Strains of jazz captured in words
Winner of Yale's Younger Poets competition
The three epigraphs to Sean Singer's first book of poems, "Discography," point to crucial angles of entry into his sometimes dense, sometimes delicate lyrics. "Man passes there through forests of symbols," the first epigraph, from Baudelaire's poem "Correspondences," acknowledges the merely symbolic nature of any artistic expression, a theme intrinsic to Singer's poetic vision. The second, attributed to American assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, validates what may be Singer's own version of "The desperation of trying to give shape to obsession." The third, "Where the sword is the book is not," comes from the Talmud.
Certainly, Part 1 of "Discography" registers both Singer's "obsession" with jazz and blues - the music, the musicians, the history, the lore - and the challenge of giving verbal "shape" to the richness of an artistic medium that resists the relative stability of words (mere symbols). Reflecting this challenge through its open form (words splayed across the page with the appearance of almost-random abandon), the opening poem of the book, "The Old Record," establishes Singer's perspective on blues music as an irresistibly subversive force.
Aiming for a poetry that reflects its subject, Singer inclines toward a style characterized by abrupt line breaks, irregular spacing, unconventional punctuation, and a verbal riffing that sometimes makes (at least on a first take) more sound than sense. He also tends toward an arcane allusiveness. Yet, even his most demanding poems can yield moments of readily accessible beauty. For example, literally describing the process of darkroom development, the last line of "Silver Gelatin" also expresses the emerging self-awareness of one of the many New Orleans prostitutes photographed during the period 1912-1930 (the early years of jazz) by E.J. Belloq: "My form rises from the bath in the reddish light." Singer's imaginative tracing of the origins of the clarinet to Prospero's breaking of his magical "black staff" in Shakespeare's "The Tempest" has a similar resonance: "Quavers of coloraturas/ Made tintinnabulation and allargando,/ ... Listen listen and the light come through."
His tracing of the scintillating playing of jazz saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker ("a whirlwind, a whine,/ A cycloptic ballyhoo fat lasso-hoot") to the export of slaves from West Africa asserts an even darker resonance: "Bird blew a Dahomey hornblower all-reet/ Root song and night turned blue."
In fact, linking an obscure blues recording made by Dock Boggs in 1929, the letters of a lonely girl who "sang her world" in Nova Scotia, and the victims of "the liquidation of the Lwów ghetto" (formerly in Poland, now in Ukraine), Singer suggests in "Transference of the Blues Dynamism" that jazz and blues give essential expression to such universal experiences as displacement and loss.
Departing from the musical motif of the first half of the book, Part 2 of "Discography" works variations on Singer's emergent themes involving the sorrows of the world. The poet's primary focus becomes, however, the Jewish experience of suffering and exile, and his own surname becomes emblematic of the efficacy of "song" - of poetry - in acknowledging the wrongs of history through poignant identification and witness (hence the Talmudic epigraph).
In one poem Singer records his shock at finding his own name on the list of victims at the Terezín Memorial in Prague. In the second of two poems titled "Loss," he translates a general sense of "loss in the world" into a particularly powerful image of desperation: "In an eastbound cattle train, let me reach through the metal grate/ To get at the delicious wet snow."
Employing a variety of lyric forms, the second half of "Discography" nicely complements the "jazzier" poems of the first half. Winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2002, Sean Singer's debut collection introduces a poet who clearly has more than a one-note samba in his repertoire.
• Thomas O'Grady teaches creative writing at the University of Massachusetts (Boston). He is the author of a book of poems, 'What Really Matters.'