Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Vari-Colored Songs -- Leyla McCalla

This is a review I recently published on KithFolk, a quarterly online roots music magazine put out my Hearth Music, which you can find here.

With Leyla McCalla’s Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, another artist examines the possibilities presented in setting famous poetry to music. McCalla is not the first to do this—favorites of mine in recent past have included Kyle Alden’s Songs from Yeats' Bee-loud Glade and Martha Redbone’s The Garden of Love—Songs of William Blake. It might seem that such a plan makes life easy on the musician: “Look, free lyrics! Just make up a tune!”, but it is much harder than that, as other musicians have found to their dismay. You see, a successful song is more than good words and good melody. First of all, the two have to fit, as far as style, mood and structure, but more than that, there are some things that we love about good songs that not all poems naturally have; on the other hand, some poems feel like lyrics from the beginning, and this is one reason why McCalla’s choice works so well.

The poetry of Langston Hughes is imbued with music. Music was an important aspect of his the times and settings of his life, in America, Europe and the Caribbean, and of the movement he is famously linked to: the Harlem Renaissance. McCalla calls him “the Duke Ellington of words—painting the most incredible portraits with simple musical ideas that just come together in amazing ways.” Consider the use of jazz in such poems as “Dream Boogie” or “Lennox Avenue: Midnight”:

The rhythm of life
Is a jazz rhythm,
Honey.
The gods are laughing at us.

The broken heart of love,
The weary, weary heart of pain,—
   Overtones,
   Undertones,
To the rumble of street cars,
To the swish of rain.

Lenox Avenue,
Honey.
Midnight,
And the gods are laughing at us.

Or the undertone of the blues in “Song for a Dark Girl”:

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

If I had read those lyrics without knowing they were written by Hughes, I would have guessed Leadbelly or Son House. So McCalla makes the natural step of setting Hughes’s poems to jazz and blues, and the effect is perfect. They are as they were always meant to be.

McCalla shows Hughes’s versatility—and her own—through the variety of music she uses. The upbeat raggy setting of “Too Blue” works perfectly for the wry, morbid humor:

I wonder if
One bullet would do?
Hard as my head is,
It would probably take two.

But I ain’t got
Neither bullet nor gun—
And I’m too blue
To look for one.

The song is perfectly backed up with a tenor banjo and Hawaiian guitar that make the arrangement sound as if it came straight from a smoke-filled 1930s speakeasy.

McCalla feels a deep connection to Langston Hughes; in fact, she called him a focal point in her life, and credited him with inspiring her to pursue a creative path. But this album throws in quite a twist that you might not have seen coming: much of the album is incorporates Haitian folk music. In fact, Vari-Colored Songs is essentially Langston Hughes set to music plus Haitian music, with some overlap between the two. But that twist makes perfect sense not just in McCalla’s life, but for Hughes himself. McCalla’s parents are Haitian, and so the music is of more than academic interest to her, and Hughes himself also felt a deep connection to Haiti. He began one of his books in Haiti, and wrote a play and an opera about Haitian Revolution, and he translated a work by Haitian novelist Jacques Roumain. Hughes was very interested in pan-Africanism, the idea of a world-wide Black culture. You can imagine that he would nod approvingly at the idea of his poems sitting side-by-side with such songs as “Kamèn sa w fè” and “Latibonit”.

McCalla keeps the instrumentation intentionally spare, so we don’t get the sound of big bands. There are no drums or horn section on these tracks. Guitar, banjo and cello are of primary importance. She is very creative with the use of these instruments, though. The opening track, “Heart of Gold”, is built around a strummed cello, shifting back and forth from an A minor to a C ninth, but nevertheless the effect is clearly jazz, aided by McCalla’s excellent vocal ability. She uses this fascinating technique on other tracks as well.

I wouldn’t call Vari-Colored Songs “foot-tapping”; it’s not meant to be party music, as some jazz is. I absolutely would call it “engaging” and “ingenious”, and even “fun”, in the music-and-history nerd sense of the word. Fortunately the CD comes with extensive liner notes, and I recommend listening with the words close at hand at least once. Because the lyrics are poetry first, there is never a wasted word, and Langston Hughes’s wry and insightful wit comes through. The combination of prying questions, political consciousness, and biting wit is one thing that makes the poetry of Langston Hughes so great, as can be seen in such poems as “Cross”, “The Ballad of the Landlord”, and the poem “Vari-Colored Song” itself:

If I had a heart of gold
As have some folks I know
I’d up and sell my heart of gold
And head north with the dough.

But I don't have a heart of gold
My heart's not even lead.
It's made of plain old Georgia clay.
That's why my heart is red.

I wonder why red clay’s so red
And Georgia skies so blue.
I wonder why it's yes to me
And yes, sir, sir to you.

I wonder why the sky’s so blue
And why the clay’s so red;
Why down South is always down
And never up instead.


It’s a perfect combination.



