harmolodic’ ensembles – might enfold the multiple within the singular, attentive to, but not mired in, the detail of locale and of the specific fractures and cruelties of this particular epoch, century twenty-one.
The shortish pamphlet unfolds in prose sentences, sometimes harsh and tough, yet lovingly aware of the “possible future in the tender measure", always alive to the positioning of the subject in racialised, gendered and economic incidents and systems of violence, yet nonetheless leaving room for that which is not entirely tagged, tarred, complicit. Tonally at least, the book doesn’t really feel like Coleman’s lushly melodic, tautly over-spilling ‘free jazz’, though the concept of Harmolodics and of the moveable C might still be a useful analogy for the way that individual sentences relate and construct a mosaic or fabric weave of stark or sarcastic social observation, citation, and little darts of lyric flight. Neither are Warren’s sentences, really anything like the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E ‘new sentence’; maybe closer to something like the unfolding of Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present, at once disjunctive and smoothly following. As sentences, they are between statement, question, overheard remark or quotation, expression of desire or contradiction to what is – “To make of my breathing a fealty”, “You call it a god, I call it a menace” – and, despite the flashes of Robertson’s luxuriant tone, they are more biting than Robertson, manifesting a sarcasm that shines through and shapes Warren’s typical capacity for the gracious potentials of song – “his chin is all of history”, “J. Edgar Fuckface says ‘justice is merely incidental to law and order’.” Whereas, in Warren’s other work (which tends to be more verse-based, operating at the level of the line rather than the sentence), rhyme is what carries what’s often a series of discrete poems through, here it’s the relative absence of that sonic “buoyancy” – which can smooth over disjunction – that gives the work its shape.
The poem begins, “It is in entering the street that I enter into exchange”. The public and the social space that the poems negotiate and lightly occupy is one regulated by the flows and constraints of racialised capitalism – “It’s not that policy became any less racist, they just coded the rhetoric and called it colorblind”. Against this, the poem does not valourise a space of the private as ideal relation; when love appears it is both small and big, individual and as social as that individuality must always be, but it’s not the total locus of what the poem proposes as its way of moving through the day. This work can desire both “an expanded geography of pleasure” and realise what geography currently constitutes – “As if I get a warm feeling when he says ‘good ol’boys state’ – he thinks we share a world, and my horror to the extent that we do”. Asking whether the pastoral idyll or ideal is “innocent pleasure or the bloody history of the field”, and “who is permitted unhindered breath”, Warren picks a number of morphing objects and locales to breathe through this hindrance. The vocabulary is at once specific – cultural references to Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts, Kendrick Lamar’s ‘King Kunta’, or Kelis’ ‘My Milkshake brings the boys to the yard’– alert to the current conjunctures of late capital in America, and traverses past and present in the singular strength of what we call lyric: “study[ing] the past to denaturalize the present”, “the way out is across”. Warren writes “I’m nostalgic for what I’ve never seen in the world”, and the mood of this, as of much of Warren’s work, is a kind of chastened or sceptical utopianism, in which ‘hope’ is not some vague wish but a mode of active wishing, of desiring towards that seeks enactment rather than mere wish. As the book’s closing sentence has it, touching on Fred Moten: “I hope we can buoyant in the break, I hope we can be forked”.
Warren’s Little Hill, named after the neighbourhood in which she lives, El Cerrito, and the tree-covered, Twin Peaks-esque hill that overlooks it, is closer again to a kind of nature poetry, but not ecopoetics de-socialised. Rather, both ecology and the social: socius, a Latin noun meaning "comrade, friend, ally" and used to describe a bond or interaction between parties that are friendly, or at least civil; it has given rise to the word ‘society’; ecology, the study of the house, from oikos, the same root as economy (household management), and -logy, a type of language or discourse, a subject of study – the world as house, domesticated, or re-wilded, noting and reversing the mirrored and self-perpetuating notions of nature and culture, human and animal. Between those definitions, studying the past to denaturalize the present, as Warren puts it in Moveable C; Little Hill, written perhaps a series of exercises for / to tune one’s ear (Stephen Jonas!) or turn one’s hand in once again – Warren’s explanation for how these followed on from the book-length I Love It Though – the voice here is something like a bird (as birds are not cops, are not inscribed, in-scripted natural fallacies, but we still hear and sing the refracted idea of their outside sound). As Warren writes (flipping back to Moveable C), “An animal is equal to itself”. Warren doesn’t think that poetry can sing from beyond mediation – what is poetry but itself a form of mediation, no pure air gets through – but it can acknowledge mediation’s disguises and bring them out into the open which is also a space of possible futures we can sometimes glimpse and live within. Warren’s work has always been grounded -- begins from -- what is; but what is in the sense that appearance, (non-)essence, all of that, is itself shaped by the real abstractions of what capital shapes in our circumscribed field of vision; that break poetry inhabits and aims to sabotage. “You begin from economic fact”, a resonating line from her first collection, Here come the Warm Jets: this is where this work begins. But not only here.
The door bangs in today’s new wind, sun shines still shining hot through the glass. Reading Warren's work makes one attentive to one's own place -- of reading, of writing, of all the other imbricated things that interpellate, situate, place one -- even as it includes the space for elsewheres without which poetry seems to have little to say. Sitting with this perfect-bound pocket book that came out from Nightboat in 2016, Warren’s I Love it Though, your eyes can follow its garish, glittery road kill cover by Susi Brister and the road’s horizon to which that photo’s perspective leads, like a figure for what’s within those covers:
out into the road
toward the end
of this world-system
(‘Out on the Wire’)
Brister’s photo (above) is from a series called ‘Fantastic Habitat’, in which pieces of fur or fabric are shaped into or cover animal- or rock-like forms within otherwise deserted landscapes. This particular picture from the series is entitled Hi-Lo Rabbit on Country Road, and when I first glimpsed the cover in a small online thumbnail, I thought it was an image of real roadkill, and that the grossness of that image ironised the title beyond the measure it actually offers. As it is, Brister’s image is a kind of deliberarely mal-functioning trompe l’oeil set up, where blood is read glitter, fur coat is sheep pelt or sprawled roadkill corpse (both as indicies of the subject of violence discarded, half on and half off the road—“one foot in the office the other / lolling about in the field”), pink streamers are guts spilling out – like a kind of fabulous brutality, a grotty glamour of the visual trick, which gets us thinking already of meditations, arrangements, shapes and materials – the poetic equivalent of which might be things like phraseology, sound, tone.
My previous work was about the form and less about the landscape. Now it’s about how those forms are interacting with the landscape, how they’re trying to adapt to a new environment as if it were its new natural habitat […] My desire is to bridge the gap between real and make-believe.
This serves as a good figure for where the poems in I Love it Though are: “one foot in the office the other / lolling about in the field” – where the speaker as office worker is placed and where they seek to escape, in the geographies of field and sea and coast, aware of the violence that shapes those spaces (one type of metonymy) but also for their virtual space within some realm of the nearly-symbolic, the breathing-space of the poem’s bounded / un-bounded territory (Robert Duncan’s meadow, say).
The book gets its title from the opening of Kanye West’s ‘Devil in a New Dress’, but what we get here is not the model we get in West’s song, the (sexualised) temptations of the forbidden placed in opposition to Christian belief; Warren seeks another kind of pleasure, though, like West’s it might mix with (a different kind of) guilt. (And West looks a bit different now than in 2017.) In West’s lyric the phrase 'I love it though' is a kind of apologia, veering between boasting, excusing and celebrating; love seems more an act of possession, which at the same time threatens self-possession, in Warren it might involve a refusal of possession, objectification, in whose hands the gleaming objects get to gleam.
Worth a pause here to consider the role of the recurring “inflated object”. In an apparent reverse riff on Stephen Still’s ‘Love the One you’re with’, Warren writes: “If you can’t win / with the one you love / love the inflated object”. As love object, the inflatable at the same time contains the possibility of deflation– at once reduced into a part of one’s self, the exterior interiorised while being mourned as exterior, and blown up out of whatever proportions the original encounter or desire was built. But that’s to understand solely as a kind of psychoanalytic reference point (like a version of a kind of Melanie Klein’s ‘internal objects’, say), pointed up no doubt by the reference to the object; might we understand it as well, say, politically, utopically, where the possibility of comradeship – not to win the one you love, but to win with the one you love – doesn’t bring about change, but the object of collective action, and the target (object!) of that collective action is still desired and loved, as a motor for continuance in the defeated present. As Warren puts it in an interview with Lauren Levin at the LA Review of Books, “After deflating, our little balloon retains an embodied memory of what it once did, what it once was, and that potential remains, no matter its current state. Possibility is what I’m after; it gives me hope and strength to go on”. Again in that interview, Warren says that she loves the inflatable and inflatability for their changeability, their impermanence, the fact that the inflatable contains both a solid boundary and the constant possibility of puncture and deflation. “I think of a pink balloon, a womb, a cock, a financial bubble”. So the inflated object (which is itself not singular) can be inflated within the self, incorporated and mourned (Levin tells a story about a little girl losing a spade at the beach, to which Warren replies – that’s the first object, next it’ll be a lover leaving her and her desire for their return) – but there’s possibility here, and the folding in of patriarchal ordering (fertility), financial crisis (the metaphor of the bubble), potential for expansion both as it registers mendacity and as it imparts a giving of value and a blossoming more traditional poetic figurations, for weightlessness and flight. This is characteristic of how Warren’s work works: it’s almost never one thing at once. Indeed, the Llein Trust’s website’s definition of internal objects has some serendipitous parallels here: “the content of phantasy but of phantasy that has real effects”, “no single definition can capture this concept”.
