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Duende

Over his entire career, poet Quincy Troupe has expressed fascination with the idea of creation and the life cycle. His first volume, after all, is titled Embryo and reflects his preoccupation with real and symbolic birth waters, the blood of existence, the passage of time, the bones of death (you could always read one of his books in a cemetery and feel right at home), spirits, souls.


In the title poem, he writes, “germinating embryo/sprung African shades of ancestors/flung from petals of flowers into/bloodstreams of harvesting eyewinds.” He closes the poem, “poetry of birth in motion/sunbird of love in flight/seed of water-spirit.” In “Blood-Rivers,” from his second volume, Snake-Back Solos, we find the lines, “where summers are reborn/blood-rivers always evoking/the heart-bred flames of creation.” From “Skulls Along the River,” in his third book of poetry, which bears the same name, we read, “muddy water/underbottomed spirits, crawling, nightmares/of shipwrecked bones, bones gone home to stone, to stone/bones gone home to stone, to stone/riverbottomed, underbellied spirits.”

For decades now, as I have pored over Troupe’s verses, I have sensed a supernaturally inspired hand at work. Therefore, I am a bit amused when I hear Troupe exuberantly discuss the idea of duende, from which he drew the title of his magnificent, new, 656-page volume, Duende: Poems 1966 - Now. He was inspired by Federico García Lorca’s book, In Search of Duende, duende being that deep black magic of the creative impulse made manifest. I think, “Quincy, my man, this is cool, but you been doing it brilliantly all along.” But that’s Troupe, always curious, ceaselessly excited about the process. I remember him explaining to me that he had landed on the title of a collection, The Architecture of Language. “That’s it. I just think that’s it.” That was it, and the sheer delight in how language can be built, analyzed, broken all the way down, and rebuilt or newly constructed is a hallmark of Troupe’s work. (Syllables is one of his signature words, syllables as building blocks.)


Thus, we have this stellar wordplay to explore his range of topics, the quest for freedom and love, the pursuit and honoring of beauty, the reckoning with history and white supremacism, reflections on family and aging, and more. He masters the everyday, a keen observer of place, whether St. Louis, New York City, New Mexico, Haiti, or Guadeloupe. He is ever attuned to nature, especially birds (another signature word). He pays tribute to writers such as Lorca, of course, Jean-Joseph Rabearivello, Ojenke, K. Curtis Lyle, Victor Hernandez Cruz, James Baldwin, Miguel Algarin, Ishmael Reed, Allen Ginsberg, Lucille Clifton, Sekou Sundiata, Derek Walcott, and Toni Morrison. He celebrates singers and musicians such as Howlin Wolf, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Leon Thomas, Charlie Mingus, Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, David Murray, Prince, Cecile McLorin Salvant, and perpetually Miles Davis. He salutes visual artists such as Skunder Boghossian, Joe Overstreet, Mel Edwards, Romare Bearden, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Xenobia Bailey, and Jack Whitten. He will forever display his passion for the world of basketball and has written about Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, David Thompson, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant. I’m laying odds that the Ja Morant poem has already been composed.


Troupe’s overall body of work is structurally held together by music or, rather, his sense of music: “me---&---you, groovin through/me---&---you, groovin through/me---&---you, singin new” (from “Words that Build Bridges toward a New Tongue”). His experimentation with poetic forms---haiku, tanka, sestina, villanelle, seven-elevens (his own invention)---are framed rhythmically by the blues and jazz. Never far from a blues feeling. And ever embracing, as announced by the title of a piece from Seduction, “Jazz Improvisation as a Blueprint for Living.” His colliding styles and images are always resolved, the more way out the dissonance the more satisfying the resolution. You sort of know where Troupe is headed, but he is going to surprise you continually by how he gets there, as in “Choruses,” “glory in her song, glory in the choruses of blood singing/beneath her flesh, choruses of heartbeats drumming faster & faster still/glory in the mind running over from a space rooted in love/where a poet creates from inside a moment of stillness, silence/when a metaphor is ejaculated from mystery into language.”

Or, because I had not previously read “Ghost Voices,” how I was stunned by the ambition and execution, the expert tracing of the journey of New World Africans and their unparalleled survival and cultural development. This lengthy poem, in the tradition of Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folks, is no less than the spiritual autobiography of a people and a representation of their unparalleled cultural contributions all the way to “singers macy gray, beyoncé, new rappers/dr. dre, jz, kanye/west, kendrick lamar, j. cole, all this power/transcendent human beauty.” More specifically, the poet has been called by ghost voices to connect present understandings to those bones gone home to stone in “Skulls Along the River,” which is one of my favorite poems from what had long been my favorite Troupe volume. He seems to have considered the earlier poem to be a call to which, prompted by the restlessness of ghost voices (his mind), he has written a response. It’s as though Langston Hughes has provided a thirty-five-page extension of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” It’s theme and variation, echo and amplification, a deepening of an overall jazz conception. Moreover, the ghosts as a literary device suggest linkages to several works, including Larry Neal’s Hoodoo Hollerin’ Bebop Ghosts, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Jan Carew’s Ghosts in Our Blood, and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing.


Last but hardly least, political criticism is weaved throughout Troupe’s poetry. He is a committed transculturalist with a progressive vision, an heir of Malcolm X and the most radical version of Martin Luther King, Jr. Contributing to the program for the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964, King wrote, “When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.” Had King read Troupe, he might have said, “that guy’s instrument also.” Duende.


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