All What Jazz

Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley

Music at the Heart of Thinking, by Fred Wah, is a book of outlandishly playful and extravagantly difficult poems. The first instalment of Wah’s Music, published in 1987, consisted of sixty-nine poetic “improvisations” collected under the same title as the present volume. A further three dozen poems in the series (plus a sequence of “Artknots”) appeared in 1992 as Alley Alley Home Free. The new edition collects the poems from the original Music and from Alley Alley Home Free, and extends the series: thus the subtitle Improvisations 1-170. Because the series does not always proceed by whole numbers (Improvisation 4 is followed by 4.1 and 4.2, for instance), and because it allows for idiosyncrasy (as with Improvisation “Eighty-Something”), the book in fact contains over two hundred poems. Many are paragraph-long prose poems, but Improvisation 104, in thirty-five numbered parts, spans eleven pages. All in all, the expanded edition is a relatively lengthy book of poetry, yet it does not end in a way that precludes further improvisations. On the contrary, it leads readers to expect still more Music in the key of F; it leaves open the possibility that the series is open to possibility. This despite the faintly apocalyptic mood of Improvisation 170 (“Presence”) and its contemporary references: “the smoke was heavy in Oregon and British Columbia,” Wah writes, while the US is “trying to MAGA the universe.”

Wah’s poems constantly aspire towards the spontaneous condition of jazz. The familiar analogy between poetry and music is complicated by the merely semantic aspect of language; if the sound or structure of a given poem could be described as jazz-like, its words still convey lexical meaning, no matter how little regard is shown for syntax or complete sentences. Wah’s improvisations “contest the syntactic and the narrative”—in his phrase, “the two tyrannies of literature”— and attend instead to the music and thought made possible by language as it “stumble[s] over itself.” The difficulty of the poems emerges, in part, from the tension between the near-freedom implied by improvisation and the constraints of denotation. It is also a function of what Wah takes to be the elusiveness of meaning: “To say: ‘I don’t understand what this means,’ is, at least, to recognize that ‘this’ means. The problem is that meaning is not a totality of sameness and predictability. Within each word, each sentence, meaning has slipped a little out of sight and all we have are traces, shadows, still warm ashes.” The reader’s problem (if it is a problem) of not understanding what an individual phrase or line means is alleviated by the connections that crop up among Wah’s poems. In Improvisation 113, the portmanteau “Lake Frank O’Hara” links (improbably) the American poet of the New York School to the scenic lake in Yoho National Park, and sends readers back to Improvisation 4.2, which mentions the Canadian poet Jon Whyte, who was as devoted to the Rockies as Wah is to the Kootenays. What it all means, I can’t say, but much of the enjoyment of reading Music consists in such associations, which lie just this side of what I. A. Richards called “mnemonic irrelevance.” It is likewise a pleasure to hear the new poems in the context of the old, and vice versa.

Beyond the comparison to jazz, the term “improvisations” nods, as Wah explains, to Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920), by William Carlos Williams. Despite his importance, however, Williams is but one player in a large cast. Wah’s poems of dialogue name, borrow from, or otherwise allude to countless writers, from Fenollosa to Olson to Mallarmé to Avison to Blake to Creeley to Whitman to Duncan to Hesiod to Wordsworth. Artists are also prominent: Duchamp, Ernst, Cézanne, Beuys, Schwitters, Emily Carr. Certain improvisations respond in a sustained fashion to bpNichol’s The Martyrology (1972-1993), Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), Gail Scott’s The Obituary (2010), Christine Stewart’s Treaty 6 Deixis (2018), and various other works, the well known and the obscure alike. The impression is of a tour of Wah’s library, the guide given to riffs rather than exegesis.

In her review of the first edition of Music at the Heart of Thinking (in Canadian Literature 126), Margery Fee proposed that “what Wah writes can . . . be co-opted into an avant-garde tradition that has little ultimate impact, however revolutionary its ideas.” And in a review of Alley Alley Home Free (in Canadian Literature 185), R. Alexander Kizuk noted that the book and its predecessor “invite an audience that is highly educated and hip to the latest developments in literary theory—in other words, eclectic, detached, and academic.” Both reviewers suggested, in short, that the improvisations are hermetic. It seems that Wah agrees: “I know this is not an easy poetry to read,” he observes in the new edition; “it wasn’t easy to write.” But for readers perplexed or intimidated by his range of references, or by the detailed index, Wah offers encouragement: “My hope is that you can share with me those detonations and silences we often unexpectedly come upon between words, syllables, letters, sounds, and rhythms: the minding and the music; the amulets of surprise coherence; the shapeliness of our imaginations at the threshold of language.”

The book concludes with a witty photograph of the author à la mode du jour. Who is this masked man, other than a responsible citizen? Music at the Heart of Thinking reveals little of Wah himself, at least not directly, yet shows his mind and ear at work over three decades and more. This “not . . . easy poetry” is a record of his listening to “a syllabic river of sound breaking up into speech” (Improvisation 160). Readers may join Wah “on the bridge listening, not lost at all but listening.” Although our COVID masks cover our mouths, they leave our ears exposed and unstopped.

This review “All What Jazz” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 2 Dec. 2020. Web.

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