Lyn Hejinian’s blurb calls the working of Warren's book “a skeptic’s affirmation” – the ground is scepticism but this leads to the possibility of attention / love, not to its blockage. As in, I love it though. No comma. This mode, the mode of the skeptic’s affirmation, tends around the grammatical feature of the conditional ‘if’ -- short lines, sometimes a long swell of sheer joy in the sound play of an extended line, like when a musician seems to forget to breathe, carried on on the rush of ideas, toys with how long you can elongate a phrase. Discrete lyric stanzas or spiralling suspended grammar. “No death, no death”. Text my boss's boss, scrawl anti-state messages – there's always an agent, mediation, refraction, reacting to the state in the form of a conditional. Yet while the condition might seem to risk being a victim of circumstances, prey to fate, unable to direct in communal agency, it's also something like the Moten-esque break, the space of possibility. The poetry is a ‘beginning if’, seeks for ‘embedded thought’ is not ‘mere sentiment’. Despite the ubiquity of constant violent enforcement of racialised, classed and gendered division -- manifesting, say, in the figure of disgust that inheres in seeing cops on horses -- ‘I has / have a mouth’ -- an internal register of song, discrete but lined and open. One of Warren's conditional phrases is about the conditional itself: ‘If you cut a conditional / in half’ -- half-belief, half-fear, pictures of division whose stakes are bodies and future ‘rooting / for easy tender thing’, very well, ‘I repeat myself’, in the order not of cops but ‘clouds’.
As clouds morph, as shapes change and repeat, the poems plough forward in plentiful sound play on recurring words, ‘loan’, ‘landlord’, the language of financialisation, the crisis of 2008 and the now-decade after, fields literal or symbolic. Voices – the mocked voice of patriarchy – as in the mock courtroom justifications of ‘Protect me from what I want’, which is surely the book's stand-out single poem (like the opening and closing poems in Warm Jets, ‘Acting Out’ and ‘Personal Poem’ were that one’s clear highlights, hits – just excellent, stand-alone poems that are just there and clear, like that, what ‘Acting Out’ calls “tart talismans” you could carry around for luck or for an index of where things are at). The poem is a long list of things - actions, objects, metonymic, general, particular -- that “I did it for”. Just as the list of motivations is both broad and an index of the depravations of late capital in America, so the presumed 'I' includes a cast of bankers, rapists, war criminals, financiers.
I did it for the love of cash your honor […]
I did for the systematic recourse to subcontracting […]
I did it for the betterment of the brotherhood I did it for the
pauperization of the population
I did it for the woman I loved I did for the greatest
country the world has ever known I did it for their
I did it for the same reason as you
This is the difficulty that Warren's work negotiates with such aplomb. I said at the start that this was lyric, work in that condition, but it never presumes the identification of poet and lyric I that we always know is both true and false whenever we talk about lyric -- Warren is a master of multiple voices, a ventriloquist par excellence, throwing that voice (as 'voice', at least in the best poetry, is a multiple, varied, flexible, adaptable thing) to see what comes to light under its singular shining strength. In this regard, Warren’s previous book, Here Come the Warm Jets, has as its cover art a photograph of a figure with a face erased by a puff of smoke (Lindsey White’s ‘The Disappearing Act’). It’s magic trick, stand-up comedy, White’s art playing on the gendered roles of artists and performers who traffic in illusion – in Warren’s poetry, ventriloquism, say, the switching of roles and the assumption of the entitled dude-ness of the patriarch, the Great White Father, the legislator, the racist, leads to a subject-position that is in no way the conventional model of lyric as either placed within a single subjectivity, easily identified with the identity of poet (as fixed thing), or else as a kind of filter for other voices that play around a whirling cast of characters, none of which quite cast purchase on where the poem is speaking from (and thus evacuate that crucial question). Warren’s poetry might appear at times to partake of both approaches, but it never falls into the easy pitfalls of either. Warren at times speaks as if from within that position of entitlement in order to prick its balloon of vanity and over-compensation from the inside. This may be an illusion, the puff of smoke erasing the face, and may speak to other modes of erasure, of lives and identities subordinated to the will of the patriarch, but it’s also what poetry traffics in, with a glamour and imagination to it that’s essential to what art might be doing for us, has done for us.
So this is lyric poetry. But lyric also relates, quite obviously, to the lyrics to songs. The titles to both Warren's full-length books reference pop lyrics: I Love it Though has Kanye, as we saw, Here Come the Warm Jets has Brian Eno -- very different artists, different songs, linked by different kinds of glam perhaps – there’s also a Gloria Gaynor epigraph here, which isn’t an epigraph per se but a reference to one (“The epigraph belongs to Gloria Gaynor / the green pervades, it’s a diamond, we all are” (‘A Yielding Hole for Light’). In the first poem of the book, we get to think about pop music after or before the crisis, there and elsewhere we get to have a common song of, say, folk lyric, say, work song, say, blues, we get it refracted through the culture industry and out the other side, in rhyme and rhythm which skirts and builds critique, in 1- or 3-page rolling bursts. In the best sweetly punchy way that you get in the best kind of avant-pop that always frays at the edges, or the more out-on-a-limb articulations of folk instrumental, avant-classical, free jazz, you always know exactly and are never quite sure where you are: certainty with the uncertainty of adjusting yourself to the proper scale, singing your measure, taking the world’s measure and not at its (whose?) word.
Warren’s measures of the ‘possible world’ are post-apocalyptic (‘after the end of the world’, ‘I did it for the terror of the totally plausible future’) and utopian. Sometimes at the same time. What does that mean? Well just think how, casually, three-quarters of a way through a poem titled sincerely-sarcastically for medical advice – ‘Take care of yourself and get plenty of rest’ -- we get a stanza which is basically the resplendently complicit and wonderful utopia of Frank O’Hara’s ‘Ode to Joy’ rendered in three lines -- which then (as ever in Warren's work) go somewhere else:
When I said I was going
to the bar I meant
no death, no death
free the big fish.
(‘The Last Great Heteronormative Hope’)
Reported speech, past recollection – “when I said”, what I said, what I should or shouldn’t have said – the skeptic reflects back on the adequacy or inadequacy of their own language in its social field. Warren talks in an interview about how the poetry community in "that exciting and mysterious concept, the Bay Area" is crucial to her work and how she can’t imagine this work existing outside, and her comrades within and outside that scene might, in part, be “those who persist in every break”. Those others might vanish to the solitary night watch, watching, listening, waiting, but even if alone, their voice and their ear might also contain another voice: “if there’s a chorus in my ear I’m not alone”. Often, these are poems about listening – Warren says at one point that she prefers the ear to thought, and then instructs: “ear, be an instrument for thought” – instrument here as in tool, musical instrument, playing and using and listening all in one, not a mode of interiority but of letting the exterior in. This isn’t the skeptic in the philosophical mode of one who distrusts the very existence of exterior objects, but rather, of the mediations of abstraction and reification which shape socialised perceptions; indeed, it’s the very desire to be open, to listen, that enables it to sing. Tonally -- and in a way that's very different, for example, to Movable C -- there’s a kind of song-like archaism here – “where buds like bulbs be strung”, “begloved” – which sometimes has the taste of such unexpected sources as Hopkins or John Clare, and then there’s a kind of contemporary vernacular archaism (“ole timey cats”).
Warren knows that, to “endure in the impossible” we need song, but that “there are certain chord progressions / one should avoid”. The 'we' in these two lines is a complex proposition: is it the smothering capitalist realist ban on the supposedly impossible, or is it a necessary caution, the skeptic’s suspicion of musical ease, “the legalistic ease of uninterrupted aesthetic progress” in the terrible western world (where property is insistence on the right to white life, and, via O'Hara once more, to love at all’s – perhaps – to be a politician)? Somewhere between those two positions is where Warren situates herself, refusing to discount possibility, while retaining a suspicion of aesthetic ease. “I could” and “I want” are recurring formulations here – I could, conditional, invariant, pigs on horseback, boss’s mandate for suffering. Against these, and cognisant, always, of imbricated suffering and drudge, pleasure is a must: to give and celebrate it, and want it better, and more – the luxury that negates productivity. If, as Kathi Weeks suggests in The Problem with Work, the tradition of the work ethic can reinforce the idea that productive labour alone -- whether from the position of capitalist exploitation, socialist mass productivity, the reinforcement of the dichtomy between the noble (masculinized) labourer vs the (feminised) shiftless, idle, lazy -- can redeem and fulfil human desire and potential, then its flipside, the embrace of decadent luxury, can easily tip over into the allowed luxury of pleasure enabled by class and race positionality. ( Warren knows this, and steers her way between them with absolute acuteness.
