NYU Black Renaissance Noire Winter 2014 - Page 56

And then there’s Komunyakaa’s move from Bacchus to Zulu. The distinctly Greco-Roman and the distinctly South African. Another kind of straddling. Zulu — meaning “heaven” or “sky.” Zulu as in the Zulu people of South Africa — abused as third class citizens under apartheid and also recognized as being descendants of the powerful and feared Zulu Kingdom. The poem is forged out of a dissonant, seemingly improbable set of values. So there is dismemberment, yes, but also the great surprise (to me) of Zulu and Bacchus so near. A kind of expansion of vision. Each reference belonging to the poet’s large seeing. Zulu touches Bacchus touches magnolia touches raintree. The walls of one mythological, historical or geographic world break or bloom into the realms of another. Which is, as far as I’m concerned, a state of African Americanness and, more generally, Americanness. Whether we call this break or bloom, rupture or expansion of vision, the proximity of Zulu and Bacchus (that they should both be accessible to us) is a manifestation of an earlier violence. It is a complicated union. And not without Blackness and beauty. 54 Here’s where the blue note comes in. In a 1998 bomb conversation with Suzan Sherman and Paul Muldoon, Komunyakaa says he’s interested in the southern idiom and the literary language functioning side by side, tonally. He explains, “I realize that my work is immersed in Southern idiom, along with an acquired literary language. I’m trying to make both function tonally side by side to create music that doesn’t have to achieve an absolute scale of meaning, but more or less to induce a certain feeling, because that’s what literature is… It’s a cumulative feeling.” He later shares, “Rhythm extends the possibilities within the shape of language — it’s reaching for that surprise, the blue note.” Can’t we say then that Legba’s register of the betwiXt and multilingual mirrors a jazz aesthetic!? Komunyakaa writes, “Poetry gives itself over to language, to what it is made of and resists, and in this sense, the tension, the struggle within the embrace, says everything about why poetry exists.” The same could be said of jazz — forged out of the crossroads place. The wrestling and merging of European and African musical aesthetics. Jazz is built out of the tension between structural constraint and improvisation — or, “the struggle within the embrace.” Variations on jazz themes and/or improvisations are engagements with time and possibility within a constraint. Musically, there is a tension between predictability and unpredictability. If we consider these states in the context of American histories of capture, captivity, invention, and freedom, a meditation on possibility, predictability, unpredictability, is full of grief and joy. (Imagine, what “the water” brought to and took from Benin, Cape Coast, New Orleans, London, the ports of Spain, San Juan and Saint Domingue.) A poetics — or sensibility — born out of this need to create a living space within, toward, despite the flux, yes, this is part of the blood of jazz, and part of what Komunyakaa’s work conjures. As he writes in “The Story of a Coat,” “memories that make me American/ as music made of harmony & malice.” Disclaimer. I’m not a musician. I love music unsophisticatedly and with an untrained ear. My love, who was named after Rahsaan Roland Kirk, plays, and his father is a jazz guitarist. (Speaking of straddling worlds, Roland Kirk often played several instruments simultaneously, and he named himself “Rahsaan” after hearing it in a dream.) When I asked “my” R. to describe the blue note in layman’s terms, he said, Often thought of as the flatted third, flatted fifth, flatted seventh. In a given scale, the blue note is the note in between two notes. Musicians, in a blues, tend to be sliding into a blue note or out of it. As if you’re stretching or sliding away — pushing the boundaries of the note. Blues, the blue note, is an expansion of harmonic possibility within a given melody. Some kind of break in the convention. In jazz it’s often used to convey deep, deep feeling. The blue notes deal with heartache. In a way, this expansion of possibility (harmonic, linguistic, visual) is what artists and innovators do, but, also, it is what it means to be alive, to try to survive. More simply, it is part of what it means to be on the planet — expansion as a kind of way to think about evolution. If we think about language, it is slowly or quickly changing depending on the changes of the people who “inhabit it.” The expansion of possibility in language is a way to ensure that language has room for our shapes and colors and experiences. These moments of ruptures or breaks or expansion in language are what I’m trying to point us to in Komunyakaa’s work.