Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books by Geri Doran and Michael S. Harper

June 11, 2013

    THE FALL OF 1982 found me in Harrisonburg, Virginia, recently sprung from graduate school and teaching creative writing at James Madison University. A number of my intrepid students were studying both poetry and jazz, and we began to put together some ideas for a collaborative performance. Cornelius Eady, who was in those years doing a similarly purgatorial but also way-forging teaching stint at nearby Sweet Briar College, suggested that I check out the work of Michael S. Harper, who by then had published six books of poems, including the new and selected Images of Kin (Illinois, 1977). Eady recommended in particular Harper’s debut collection, Dear John, Dear Coltrane, which percussively reverberates with tributes to jazz musicians — Coltrane, of course, but also Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Elvin Jones, Paul Laurence Dunbar Chambers, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and others — and which explores the relationship of these women, “men and their music” to the poet’s own personal and racial history, to his grief, secrets, poem-making, and sense of responsibility (in a moving elegy for an infant son who has died, “Reuben, Reuben,” Harper writes: “I reach from pain / to music great enough / to bring me back / […] / a brown berry gone / to rot just two days on the branch; / we’ve lost a son, / the music, jazz, comes in”).   

    The book of Harper’s I was able to find in Harrisonburg, however, was not his first but his second collection, History is Your Own Heartbeat, winner of the Poetry Award of the Black Academy of Arts & Letters and published in 1971, just a year after Dear John, Dear Coltrane appeared. Re-reading History is Your Own Heartbeat now for this series — pairing second books of poems written over 20 years ago with a second volume published in the past two years — I am moved anew by Harper’s inimitable metaphysical and sonic moxie. Entering the acoustic universe of Harper’s work is to move into a realm of origin and originality, a remarkable privilege for the reader of any book, but perhaps especially of a sophomore effort. Like so many of the musicians he loves (blues and jazz form both a syntactical/formal and thematic subtext throughout Harper’s oeuvre), Harper plays like an isolato (“Soul and race / are private dominions, / memories and modal / songs, a tenor blossoming” from “Here Where Coltrane Is”) whose solos are nonetheless suffused with an awareness of and respect for the rhythm section: legacy, inheritance, bestowal, and the shared ignorances and awarenesses of race, gender, music and culture “clotting our blood and our soil” (from “Vitamin K: Don’t Bleed on Me”).  

    Harper matriculated in a pre-med program as an undergraduate, and the body — with its dangerous blood factors, its cruel tricks, its congenital and ambiguous gifts, its decrepitude, relapses, fickleness, and stamina, the body with its heartbeat — is (like a jazz player’s axe, his instrument) integral to Harper’s vision in this book, as the title signals. In “Lovely’s Daughters: Visitors,” for example, a family’s tribe of elder women speak, in a first-person plural chorus, of their own girlhood and young womanhood as they attend the hospital room of one of their own:

    We packed our cuts
    and insect bites with rich damp earth.

    The breeze swung our own birches
    in clots of music.

    We ate the tangled punch grapes,
    crushed brown bodies in vines.

    4-inch nails snagged our blankets,
    gowned on the treehouse stair,

    bats flew, tangling our hair;
    we danced with the spider crayfish.

    Naked, on the hot night road,
    we squashed fireflies on our chests
    as they burned;

    fallen corn, haymow, cuckleburs,
    the unplowed rocks, hail,
    swollen tornadoes cracking

    our bedwater;
    these centigrade nights
    we cuddle our stink to keep warm.

    The bees circling,
    blood down our legs,
    we stuffed soybean leaves in us.

    Now we swell in the visitor cove
    in the fifth floor scissor-light,
    punctured bells on a rope
    twenty feet from your door,
    six portwind odors
    staved in the toxic night;
    your grandchildren grow
    taut as sandpaper in your
    pregnant daughters—one
    in serape, one in wood shoes—
    we switch the wheelchair
    between us, witnesses sworn
    under oath, music our own heartbeats,
    digging our poetry with our nails.