So that she knows exactly where she is and what she's doing, while allowing still for poetry's rational derangement, when leaning on a Whitmanesque "grassy pillow" in nature's "rude seat", these poems sit or walk, stumble or glide their way next to the sea: Oakland, as coastal location and the port and tech cities facing each other across the bay. Warren writes from the meadow, from the street, in the classic American mode of transport, stopping or speeding in cars -- a Mazda, a Saab, even a fictive 'Lambo'. These, like poems, are vehicles, transports, and if their connection is too often to a miltarised or mass culture thanatos -- violent death as normativity or as escape from normativity (James Dean?) -- they are not the only vehicles Warren's poems ride in. Maybe it might be the march towards the port of Oakland to shut it down, occupation and reclaiming of space, escape and advance, taking over and retreat by this body of water, where the 'local' or 'national' meets the international zone of trade and all its violence, haunted by slave ships, by cargo ships, port shut downs, by violence and resistance, reality and dream. Warren sits, drives there, marches or strolls there to make a list of pleasures as long as the displeasures that plague us, in a tree beyond the reach of bosses and captains -- a dream -- but what is poetry for but to cultivate, in the face of capitalist realism, a realist anti-capitalist realist dream? I put down the book, got up from the chair, went to the window then opened it, to let the air circulate the house, its cooling breath. These poems are like that, they like that, the air is toxic but also the trace of elsewhere, unheard music heard when it’s disappearing. The door handle squeaks when it’s turned, the hand turns the pages, song that searches for conditions of the open and rhyme’s ridiculous fixed continuance, supposed connections between things that the poem can make real, false connections it can reveal to be false, revealed knowledge. The links already that poetry’s charged language reveals, but always teetering on the brink of breech of the absurd – 'egret / regret' – there’s a kind of lush earthy dump of Hopkins or John Clare, the sod’, syllables like boulders rolling out the mouth, song against ‘the star parade and the park’. The late Peter Culley as an everyday Orpheus, for whom nature still performs, even as 'nature' is constructed and annihilated by second nature, and ‘debt swallows the moon’.
Once again, 'you begin from economic fact'. But it's where you go form there that is what's crucial to and about Warren's work. Hey, the heart is a stadium, a crowd / of carnival and competition. These poems sing from Peter Culley, or George Stanley, Gloria Gaynor or Ornette Coleman, but above all they sing from their own place, on a movable C of wavering bar lines, sweet-tough cadence, hymns or folk songs or pop ditties or classical melodies sung under the breath to propel momentum through the circumscribed day.
The third issue of SPLINTER magazine, edited by myself and Gizem Okulu, is here! Featuring work by Brandon Brown, Lee Ann Brown, Jackqueline Frost, Linda Kemp, Anna Mendelssohn (a previously unpublished play, full title: 'THERE was a great ripping up OF ROMANCE OCCURRING. / PEOPLE who were in love WERE BEING LEFT BEHIND in / A reserved paddock of the imagination. The ANALYSTS / were aT work.......................................'), Nat Raha and a review of Melissa Mack's The Next Crystal Text by Sara Larsen.
Also, my book of (ten) poems, Relief Efforts, was published last month by Barque Press. You can get it here:.
Taylor with Joanne Kyger and I think Alice Notley in the background, Naropa, 1994
Spencer Richards: You don’t consider yourself a professional musician?
Cecil Taylor: I would hope never to be a professional musician.
SR: How would you classify yourself?
CT: Ha, ha, ha. I’ve always tried to be a poet more than anything else. I mean, professional musicians die.
Taylor’s music has been a consistent example for poets, its energies provoking formal analogies or historical meditations, its dancing between registers read as a politicised model of aesthetics (what Fred Moten calls “a politics that improvises resistance”). Probably the earliest example is Drive Suite, a multi-sectioned pamphlet written either by Harold Carrington or Ray Bremser from a New Jersey prison; since then, there’s Clark Coolidge’s Comes Through in the Call Hold, a long piece which seems only to have been published in elusive snippets; Thulani Davis’ masterful “CT’s Variation” and “CT at the Five Spot”; Ntozake Shange (“many stories of mine seep out of the chords of Cecil taylor’s solos […] the piano as battering ram, rebel shout, the fresh cicatrix of fast life in a black space”); and the recent work of Fred Moten, whose 2014 book, The Feel Trio, is named after Taylor’s trio with Oxley and William Parker, and whose piece on Taylor’s poetry record Chinampas is virtually the only critical piece of any length to have been published on Taylor’s own poetry.
But Taylor was himself a hard-to-classify, quixotic, performative, frustrating, inspiring, brilliant poet. Part of the thriving artistic scene of early-to-mid-1960s New York, Taylor was a collaborator with dancers, poets and theatre-makers, playing music for Jack Gelber’s experimental production of The Connection – and apparently frustrating the play’s producers, who wanted a small amount of be-bop as background sound, rather than the hour-long improvisations Taylor insisted on developing in order to exacerbate and extend the play’s drama – and performing with dancer Freddie Herko for the Judson Dance Theatre. He was also friend – sometimes somewhat fractiously – with Amiri Baraka, whom he first met in 1957, and of whom he speaks with a kind of cautious respect in the mid-90s interview with Chris Funkhouser about his poetry for Nathaniel Mackey's magazine Hambone – a vital text for this aspect of his work. (Late on, Taylor and Baraka would collaborate in a series of duo performances entitled “Diction and Contra-Diction”.) Taylor later recalled:
I began to write poems when I was corresponding with a French poet whom I was in love with in 1962. I then became involved in the movement of burgeoning poets who did poetry readings at the clubs throughout the East Village and Greenwich Village. Sometimes Roi and I would be put on the same bill, and he and I would argue about who should go on first. The shows would have both poetry readers and jazz musicians […] was there when Roi wrote his play “Slave Ship.”
Taylor appears to have been closer to Diane Di Prima, with whom Baraka co-edited legendary underground little magazine The Floating Bear (Taylor operated the mimeograph machine on a kitchen table). Di Prima recalls:
Cecil would say ‘Do you want to come over, I want to practice all afternoon.’ And again, where cool worked, I wasn’t going to come in and chat or anything, I was going to come over with my notebook and scribble.
In the Hambone interview, Taylor further recalls his formative encounters with Bob Kaufman, nowadays primarily emembered as a “black Beat” (and perhaps inventor of the term “beatnik”), but in fact a genuine American surrealist who appears to have been a formative poetic influence on Taylor.
I spent time with Kaufman. One night, boy, I was at this building that was on First Avenue and First Street. It was a sort of triangular shaped building, and Ginsberg, [Peter] Orlovsky, Le Roi Jones and Kaufman and myself were in this room. And I just stood there. And there was no question in my mind who the force was in that room. […]
When I met him, he came to the Five Spot one night I was working there, said “You’ve gotta come with me after you finish work.” I said, “Look, Bob, I started working at quarter after nine, I won’t be finished until four o’clock, I can’t do this.” So he said, “Yes you will,” and he came at four o’clock and he took me over to what is now Soho, and he read poems to me until about quarter after one the next afternoon. And I remember walking out of that loft completely energized--I hate that word--but completely transformed.
Most notably, Taylor was early on a member of neglected African-American poets’ collective the Umbra Workshop, alongside fellow musician Archie Shepp (who was in his group at the time), and writers like Ishmael Reed, Lorenzo Thomas, Calvin Hernton, David Henderson, N.H. Pritchard, and many others. (My book on this is forthcoming later in the year, though sadly doesn’t feature much on Taylor’s activities in this regard, which remain basically undocumented).
Yet, though he attended Umbra’s workshops, Taylor is not listed as one of the group’s members, nor did his work appear in the pages of the group’s magazine. Neither is Taylor present in other anthologies of the time that published Umbra member’s work; his first published appearance appears to be in a short-lived jazz magazine called Sounds and Fury in 1965, but he never appears in any of the usual venues for Black Arts Movement poetry, whether anthologies or magazines. Partly, this may be to do with the fact that Taylor increasingly spent time in Europe, in frustration at his lack of success within the systematically exploitative world of jazz clubs and festival circuits sketched out with such clarity in the chapter on Taylor in poet A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business (republished as Four Jazz Lives). After the spate of early recordings in which he negotiates from be-bop to free jazz, the only release we find until 1966 is a live, November 1962 date from the Café Montmartre in Copenhagen – later reissued as Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come. Though Taylor was active in New York, where he was involved with the Jazz Composers’ Guild, he did not release another album as a leader until Unit Structures, before heading to Paris to work on his developing conception of ensemble as “Unit” with Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille. As detailed in the previous post, these years were relatively quiet ones, in recording terms at least, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that he began to really hit the big-time, if that’s what it could be called. Both musically and poetically, Taylor was not always an easy fit. Baraka writes highly of Taylor’s work in a review of Into the Hot, and Taylor is included alongside Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, and Pharoah Sanders as part of the “changing same” continuum of free jazz and R&B: but, for Baraka, writing with a kind of respectful suspicion, Taylor’s approach is more “Western” than theirs. (For his part, Taylor criticised Stockhausen and David Tudor for the aridity of their music.)
Cecil Taylor is also secular. He is very much an artist. His references determinedly Western and modern, contemporary in the most Western sense. One hears Europe and the influence of French poets on America and the world of “pure art” in Cecil’s total approach to his playing […] Even though Cecil is close to what’s been called Third Stream, an “integrated” Western modernism, he is always hotter, sassier and newer than that music. But the Black artist is most often always hip to European art, often at his jeopardy.
Partly, one suspects that Taylor’s sexuality might have been in an issue in his exclusion from the macho aesthetic exemplified in certain strands of Baraka’s work – despite his own militancy, his outspoken politics, his insistence on the beauty and specificity of black art (see this panel discussion: http://www.mattweston.com/cecilpanel.html), See Benjamin Piekut’s useful piece on sexuality and the Jazz Composer’s Guild here: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/376266.) As Peter Kowald later put it:
But Cecil, since the early '60s—or since we've known him [in Europe], which was the early '60s—always had that special feature about him. He kept it up, and then—he's a black homosexual; and this music somehow for long has been a very male music, somehow. It still is, in many ways, mostly, I mean the '60s music, let's say; now it's changed, but the '60s music was really a male music, and there was this very special man who was a black homosexual […] So, it is strong; he kept it up really strong, and built it up into his system.
