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No Eyes: Lester Young by David Meltzer

These three books continue that long-established reciprocity between poetry and jazz.

David Meltzer’s No Eyes: Lester Young is a book-length jazz performance. In this tribute to Lester Young, Meltzer borrows Young’s “trickster, hipster,” phrasing to get the mood right-you dig? It is a meditation on the author’s yellowed newspaper cutting of Prez seated on a hotel bed, and you cannot help but notice the weary, impenetrable eyes of Young in the photographs throughout the book. Meltzer’s solos “lean into” one another as he returns to the leitmotif of the lyrics he famously supported in Billie Holiday’s Columbia recording sessions. Familiar phrases such as “all of me” form an eerie juxtaposition with Young’s hastening to a death at age 50: “One way is to stop eating in between drinking/waste away yet stay wasted/you dig//vanish except in photographs/disappear and reappear on album covers/how to leave but still be in the air/all of me.”

Meltzer’s meditation rests both on Young’s life and poetry as jazz performance. “How slow can you go before it stops?” Meltzer asks, and anyone who has caught a show will recognize his at once familiar description of the kind of diminuendo only possible in an intimate jazz club, right before the applause erupts, when the audience hears only the keypads and the player’s breath.

Sascha Feinstein’s formal lyric poems are smooth, shiny stones compared to Meltzer’s smoky rooms. Misterioso’s title is inspired by Thelonious Monk, and the autobiographical poetry brings many artists into the mix-Holiday, Stan Getz, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Feinstein’s well-wrought lines demonstrate the power and beauty of music as a more perfect reflection of life, and he also uses jazz as a filter, if not a test of the quality of life. A lover’s thanks is ironic when an errand to fetch wine turns into a chance liason with music: “We kiss, I pour the wine, and of course//it’s delicious. I’m so glad you went out/for this, you say, everything is just perfect.” And so it is when the music is so good. These melodies are not only something worth living for, but sometimes step in to replace life itself, even if only for a little while:

“…honey you got to believe me/when I tell you on this platform/of people all living/in this city of got-to-get-there-yesterday/half of us let our trains roll on by.”

If he weren’t already coeditor (with Yusef Komunyakaa) of two anthologies of jazz poetry, Feinstein would win inclusion here as a careful, quiet master of verse because nothing is wasted, making this the richest of these three works; it’s a book to be mined again and again.

Brian Gilmore’s Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags is as spoken word as Meltzer’s book is beat. After Meltzer’s smooth, jazzlike undulations, Gilmore captures the language as it leaves our mouths and is “intrigued with this/newfangled/new Orleans/negro music//called ‘jass’.”

Gilmore celebrates all of the bigwigs of “black brown beige” music, but is the most eloquent about Duke Ellington, who is a “soldier on the bandstand” and “the dove returning at last/with the olive branch/telling everyone exactly/where and when/to land.”

Gilmore plays both the soldier and seer intertwining the history of black/brown/beige music and its people in America. Jazz is a sermon “spiritual and mellow/malice into memory…the soul of the blues is a moment in time…on a stage in america/the man’s alto/soothed our souls.”

He comments on the unsuccessful dichotomy of traditional forms of African-American music appropriated by white performers: “everyone still trying/to make all them/dishes themselves.” So he insists “… this ain’t no/dream” so “don’t nobody //dare// stop playing….”

Or writing.

Originally Published