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Book Review: Something About the Blues – an unlikely collection of poetry by Al Young

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There is something about the blues that grabs hold of you and moves you, physically and emotionally, that transports you to places past, present and imagined, something that taps into the deepest elemental parts of you to soothe and sometimes heal. It's easy to lose yourself in the blues. Its history runs deep and its influence on other forms has been enormous. The blues, Al Young writes in the introduction to Something About the Blues: an unlikely collection of poetry, is "[b]eaded and threaded throughout America's musical mosaic." But the blues, like poetry, is difficult to describe, define, confine. "[T]he blues," he writes, "will always be dramatically unpredictable, sometimes torturous and sometimes pleasurable," and "[e]ver resistant to classroom analysis," for the blues dwells largely "in a feral state; blues truth is wild and menacing."

Something About the Blues
is blues poetry. Though I've often listened to and lost myself in the blues, and have immersed myself in various kinds of poetry, I must confess that I was largely ignorant of the blues in poetic form until I had the good fortune to read this collection. The first to popularize blues poetry was Langston Hughes, born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902, and best "known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties" (learn more about Hughes at Poets.org). It is fitting, then, that Young opens his collection of blues poetry with Hughes' beautiful and haunting poem, "The Weary Blues." This poem, read by Hughes himself, also opens the accompanying CD. It serves as a wonderful introduction to the spirit of blues poetry and sets the mood perfectly.

Al Young, born in 1939 in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, was raised first in Mississippi and then in Detroit, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan from 1957-1960, co-editing Generation, the campus literary magazine. In 1961 he settled in Berkeley, where he held a number of odd jobs — folksinger, lab aide, disk jockey, medical photographer, clerk typist, employment counselor — before graduating with a degree in Spanish from U.C. Berkeley. He has taught creative writing and literature at various universities, has received numerous honours, including, inter alia, Wallace Stegner, Guggenheim, Fulbright National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and the PEN-Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction. Young has written a number of poetry collections, several novels, three musicals, and numerous screenplays. He was appointed Poet Laureate of California in 2005 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Everything in Something About the Blues is to some extent a meditation on the blues. This collection attempts to say something about the blues – its origins, history, themes, essence and power. Whether through dedications, tributes, or other mention, many jazz and blues greats make it into this powerful collection – Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Lester "Pres" Young, Marian McPartland, Ella Fitzgerald, Lead Belly, Vernon Alley, Harry Connick, Jr., Lena Horn, the James Cotton Band, Gene Ammons, Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Clifford Brown, Billie Holiday, John "Dizzy" Birks Gillespie, Malcolm X, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Jackie McLean, James P. Johnson, Langston Hughes, and James Brown. Some poems allude to and play with poetry from the Western "white" Canon, while others address, more specifically, issues of racism and systemic discrimination, of exoticization, othering and hybridity, as well as of terrorism and environmental racism. Some of these topics go well beyond the traditional themes of the blues. And then some poems are of a more playful nature, more earthy and sensual.

The poetry in this collection, like the blues, is raw and elemental. It rarely indulges in complex symbols, extended metaphors, or florid language. It is less constrained by meter and rhyme, but characterized by the liberal use of alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme, enjambment, repetition, and rhythm. It's language is, on the whole, clear, direct, hard-hitting.

There is one poem, just a little into the book, that captures so much of the often contradictory nature of the blues. Young's "The Blues Don't Change" addresses the blues directly:

    And I was born with you, wasn't I, Blues?
    Wombed with you, wounded, reared and forwarded
    from address to address, stamped, stomped
    and returned to sender by nobody else but you,
    Blue Rider, writing me off every chance you
    got, you mean old grudgefulhearted, table
    turning demon, you, you sexy soulsucking gem.

The blues is a contradictory character, both wombing and wounding you. You bear its stamp, yet also feel stomped on, moved from place to place, returned to sender, and written off by the blues. The blues stings where you can't scratch and moves you "from frying/pan to skillet" just as it moves you to wiggle your body, juggle your limbs, loosen that goose, up your voice, open your pores, and roll your hips and lips.

The blues is characterized as a grudgefulhearted (neat word), table-turning demon who is also — here begins another wonderful twist — a sexy soulsucking gem, a "[b]lue diamond in the rough" who "can't be outfoxed don't care how they cut/and smuggle and shine you on." And, in a note to students and theorists, the blues is "too dumb and stubborn and necessary/to let them turn you into what you ain't/with color or theory or powder or paint." You can never, the poem suggests, fully capture or contain the blues. And it is its contradictory, shape-shifting nature that allows the blues to stay forever fresh and current.

The impossibility of capturing the blues completely is also addressed in "Detroit 1958." "Only parts of the pain of living/may be captured in a poem or/tale or song or in the image seen," goes the first stanza. In the blues, as in life, "[s]adness is the theme of existence;/joy its variations." The blues merely imitates the pain of life, but, in another apparent contradiction, it is, "as the man sings,/'The bitter note makes the song so sweet."