Taylor’s published poems are: ‘Scroll No.1’ and ‘Scroll No.2’, first published in the obscure, small-run jazz magazine Sounds and Fury in 1965, and reprinted as the liner notes to Indent in 1977; ‘Soul Being’s Gravity a Focal Point Touched Anoints the Darkened Heart’ and ‘Rain’ in the same magazine; ‘Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming Major Breath/Naked Fire Gesture’, published as the liner notes to Unit Structures in 1966; ‘The Musician’, first published as part of the liner notes to the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra album Communications in 1968 and subsequently in Franklin Rosemont's journal Arsenal / Surrealist Subversion in 1976; ‘Aqoueh-R-Oyo’, published as liner notes to Spring of Two Blue-J’s in 1973, and republished as liner notes to Air Above Mountains in 1976; also in Spring of Two Blue-J’s, a holograph reproduction of a poem described as an excerpt from ‘Word Placement’, and dedicated to Ben Webster; ‘Da’, in the liner notes to Dark to Themselves, 1976; ‘Choir’ and ‘Langage’, in the liner notes to Embraced (1978) ; ‘Garden’, first published in the anthology Moment’s Notice in 1993, but, judging from its style and thematic concerns, probably written in the 1970s; and holograph reproductions of poetry by Taylor in Alianthus / Altissima (2009). Other, more fugitive texts include a short, untitled poem included as part of Taylor’s contribution to a panel discussion for the October 1967 issue of Arts/Canada on “black” in art with Michael Snow, Ad Reinhart, Aldo Tambellini and others (the transcription may include lineation errors); a short poem from 1983, also untitled, quoted in Whitney Balliett’s 1986 New Yorker feature on Taylor; prose-poetic liner notes to the trio album with Bill Dixon and Tony Oxley from 2002; and two poems from 2008, ‘heat in room’ and ‘exstasis’, briefly posted on the now-defunct Cecil Taylor Art Corporation website. This is a substantial collection of work, and anecdotes from Taylor and others indicate that there may be many more manuscripts, from which a book could and perhaps should be made. [A provisional biblio-discography is embedded at the bottom of this post -- scroll down!]
'Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming Major Breath/Naked Fire Gesture', published as liner notes to Unit Structures (1966)
Probably still the best-known published instance of Taylor’s poetry – and one of the earliest – is the liner notes to Unit Structures: a prose-poetic piece entitled “Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming Major Breath/Naked Fire Gesture” which completely destroys the format of many liner notes that were prevalent (particular for Blue Note) at the time – dry technical analyses, spiced with anecdotes and interviews with musicians – and which is still probably his greatest poem. Like many of his pieces, it is at once a statement of ethics, aesthetics, and musicological systems; all of these and far more. Outlining three “areas” which correspond to the sections of the pieces performed on the album, Taylor’s musical conception is spatial, geographic, constantly diving between metaphors to describe the music which themselves become musical metaphors to describe other art forms, sometimes breaking into unexpected rhyme, and echoing Charles Olson’s projective verse, its insistence on the intermeshing of “content” and “form”, the correlatives between time and space, the kinaesthetic in opposition to the fixity of poetic metre, musical notation, the West’s division and measurement of time. Here is how it begins.
The first level or statement of three an opening field of question, how large it ought or ought not to be. From Anacrusis to Plain patterns and possibility converge, mountain sides to dry rock beds, a fountain spread before prairie, form is possibility; content, quality and change growth in addition to direction found. 3rd part is area where intuition and given material mix group interaction. Simultaneous invention heard which these words describe. The paths of harmonic and melodic light, give architecture sound structures acts creating flight.
Listen to this “Sound Structure” again towards its conclusion, ending with the unexpectedly moving and intimate echo of the recently-deceased Bud Powell, Billie Holiday’s floating, gloved armed floating through as a reclaimed instance of that “naked fire gesture” (not suffering passivity), against the fever pitch of the West’s body-mind enclosure.
Rhythm is life the space of time danced thru. As a gesture Jazz became: Billie’s right arm bent at breast moving as light touch. Last moments, late father no use to sit and sigh the pastors have left us gone home to die. End to slave trade in sweet meats and rum […]
Call quiet leaves to choir, a set ritual song cycle in tongues the heat Harlem long ages past rested glory from. Background for breath rippling with knighted tongue enshrouding teeth. Yoruba memoir other mesh in voices mother tongue at bridge scattering Black […]
Where are you Bud? . . . Lightning . . . now a lone rain falling thru doors empty of room—Jazz Naked Fire Gesture, Dancing protoplasm Absorbs.
All Taylor’s subsequent poetic concerns are here: the distant echo of West African histories, the sufferings and resistances of recent African-American history, the material-spiritual figuration of what is done to bodies and lives, and their gestures in response. Hardly the conventional idea of “jazz poetry”, this is something far more complex than mere imitation or tribute. While Taylor’s poetry predominantly concerns music (and such music as is named “jazz” in particular), he insists on seeing this as part of a holistic conception of which the music is simply an encapsulation – a part.
“manifestations of black energy”: Taylor and Politics
'Scroll No.1' and 'Scroll No.2' (first published in 1965, here in republication as liner notes to Indent)
Taylor’s poetry is almost never focused on a lyric I – what more would one expect, given the ex-static giving over of self to ensemble of his music (what he calls “ecstatic compression of time’s energy”) – but on history, mythology, broad and vast registers from science, space, the spirit in matter and matter in the spirit – the intangible records of tangible history, the broken continuum, to use Fred Moten’s phrase, in the break. Taylor’s poetry is, as a concept, inherently political, a theory of ensemble, improvisation, a vision of the social body radically different from that of the West’s ensemble. This is not the agitational work characteristic of Black Arts Movement poetics – or, say, of Archie Shepp’s occasional recitations (“On this Night”, “The Wedding”, Malcolm, Malcolm - Semper Malcolm”, “Mama Rose” et al). Taylor’s concerns, while politicised, are more consciously esoteric, with mythic frameworks not so much instrumentalised toward political ends, but embraced, as we’ll see, as part of a performative, ritual conception. Nonetheless, Taylor’s earliest poems in particular contain a number of pointed political references. In the Hambone interview, years later, Taylor wryly noted:
When the hosannas of democracy blare the loudest, it’s when personal options--in terms of choices--become the narrowest. It’s at that point that the poet really sees the dimension of the work that is possible.
‘Scroll No.2’, first published in 1965, is a scathing, extended critique of these betrayed promises of democracy, and the performances they inspire on the part of the “black bourgeoisie”.
Nation’s lost diplomacy
lost nation’s duplicity
blue serge white shirt
one someone shirt floptic
tank bat and “yeah bo”
You just sing dance unseen
grits shit and
molasses hot smellin’
’Ah is so happy
Youse mah master
ooh ooh ooh
The poem ends with a punning denunciation, in which the “calcimimed” (whitewashed) miming of whiteness becomes internalised as the final stage of the heartbeat (a contraction) which speaks in polygot – here figured negatively as double-consciousness, double-speak.
Dry cell of money
has locked the minds
and cauterized hearts
Tayor’s poem critiques the myth of assimilation by which what are seen as minstrel performances go directly against what he calls in a panel 1967 discussion for the journal arts/Canada “the knowing, of black dignity” found in the cultural forms that the black bourgeoisie disparage in their quest for inclusion within the racist, capitalist structure of white American “democracy”.
Taylor’s longest poem, ‘Garden’ was first published in Nathaniel Mackey’s anthology of jazz poetries, Moment’s Notice in 1993, but, from its thematic and formal concerns, appears to have been written in the 1970s. The piece stands out from most of the other pieces in not being a ‘jazz poem’ in any conventional sense (though it references musical figures like Don Cherry, Tadd Dameron, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin). It’s pretty hard to encompass what it’s about, or to quote form it in a representative way – I re-read it again, in one sitting, after hearing of Taylor’s death, and it still slides away. The poem traverses a wide territory: wrenching accounts of the Middle Passage; satirical sections on the black bourgeoisie (“Skinny Skelton, Pucci Gucci accoutrement / —is what they slink about in rapping, drinking / etc etc etc etc”); oblique reminiscences of touring in Europe (“training Stuttgart to Paree”); celebrations of the music of Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Don Cherry, as part of a continuing stratum of black creative energy; and accounts of African ritual practices that assume a celebratory and participatory tone, rather than that of historical or anthropological difference. Veering between time zones, often in the space of a single line, the poem combines accounts of the musician’s life and of music with addresses to the history of racial servitude, the growing black consciousness of the 1960s and 1970s, and ritual. About a third of the way into the poem, a meditation on the Middle Passage leads to a kind of cinematic cross-fade, crossing time and space, into current deep-sea drilling (environmental despoliation) and intramural violence.
fielded in theft hull dimension dam’d
bow of Middle Passage, plural choice
depth grist incarnate slime theft ravaged
men arranging murder on rock bed
slinking oil, dropping elevators for gold
crushing, mutilating—fine, fine than is
the ‘art’ produced by a vision old crook’d tooth
of eternal witch, broom hard in open puss,
mother killing sons, daughters, fathers,
blinded by greed, mother or both, brothers
doin’ in brothers—yeh yeh—dig that
Vision—its continuance—a contrast…
These lines are perhaps the most directly political in the poem; their counterweights are found in a kind of pastoral vision, full of detailed descriptions of West African ritual, through the performances of musicians Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Don Cherry, Tadd Dameron, Sunny Murray, and boxers Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson, and allusions to Black Power. Here, Aretha’s totemic anthem calls across to field and plough, both as index of chattel slavery in American plantations and agricultural work in African fields, associated with ritual practices.
