February Poem : “What Would You Say?”

What would you say of a man who could play
three instruments at once – saxophone,
manzello and stritch – but who can neither
tie his shoelace nor button his fly?

Who stumbles through basements,
fumbles open lacquered boxes,
a child’s set of drawers,
strews their contents across bare boards –
seeds, vestments, rabbit paws?

Whose favourite words are vertiginous,
found, dilate? Whose fantasy is snow?
Who can trace in the dirt the articular process
of the spine, the pulmonary action of the heart?

Would you say he was blind?

Would you say he was missing you?

I wrote this, the nucleus of it, in the early 1990s, when I was a participant in the Community of Writers Poetry Week at Squaw Valley in Northern California; a residential seven days in which we were set the task of writing a new poem every day, said poem to be collected in the early hours of the following morning, so as to be workshopped in the group sessions which began around eleven, eleven thirty, under the guidance of one of the tutors – Sharon Olds or Robert Hass, Lucille Clifton, perhaps, or Brenda Hillman. No lightweights at Squaw.

There was some discussion amongst the participants, I remember, about the fact that most of my poems were quite strongly tied to a narrative [not so surprising, given the day job] and why didn’t I take advantage of the situation and try to write something that, instead, centrally, of telling a story, was driven by language, words and the sounds of words?

I tried. Floundered and tried again. Finally managed, on my second visit to Squaw Valley, a five line poem called Out of Silence, which became the title poem in my New & Selected Poems some twenty years later. And before that, the poem above, which succeeds, I think, in being about sounds, about words; but which is also a kind of story. A mystery. A puzzle. A puzzle to which the answer, as anyone who follows jazz will know, is the blind, multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk.

You can hear me reading the poem here, along with the band Second Nature, and with some marvellous flute playing by Mel Thorpe, giving it his best Roland Kirk.

Hopefully, and with a little patience, here goes …

Roland Kirk

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A couple of days ago, with regard to the above album, I mentioned seeing the American multi-instrumentalist jazzman Roland Kirk at the Marquee Club in London; returning, this morning, to a poem I wrote about watching and listening to Kirk play, it states, clearly, that I saw him at St. Pancras Town Hall. So what? Did I see him twice? It’s possible. Or is my memory playing tricks? It scarcely matters. It’s the impact I remember clearly, not the venue. The way he sang/mumbled/hummed and played flute simultaneously (a trick later copied by others, including the late Tubby Hayes); played, as one of the following poems says, three reed instruments at once, two of them, I think, bolted together; the manner in which he punctuated his solos with a shrill blast from the whistle that hung down from his neck. Gimmicks? Maybe. But, for him, the channels of expression he needed to give vent to the music that seemed to surge through every fibre of his body.

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It’s been my pleasure on a good many occasions in the past to read the following two poems, “What Would You Say?” and “You Did It! You Did It!” with various aggregations of musicians, most notably the band, Second Nature, featuring Mel Thorpe on flute and Kirkian whoops and vocals. Sample it, if you wish, on Till It Shines, the CD we made back in 2004. A few copies still available and yours for a tenner, all proceeds donated to Medecin Sans Frontiers.

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What Would You Say?

What would you say of a man who can play
three instruments at once – saxophone,
manzello and stritch  – but who can neither
tie his shoelace nor button his fly?

Who stumbles through basements,
fumbles open lacquered boxes,
a child’s set of drawers,
strews their contents across bare boars –
seeds, vestments, rabbit paws?

Whose favourite words are vertiginous,
gourd, dilate? Whose fantasy is snow?
Who can trace in the dirt the articular process
of the spine, the pulmonary action of the heart?

Would you say he was blind?

Would you say he was missing you?

You Did It! You Did It!

It was Roland Kirk, wasn’t it?
Who played all those instruments?
I saw him. St.Pancras Town Hall.
Nineteen sixty four.

The same year, at the old Marquee,
I saw Henry ‘Red’ Allen,
face swollen like sad fruit,
sing ‘I’ve Got the World on a String’
in a high almost falsetto moan.

Rahassan Roland Kirk,
on stage in this cold country,
cramming his mouth with saxophones,
harmonica, reed trumpet, piccolo and clarinet,
exultant, black and blind.

You did it! You did it!
You did it! You did it!

Daring us to turn our backs,
stop our ears, our hearts,
deny the blood wherever it leads us:
the whoop and siren call
of flutes and whistles,
spiralling music, unconfined.