Abstract Propulsion

14 Reflections on “Verso 14”

• February 2022

1

As a writer and performer who often collaborates with musicians, I was instantly drawn to “Verso 14” in Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk.1 As an avid listener to diverse genres of music, and as a believer in the infinite dexterity of the poem, a central part of my craft involves seeking out points of intersection between literature and music. I’ve long been fascinated by moments when we can feel an artist striving to defy the limitations of one art form to access the freedom promised by another. Poets, working in a silent, text-based medium, often reach toward music by suggesting sound and rhythm to the mind’s ear. Musicians can strive for a clarity of articulation that “speaks” to us, and thereby suggests language.

 

2

“Verso 14” is a conversation between two characters—the author and the clerk—about “Venus,” a duo recording by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and drummer Rashied Ali.2 The poem establishes a connection, at the level of poetic structure, to the improvised duo, but it doesn’t rely on the devices we expect. “Verso 14” doesn’t experiment with the conventions of type, capitalization, and punctuation or spread the poem’s lines across the page in patterns that emphasize rhythmic energy. This isn’t a criticism of the varieties of jazz poetry that use those techniques. I am fond of poetic devices that challenge lyric conventions, but I am equally attracted to understatement. The sentence-based approach to “Verso 14” disguises its formal restlessness, which originates in the listening at the core of the poem. Beyond devices and techniques, I am interested in how a poet like Brand listens, what she hears when she considers a complex musical work.

 

3

I have listened to “Venus” close to fifty times in the past months, and nearly every time I’ve wondered whether I hear it the same way the author does in “Verso 14.” I must hear some similar things, since my listening is guided by the poem. In a way, I am listening through the poem. I remind myself to also listen without the poem, to hear the track as I hear it, but that is largely impossible. My experience of “Venus” is mediated by the poem. The poem speaks through the track. It inserts itself in the spaces that Coltrane and Ali leave. It is equally difficult for me to read “Verso 14” without being influenced by “Venus.” Even when the stereo is off, the recording still travels through my reading.

 

4

“Venus” is one of a suite of duets by Coltrane and Ali, recorded in February 1967 and later released under the title Interstellar Space. Interstellar Space was among Coltrane’s final recordings. Elvin Jones, Coltrane’s long-time drummer, left the group in 1966 and had been replaced by Ali. Jones’s New York Times obituary quotes jazz critic Leonard Feather: “[Jones’s] main achievement was the creation of what might be called a circle of sound, a continuum in which no beat of the bar was necessarily indicated by any specific accent, yet the overall feeling became a tremendously dynamic and rhythmically important part of the whole group.”3

Jones and Coltrane did record a duo work, titled “Vigil,” on the record Kulu sé mama, released in 1966.4 “Vigil” offers an idea of the difference between Jones’s style and that of his successor Ali, who was then developing his own approach. Ali’s style came to be known as “multi-directional” rhythms.5 His website provides this insight: “Ali developed the style known as ‘free jazz’ drumming, which liberates the percussionist from the role of human metronome. The drummer interfaces both rhythmically and melodically with the music, utilizing meter and sound in a unique fashion. This allows the percussionist to participate in the music in a harmonic sense, coloring both the rhythm and tonality.”6

 

5

Coltrane died in July 1967, five months after Interstellar Space was recorded. The record was shelved for seven years, finally appearing in 1974. On its release it was hailed as a landmark in the development of free jazz.7 Toward the end of a 2018 lecture titled “The Shape of Language,” Brand refers to Interstellar Space, noting that the music seems to be “speaking out and beyond the time that we live”: “It’s like Coltrane blowing into a future. . . . I often think that is the job of Black artists to blow out of the time that we live in. It’s like sending word to some place where it may be understood in the future.”8

 

6

In “Verso 14,” the author’s ear receives sharp criticism from the blue clerk: “You know nothing about musical structure, the clerk says. But I can hear, the author says. I hear it as rhetoric. Liberatory” (76–77).