[…] black rights
cradling impossible flight . . .
Witness, witness across field heritage spoke
alliances conquer’d. Respect Respect
there is the ritual witness respect
all seeking augmentation force living
Respect the field witness the plow augment
principle purpose of sacrifice, propitiation
gift, presence, at water its flat face
mirror polarize seeking will oracle’s
Witness sweet inspiration
For Taylor, the theft of bodies during the era of chattel slavery is paralleled and extended by the cultural theft perpetrated on African-American artistic forms: forms which arose as resistant reactions to slavery and which have, often unacknowledged, informed most of the main forms of modern American culture, while being consistently demeaned, misunderstood and mocked. Yet, as in the Unit Structures liners, physical gestures or “stances” are posted against economic exploitation. The bodies of workers and artists, forced to perform and conform to the rhythms of labour, nonetheless convert or challenge them into resistant potential.
Right on, Right on
how stances continue
defy exterior commerce
deaths, to mountain exhalt
Right, then, initiate going
on, Right, Right, Right on
These lines from ‘Garden’ recall Taylor’s insistence on politicising the term ‘black’ within an aesthetic context during a heated discussion with Ad Reinhardt in a 1967 issue of the journal arts/ canada, soon after the SNCC had published its Black Power position paper. Picking up on the fashionable vogue the term ‘black power’ has taken, Taylor agues that, long before this:
The black artists have been in existence. Black— the black way of life—is an integral part of the American experience—the dance, for instance, the slop, Lindy hop, applejack, Watusi. Or the language, the spirit of the black in the language—“hip,” “Daddy,” “crazy,” and “what’s happening,” “dig.” These are manifestations of black energy, of black power, if you will.
“…everything that you do”: Ritual and Performance
Taylor reciting the poem 'Star-Step' in the film Imagine the Sound (1981)
Taylor’s “black energy” tends to manifest more in accounts of West African ritual and its relation to the modern-day improvising musical ensemble than in the more directly political passages that characterized contemporaneous Black Arts Movement work. Importantly, such energy derives its power from its incorporation into his artistic practice as a whole. While much Black Arts work increasingly made use of an oral dimension – whether in rhythmic or sung recitations, or the combination of poetry with speeches, performances, dance and music – Taylor above all is the artist for whom poetry was inseparable from all the other facets of his artistic practice. As he told interviewer Bill Smith in 1981:
It seems to what music is, is…everything that you do […] What one tries to do is think of all the things that have been interesting to you, and once you make the commitment to, you know, poetry, then all of those areas that are germane to your existence as a specialist in music means that you see all of art as a potential harvesting area, and you busy yourself about getting as much of it as you can, and using it whenever the situation allows you to do so. (Imagine the Sound, 1981)
It seems impossible to track exactly, but Taylor appears to have begun reciting poems as part of his performances in the early 1970s. ‘Scroll No. 1’ appears, nearly ten years after its initial publication, as part of this performance with the peak Lyons / Cyrille Unit in Chateauvallon in 1974.
It was also around the time that the poems began to appear more frequently as liner notes to Taylor’s albums – which was, in fact, almost exclusively their publication venue. Both Taylor’s poetry and his artistic practice as a whole was increasingly based on an immersion into ritual practices associated predominantly with voodoo, and, alter, ancient Egyptian and Aztec mythology, based on his apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of world religion. Taylor had founded his own label, Unit Core, of which the 1973 Spring of Two Blue-J’s was one of only two releases (the other being Mysteries, later re-issued by Arista Freedom as Indent). The sleeve to this record published a combination of typeset and holograph poems: the important “Aquoueh R-Oyo” in typescript, and a holographic reproduction of a longer worked called “Word Placement”, dedicated to the recently-deceased Ben Webster.
'Aqoueh-R-Oyo' and 'Word Placement' from the liner notes to Spring of Two Blue-J's (1973)
Theorizing the musical ensemble once more, Taylor presents a kind of universalism which places human life alongside animal and plant life, anticipating what would be called today “eco-poetics”:
to then become forces moving
as part of the Universe: recognizant
of earth (ground) animal, plant, sky
as energy factors within our
Spring of Two Blue-J’s also contains announcements of forthcoming works, including Mysteries, an imminent, full-length manuscript to which ‘Word Placement’ was an ‘adjunct’, concerning Taylor’s research into voodoo, dance, spirituality. In the Hambone interview, Taylor responds to Chris Funkhouser’s question about the manuscript with a casualness that goes some way as to indicating why no serious edition of his poetry has yet appeared.
It was never published. I never did anything about it. It’s over there in the closet there […] It was kind of beginning of something, and had a lot to do with voodoo. Had a lot to do with beginning with George Balanchine’s conception of movement. Had a lot to do with the beginning of the emergence of the Kabuki and the Bunraku, and the Azuma kabuki. Also, it had to do with the battle that was going down with the bebop musicians who felt that their conception of swing was being violated, which is funny, cause they couldn’t dance anyhow.
Perhaps the manuscript still exists somewhere amongst his papers; who knows what will happen to that now. Numerous sources attest that Taylor had piles and piles of poetry manuscripts all around his flat, some of which appeared in the 2016 Whitney Museum show; but, like his reluctance to sign record contracts or to frame himself in the expected routes, Taylor was not interested in carving out a conventional “literary” career. A letter from Gertrude Stein scholar (and Taylor devotee) Ulla E. Dydo to Steve Dickison in the Taylor edition of Shuffle Boil argues that:
Cecil’s poetry is not like any other poetry that can be reproduced, printed, and read with the eyes or performed out loud. It is a different form, a hybrid. Printing it reduces it down to something else, and in that sense destroys it. Though you can call it a score, it is not music. It is not painting, decorative art, or photography and cannot be a visual stand-alone. To print it, even in facsimile, is to violate and falsify what it is.
Certainly, his use of hand-written manuscripts in performance was part of the charged theatricality of recitation – Taylor treating them as something like a score for performance, as inscrutable as the idiosyncratic system of notation he developed, glimpsed in videos of performances, and more like the loose instructions of early medieval notation than the full-blown systematic rigidity of the European tradition (every single nuance catalogued and processed through the symbol on the page). While some reports saw his readings in particular as more akin to sound poetry, it should be stressed that this work is densely referential, immersed in the ritual practices it both describes and enacts: a practice in equal parts spiritual, aesthetic and political. Though focused principally on West African ritual and on Haitain voodoo, such work also draws on ancient Egyptian and Aztec civilization, Japanese dance, modern scientific discourse, and on Native American beliefs (Taylor was himself of Native American ancestry).
Taylor does not just write about ritual, and while he does not seek to recreate it per se, oral references to it abound in increasingly ritualized performance settings. From the 1970s on, Taylor’s poems were delivered almost exclusively in the context of musical performances, often combined with dance – pirouetting, crouching, stalking, swivelling onto the stage from the wings, holding a sheaf of musical and poetic notation on sheets of loose paper, reciting the names of voodoo or Egyptian gods, lines emerging in repetition and a kind of sprechstimme – squawking, scratching, rasping, sometimes in strange tones of parody, verging on the edge of hilarity (I remember in particular a kind of upper-class English accent which completely undercuts a line of pseudo-academese). These would function as extended preludes to the moment the music fans were waiting for, when he would first sit down at the piano and strike a densely clanging low note to begin. In his recent Cecil obit, Richard Scheinen describes these as a mode of “tuning-up”, something like spiritual exercises or “tuning-up”, somewhere between a warm-up, a ritual and a recital. Bearing in mind that these poems were often kinds of music theory, their presence as part of concerts makes perfect sense: they enact an aesthetic, an ethos, with a ritual function, descriptions of performance that were in themselves performed. We might also liken their function in his concerts as something akin to Ornette Coleman’s use of violin and trumpet – designed to extend the parameters of what was permissible from the performer, and to insist on the breadth of interest, the auto-didactic polymathism, what was permitted as part of a ‘jazz’ performance. Commenting on Coleman’s then-recent adoption of the violin, Taylor is quoted in Spellman’s Four Lives thus:
Cats said to me, ‘Well, you know Ornette really doesn’t know much about the violin: I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, he couldn’t play like Heifetz!’ We got back into that thing I thought I’d left at the U.N. back in 1958. Like, in spite of Heifetz’ great technique, he has never come up with a sound like Ornette. He has never played the music that Ornette plays on the violin.