    This thrall of almost arcane lyricism (“the fifth floor scissor-light / punctured bells on a rope / twenty feet from your door, / six portwind odors / staved in the toxic night”) with the forthright prose of testimony (“witnesses sworn / under oath, music our heartbeats, / digging our poetry with our nails”) is pure Harper, a signature style markedly different from much of the predominantly narrative/confessional poetry being written in the 1970s and 1980s. In the spirit of Boston Red Sox pitching coach Al Jackson, who once said that “pitching is just an illusion […] Make him think he’s getting one thing, and give him another, and you’ve got him,” Harper has a way of mixing high and low modes to send across the plate expressions of the most complex and nuanced of human conditions. It is a way of wielding language in which sound and soma turn into message and terra firma everywhere, as in “The Angels Levine”:

    In this ear
    a message and a wound;
    the sound goes out
    each ear becomes the ground.

    Drug addicts, visual artists, other poets (Phil Levine, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden), family members, and figures from history and myth are conflated with their places and with the songs of those places in an almost helixical, holy expression of a personal/historical DNA. Here is a passage from “High Modes: Vision as Ritual: Confirmation”:

    And we go back to the well: Africa,
    the first mode, and man, modally,
    touched the land of the continent,
    modality: we are one; a man is another
    man’s face, modality, in continuum,
    from man, to man, contact-high, to man,
    contact-high, to man, high modes, oneness,
    contact-high, man to man, contact high […]

    Harper is as well known as a teacher as he is a poet, and he was honored this past March by a host of poets, colleagues, students, musicians, and others influenced over the years in various ways by Harper’s own imparted “contact high.” The Michael S. Harper Symposium 2013, held at the University of Missouri and titled “Canon Maker: Poet, Editor, Teacher, Mentor, Scholar,” was planned to coincide with the poet’s 75th birthday on March 18th. In a 2009 interview with John Hoppenthaler at Connotation Press, Harper speaks about the evolution of his long career as a writer and about his most recent book of poems, Use Trouble (Illinois, 2009). To Hoppenthaler’s question, “Does poetry continue to be a thing that burns in your belly, or is it now a less compelling thing than it was for you in your younger days?” Harper responds: “For myself poetry still burns in the residue, for I have still failed of a certain parlance, a certain elegance and tonality of phrase and nuance; to add what the musicians know: ‘Don’t Explain’ and don’t fear being too personal, too idiosyncratic, too bizarre, too (Monk) ‘straight, no chaser,’ too rigorous to modify impeccable phrasing, genetic inheritance, the muse of Juneteenth — ‘in freedom try to write your name on her mind.’” I join Harper’s admirers in gratitude for the way he has attended, for over 40 years, to the history of his own our collective heartbeat. I remain astonished by how Harper alchemizes trouble, as he finds it — by the very means of his signature “parlance,” his inimitable “elegance and tonality of phrase and nuance” — and by the generosity and example with which he admonishes the reader, as well as himself, “to remake,” as he puts it in the title poem of Use Trouble, “the spirit in your name.” 


    Geri Doran’s first collection, Resin, selected by Henri Cole for the Academy of American Poets’ Walt Whitman Award and published by LSU Press in 2005, is a book of fierce, quiet petition. Among the preoccupations Doran shares with Michael Harper is the way language intercedes for (or impedes) the fidelity, fallibility, and fragility of the human heart. Here are the epigraph and opening stanzas of “Daylilies of Shiloh” from Resin:

    Now the eyes of Israel were dim for age,
    So that he could not see.
                    —GENESIS 48:10

    What fetches up is noise: reeds,
    slurp of wavelets bearing wood
    sundered from an unlikely ark.

    I am moved to prophesy
    in a field of hideous bloom.
    Pigsty, lilyfield—what difference
    to an old man losing sight?
    Am smell. Am a thousand reeds humming.
    And the hum takes shape.

