I heard the news today; or, On Poetry Making Use of Non-poetic Texts

I took a dip into the work of Muriel Rukeyser recently, a poet whose work I was only vaguely familiar with. I spent time mostly with “The Book of the Dead,” her documentary-ish exploration of a tunnel collapse and its corporate cover-up. It is quite contemporary in feel, though it was published in 1938 as part of her second poetry collection, US1. She uses research, reportage, and the borrowed voices of witnesses or individuals who stood in the middle of the situations that stirred her. Bringing home to the reader social justice concerns in a visceral way.

And I realized there is a direct line between her work and several other collections I happen to be reading at the moment: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Don Mee Choi’s DMZ, and Travis Cebula’s The Sublimation of Frederick Eckert. All of these make use of documentation and imagination, witness and response, text and visual presentations. And they all, to my mind, stretch the traditional sense of what poetry is: From Rukeyser’s use, for example, in “Statement: Phillipa Allen,” of altered lines from a witness statement, set in the dialogue format of a play, with dashes to set off each line of of the questioner’s questions and Allen’s replies; to Choi’s snapshotted notes and scribbled Korean characters and a respondent’s doodled map of circles; to Rankine’s “situation scripts” making use of news coverage; to how Cebula’s poems, launched from an old newspaper clipping, explore the fictionalized life of the first suicide off the Empire State Building tumble down the page, sometimes in two columns, some words bracketed as if a photojournalist froze moments of the fall.

Is there music here? Sometimes. Is there form? Of strangeness, yes, and sometimes borrowed from non-poetry-looking documentation. Is there compression? Of vision, certainly, of focus, if not always of text. Is there silence, as weighed against sound? Yes, and often interestingly, insightfully so. How they take from and make use of documentation interests me, text dimensioning itself from text, like a 3D printer transforming code into form.

I must confess, though, this interests me intellectually, but it’s the other book I happened to grab in quick Covid-breathing-down-my-neck visit to the library that grabs my poetry heart. It too takes its cues from something concrete, in this case a video clip and some photographs. Ross Gay seems to be attaining incadescence in front of my very eyes with each new book. Be Holding is magnificent, as it achingly slowly tells of the fleet seconds details of an improbable dunk, a “baseline scoop,” by Dr. J during a 1980 NBA finals game, interspersed with curling and twining tendrils of sidebars and meditations on holding, on flying and falling, on love. This is poetry that truly engages me as a reader, a writer, and as a human bean.

This is news of the finest kind. Oh, boy.

Sweet Confusion Under the Moonlight; or, The kingdom of God is within you; or, Making the Better World

I had read the news as usual that morning and fell into the now-usual doom gloom. Then the radio reminded me that another of my music pantheon died recently. Dr. John has ascended.

And the station played a tribute to him for a few hours, but I was vacuuming and stuff so heard a bit here and bit there, nodding to the beat when I could hear it, otherwise swept in my own to-and-fro, but they closed with “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere,” and I thought, Right, Mac? Right?

But then I opened up Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights.

The Book of Delights is Ross Gay’s almost-daily, always-exuberant, sometimes-funny, sometimes-poignant record of his days’ delights. Which are often found in not so obvious places.

Although that groovy dude — and here I’m talking about Dr. John, although Ross Gay is indeed also one groovy dude — Dr. John’s oddball let’s-face-it-a-bit-whiny sly if-I-don’t-do-it-somebody-else-will devil on his angelic shoulder (have you HEARD the “Boogie Woogie Twins” with Jools Holland? Shut. Up.) makes it almost impossible for me to not leap up and boogie around the kitchen, there’s often a dark undercurrent in his music, that undeniable blue note, a hint of wrong-place-right-time. Some might call it duende.

And just as you might tire, thinking, all right, enough, you perky sonofabitch — and here I’m talking about Ross Gay — I don’t know that anyone would call Dr. John a perky sonofabitch — Gay will slip in an essayette that reminds us ever so subtly of that yin to yang, the old no-joy-without-sorrow note that sometimes being a black man in this world causes him to stumble over even in the midst of this practice of delight, or even just being a human in the world, and doing the hard work of loving in the face of losing.

And so Gay corrected me: No, Timothy Johnson and Shane Minor voiced by the good doctor were incorrect — there is not necessarily a better world someplace; the better world is right here, if we only notice it.

And we ourselves, with paean and call, hum and curve, laughter and the invention of a good can opener, are what can make it the better world. And old Mac Rebennack did that too, bringing us all into his funkin’ boogie woogie, his bluesy praise, his daily delights.

And I too, even my sometimes-crabby, impatient self can participate in this making. It only takes a moment’s notice.