Like Coleman’s violin, Taylor’s use of poetry in his performances functioned as something of a playful fuck-you to both poetry and jazz fans. Even the most hostile critics would have to acknowledge that Taylor’s pianistic technique is completely formidable; but his poetry functions along slightly different lines. To be sure, as indicated by the quotations with which we began, many poets look favourably on his work. Tracie Morris considers him “a poet first”; he read with Kamau Brathwaite at Naropa in 1994, and collaborated late on with Amiri Baraka, and there’s a slowly-growing body of work on his poetry – a Jacket 2 feature on the album Chinampas, Fred Moten’s essay, and hopefully more to come. The jazz audience perhaps lacks this capacity, and Taylors knows it, taking it as a playful challenge. You will only be able to approach this work – as a holistic concept, combined of poetry, dance and music – on its own terms. In his increasingly ritualized performances, Taylor’s asking: how far are you going to go with me? Am I a “jazz” musician? What expectations of “entertainment” have been constructed around this art-form? In 1994, he told Chris Funkhouser:
Well, I don’t know what jazz is. And what most people think of as jazz I don’t think that’s what it is at all. As a matter of fact I don’t think the word has any meaning at all. But that’s another conversation…
Increasingly – particularly when he began to give more extended readings – Taylor’s ritual recitations seemed to use found material, sometimes resembling parodies of academic lectures, with cut-ups seemingly derived from scientific textbooks, works on mythology – particularly voodoo and its West African roots, an abiding interest back to the 1970s – and later, ancient Egyptian and Aztec civilisation. Taylor’s poetics is intensely serious, for all that it encompasses play, spontaneity, improvised parody, satire and wit. His art refuses separation in that way. Texts that are academic accounts of ritual become once more parts of ritual themselves: not so much re-enactments as improvised responses, rejecting the distance of Eurocentric anthropology and insisting on the importance of the physical and mental fusion central to his conception of the socio-musical ensemble. As he puts it in an interview with Whitney Balliett:
I’m very conscious of body movement when I play. I apply it to the piano in ways never seen before. I sing inside me, and I sing out loud. I write poems and I recite them in the middle of my pieces.
(originally New Yorker 1986, reprinted in American Musician II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz twenty years later)
And four years later, quoted in the liner notes to In Florescence:
I currently view the presentation of music from a very ritualistic point of view…The voice, the chanting, the poems and the movement are all things I’ve been working up to throughout my whole career.
Andrew Cyrille, who was a central part of Taylor’s Unit during the late 1960s and 1970s, usefully characterizes Taylor’s aesthetic at the turn of the twenty-first century:
He’s found a place where he feels comfortable with what he has acquired and learned over the years from both cultures, the African and the European put together in the African-American in this country. There are other parts of Cecil which he doesn’t talk about too often, but on occasion he will mention his Indian roots. I’m talking about Native American. A lot of what he feels and thinks comes out of that cultural perspective also. […]All jazz musicians play European music, or most of us do in some way-shape-or-form. [Africans] don’t play XIII chords and flat IXs and sharp XIs and all that sort of stuff. […]
The thing that the African-American does is bring a feeling. The Europeans might make the clothes, but hey, we’re going to put it on and style it the way that we want.
Because of Taylor’s deployment of poetry as part of an overall aesthetic, rather than a compartmentalized, generically separated practice, it’s hard to track this work. As noted above, Taylor cared little for publication, increasingly so over the years, and poetry appeared more as performative interludes: for instance, the pieces from the 1980s for the Orchestra of Two Continents and the Cecil Taylor European Orchestra, Winged Serpent and Legba Crossing, and as the regular introductions to most of his solo recitals. The distribution of texts, syllables or words amongst the ensemble – or in interaction with vocalists, notably Brenda Bakr in a 1980s version of the Unit – dispels the notion of the singular poet, reciting with authority or gravitas, and instead disperses the “text” as a quasi-musical element, which, like musical notes, is at once referential and abstract, ringing with significance and full of playful, mutable, improvisational responsiveness and openness. Not only is the “poem” itself, as a singular unit, virtually destroyed, but the bestowed authority of poet-as-reciter is spread. Poetry becomes a texture amongst the musical ensemble, associated with physical movement, the sound of the voice, and with a ritualized performance environment which parallels, if it does not exactly mimic, the ritual practices it describes and invokes.
The best place to trace the evolution of Taylor’s poetry is the album Chinampas, recorded in 1987 and released in 1990. Certainly, given the fugitivity of the rest of the uncollected written work, it remains Taylor’s most-discussed foray into poetry – though, for the reasons just outlined, it can’t be called a “text”. Over nine tracks, Taylors recites, speaks, whispers, growls, and croons his way through a series of oblique texts, with additional overdubs of voice and tympani. Each phrase resonates in the mind, Taylor’s unforgettable enunciation, swooping from precise to burred and blurred, using space as with his phrasal “units” in piano improvisations, hanging on the border between speech and song. “Incarnate theyselves in the heads of they horses”; “angle of incidence / being matter ignited”; Taylor can make even mathematical equations zing with the disarming caress at once personal and impersonal, the grain of his voice. Chinampas differs from the solo or Unit concerts, where poetry would be deployed as just one element amongst dance and music (or, in ensemble pieces, , as fragments of speech which function in a similar manner to the scales and melodic themes which form the basis for group improvisation: Legba Crossing is a good example of the latter). Named after a form of meso-American agriculture – the construction of floating gardens, continuing the theme of horticulture and agriculture that pervades Taylor’s poetic work – the texts on Chinampas are essentially descriptions of ritual practice – principally from Aztec civilization and from Haitian voodoo. Taylor’s use of tympani vaguely recalls what Ezra Pound had done with recitation many years earlier, but with none of the orotund reverence of Pound’s conception – Taylor is far more a trickster, far less interested in moralistic pronouncement. In the interview with Funkhouser, he says:
…the thing that allows me to enter into what [Charles Olson and Bob Kaufman] do is the feeling that I get. It’s the way they use words. It’s the phraseology that they use, much the way the defining characteristic of men like Charlie Parker or Johnny Hodges is the phraseology. And in the phraseology would be the horizontal as well as the vertical. In other words, the harmony and the melodic. Well, I also see that in word structures.
As he notes of Chinampas, when asked how much was improvised:
None of it. What was improvised were the instruments. What is also improvised is how the voice is used.
Given the resources of the recording studio, Taylor gets to play with his voice in ways not always possible in live performance, where his recitation was linked to his movement, generally not mic’d, and where words might get lost, coming across only as sound. Here, he progresses from caressed whispers, hanging sibilance, to loud squawks, rough rasps, intoned over the thud of tympani or shakers, or the rustling of papers as percussion instrument. Though the subject-matter is descriptive of ritual – about as far from lyric as one might get – this is song, a curiously lulling and beautiful recitation at times, the intimacy of close-up voice. As I’ve found in attempting to make transcriptions of Taylors’ recitations here and in live performance, it’s virtually impossible to capture on the page the distinctive tempo and timbre of Taylor’s phrasing. Sometimes, indeed, Taylor appears to use found texts, chopped up and played with in recitation: it’s the “delivery” and the ritualized context of performance as much as the text itself that makes it a poem. Above all, it’s the time and the timing of reading, the way breath and tongue and teeth spin out the phrase or line, that “notation” or transcription can’t capture. Taylor will often be found staggering a word, in instances of what Nathaniel Mackey elsewhere calls “telling inarticulacy”: words divided up, extended, syllables stretched out to become particles of song – or lines repeated, teased out, turned into lyric, mutable mantras. Take the following from Chinampas’ second track, where Taylor appears to imitate the sound of bird-calls. As should be easily apparent, transcription is woefully inadequate to what he does with his voice here:
of corbelled vault limestone in granulated stack to summit surrounded by feathers and and and CHACK
chack chack seeded on chack chack chack chack chack
chack seeded on cloud.
And it’s hard to capture on paper the humour of the record, which sees Taylor shouting: “stand, boy, stand, stand! stand, boy, stand, stand!”; “quadruped got a plan quadruped got a plan, say!”, or beginning a poem with an excited “guess what guess what guess what!”
Chinampas opens, and as a whole sketches out, a region of space and light, at once the ritual space of the sacrificial area, the voodoo houn’fort, or the place of ceremonies “at water’s edge”, and of the unity of astral, abyssal and earthly realms figured to exist and be accessible simultaneously in the transports of voodoo possession. Taylor’s is not merely a description of voodoo rites or beliefs, but one which unites them with a discourse drawn from mathematics and moments of humorous address. “Angle of incidence / being matter ignited”, Taylor intones as the record begins, uniting mathematical angles and curves, sacrificial offerings, and a meditation on racialized bodies and the continuance of memory: “pre-existing blood per square centimeter of a black body”. Both the poems – which are often multi-tracked – and that which they describe exist on multiple levels: “a curve having rotation in three dimensions / uniting of three astral planes corresponding to a serpent synthesis”. Here, “deposits of hieroglyphic regions” – sees hieroglyphs – themselves fusions of image, letter, sound and alphabet – figured as material deposit, akin to mineral or sacrificial offering. Figuring both spirit possession and the model of an improvised, collective group socius found in his previous theorisations of the musical ensemble, Taylor intones “The inexpressible inclusion / of one within another”:
being word is both heat and water, revisited
generates our in-otherness
These are poems of waiting – “watching across silence”, a “whole people […] at water’s edge”. The fifth track is devoted to the “ever observant” voodoo snake god, Damballah, who speaks with a hiss, and the ceremonies of his invocation through “oracle bells”. In Haitian voodoo, the possessed initiates are “ridden” by loa, or spirits, such as Damballah, who instruct those witnessing to “tell my horse” – a phrase which, as Zora Neale Hurston notes in her invaluable book of the same name, has passed into Haitian slang as a kind of subversive nod to ways of expressing the inexpressible.