    Doran’s second book, Sanderlings, takes up that humming. And whereas music issues from the body in History is Your Own Heartbeat, the sonic tissue of what happens (and maybe even why) is evinced in Doran’s work not so much by human voices but by the noise of the natural world, a “field-song” of sound, a synesthetic bed of harvested images that have the feel of human music about them. The chthonic and aqueous realms have their messages and their silences, Doran suggests, and if we attend to them we can more discerningly navigate the human terrain of loss, doubt, desire, and god-hunger, as well. Here is part one of “The Dark Octaves”:

    Germinal, the voice that within dirt
    took root became the many-tendriled sound.
    What haunts the ground haunts me, its ghostly art
    to coil round where silence was, remand
    quiet to the hum. Where words are indistinct
    shut up where words they can’t betray themselves—
    indifferent contradictions, mouthed or inked.
    No matter, we all betray ourselves, or loves.

    In this eight-line meditation not much happens, but what a trove of “tendriled” insights it offers into the dust-to-dust sentence of our mortal coil and into the limits of language to articulate whatever it is — spirit, soul, God — that comprises that “voice” (and whatever it can mean, prior to and beyond embodiment).   

    Sanderlings stirs everywhere with such musings. “Barer than January maples, bare abandoned hives:” she writes in “I, Putative”:

    the bees silenced in their harvest rustle.
    Like as to like, the soul
    quiets, if soul it is, this bee box
    in the chest. What outward presence
    calls to inward space, drop your wings?
    And what unclaimed interior complies?” 

    In “The Passion of Mary, Called Magdalene,” the speaker, Mary Magdalene, is “alone humming” until “[b]reathing I took in more than air, I took in / Him, and the luminous cells in me parted”—and then, later, “In an aeon, I was released from a world // Adoro meaning your words fall through the length / Of me so that I am the birth of listening.

    Like the small birds in the title poem, Doran’s speakers make forays back and forth between the unfathomable and the indifferent — and doing so is her act of faith:

    [. . . ] The other names here are white croaker, jacksmelt.
    Sandpiper. Tern. We gave you this name,
    Mama said, for the saint who saved you.

    Starting out already in debt for life.
    Hush, she only meant you should pray to him.
    Instead of to the rocks and sanderlings.

    When the levee gave, the waves shot through.
    Seawater soaked down to the roots
    of the Monterey cypress and sent up ash.

    That’s the last detail, except for the sanderlings
    chased up the beach by the waves
    Then skittering right back down into the wet.

    Little sanderlings who never listen.
    Tomorrow, when I return, my story will begin.

    If it’s possible to characterize the speakers in many of Michael Harper’s poems in History is Your Own Heartbeat as soloists blowing and improvising the collective pulse of the comped changes of history’s rhythm section, Doran’s human players are often suspicious of their right to speak solo (“I am an American of Irish blood / who claims nothing / to speak of, my history erasable / with a quarter rag” from “Border Town”), and the predominant voicings in the poems come rather from the chastisements, assailings, and silences (wind, wave, stone) of what we might think of as the background white noise of human experience — topography, geography, landscape (“a lone gull’s cry / becoming wind”). Mistrustful of words (“Nothing written has caused one useless whit of change,” Doran writes in “In the Valley of Its Saying”), Doran allows the indifferent, even devastating forces of the natural world (the book contains a series devoted to the lost world of Atlantis) to articulate what is crucially and uniquely human (cruelty and jealousy, as well as love), as in this passage from “The Snowlit Sky”:

    We open on territory uncomprehending
    and vast: a ribboned dark, that choked branch
    the length of Lear’s unspent raving, deep as
    the voice chastisement threw down
    blow by blow onto the regrettable child
    who wanted of Love . . . not this sermon.
    In whom the hushed nevertheless
    crimped a little tighter, the small-mouthed girl
    gathering to herself such residues as were left.
    This course in history is known and unsurprising,
    the course of all small fiefdoms bent
    on redemption but first and most cloyingly
    on praise.

    In messages perhaps most often felt most palpably by their absence (“I speak to you with love; but love, I do not / always speak”), Doran’s music “tidepools us” with its sensory soundings: intelligent, elemental, and quietly essential.


    Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet and the professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.


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