In “The Shape of Language,” Brand theorizes, “Much in the way that diacritical marks supplement certain alphabets, changing the sound, tone, or meaning of certain words, poetry in my formulation changes what I see as the racist alphabets of narrative, the prevalent modes of speech, and the key impediments to Black being.”9

In an article in Rolling Stone, written on the fiftieth anniversary of Interstellar Space, senior music editor Hank Shteamer writes, “Throughout the LP, Ali largely jettisons traditional timekeeping in favor of an exhilarating abstract propulsion.”10

 

7

My ear, which is a poet’s ear, is also humbled by the clerk’s criticism. Still, I follow the liberatory rhetoric as Ali’s drums defy our expectation of a drummer’s function, to the point where we can’t anticipate what Ali will play. We can only be carried by its charge. Every astute strike, each brushstroke, defines and yet extends the range of Ali’s playing, which is met by the fullness, the fluency, and the robustness of Coltrane’s tenor. Drums and tenor seem to surge forward, to push against the forefront of the sound, and we can imagine that sound straining toward a future. This is the physicality of musical presence, of instrumentalists responding to one another intellectually and bodily, in the moment, yet making the moment elastic, stretching it until it breaks into the next.

 

8

To my ear, one instrument drives the other toward freedom. That freedom is always relative because the other instrument, the other relative, is always there, in the same sonic and cultural field, in the same liberatory dash. The balance between structure and freedom, or perhaps between individual desire and collective cohesion, characterizes the musical relationship. It also emerges in the poem, as the clerk questions the author: “The drums, played by Rashied Ali, structure the horn and are in turn structured by the horn. Coltrane works on the first declarative syntactical unit. It is not declarative, the clerk interjects, it is provisional, speculative, let us at least try to be as precise as we can since. Fine, says the author, he dissects that speculative, provisional statement, each sound he breaks apart, technically” (75).

 

9

In the foregoing passage, the author is pursuing an idea when the clerk interjects and almost admonishes her to “be as precise as we can since.” Since what?

“Since” is not specified, but it suggests that the meaning of the sentence overruns the period; it suggests the absurdity of obeying the rules of proper punctuation when considering the exploratory expanse of Coltrane and Ali’s sound; it suggests a potential consequence to being imprecise in discussing the work of Coltrane and Ali. “Since” hovers in the background of the poem like a formal directive. It shapes how the poem will develop, shapes what is written and what is withheld. The clerk structures the author, and the author in turn starts structuring the clerk. Gaps appear. Things go unsaid but seem to be understood. The clerk and the author anticipate one another, support one another in their conversation, in their respectful quarrel.

 

10

About halfway through “Verso 14” the author introduces Brand’s collection Ossuaries to the consideration of “Venus.”

Ossuaries is a single book-length poem divided into fifteen chapters. Published in 2010, it mentions Coltrane’s “Venus” in its acknowledgements.

Ossuaries sustains a tercet form throughout. Each page accommodates five tercets, and each chapter begins with a single tercet on the opening page. In “Verso 14,” published nearly a decade later, the repetitious steadiness of the tercet form is recalled. It is compared to the steadiness of Ali’s presence on the drums. “The tercets,” the author notes, “are like Rashied Ali’s drums, consistent, sheltering, pushing; the three lines are completely steady. Though they never break from being three lines, they show that three lines can perform a variety of acts of pacing. The tercet is conducting the ideas—the horn, the Ossuaries” (76).

In Ossuaries, a linguistic physicality echoes the physicality of the musicians’ playing. The language surprises, churns, strains against its three-line constraint. Each line carries us forward, or maybe just ahead, into the narrative and into the poem. The language has a propulsive effect.

Just as the author introduces Ossuaries to the contemplation of “Venus,” just as the author and the clerk seem to be developing a theory of the rhetorical and liberatory phrasing of Coltrane and Ali, just as the author begins to expand, the clerk undercuts that development with the devastating comment, mentioned earlier: “You know nothing about musical structure.” This interjection, this callout, made in a conversational tone that understates its assertiveness, functions in a similar way as the admonishing “since.” It restrains the author, yet it advances the work because it demands a response.

 

11

The clerk and the author both assume responsibility for propelling the work forward, the author with their stream of observations about the music, the clerk with interjected remarks that insist on rigor. A duo vocal quality emerges. The author responds, clarifies, expands. The clerk again interposes, holds the author to account. The speakers listen to one another, they even appear to make peace, yet between them a creative tension emerges. This is the energy of collaboration in an improvised context: it demands sensitivity to what the other expresses. At the same time, it demands the confidence to impose, and the ability to keep the dialogue in motion, no matter how fraught or explosive it becomes.