incarnate theyselves in the heads of their horses rolling
incarnate theyselves in the heads of their horses rolling against the cylindrical wood
darkness moveable screens
step into celestial essence
The initiates possessed by Damballah – his “horses” – are “magneticized”, and “speak to bear and carry speak to bear and carry speak to bear and carry” in the ceremony of voodoo possession, which occurs as a result of chance – “Chance into three astral planes / to make contact”. This also serves as a figure of creativity:
Outwardly mark the ever-observant muse
acting as prompters prompters prompters
prompters prompters prompters […]
elements geometric and chromatic; forces of the air
atmosphere in astra
In this ceremony, we find hidden histories:
forces of the air
angles of blackness
This is a dislodging of ego, equivalent to the Christian practice of “speaking in tongues”, and in voodoo known as “langarge” or “langage” (itself the title to an earlier Taylor poem).
winged sun in the act of shedding all as forces of the invisible obliging those out of tongue to incarnate theyselves
damballah damballah damballah
Here, brightness – a recurrent figure in Taylor’s poetry, associated with illumination, with the naked fire gesture – harks back to that inaugurated two centuries before – perhaps the initiation in the context of the slave trade – with the west-facing ritual practices unavoidably echoing that of the imperial west.
to intersect to intersect to insersect
to intersected curve
arrayed arrayed arrayed a-r-r-a-y-e-d
plated by stream of moveable
two centuries before before before
surrounding darkness man facing west man facing west
west west west
In this context, the ceremonies take on a mournful aspect, possessed by the spirits of the past, by lost ancestors, by all excluded and destroyed by the violent, racialized inscriptions of the West:
o wind o wind o wind
hearts stand in margins
darkness moveable screens
very ancient thing horses ridden
The record ends poised on an edge, of birth and re-birth:
We may enter the womb
Taylor’s “argument” (if the record is to be called a “thesis”, which it probably should not be) is not for the recapturing of some original essence, but is based precisely on that edge: on the constant movement, re-invention and improvisation that occurs within the fixed yet mutable form of the voodoo ceremony, the improvised musical ensemble, and the experience of racialization, displacement and in the Americas. As he put it in the Unit Structures liners:
It is not the origin but acceptance of hypothesis, that ultimate authority, poetry depends. Rude knowledge befitting ease gratuitous. The unknown, ever before life force our spirit considers action in reaction […] Move forward recognition not in experiment but as test of their singularity, unity and sanity.
But the words are only one level – even in published form, Taylor’s work is constructed with a clear, if not precisely “notational”, relation to sound as driving logic. And in performance, the timbre, the grain of Taylor’s voice can impart even lines taken directly from scientific textbooks into dancing barbs, teetering on the brink of sound and sense. And there’s something fun here too – when audiences laugh at the odd sounds of Taylor’s recitation, that’s in some ways an appropriate response. Sometimes this is deliberate parody, sometimes a sheer joy in the pleasure of sound. Eccentricity might be one word: a ritual communication that, like voodoo possession, contains a socially-destabilizing, potentially chaotic function. The joy of improvisation. So writing about Taylor’s work, we must bear in mind his cautions against the traps of an academic draining away of joy, fun – everything that makes his music and his poetry as big it is, out of it. This work is, as he puts it in the liner notes to Unit Structures, “not [...] to be measured after academy’s podium angle”. Judge for yourself. Here are selected videos, with scrolling transcriptions, of a few Taylor recitations, from Chinampas and elsewhere (the material is all unpublished).
"Wade in the Water"
I want to end by listening to one set of changes that Taylor rings on the spiritual “wade in the water” – improvising resistance, an oral transmission of transmission, “group sound / speech transported”; transplanted. But this ending is only a beginning. As Moten writes in his essay on Chinampas, now we can begin to listen – laying the groundwork, making a first attempt. Remembering out discussion of “the lick” in the previous post, Taylor’s poems sometimes come back to the same figures, often references, through song titles or lyrics, to a whole range of history and feeling. A particular significant instance occurs in the use of the spiritual “Wade in the Water”. As Taylor notes in Spellman’s Four Lives:
My father had a great store of knowledge about black folklore. He could talk about how it was with the slaves in the 1860’s, about the field shouts and hollers, about myths of black people.
And again in the interview with Whitney Balliett:
A religious man, he used to sing ‘Wade in the Water’ around the house.
As James Haskins, Arthur Jones and others have argued, the song ‘Wade in the Water’ was itself a masking, within the Christian notion of baptism, of a West-African ceremony in which the priest’s driving of a cross into the river bed served as a bridge facilitating communication between the realms of the living and the dead. Harriet Tubman is said to have used it to communicate to fugitives escaping to the North that they should be sure to “wade in the water” to throw bloodhounds off their scent.
Jordan’s water is chilly
Wade in the water,
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water.
If you get there before I do,
God’s going to trouble the water,
Tell all of my friends I’m comin’ too…
The song is directly and indirectly alluded to throughout Taylor’s work, but its most notable instance comes on the recitation from his collaboration with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Intro to Fifteen”: an initiation into the mysteries of creation on multiple levels: the autobiographical resonance of his father’s oral transmission, and the histories of resistance, escape, and West African ritual resonating through what was transmitted. As itself one of Taylor’s orally-transmitted text, what follows is my imperfect transcription of Taylor’s weight lines (can we call them “lines” at all?)
function of seed
deliverance is then of determining weight
weight in the waters weight in the waters wade in the water, wade, wade weight, weight
Transcription doesn’t go there. Weight, wait, wade, weight: these are staggered puns between the visual and the verbal, the history of slavery which that song references, wading in the water to escape the dogs, wading in Afro-Christian baptismal ritual, wading in reference to voodoo rituals of water, themselves responding to the oceanic distance established by the Middle Passage. We recall here that another of Taylor’s poems, briefly discussed earlier, is named for the voodoo spirit of the waters, Aqoueh-R-Oyo (more often spelled Agwé or Aque / Agoue’ te Royo, Maitre l’eau).
Agwé Arroyo or Agwé Tawoyo / Agwé 'Woyo (“Agwé of the Streams”) is captain of Immamou, the ship that carries the dead to Guinee, the afterlife. He cries salt-water tears for the departed. He assisted the souls of those that suffered crimes against humanity during the trans-atlantic slave trade.
(From Milo Rigaud, Secrets of Voodoo)
In Haitian voodoo, Agwé is an important link to the sea as place of separation and return, death and rebirth; often represented by the figure of ships within voodoo hounforts, he is also paid tribute to outside the hounfort, in the sea or in waterfalls, proffered with gifts of food or decorative ships, possessing and speaking through the voodoo initiates. Zora Neale Hurston provides an account of such a ceremony in her anthropological work on Haitian voodoo, Tell My Horse.
The spirit Agoue’ ta-Royo enters their heads and they stagger about as if they are drunk. Some of them talk in the unknown tongues. Louis Romain, the houngan of the Bolosse who was preparing me for initiation at the time begged me not to enter the water. He said, and others agreed with him that Agoue’ ta-Royo, the Maitre L’Eau (Master of Waters) might enter my head and since I was not baptized he might just stay in my head for years and worry me. The belief is widespread in Haiti that Agoue’ ta-Royo carries off people whom he chooses to a land beneath the waters.
(Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse / Voodoo in Haiti)
Hurston witnesses what is a joyful ceremony – though with a sense of potentially chaotic forces that might “worry” the non-initiated for years. But there is a mourning here too: as well as the ecstatic “drunkenness” of possession, which, as Hurston notes, can have a socially-destabilizing, even satiric function, a sadness intrinsically connected to the sea as pace of the Middle Passage. In her own book on voodoo in Haiti, a classic work of immersrive anthropology in which the anthropologist-artist is possessed in the ceremonies in which they participate, Maya Deren provides a memorable account of the ceremonies for Agwé. Deren accompanies the voodoo supplicants as they sacrifice large quantities of food, a ram and a decorated, hand-painted barque to Agwé.
Apparently we were nearing, now, the island beneath the water, although I was never to discover exactly how this was determined […] At the first offering, two women were almost simultaneously possessed by Agwé […] Those who were near saluted the arrival of the divinity, and, through each of the women, Agwé spoke a few words of greeting in a voice which gurgled as if with rising air bubbles, and seemed truly to come from the waters […] with the same air of noble, gentle sadness, they looked slowly from person to person, from the barque of food, to the mambo. There was something in their regard which stilled everyone. One had seen it in the faces of those who prepare to leave and wish to remember that to which they will no longer return. They met each other’s eyes, and as a way was cleared for them, approached each other, and crouched down in an embrace of mutual consolation, their arms about each other’s shoulders, their foreheads lowered, each on the other’s shoulder. So mirrored, they wept.
The people in the boat were accustomed, now, to the fact that their great gods wept, and they accepted it, sometimes saying to them, as one would to a child, that they mustn’t weep […] The last ritual consecration of the barque was accomplished with almost frantic speed. It was so heavily laden that six men were required to lift it to the rail […] As we all watched it silently, it seemed to hesitate to a stop, and then, as if a great hand had reached up from below and grasped it, it disappeared abruptly into the quiet water. The houngeikon, the drums, the chorus burst forth all at once, into a vivid song of “rejouissance”. It was the first song of joyous nature since the beginning of the trip.