There is plenty of bitterness in Young's poetry, though it is not consumed by it. And sometimes that bitterness also comes out in poems alluding to and playing with poems from the Western canon. "The Lovesong of O.O.Gabugah" is a good example, an obvious allusion to T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a lengthy, meandering, metaphorically dense poem about an aging, indecisive, isolated urban man walking along foggy half-deserted streets on his way to what sounds like a high society party in order to woo a particular woman. But he doesn't dare. His indecisiveness and insecurity are the focus of the poem, and the reader — aren't we lucky? — gets to accompany Prufrock and listen in on his inner dialogue.

Though parts of Eliot's poem suggest a somewhat tongue-in-cheek nature, Young's "The Lovesong of O.O. Gabugah" lies in sharp contrast. The tone, right from the start, reflects a rougher context, a very different reality. Instead of "Let us go then, you and I," we get "Time to split now, you & me." The narrator of Young's poem, presumably a black male, also takes his reader along on a walk through an urban landscape, "past alleyways & neon signs/& people waitin in movie lines." But he has no time for lengthy reflection, comparing himself to this or that dramatic figure, to Hamlet, or even Polonius the Fool, or wrapping his emotional insecurities in fancy, drawn-out metaphors. He is physically in danger. If he so much as stops too long near the people waiting in movie lines, he fears getting zapped. What we witness here is something much more grim – "[t]he snowy line… whooshed up the chimney clean, burnt out a nose,/& sniffin all there was to know about July,/just blew its ownself out, forget the rose." Our guide here is not on his way to a high society party where well-dressed ladies discuss Michelangelo. He is headed to a place where he can forget his misery by blowing himself out with cocaine.

One piece in this collection, more short story than poem, addresses a form of oppression and source of misery one wouldn't necessarily expect in a blues collection. "Silent Parrot Blues" discusses environmental racism, a fairly new and academic concept that links racism, a common theme in the blues, to the environment, an uncommon one. It is prefaced by a quote from Myrla Baldanado, Statement Coordinator: People's Task Force for Base Clean Up, that explains what environmental racism is – forcing people of colour "to bear the brunt of the nation's pollution problem." The story begins with Young encountering a listless, raggedy, broken parrot kept in a dark supply closet by a building superintendent. As he walks back to his apartment, arms full of laundry and disturbed, he meets his intellectually curious hallway neighbor, Briscoe, a veteran of the American War in Vietnam.

Through the conversation with the well-read and socially-aware though rough around the edges Briscoe, a good amount of ground is covered on the topic of environmental racism. Briscoe wants him to take his parrot story straight to the mayor and city council, because, as he puts it, "white people don't like that shit. They hate it – mistreating birds and animals… They won't stand for it…. In fact, they're prepared to make your ass extinct in a minute before they'll let anybody fuck with a timber wolf." Young goes on to talk about Romanticism and its role in creating an industrial and post-Industrial society in which humans are seen as separate, apart from, and above nature. He then links that kind of thinking back to the "English Romantics — Shelley, Byron, Keats, Thomas Gray, Samuel Coleridge, and William Blake, among others — [who] did their part to exoticize nature." He goes on to mention Thoreau, and not very flatteringly either, as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fennimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and the poetry of Poe and Whitman. Their kind of thinking has contributed to the dumping of all manner of dangerous waste, as Briscoe points out, "where black people and Mexicans and Indians live." While people of colour, more than anyone else, bear the brunt of the world's pollution problem, Young does point out that poor whites are also affected.

By including environmental racism in this collection, as well as cultural hybridity, terrorism and extraordinary rendition, Young updates the blues. If the subject matter, the inspiration that often gives rise to and feeds the blues is the highs, though more often the lows, of people oppressed, then these topics belong in the blues of an increasingly complex and globalised society.

In Something About the Blues," Al Young, as the title suggests, says something about the blues. In his "Statement on Poetics" at the end of the collection, Young says that "[a]fter 60 years of listening, I still feel as though I can't get started; as though I have so little to say about jazz and the roles all music continues to play in that curtainless sun-room in the mansion of my life, where thinking and telling take bloom." Though a force as elemental and dynamic as the blues can never be entirely captured and contained, Young does manage to say a great deal about the blues in this collection, and the spirit of the blues certainly moves within and through it. The inclusion of a CD with various live readings brings the poetry even closer, making it come to life. Unfortunately, the sound quality of the CD is not always consistent – the volume and clarity change from reading to reading, which is a bit disconcerting. It may be because they were recorded at different venues, without sufficient audio post-processing. And perhaps this is only a problem on the advance copy. Overall, the more time is spent with Something About the Blues, the more emerges that is beautiful, captivating, painful, powerful, sometimes soothing, and often thought-provoking. This collection of blues poetry comes highly recommended.

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