Coltrane’s God

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - by Don­ald Lev­er­ing, read­ing and book sign­ing

One way to en­ter Don­ald Lev­er­ing’s new book, Coltrane’s God, is to start at the back with the Liner Notes and type the ti­tles of the mu­sic he ref­er­ences into Google be­fore you read the po­ems. This start­ing point puts you safely in the pas­sen­ger seat next to Lev­er­ing, strains of mu­sic float­ing through the at­mos­phere as he drives through lan­guage steeped in jazz, blues, blue­grass, tra­di­tional, and world mu­sic — an­chored by a firm use of the po­etic line.

In “A Night in Tu­nisia,” he de­scribes a jazz band that seems out of place at the Mine Shaft Tav­ern, as lo­cal hip­pies try to dance to un­dance­able tunes: “Packs of dogs pa­trol the bar, as if we’d ar­rived/in some dusty African out­post/and not a re­vived min­ing town//of the Amer­i­can West called Madrid,/ which you just mis­pro­nounced in your head;/the res­i­dents stress syl­la­ble one like an upbeat.//The band is wrap­ping Scrap­ple from

the Ap­ple/as los per­ros squab­ble over scraps.” Not ev­ery poem in the book is tied to a spe­cific song or com­po­si­tion. “For a Glass Harp Player” is ded­i­cated to Mar­i­anne Davies (circa 1743-1818), an English mu­si­cian who pi­o­neered the glass harp, also known as the glass har­mon­ica or bowl or­gan. It is said that play­ers of the in­stru­ment — a set of glass bowls of dif­fer­ing sizes that pro­duce tones when stroked with wet fin­ger­tips — went mad from the sound, which ex­ces­sively stim­u­lated the nerves. A more re­cent ex­pla­na­tion is that the bowls were made of lead glass that poi­soned mu­si­cians through their skin, though there isn’t a great sci­en­tific ba­sis for this the­ory. In Lev­er­ing’s at­tempts to repli­cate the sounds of the in­stru­ment, or at least evoke sim­i­lar sen­sa­tions to those felt when lis­ten­ing to its mu­sic, he might be most suc­cess­ful here, in this some­times dis­tress­ingly vis­ceral poem: “Vi­bratos from your in­stru­ment dis­ori­ented lis­ten­ers,/seem­ing both near and dis­tant, like some­thing in­ner/deemed to arise from out­side the psy­che. Your/skim­ming fin­gers con­jured that realm across the bridge/where ser­aphs dwell, suf­fused in mu­sic of pure wa­ter,/ethereal, al­most be­yond hu­man hear­ing.”

Lev­er­ing, who is re­tired af­ter 25 years with the New Mex­ico Hu­man Ser­vices Depart­ment, has been writ­ing poetry since he was fif­teen years old. He grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, mov­ing back and forth be­tween Kansas City and Long Is­land due to his fa­ther’s job in the air­line in­dus­try. Coltrane’s God, pub­lished by Red Moun­tain Press, is his 13th book, and he is the re­cip­i­ent of nu­mer­ous awards, and a fel­low­ship from the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts and the Quest for Peace Prize in rhetoric. In the past he has writ­ten about en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial is­sues, as well as more per­sonal top­ics. He be­gan work on a book specif­i­cally about mu­sic eight years ago, when he re­al­ized it of­ten ap­peared in his po­ems. Af­ter that, he started look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­cor­po­rate it.

Though he has al­ways loved mu­sic, he doesn’t play an in­stru­ment. Child­hood pi­ano lessons taught Lev­er­ing that “What­ever it is that mu­si­cians have, I don’t have it.” But he was open-minded at a time when mu­sic ap­pre­ci­a­tion was really open­ing up in the Amer­i­can coun­ter­cul­ture. One of his broth­ers in­tro­duced him to In­dian ra­gas when he was a teenager, piquing his in­ter­est in non-Western mu­sic. His grand­fa­ther was an itin­er­ant fid­dler and la­borer in work camps dur­ing the Dust Bowl of the Great De­pres­sion, and helped build the Hoover Dam. He writes about his grand­fa­ther in “Fiddle Fest Con­tes­tants,” an ekphras­tic poem about a pho­to­graph, in which he melds his grand­fa­ther’s life with Woody Guthrie’s:

“Half a year be­fore the crash/that scat­tered armies of the dis­pos­sessed,/my dad’s fa­ther poses with bow in hand/among his kin­dred with their fid­dles,/ man­dolins, gui­tars, and sin­gle balalaika,/ready to be plucked from their era/to rest within a frame on my mantel.”