(Deren, Divine Horsemen)
The island beneath the waters to which Deren refers and the land beneath the waters in Hurston’s account refers to the city of Ife, referenced in Taylor’s “Garden”:
First sanctity was link, original hookup,
had then width, simply of all following
to come being—lfe—house of life, centre
of the world (Yoruba) lle-llfe
ceremonies fountain finding protection
long ancient stream echo's as sticks
consecrated libation healed certain
lle-lfe most sacred citizenship there
encompassed more of then, which was, all ever was—
As Milo Rigaud notes in his Secrets of Voodoo (which, given its publication by City Lights, Taylor may well have read):
In voodoo, the place in Africa where the spirits abide is the astral city of Ife; and in Haiti the place where the Voodoo ancestral spirits have come to dwell since the days of slavery is La Ville Aux camps […] The adepts of Voodoo, relying upon the fundamentals of the African tradition, believe the place of origin was of Voodoo was Ife, the name of a legendary city whose replica actually exists in southern Nigeria. At the same time, Ife is a mystical city from which comes the greatest of the Voodoo mysteres and it is regarded as a kind of African mecca.
The African city has its modern equivalent, and the voodoo ritual, enacted in locations from the displacements of slavery, stages a psychic and spiritual return to the spirit of African ancestors.
In Ife, therefore the city of the Voodoo spirits’ origin, resides the totality of magic powers […] So it is natural that for a person to acquire the magic powers of Voodoo, ritually enacted in the prise d’asson or “asson-taking” ceremony, the candidate for the voodoo priesthood must go and take the asson [ ] at Ife in Africa by traveling logically via the line of the centre-post that traverses the asson’s magic circle.
[ Indeed, Taylor describes this process in “Da”.
vertabraes seam’d atolling
meteor pa-zzanin a hissing
asson adorn bells past
a 2nd month lain 7 side.
oldest ancestor / fertilized seed
/ making LegBa
/ phallic mystere/
of Peristyle ]
The voyage of the white sheep of Agoueh R Oyo, the drums, the initiates, and the houn’gans to Ife is a resurrection of the flesh offered in sacrifice in all species. In the Voodoo tradition this voyage renews the magic powers properly so-called as much as the administrate and governmental powers of the society […] the aim of this mysterious voyage among the loas is to see again the ancestors who are withdrawn into the stars of the veves [ceremonial diagrams which decorate the houn’fort] by death. These are the ancestors who retain the powers as well as give them back.
Ife was associated with the East, with African origins; the hounsi, or servitors to the cult, roll on the ground to simulate the movement of waves, a journey of psychic renewal which closes with a prayer to Agoueh as the mystère (or loa) of the waters.
The rite proceeds to the “voyage to Ifé.” […] The bed of green leaves is thought to represent the surface of water which the magic bark of the leas crosses to reach the city of Ifé Consequently, the Voodoo initiates proceed to travel on it just as regular ships would. They salute the three points—south, centerpost, and west—with a mystic kiss upon the ground which is laid the ritual leaves. Then they lie down at the west. They roll themselves one after the other, but never two at the same time, from west to east. They are accompanied by the houn’gan, asson in hand. When they reach a candle lit on the east side. where for the most part they usually stop on their own accord, they lie there a moment stretched out upon the ground lying on one side. Then they return, rolling themselves again to a candle lit on the west side where the houn’gan helps them to their feet.
One matter is especially important: the houn’sihs are invariably possessed by mystères during the crossing in such a way that it is always a mystère coming from Ifé, the East, which helps him to his feet. It is therefore evident that the houn’sih, by rolling on the ground to simulate this magic crossing, imitates not only the rolling and whitening of the waves, but travels to the East (or Ifé) to obtain a renewal of psychic powers.
By titling his poem about the interaction of the musical ensemble, ‘Aquoeh R-Oyo’, Taylor posits the improvised ritual they enact as an equivalent to the immersion and ascent of the Agoueh ritual: a ritual performed differently by each priest, by each servitor, in each instance and in each place.
As Rigaud notes, each mystère has an astral degree, and the city of Ife is also associated with the astral. As part of the Aquoueh ritual (and others), the houn’gan strikes the veves, or ceremonial diagrams, which contains the powers of astral ancestors, with the asson, a calabash rattle through which the ancestors “speak”. The voyage over the waters, descending or ascending from the abyss, the underwater city of Agwé, form a potent resource for Taylor, developing the metaphors established in the Unit Structures liners of fire and light, water and resurrection. Taylor came to saw the piano keyboard itself as divided into registers which may correspond to the levels present in voodoo – from the abyss to the astral, and his register transpositions across the keyboard – much of his solo work develops through taking one figure, or scale, and playing it in five or six different combinations in rapid succession, enacting a kind of self-dialogue that parallels the improvised interactions of the musical ensemble, the ensemble ritual of voodoo, and the ecstatic trance of spirit possession which enables one to speak in multiple voices. If the voodoo ceremony relies simultaneously on the renunciation of the ego and a mastery of ritual elements, voodoo as a “religion” is notably non-hierarchical. As Harold Courlander wrote in 1960:
It is not a system imposed from above but one which pushes out from below. It is bred and nurtured in the family, in the town and in the fields. It is common law, with deep roots in an unbroken and continuous past. The priests of Vodoun do not control it and direct its course. They, like the least fortunate peasant, simply move about within it and make use of its resources. They are its servers and interpreters. In their cult centers, the principles of Vodoun are brought into sharp focus and dramatized. Vodoun is democratic in concept. Any man or women may have direct contact with the deities or dead ancestors without the intervention of the cult priest. There is no place or situation beyond the influence of the loa or beyond the limits of Vodoun […] The cult priest [houngan] nevertheless plays a significant and essential role. He translates beliefs that otherwise might tend to become amorphous into formalized action. He is a teacher, a repository of cult learning, and a vital catalyst. He gives form to abstraction, and vital meaning to symbols. He is the intellectualizing agency of a tremendous emotional force.
(Courlander, The Drum and The Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People)
While ritual ceremonies occur within the form of the hounfort, or temple, with a separate building, built around a central pole, called a peristyle (referenced in Taylor’s poem “Da”). But ceremonies also take place outside the hounfort – “at waterfalls, on the seashore, in sacred groves, in ordinary homes, in a baot at sea, or under a sacred tree”.
Since every region, every locality, and, in fact, almost every hounfor has developed its own ritual out of the common materials, it is possible to see hundreds of ceremonies without ever seeing precisely the same one twice. Yet the common elements bind them all together.
Such are the ceremonies for Agoueh R-Oyo, and such, in a way, are each of Taylor’s musical performances, within the overall arc and arch of his music. In both his poetry and his music, we might say that Taylor functions as a kind of voodoo houng’an, whose role is as transmitter, as link, rather than sole source of creation. As voodoo itself was fused from a disparate series of West African ritual practices – the Ibos, the Yorubas, the Mahis, from Dahomey, the Congo River basin, Togo, Nigeria – so Taylor’s disparate influences form a mutable, improvised system which emphasizes change, but also involves practice, learning, discipline.
And, by following through on the visual/ sonic changes Taylor’s rings on wading in the water, we see how Taylor’s work, from ‘Aqoueh-R-Oyo’ to Chinampas through to the numerous other changes wrought on the words to the spiritual, figures the sea as it resonates in West African ritual practice, resonates by other bodies of water – in the Caribbean, or in the rivers of America – as space of both healing and trauma, death and birth: the wait of waiting in the weight of historical memory. A straying, a sliding, possession, as – in voodoo – it suggests the taking over of one’s conscious mind, one’s individual ego, by voices from the outside which speak through one – and, in Taylor’s voodoo poetics of the improvised ensemble, also encompasses complete self-possession, against the ownership and reification of slavery’s history, the workings of spirit as against the thing-ification of bodies. In that sense, it’s a perfect encapsulation of what Nathaniel Mackey calls:
The way in which fugitivity asserts itself on an aesthetic level, at the level of poetics […] intimates fugitive spirit. [Baraka] writes, of a solo by saxophonist John Tchicai […] “It slides away from the proposed”. That gets into, again, the cultivation of another voice, a voice that is other than that proposed by one’s intentions, tangential to one’s intentions, angular, oblique – the obliquity of an unbound reference. That sliding away wants out.
If much Western modernism was based on an idea, either of newness and purification, or of a return to the distant past, Taylor’s modernism is at the voodoo crossroads, the meeting-point of living and dead, Africa and America, piano and drum: the point at which creation begins, as an Oliver Lake album title has it, what Taylor in ‘Intro to Fifteen’ calls “dialectical surmise”.
~ ~ ~
And at this nexus to end, on a poem of Taylor’s, recited on “Ellel’ from Garden (the album) – an invocation which encompasses West African ritual, the history of field slavery in America, the reckoning with death, that characteristic combination of personal and collective emotion and ritual reference. Death the mower or “thrasher” (“thresher”?) is also challenged by those who plough – what Taylor calls the “pastoral” reference that occurs throughout his work sedimenting the history of field slavery but also of other homes, other spaces, other possibilities – the “open field” poetics by which “stances continue / defy exterior commerce / deaths, to mountain exhalt”.
about the thrasher
death comes too soon
about the thrasher
and we will go into the fields…to plough
Death comes too soon. Voices slides away. This from an untitled, early 1980s poem by career-long Taylor collaborator Henry Grimes.
(where do they go?)
far above – and high
above the ground. Cecil Taylor
was still at large, waiting for a piano –
High above the ground.
Death comes too soon. But Taylor roams still, channelling “discontinued voices without end” (Chinampas); his work serving, as he puts it in ‘Choir’, to:
salvage time establish’d
area agglutinized abyss
being Astral & all registers
Taylor reading poetry at Ornette Coleman's funeral in 2015 Biblio-Discography
Below is a (partial) bibliography/discography of publications and recordings of Taylor’s work. The publication status of all of this is uncertain, for reasons discussed above, but it’s to be hoped that at least something – as it’s been long-rumoured to have been – might emerge soon.