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Life, Music, and the Universe

When you reach for the new poetry volume by Ishmael Reed, you just wonder which varieties of wit will be on display. What is the poet who penned the iconic and box-defying “I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra” fifty years ago and published a collected volume of verse spanning 42 years (1964-2006) possibly up to now? Turns out to be a lot. Remaining contemporary and astute, Reed simply is not going away, as indicated in the extended comparison, “Hip Hop and The Blues,”

The Blues wears overalls

Hip Hop wears

Vuitton, Versace and Gucci

Reed is not being overly judgmental; he listens to both forms. The poet’s listening devices “switch back and forth between.” He’s attuned both to yesterday and today.

Reed’s intelligent humor threads throughout “The Diabetic Dreams of Cake.” He muses about cravings, stolen wedding cakes, congressional hearings, and the realization that one’s microbiome can undermine one’s intention to avoid sugar. He concludes,

And so as one grows older

while the external adversaries with whom

you had been feuding either die or

break bread with you

The internal adversaries multiply

They couldn’t give a Twinkie about

whether you live or die

My favorite spin is the conclusion to “Sweat Pea,” which was the nickname of Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s most notable collaborator and composer of the famous “Take the A Train.” After commenting on aspects of Strayhorn’s life and celebrating his legendary tune about traveling to Harlem (following Ellington’s instruction about getting to his home), Reed asks rhetorically,

Billy Strayhorn

Aren’t we lucky that you didn’t

take a cab

The center of the collection is “The Jazz Matyrs,” a twenty-four-page jewel of a poem akin to Jazz in Jail, the late Louis Reyes Rivera’s book-length masterpiece. Beginning with a reference to the statement by Ted Joans that “jazz is a religion,” (maybe Joans actually said “jazz is my religion”), Reed notes that some religions have martyrs and wonders who are the martyrs for jazz, those who “immolated themselves with heroin and alcohol, got cut/got shot, beaten up, jailed, tortured, denied accommodations/exploited by copycats, exploited by record labels, producers/promoters, nightclub owners/died before the age of fifty . . .” He proceeds artfully to unfold scenarios involving some of those martyrs, including Lester Young, Fats Navarro, Charlie Parker, Paul Chambers, Chick Webb, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Oscar Pettiford, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell. It is an amazing solo, one which serves as tribute but also incorporates views on “Jazz hating police, judges, and prosecutors” and the “Jim Crow fraternity of Jazz critics.” Reed is an enemy of all that attempts to crush or undermine the authentic expression of the music. He closes: “Echoing Martin Luther King, Jr. who said/’Jazz is Life’/Albert Ayler said/’I am the prophet who was sent to you to bring/Universal Love.’”

Insight and wordplay are my main takeaway impressions after reading this book. Reed’s mesmerizing linguistic display stretches across all fifty-five poems. Topics also include love, the sonnet form, capitalism, anatomy, real estate developers, basketball, and astronomy. If, as poet Tracy K. Smith writes, the universe is a house party, Reed, in Why the Black Hole Sings the Blues,” is helping to spice up, much to our benefit, the play list.


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