Monday, October 29, 2007

Incantations : Michael S. Harper, A Love Supreme


It is almost impossible to read Michael S. Harper and not feel as though you are missing out on some sort of Gnostic gospel of jazz. “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” seems to revel in its own incantatory song of praise. When you consider the history of the phrase “a love supreme,” the title and incantatory phrase from John Coltrane’s own album of praise, some of the “Gnostic” implications are clear. The poem “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” indeed, much of Harper’s work, proceeds from history and art, particularly jazz, in manners both implicit and explicit. He does this in “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” in particular, modeling his lines and rhythm, as well as content on John Coltrane’s exultant album. This essay will draw the parallels between Michael S. Harper’s “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” and Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme, particularly focusing on the incantatory nature of the poem, which is, in essence, a song of praise.

It is helpful to understand the structure of Coltrane’s album, particularly “Pt. I – Acknowledgement.” The album/song opens with a gong and cymbal swell and Coltrane riffing on the pentatonic for a moment, before leaving the cymbals alone to hearken the entrance of Jimmy Garrison’s bass line, the riff from which the album takes its iambic name. Harper, too, begins with this as his epigraph in italics, setting it apart from the rest of the textual tone: “a love supreme, a love supreme / a love supreme, a love supreme.” It is an incantation, and it couches the rest of the poem’s meditations. That Harper’s language becomes almost a musical drumbeat is no surprise, as it mirror’s Coltrane’s saxophone in A Love Supreme, which almost speaks. Indeed, the fourth movement on Coltrane’s album is based on a poem he includes in the album’s liner notes, “Psalm.” When listening to “Pt. IV – Psalm” it is possible to hear Coltrane literally playing through the poem, continually coming back to the minor third, the incantatory dactyl “Thank you God.” Not only this, but Coltrane actually speaks the phrase “a love supreme” in the album’s first track, repetitively, incantatorially. While Harper’s epigraph certainly alludes to this unexpected moment in Coltrane’s album, it also alludes to the bass line continually thrumbing this rhythm throughout the first movement (excepting the moments when it is left to Coltrane’s saxophone alone).

Harper’s meditations on the many particulars of John Coltrane’s life make up the rest of the poem. The poem could be seen as an attempt to rectify the particulars of Coltrane’s life with the phraseology of his music that seems to sum things up so well. Harper opens the poem with the words “Sex fingers toes” (1). It could be a list, undifferentiated by the lack of commas to set the words apart, or it could be a mishmash of all those things: the use of it as a whole line indicating a singularity of these items. The latter seems more likely (and infinitely more suggestive), when one considers the contained completeness of the lines that follow:

in the marketplace

near your father's church

in Hamlet, North Carolina

witness to this love

in this calm fallow

of these minds,

there is no substitute for pain (2-8)

Each line is rhythmically contained, ending on downbeats, suggesting their end stop. This downbeat end stop continues until line 14, when he ends with the deliberately accented end stop, the first incantation “a love supreme;” (14). Although the line ends on an accent, it is grammatically completed with a semi-colon. But its accent, in addition to the slant rhyme with line 15, sends the reader into the next line with the incantation still echoing, the surprisingly haunting question: “what does it all mean?” (15). This question is perhaps the starkest line in the whole poem, both an angst ridden cliché and startlingly honest plea for understanding.

The next set of lines (16-24) serves to establish some more of Coltrane’s history, a picture of him playing A Love Supreme in Scranton, Pennsylvania. This section ends with the incantation, introduced with a colon, similar to its previous use with the poetic text at line 14. Both are loosely linked to the content of the previous phrase, grammatically worked into the sentence. There is a difference this time, though: “a love supreme—” (24). The long dash at the end indicates a sudden stop, a change in thought even. This dash also brings about the break in stanza, indicative of the larger shift.

The next stanza does not contain much in the way of literal personal history, although many implications could be drawn, especially if one is familiar with the life of John Coltrane, particularly his abuse of heroin. Again, there is the mishmash of words grouped in these lines:

thick sin 'tween

impotence and death, fuel

the tenor sax cannibal

heart, genitals, and sweat

that makes you clean—

a love supreme, a love supreme— (26-31)

The pace of the phrases increases, due to the assonance that appears in the first part of these lines. Harper also cuts the phrase “fuel the tenor sax cannibal heart” after fuel and cannibal. This too, adds to the increased pacing and shift in intonation. Harper’s intonations shift with the various meditations, always coming back to “a love supreme,” which shifts with the various tonalities of Harper’s language, the same way Coltrane’s saxophone explores the phrase’s various modalities through “Pt. I – Acknowledgement.” Once again, there is the almost frenetic mishmash of words: “sax cannibal / heart.” It is almost incantatory, almost senseless. The words together, though grammatically senseless, form a cumulative effect, like the repetition of “a love supreme.” It also helps establish the theme of body in the poem. This idea of body is continued with the phrase “genitals, and sweat / that makes you clean— / a love supreme, a love supreme—”. Again, slant rhyme connects the incantation with its neighboring line. Whereas before it connects it with the question “what does it all mean?”, here it is connected with phrases of the body, emphasizing this theme of body, particularly the sexuality of the body.

