By Quincy Troupe
Coffee House. 352 pp. Paperback, $17
JAZZ FAN LOOKS BACK
By Jayne Cortez
Hanging Loose. 115 pp. Paperback, $14
TO BE THE POET
By Maxine Hong Kingston
Harvard Univ. 111 pp. $19.95
Although poetry has for centuries chronicled the history and politics of cultures, academics often banish to the fringes those poets who evoke cultural iconography in their verse. Nonetheless -- and thankfully -- some poets persist. This tradition of poets serving as cultural ambassadors extends from Walt Whitman to Federico Garcia Lorca to Langston Hughes. And if Whitman made it safe to write in a true American voice, eschewing his British forefathers, searching for his own duende, or demon of inspiration, before Lorca invented the concept, Hughes made it clear that the American voice has many sounds.
Quincy Troupe's Transcircularities, a long-overdue collection of new and selected poems, captures the essence of American culture with brush strokes from a diverse, brilliant palette. You cannot do justice to the muscular language in these poems, often built from Whitmanesque lists and long-lined stanzas, by reading them silently; they demand to be read aloud. In "Spring Day in La Jolla; 2000," a quiet moment fills with kinetic language: "seagulls wheel, dive & slice their hooked wing tips,/ clean as knife blades cutting through the blue."
Troupe is known for his long, lyrical narrative poems, but this collection also offers short gems like "Pulse and Breathe," in which "a shower of colors laced through the sight is a necklace/ of white pearls strung around a black woman's neck." And as architecturally sound as Troupe's poems are in free verse -- the structure and content consistently work in concert -- he reminds readers that he can flex his muscles as a formalist with "Sestina for 39 Silent Angels" and "The Point Loma Series of Haiku and Tankas" and his own spin on form in "Birth Form: Tercetina."
The title poem, which comes last in the book, serves as an apt ars poetica for Troupe's distinguished body of work. In this ostensibly dystopian view of the world, he circumnavigates from "the fate of dried corpses rotting on a battlefield" to transcendence: "our eyes rotate upward toward where we think heaven is,/ as if looking for a sign, hoping for a savior."
Troupe is by no means the only poet conscious of the oral tradition. Jayne Cortez's Jazz Fan Looks Back puts words to the seemingly unspeakable flexibility of jazz improvisation. Cortez opens the book with a note on her history as a jazz fan, explaining that she "met or heard most of the musicians mentioned in this collection," which says a great deal about her history with jazz; her roll call includes Duke Ellington, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker, to name only a few.
The title of the book both leads and misleads: On the one hand, a reader might expect Cortez to have the improvisational facility of a jazz musician; on the other, one might expect her to possess merely the ability of a fan who wishes she were a musician. Both assumptions are correct. These poems consistently sing -- Cortez, too, injects great muscularity into her language, and uses meter adroitly. If too often her poems hit the same laudatory note, as in the title poem, her best work has a chant-like quality that becomes infectious. She uses jazz in her poems in the way Lorca used Andalusian song in his.
In "Drying Spit Blues," she does what she does best: creates an amalgam of her politics, about which she is passionate, and her music, which she loves. (Anna Nzinga, a 16th-century ruler of Angola, is a folk hero in the fight against slavery.)
Tonight the whooping moan of invading blues
with its clef of troubled hearts
with its double stomp burn of woman flesh
spitting with the whirlwind of spitting cobras
spitting with the meaning of Anna Nzinga.
Cortez's blues are surreal and beautiful, especially in "You Know," which she notes is for "the people who speak the you know language." And the collection includes many of her greatest hits, such as "If the Drum Is a Woman," which opens "why are you pounding your drum into an insane babble/ why are you pistol whipping your drum at dawn." Those who are unacquainted with Cortez can take the full measure of her splendid work in this collection.
Maxine Hong Kingston's To Be a Poet reads like a documentary on the daily life of a writer, and it has the potential to become a classic. That Kingston has lived long enough (she is 60) to have something to say and the ability to say it is a blessing to other poets and readers in general. Her new book, which originated as the William E. Massey Sr. Lecture in the History of American Civilization at Harvard, is not simply about being a writer; it's also a memoir with suggestions for coping with life.
Kingston opens by declaring, "I have almost finished my longbook [a novel]. Let my life as Poet begin." This drastic change -- a lifelong writer of prose transforming herself into a poet -- becomes the central image of the book, establishing the structure for its collage of reflections and notes: to-do lists; ruminations on her work, her family, her aging as a woman in the world; and marginalia and doodles. She takes the reader with her as she rededicates herself to poetry.
The book has many unforgettable passages, including a description of elephant seals at An~o Nuevo, a wildlife preserve along the California coast, where the great animals' mating ritual seems emblematic of human interaction. Every writer should have a copy of this book, along with more copies in storage, to pass out to friends and family who look askance at the writing life, which -- in Kingston's case, at least -- includes much observation and silence. Her lyrical prose uses the specifics of one woman's life to make a universal statement about how writers live and work. *
A. Van Jordan is the author of "Rise" and the forthcoming "M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A."