September 20, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Ishion Hutchinson's poetry collection House of Lords and Commons proves him one of the finest poets writing today.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"These poems herald the maturity of a major poetic voice."
I am going to call this short playlist, only ten cuts, "Trouble On the Road Again." I do so in homage to the name of an unreleased gem by Bob Marley and the Wailers, a title which I have availed myself of twice in House of Lords and Commons, once to title a poem and as a stray phrase in another poem. It is an irresistible formulation.
The collection pursues music, or music pursues it, like a ubiquitous spy who leaps beyond the page into an invisible region words fail to reach. Words, out of fear of extinction, are left to do subterranean work—poetry. I cannot write with music playing, but in a way I do because of the layers of music I sense stirring inside me, the way poems hover in my memory, rising up to my rescue or to my further despair, when I am writing.
Some of these pieces that follow bear directly, in limited thematic scopes, on some of the poems in the collection. The others function similar to the experience of listening to music, that of being transformed by the textures of the sounds, building, as it were, a dome in the air.
First, though, we dance. Let us skank so and so, rough as things are, despite the violence and the election on fire, rum drowning in the potholes; for still, the moon is above our heads—look, girl and skin your teeth!—and we have this island of sounds to ourselves. So, let me show you what I know.
"Cherry Oh Baby," Eric Donaldson
This danceable, rubescent love song has to me the quality of country romance and Donaldson's shivery falsetto gives the lyrics the timeless bloom of youth: "Cherry oh, Cherry oh, baby / don't you know I'm in need of thee?" When I listen to it I hear the tender nights of early 1970s beach parties (or sessions), long before I was born, in Port Antonio. When this comes on everyone scatters for a partner.
"Pressure Drop," Toots and the Maytals
Toots is a powerhouse and the sheer energy of his voice enacts—expels, really—the physical force of pressure dropping. Though accusatory ("I say when it drops, oh you gonno feel it / know that you were doing wrong"), the song is not mean-spirited at all; it is joyful one to ‘drop legs' (Jamaican expression to dance) to all night long.
"Bird In Hand," Lee ‘Scratch' Perry
Scratch is an enigma, a contrarian, the eternal child. He is a miracle man; he breaks forms to reveal new symmetries; he is the poet-genius of the mixing board, linking disparate sounds into rocklike shapes. When I listen to Scratch, particularly "Bird In Hand," one of his strangest in a long career of strange inventions, I think of a phrase by Vladimir Voinovich: "something has been clarified there, but something still remains obscure." The song's title is transparent; it points to Aesop's famous bird-in-the hand parable, but the lyrics are, apparently, in Hindi. It amazes me to think, that since my early adolescence, Hindi expressions (one of which translates to mean: "as soon as our eyes met, somebody's heart went mad") have been a staple part of my psyche. Scratch's genius has been making me, from an early age, less a philistine.
"The Sun," Burning Spear
Whenever I want to hear the hills, the hills at dusk in the voice of my favourite uncle, Uncle Big Man, whose life is in the hills, this is the song I put on. The hills are for contemplation. The high grounds the slaves escaped the plantations to, reasoning and questioning: "do you remember the days of slavery? / and how they beat us? / do you remember the days of slavery?" But sometimes the questions are not so heavy, as in "The Sun"; a simple voice only a hill's man like Winston ‘Burning Spear' Rodney could capture, his tone cool, testing the range of distance: "are you ready? / are you ready? / are you re-eh-eh-ady?" The magnificence of the song is how it raises an image of my uncle cupping his mouth to answer me. Yes.
"Trouble On the Road Again," Bob Marley and the Wailers
I love how "again" looms out into a future, acknowledging the past as a crowd of ‘once more.' "When sorrows come, they come not single spies" is no less its grasp. Marley is the great poet of the pivot, a compass needle that is already pointing other directions once you have catch up to him. I chase after him in this collection with the same panic I felt as a boy when I first heard his wail.
"Southeastern Moon," Midnite
With his hieroglyphic style of chanting, Vaughn ‘Akae Beka' Benjamin, the lead singer and prolific lyricist of the band Midnite—they are from St. Croix, Virgin Island—is the emblem of intellectual power. He moves words in a warped field of significations, strangely esoteric and simple, as in these lines addressed to the moon, which I love: "southeastern moon / the evening look like morning I hope you will be coming soon / you keep the seasons waiting for you." The moon as the gravitational point, yoking morning to evening, creates an interval where the register of absence intensifies. Benjamin is a master of making that pyramidal third space, where objects correlate into the permanence of poetry.
"Symphony No. 5," Jean Sibelius (Herbert von Karajan, Philharmonia Orchestra)
Sibelius's power is to make you feel like what it feels like to have wings. It is a powerful fiction: flying over unknown places and then recognizing, like the slow development of a film, with a kind of terrifying exultation, that the landscape below is home. The recognition comes as a kind of amplified grace and gratitude. This is what grips me about "Symphony No. 5," the simultaneous awareness of height and panorama as the music grows. A poem midway in House of Lords and Commons is called "Sibelius and Marley." It puts the two in a cypher of surreal duel against destructive history and nature in their respective—but strange--landscapes.
"Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun," Claude Debussy
The complete, ineluctable auditory pleasure, it masks its menace in wafting glissandi harps; but the faun, to me, is Marsyas, skinned alive by Apollo, the terrible punishment I transposed in a poem, not for challenging the god, but for…just for.
"Requiem for My Friend," Zbigniew Preisner
Whenever I listen to this piece I imagine murals or friezes depicting scenes from a life gone. Every note honours that life and every note mourns, without being mournful, enduring the sad occasion with thanksgiving. It is a bracing, radical compliment to Marley's injunction against inaction: "forget your sorrows and dance," which I live by.
"Winter In America," Gil Scott-Heron
Though Scott-Heron's portrait or vision of America is bleak in this ballad ("like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds // And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner"), you sense in the composition a powerful regenerating force: the flute's resilient ripples insisting on the hoped-for rain. I sink into it knowing spring is not far behind.
Ishion Hutchinson and House of Lords and Commons links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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