The theme of the sexual body continues in the third stanza, a playful one, repeating “cause I am” in response to every question as to why a particular person (Coltrane presumably) is so “funky,” “sweet,” and especially “black.” The sudden intrusion of this out-of-character stanza is set off by the dash after “a love supreme” in line 31, performing here a similar function to the identical phrase in line 24. The dash allows for the change in voice and intonation. In the third stanza, Harper is mixing themes of race and sexuality, creating another incantation within the incantation of the whole poem: “because I am.” More interestingly, he is mashing the lines together with little respect for grammar. The first word is capitalized, and there are question marks throughout, but the stanza is largely run together grammatically. This is indicated, primarily, by the lack of capitalization. The lines are cut in ways that would be expected, giving the sense of grammar to one who only hears it, but this whole stanza could be considered a continuation of the mishmash technique Harper employs throughout the poem.

Harper ends the third stanza, once again, with “a love supreme:” connecting it to the song as a whole, acting in many ways, like a chorus of sorts. This time, however, “a love supreme” is followed by a colon, a first in the poem. This colon connects the very final stanza with the penultimate stanza, even though there is a significant visual break between them, and the last stanza lacks the italics of the penultimate (excepting, of course, the final lines). Harper is subclausing the whole fourth stanza to the third, in a way. It is a reversal for the poem in that the song-like italics have always been subclaused to the generally fact-oriented non-italics. Before, all the song lyrics were proceeding from the facts of Coltrane’s life. Now, the finality of Coltrane’s end (which seems imminent), proceeds from his music. The tail is wagging the dog, so to speak, and the speaker is disappointed that Coltrane can barely play (43-45). This makes the final two phrases, incantations of “a love supreme, a love supreme—”, all the more poignant. It’s as if Coltrane is trying to gasp out the last phrases himself, but ultimately comes off “flat” (45). The poem comes full circle to the epigraph, only this time, the phrase is cut off by the dash, suggesting the possibility, the hope of more. But the reader is left hanging by the final dash, an interruption, rather than an end.

Harper’s poem, ultimately, is rooted in the body, the “sex fingers toes” of Coltrane’s life, the mashing of the saxophone keys that produces his music. And, ultimately, it is Coltrane’s body that betrays him, snuffs out his particulars, rumbles over him, the same way his incantation continues, even after he is done. Though “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” was written before Coltrane’s death, it foretells the continuation of the artist, his incantation that arises out of the particulars of his life.



Appendix

Dear John, Dear Coltrane


a love supreme, a love supreme
a love supreme, a love supreme

Sex fingers toes 1

in the marketplace

near your father's church

in Hamlet, North Carolina

witness to this love 5

in this calm fallow

of these minds,

there is no substitute for pain:

genitals gone or going,

seed burned out, 10

you tuck the roots in the earth,

turn back, and move

by river through the swamps,

singing: a love supreme, a love supreme;

what does it all mean? 15

Loss, so great each black

woman expects your failure

in mute change, the seed gone.

You plod up into the electric city—

your song now crystal and 20

the blues. You pick up the horn

with some will and blow

into the freezing night:

a love supreme, a love supreme—


Dawn comes and you cook 25

up the thick sin 'tween

impotence and death, fuel

the tenor sax cannibal

heart, genitals, and sweat

that makes you clean— 30

a love supreme, a love supreme—


Why you so black?

cause I am

why you so funky?

cause I am 35

why you so black?

cause I am

why you so sweet?

cause I am

why you so black? 40

cause I am

a love supreme, a love supreme:


So sick

you couldn't play Naima,

so flat we ached 45

for song you'd concealed

with your own blood,

your diseased liver gave

out its purity,

the inflated heart 50

pumps out, the tenor kiss,

tenor love:

a love supreme, a love supreme—

a love supreme, a love supreme—



A Love Supreme

John Coltrane

I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord. 1

It all has to do with it.

Thank you God.

Peace.

There is none other. 5

God is. It is so beautiful.

Thank you God. God is all.

Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses.

Thank you God.

In You all things are possible. 10

We know. God made us so.

Keep your eye on God.

God is. He always was. He always will be.

No matter what . . . it is God.

He is gracious and merciful. 15

It is most important that I know Thee.

Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts,

fears and emotions — time — all related . . .

all made from one . . . all made in one.

Blessed be His name. 20

Thought waves — heat waves — all vibrations —

all paths lead to God. Thank you God.

His way . . . it is so lovely . . . it is gracious.

It is merciful — thank you God.

One thought can produce millions of vibrations 25

and they all go back to God . . . everything does.

Thank you God.

Have no fear . . . believe . . . thank you God.

The universe has many wonders. God is all.

His way . . . it is so wonderful. 30

Thoughts — deeds — vibrations, etc.

They all go back to God and He cleanses all.

He is gracious and merciful . . . thank you God.

Glory to God . . . God is so alive.

God is. 35

God loves.

May I be acceptable in Thy sight.

We are all one in His grace.

The fact that we do exist is acknowledgement

of Thee O Lord. 40

Thank you God.

God will wash away all our tears . . .

He always has . . .

He always will.

Seek Him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday. 45

Let us sing all songs to God

To whom all praise is due . . . praise God.

No road is an easy one, but they all

go back to God.

With all we share God. 50

It is all with God.

It is all with Thee.

Obey the Lord.

Blessed is He.

We are from one thing . . . the will of God . . . 55

thank you God.

I have seen God — I have seen ungodly —

none can be greater — none can compare to God.

Thank you God.

He will remake us . . . He always has and He 60

always will.

It is true — blessed be His name — thank you God.

God breathes through us so completely . . .

so gently we hardly feel it . . . yet,

it is our everything. 65

Thank you God.

ELATION — ELEGANCE — EXALTATION —

All from God.

Thank you God. Amen.


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