You might also like to check out Kyle Alden's rendition of W. B. Yeats's poems:



And Martha Redbone's take on William Blake, which I reviewed earlier for No Depression.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Quitting Time

It's important to know when to quit. I always had the intention to return to some regular schedule of posting, but that's clearly not going to happen any time soon. My reasons for packing it in are twofold: first, I have far too much to do; there are classes to be taught and books to be written. Second, I was hoping to find that there was a lot of new poetry being published that I would love, that I would treasure, and savor, and share with the Internet and its inhabitants. Apparently I'm either more picky than I had thought, or the predictions that have been bouncing around for generations that poetry is doomed are finally, gradually coming true. I suspect it is the former.

I still intend to review two more books. Look for a review of Gwendolyn Zepeda's debut collection Falling in Love with Fellow Prisoners, and a volume I haven't yet opened, but which looks intriguing: Wood, by Jessica Harper. I would offer an estimation of when I will have those reviews done, but I know better than that.

It is my further intention to launch a new blog aimed specifically at verse. Since The Formalist shut down years ago, I have wished I could do something to continue the appreciation and propagation of rhyme and meter. I'm thinking of starting with a post about X. J. Kennedy. We'll see if that ever comes to pass.

Thank you, readers, for your readership--there is, I hope, more to come.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Everything Must Go – Rosie Garland

Rosie Garland takes on an interesting and potentially rich topic in Everything Must Go, which follows her battle with cancer.  I expected some touching moments or profound truths, but ultimately I was left feeling cold.  Garland’s focus throughout the thirty-three poems in the book is on process and her body.  These, I assume, were the most interesting or moving parts of the process for her, and I have no right to tell her what she should be interested in or moved by, but as the poems ticked past I found myself uninvolved.  It was like reading a medical chart expressed in simile and personification.  I recently had a friend die of cancer (Garland did not die, by the way), and the most significant parts of his last days were based in connection: other people, memories, what he was leaving behind, my own children coming to understand what was happening, the struggle to finish what he had started before he succumbed.  All these were strangely absent from Garland’s work.  Thirty-three poems later I have no idea who Rosie Garland is, what she loves, what her story is.  I know only the indignity of her medical processes and the color of the waiting room carpet.

Her poetry itself is skillful, but again rarely has that magic effect of a profound truth, perfectly expressed, the way great poetry does.  I rarely felt surprised.  Exceptions were occasional turns of phrase and image: when she describes “the man who watched his wife led away: her birdlike, crumpled steps, his face distorted, his eyes punched red.”  Another memorable poem is a letter to her hair, and how her expectation of losing it suddenly is belied by the fact of it lingering to the point of annoyance.

It is not that the words are poorly assembled, though the poetry is entirely prose, and lacks any sound devices or rhythm.  I find myself reminded of a favorite author of mine, Jeanette Winterson, and her novel Written on the Body, which also concerns cancer.  Garland’s poetry is similar to Winterson’s prose, but this highlights what Garland’s work lacks—character, relationships, and a greater emotional depth than the constant lingering on physical change and medical detail.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Shakespeare Bats Cleanup – Ron Koertge

Here’s an interesting book of poetry that, while not recent, certainly qualifies under the label “contemporary”: it was published in 2003.  Shakespeare Bats Cleanup is an epistolary short novel that takes the form of a diary/notebook belonging to a fourteen-year-old boy who is layed up for the spring with mono.
Kevin begins writing down just his thoughts, about how he misses baseball and how he and his father are dealing with the death of his mother.  His father is an English teacher, and so a handbook of poetry is fortunately kept on a bookshelf, and as Kevin continues to chronicle his recovery he experiments with putting things into verse.
It is pretty clear that Koertge is hoping to pitch poetry to young teens like Kevin.  Poetry is instrumental in Kevin’s emotional healing and his getting a girlfriend.  Kevin’s reluctant admission that he actually likes poetry is difficult at first (but it’s easier when the girl you like likes it too, right?).  His discovery of sonnets goes hand-in-hand with the improvement of his health and his character.  Koertge works a little technical instruction into the book as Kevin considers his use of metaphor, or discovers blank verse, but it’s not heavy handed.  I have to say, I appreciate Kortege including metered verse along with other styles in this introduction to poetry.
This is one of those fascinating situations where I am unable to tell whether or not this book succeeds because I’m not really the target audience.  If I assume correctly that Koertge’s primary objective was a book that would be enjoyed by teens, and to convince teen boys to consider the merits of poetry, one would really have to ask them, not me.  I think the book is a great little story, but then, what does a fourteen-year-old care what I think?  Part of my concern is that the target audience would simply interpret it as propaganda.  Of course, it is, but it’s not ­bad propaganda.  I support the effort.  I now need to find a fourteen-year-old smart-but-non-literary athlete and hand him this book, and follow up later.
Hey, it turns out there’s a sequel!  If anyone has read it, let me know what you think.


    

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Bitter Oleander v. 18 n. 1

The new Bitter Oleander magazine is out, filled with great international poetry and short fiction.  I love The Bitter Oleander for the focus on international writing and the side-by-side translations of poetry.  My favorite from this issue is "One's Own Sea" by Yi Lu.



In addition to poems in Portuguese, Faroese, Georgian and Urdu, there are plenty of poems and stories in English, and in interview with Estonian poet Kristiina Ehin.

