J. W. Bonner   •  October 25, 2004

Sing, Muses

Reviews of Jeffery Beam’s What We Have Lost, Jim Clark’s Buried Land, Joel Dias-Porter’s Libation Song, and Keith Flynn’s Nervous Splendor

What We Have Lost: New and Selected Poems 1977–2001 by Jeffery Beam. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Green Finch Press, 2002. 2 enhanced CDs. $20.

Buried Land by Jim Clark. Wilson, NC: Eternal Delight Productions, 2003. Audio CD. $15.97.

Libation Song by Joel Dias-Porter. Black Magi Music, 2002. Audio CD. $15.

Nervous Splendor by Keith Flynn. Animal Records, 2003. Audio CD. $15.

In the beginning was certainly the word, the word become song. The origins of poetry are embedded in the sound of music, the sound of the human voice pitched toward entertainment. These four poets, of different styles and approaches, have created their own bardic songs for modern audiences: jazz, rock, traditional, and performance/chamber. These cds are all about the creation of an audience. An audience for poetry has been at the heart of the poetic impulse, going back to at least the Greeks. Homer sang of the heroes of Greece and Troy, and his imagery is famous today. But Homer’s and the Beowulf poet’s audiences not only enjoyed the adventures and supernatural feats but also learned their cultural history in these yarns. The historical and cultural underpinnings of their societies, the lore of their own Jeffersons and Washingtons and Franklins, were taught in those songs. (Of the group under review, Clark may have this notion most in mind with his use of the traditional songs.) The locus, then, is outside the listener in some manner. The listener attends to the performance. The oral performance keeps moving forward. Sappho’s lyrics, on the other hand, may have brought the subjective self into the foreground by creating a relationship and encounter between the poem and the reader that is more personal, and each of these poets achieves a certain wry success in this regard, with four very different voices.

Dias-Porter’s performances suggest a night-time mood, cool and jazzy. Gil Scott-Heron might be a progenitor for his approach, though Dias-Porter, with his intensely personal poems, does not attempt Scott-Heron’s political range. References to Pittsburgh — Steelers, Roberto Clemente — and urban projects provide grounding to its locality. There are several poems/songs of a sensuality deserving of a movie soundtrack. A soundtrack does seem to describe the music: perhaps Play Misty for Me. The voice is strong, conversational. The cd insert lacks a text to give the listener the reading experience. I do wonder how the words would hold up on the page as text, but this cd performance is pleasant enough as it is.

Jim Clark’s Buried Land takes a very different approach. Seven traditional songs — for example, “Cripple Creek,” “Shady Grove,” “Barbara Allen” — serve as interludes between mostly short poems. The songs are well played and offered as standard interpretations. (Yet, one yearns at times for Clark’s personal interpretation. As an example, his rendition of “Barbara Allen” is probably very close to the standard. I think back to the Handsome Family’s electric version, playing off the 1947 Jamboree recording by Merle Travis. Their vocals move toward a whisper at times, the voices of Brett and Rennie Sparks creating a harmonious and almost reverent counterpoint, a nice vocal play given the mortal heartbreak of the song.) An eighth song, “Lady Magdelene,” is written by Clark.

From a design standpoint, the booklet provides the text for every poem. The grateful listener/reader may then attend to Clark’s homespun voice with ease. Several nice images await the patient reader. In “Mockingbird,” Clark creates a pleasing play off one word: the mockingbird’s “flight like its voice / a quarreling of air.” Quarrel depicts the bird’s chatter and departure. In “Moonrise at Dark Hollow Lake,” the final stanza offers a beautiful image of something almost spoken, suggested in a few lines: “Something just this side / of saying / aches in my jaw.” “Saying Goodbye” might be Clark’s splendid retelling of an old Appalachian murder ballad from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

Keith Flynn’s Nervous Splendor brings poetry into the rock age. The voice is that of a hep cat, a beat poet, cool and resonant. The six songs, however, with the exception of the marvelously emotive “Blind Man’s Garden,” are heavy, bluesy rocking tunes. These are not songs to woo your sweetheart by. And the poems themselves, six of them from the three prior collections and a wonderful new poem (“Listening as Another Famous Man Badly Reads His Poems”), are strongly moral, politically nuanced, and at times laugh-out-loud witty. There is tenderness underneath the post-modern gruff and the playfulness of Flynn’s best work. And these works move in some interesting directions from their published version; for example, “The Fatigue of Post-Modern Irony” adds a 9/11 reference to the Waco lines.

I pulled out my volumes of Flynn’s poetry to examine alongside his voice. The poems repay repeated readings — a pleasure denied because the texts are not included on the booklet with the cd. Nonetheless, Flynn’s articulation of his poems is the most engaging of these four cds. A sense of the performance is carefully connected to the language of the work. These poems are excellent staples for his readings — and for this cd.

Jeffery Beam’s What We Have Lost is the richest and handsomest offering among these cds. From the packaging and design (complements of the extraordinary Dave Wofford of Horse & Buggy Press) to the interactive links and video feeds, the viewer/listener is able to enjoy an array of experiences. The tone, established by the strings and woodwinds of the opening “Evocation,” speaks to Beam’s fascination with the Celtic and glades and druids — not my favorite tone of his work. I love the air and light and Bartram verse of the poems in Dame Kind and of “Credo.”

Beam’s voice is far removed from those of the other three poets. He hits each syllable, sings on a rise at the end of each line. Indeed, Beam bursts into song on several lullabies and poems. His singing on “The Song” is equivalent to Flynn’s song prelude to “Post-Modern Irony.” Many of these poems are less than a minute, unlike the longer works of Flynn and occasionally Clark.

This cd captures Beam’s live performance of these poems, but there is an ephemeral quality without the text to root the images more substantially in the listener’s mind. Indeed, as a selection of twenty-five years, I wish Beam had published a book with this cd booklet inserted into a slipcase. Then the reader would be able to attend to the marvelous poems and supplement the strength of the poem’s images with the effects and sounds of the cds. The substance of Beam’s work would then be more evidenced for his audience.

In reading a poem on the page, the reader is able to create a personal space as well as reread. A printed poem is not written necessarily to seduce or to please an audience. Modern poetry and the modern reading experience oftentimes demand a certain willingness to suspend enjoyment and pleasure. The reading experience is not about the show, not about entertainments, not about passive wariness. Modern poetry and the modern audience have accepted difficulty. Sometimes difficulty for difficulty’s sake is not worth the bother, but many readers are willing to assay the poem’s length with a willingness to discover the earned pleasures inherent in the work. Thus, the performance of poetry and the poem-as-reading experience are often at cross purposes. These cds do not surmount these tensions. Indeed, I wish they were sleeved in a volume, enticements to some book held in hand. Sing praises, therefore, for the already existing volumes of Flynn and Beam I may pull from my shelf as complements to their songs.