“I feel really lucky that I came along at a time when there’s recorded mu­sic,” Lev­er­ing told Pasatiempo in ad­vance of his book launch party at Teatro Paraguas Stu­dios on Sun­day, Dec. 13, at which he will read from and sign copies of Coltrane’s God. “Think of all the mu­sic peo­ple could only lis­ten to first­hand. Of course that’s the best, but we have so much at our fin­ger­tips now.”

Poet John Macker (Dis­as­sem­bled Bad­lands) will in­tro­duce Lev­er­ing at his read­ing. Macker told

Pasatiempo that Lev­er­ing is one of the finest, most dis­ci­plined po­ets around. “This book won’t let you go. It cov­ers a broad spec­trum, but it’s ba­si­cally Don­ald riff­ing on what mu­sic means to him.” Macker said that the po­ems speak to “a world in tran­si­tion,” and that it’s also a book about mem­ory, fam­ily, and tragedy. “But the mu­sic tran­scends all this.” He re­called a short poem by Amiri Baraka, “In the Funk World,” which can serve as an­other per­fect en­try into Coltrane’s God:

Baraka’s ques­tion — who really in­vented mod­ern Amer­i­can mu­sic? — lies at the heart of Lev­er­ing’s “Be­fore the Blues Blues,” which laments a time be­fore a pub­lic art form emerged to give voice to the per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal suf­fer­ing of African Amer­i­cans, while also ques­tion­ing the source of that suf­fer­ing with a clever use of neg­a­tive syn­tax:

“There were no black keys on pi­ano/No sen­a­tors of color/And ev­ery­one was of the pure/Grey race be­fore the blues//No­body stud­ied war be­fore the blues/None were sent to the back of the bus/No one or­dered Lift

that bail/This was be­fore Bo Jan­gles danced in jail … //Not a one spoke in tongues/ Be­fore the blues no scat/ No rap no hip-hop no slam/No cool cats jammin’ be­fore the blues”

Lev­er­ing’s ad­her­ence to the line as an es­sen­tial unit of poetry can make his work seem slightly old-fash­ioned in the con­tem­po­rary land­scape, where in­di­vid­ual words and white space are of­ten the norm. “I don’t think one is nec­es­sar­ily bet­ter; this is just what I know how to do well,” he said. “You will see a lot of iambic rhythms in my po­ems, and other rhythms as well, and that goes back to Shake­speare, that kind of fun­da­men­tal rhythm in a line. Most peo­ple — even if they don’t know poetry — that sounds good to their ears. It keeps them en­gaged on a sonic level.”


Coltrane’s God read­ing and book sign­ing with au­thor Don­ald Lev­er­ing 5 p.m. Sun­day, Dec. 13 Teatro Paraguas Stu­dio, 3205 Calle Marie No charge, do­na­tions wel­come; 505-424-1601

“If Elvis Pres­ley is King Who is James Brown? God?”

Not one of those cheer­ful reels Grandpa played on his fiddle for wed­dings. More like Tom Doo­ley, or Down in the Heart Coun­try. In this croon­ing I might long for the bit­ter­sweet har­mony of Ken­tucky’s blue moon

ris­ing over Bill Mon­roe’s cold body. This song is not the trilling of the red-winged black­bird out­side the win­dow of our first home. I wish I knew which song to hum un­der the bruised moon of di­vorce, or how to whis­tle the waltz out the door. — from “This is Not a Song I Used to Know,”

Coltrane’s Blues by Don­ald Lev­er­ing; cour­tesy Red Moun­tain Press

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