 

12

There is tension between the author and the clerk, yes. They challenge each other as they work together. That same tension exists between improvising musicians. In my own collaborations I’ve experienced a pressure to play very close to the limits of my abilities, on the edge of freedom, and not to reside within a more comfortable (and more restricted) zone. Among the players in an ensemble, a mutual respect can develop as the outer limits of a group’s skill are navigated. There is also something more familiar, more familial that develops. In “Verso 14,” the familial context is shaped by the conversation that Black poetics has sustained for generations, about the relationship between music and poetry. The conversation is both inherited and ongoing.

 

13

In Ossuaries, the role the tercet plays in structuring the poem is likened to the role the drums play in the duo improvisation “Venus.”

In “Verso 14,” a conversation between two figures, the author and the clerk, mirrors a musical conversation between improvisers.

Musical and poetic structures reflect one another. They are given the freedom to converge and diverge.

 

14

“Abstract propulsion” is a beautiful yet mysterious expression. In the context of Coltrane and Ali’s music, it suggests an impulse toward freedom, one that contests narrative forms that restrict our conception of the possible. These forms may structure aspects of music, literature, history, and the ways our world is narrated in current media and entertainment. Equally, they may influence how Black people are perceived and treated on a familiar, quotidian basis. In my reading, propulsion is what breaks form, and abstract can reference a conception of time that differs from the linear insistence that divides our days. Abstract may also suggest a theoretical futurity in which the possibilities for Black being are expanded.

Jazz music, and an examination of the music’s devices, dwell within Brand’s poetics. In “Verso 14,” Brand investigates ways to create formal interfaces between Black music and literature. How do writers connect to the same movement toward freedom that we hear in free jazz? How do form and freedom structure one another?

The abstract propulsion of the work of Coltrane and Ali is a rare artistic achievement, one that also belongs to Brand’s work. It involves the fusion, in equal proportions, of clarity of vision, feeling, technique, dynamism and of a commitment to pursuing what Brand identifies as “liberatory” in “Venus.”

 

Kaie Kellough is a poet, sound performer, and fiction writer. His latest book of poetry, Magnetic Equator (McClelland and Stewart, 2019), won the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize, and his short story collection, Dominoes at the Crossroads (Esplanade, 2020), was published to national acclaim. He has written plays for television and librettos for large ensembles, and his sound performances have been produced internationally.

 


[1] Dionne Brand, “Verso 14: Coltrane’s ‘Venus’ and the Ossuaries’ tercets,” in The Blue Clerk (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2018), 75–78; hereafter cited in the text. The verso’s subhead references Brand’s long poem Ossuaries (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2010), discussed later. For the title of this essay, I borrow “abstract propulsion” from Hank Shteamer, “John Coltrane’s ‘Interstellar Space’ at Fifty: Legacy of a Free-Jazz Masterpiece,” Rolling Stone, 22 February 2017, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/john-coltranes-interstellar-space-at-50-legacy-of-a-free-jazz-masterpiece-191760/.

[2] John Coltrane, “Venus,” on Interstellar Space, LP, Impulse!, 1974.

[3] Leonard Feather, quoted in Peter Keepnews, “Elvin Jones, Jazz Drummer with Coltrane, Dies at Seventy-Six,” New York Times, 19 May 2004.

[4] John Coltrane, Kulu sé mama, LP, Impulse!, 1966.

[5] Howard Mandel, “Rashied Ali (1935–2009), Multi-directional Drummer, Speaks,” Jazz beyond Jazz, 13 August 2009, https://www.artsjournal.com/jazzbeyondjazz/2009/08/rashied_ali_1935_-_2009_multi.html.

[6] “About,” Rashied Ali, www.rashiedali.org (accessed 14 January 2022).

[7] See Shteamer, “John Coltrane’s ‘Interstellar Space’ at Fifty.”

[8] Dionne Brand, “The Shape of Language” (lecture, Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Chicago, 16 June 2018); see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_HdOZIFEl0.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Shteamer, “John Coltrane’s ‘Interstellar Space’ at Fifty.”

 

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