You can also check out The Bitter Oleander Press website.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

You Exist. Details Follow. -- Stuart Ross

The ground had a hunch.
Furniture made no sense.
Oh luminous blur of body destiny!
You huff and puff. You stand
on magnificent corners,
wander into a cage of sunset.
The ground explained
the meaning of sunset.
Whoa. *mind blown*

I think I have met Stuart Ross before, and I think he was that slightly ragged man with the intense stare outside the grocery store who cornered me and wanted to tell me a million important things that made no sense at all. These lines, from “You Exist. Details Follow.”, are typical of his style in his new book of the same name.

Every poem is absurdist in some way. In some instances this is charming and engaging—I think particularly of the line “When we met, poodles sported four legs, just as they had before, and just as they do now — four legs for every poodle.” Some poems wallow in the absurdity to the point of being incomprehensible, but others evoke a strong narrative or relationship though a series of images. I liked the poem “Fathers Shave”:

Father shaves. Details follow.
The blade rips the bristles
from his cheeks, his chin,
from beneath the thunderous
nose. It rips the carpet
and the curtains, rips
Sylvester the Cat
right off the TV screen.
We children cry.
The blade rips the welcome
mat off our porch, the
grass off our lawn,
the trees off our block,
oh weeping willows.
Father goes to the office.
His boss caresses
his smooth face. The
clients ooh and ahh.
The streets are bare
of cars. One planet
hurtles into another.
There are no prizes
in a bag of Cheezies,
but in Pink Elephant
Popcorn you get a
little sticker or maybe
a tiny soldier with a parachute
you can drop out your second-
floor window. Look!
He drifts down.
He drifts in the breeze.
The jays and sparrows
gaze on in wonder.
I like the view through the eyes of children, the sense of the father as this larger-than-life, intimidating force. He is dangerous, barbarous and awesome in the true sense of the word, yet outside the house no one sees this side of him. After he is gone, the children are free to relax and immerse themselves in the minutiae of things that amuse them. Nevertheless, there is always the knowledge that father will return.

Conversely, there are poems such as “Time”:

It’s about time.
It’s about time.
It’s about two astronauts.
Starring ______________ as Blugga.
A brave crew? A strange place?
Prehistoric gals? Sue me.
Tell me where all past years are.
It’s about dinosaurs vs. astronauts.
It’s about their fate.
I feel in this case like putting on my best Simon Cowell voice and asking, “OK, Stuart—how do you think it went?”

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

American Copia: an Immigrant Epic – Javier O. Huerta

The inspiration for American Copia comes (according to Javier Huerta’s preface, at least) from Huerta’s citizenship interview.  As part of the “English test”, he was asked to write the sentence “Today, I’m going to the grocery store.”  At the time, Huerta was an English major in college, and so to add a flourish to the interview, he marked the scansion of the line, and pointed out that it is in iambic pentameter.  This tension between the immigrant Spanish speaker and the English Lit buff pervades Huerta’s work, and it is not unusual for him to reference Keats while describing the aisles of the Fiesta supermarket.

According to the preface, Huerta promised the aforementioned immigration official that he would write an epic starting with the line “Today, I’m going to the grocery store,” and this book sets out to do that.  Grocery shopping is a major theme, and through it Huerta explores issues of class, culture, family and literature.  The book as a whole cuts back and forth between “American Copia” episodes, in which he collects short prose anecdotes based on grocery shopping, giving brief asynchronous flashes of his life and relationships, jumping between time and place.  Huerta sees shopping and food as windows into all sorts of experiences and issues—family and relationships weave throughout the scattered narrative.  One episode describes how Marisol, a pregnant Yale student, steals a shopping cart to keep next to her apartment, just in case it is the only way to get to the hospital when she goes into labor.  This observation, both humorous and serious, highlights the juxtaposition seen throughout much of the work—privilege and poverty, the lyrical and the mundane.

Other short works fill out the book: a short drama, many poems, pieces of short fiction.  Huerta switches fluidly between English, Spanish, and Spanglish.  Especially in dialogue, English and Spanish sit comfortably side-by-side in what I imagine (though I am no expert) is an accurate rendition of dialogue in a bilingual culture.  Therefore, reader, you will find much of this work difficult to access if your Spanish is rusty, but that’s part of the point—this work is not for everyone.  This is emphasized early on in an episode that concludes
I remember also one time when Saul and his friends were watching music videos and “Fiesta” by R. Kelley came on.  In the video R. Kelley is at a party, and he and all of his entourage chant, “Fiesta, fiesta.”  Then one of my brother’s friends said, “Hey, fu, sería más tight if they sing, ‘la michoacana, la michoacana.’”  And we laughed.  We started dancing and chanting “la michoacana.”  We could not stop laughing.  It was a joke not meant for you.
In all, I found the book very interesting, but I didn’t feel much emotional connection.  Great poetry stands out for me when I feel an emotion sting acutely while reading, or come across a line which stays with me all day because it is so true.  Nevertheless, I can’t judge Huerta’s work by these standards—it is clear that though I may appreciate it, this book is not for me, nor does it have an obligation to be.  And I do, certainly, appreciate Huerta’s wit, style, and insight.