Song Flute

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Naima Kar­cz­mar

John Coltrane left his wife in the sum­mer of 1963. He wrote two songs for her; both were melan­choly. He said the first song was his fa­vorite. He wrote it like a love let­ter, and like all love let­ters, it was a time cap­sule. Within: a house in Philadel­phia, a house party in New York, a con­ver­sa­tion about harp mu­sic and an­other about laugh­ter. The woman he left was the love of his life. He spoke softly to her when he could and not at all when he could not. He was afraid of speech, of what it could and couldn’t do, of where it failed in the same way that names and ti­tles do. When he de­cided to leave her, he was afraid of what speak­ing would do, where it would fail and why it would hurt. He was afraid of still­ness, of medi­ocrity, and of her. He en­tered the room where he hoped she would be, closed the door, and looked for her in the shad­ows on the wall­pa­per. Her feet were tucked be­tween the cush­ions of an arm­chair. She was pre­tend­ing to read. Again, he felt her mu­sic, her melan­choly. He wanted to tell her he had writ­ten a song for her. Don’t you re­mem­ber how I played it, how you cried?

On the al­bum Gi­ant Steps, there are three songs named for peo­ple. The first is called “Cousin Mary,” the sec­ond “Sy­eeda’s Song Flute,” the third, a long ex­hale called “Naima.”

When mar­riages end, it is be­cause a de­ci­sion has been made. At its best, this de­ci­sion might re­sem­ble a mercy killing, a choice to end a once sweet thing gone sour be­yond its po­ten­tial re­turn to sweet­ness. It has been writ­ten that John wanted to start an­other fam­ily, that some­thing had grown stale and poi­sonous, and while it is not im­pos­si­ble to start a new fam­ily with­out ex­cis­ing the first one, it is harder to be­gin anew with what is left of the old. And so, when he said “I have to,” he was telling at least part of the truth. Naima might have sat cross-legged on the bed. She might have hoped he was ly­ing to her, that he would take it back. She had not de­cided any­thing in years. She knew from the way he played and the way he moved that he was sleep­ing with some­one else. She did not act on her knowl­edge, and

saw for every day she didn’t speak that in­ac­tion was ei­ther de­ci­sion or paral­y­sis. She knew he was driven by some­thing in­vis­i­ble to her, as if he had long ago de­cided to search on stages where the air was thick with smoke, in prac­tice rooms shaken by scales. And so, she sat on the bed and knew that what she wanted him to take back could not be taken back. He said, “Naima, I am go­ing to make a change.” Then, he tried to look in­stead of speak­ing, as if his gaze would be enough. She thought that the abil­ity to look at some­one like that was a cruel power; the look that had drawn her to him was the one he used to break her. John de­cided to kill what had grown sour. He en­tered the room where he hoped she would be, shut the door qui­etly be­hind him, sat on the bed, looked at the ground. Naima de­cided to take a job and to love her child.

The third song: a long ex­hale called “Naima.”

Be­cause I was not present at the time of my nam­ing, I know it as a story, an old pho­to­graph. When I was a child, my par­ents would pull both from their lips or from a box. They would place the pho­to­graph on the kitchen ta­ble, where my mother would sit smok­ing, and I would trace pat­terns in the clouds of her breath, lis­ten­ing to them talk about who I was, what I had cho­sen. The pho­to­graph shows my mother, heav­ily preg­nant in the front seat of a U-haul, smil­ing as if she is proud to be there. The story is as fol­lows: When she dis­cov­ered she was preg­nant, my mother left the PHD pro­gram at Har­vard and looked for a place to live in up­state New York. She drove up and down along roads lined with houses where the con­fed­er­ate flag is an im­plicit sta­ple; as a child I saw it on walls, tucked into draw­ers, worn in the form of pins that were meant to be sub­tle in their vi­o­lence. It is a long-held be­lief of my mother’s that ba­bies can com­mu­ni­cate from the womb via psychic in­ter­fer­ence. When the song John Coltrane wrote for Naima Grubbs came on the ra­dio, she de­cided I was com­mu­ni­cat­ing my name, but also my black­ness, as­sur­ance that even if my skin was as light as her hus­band’s, my name would be Philadel­phia jazz. My mother’s name is Mary.

I left her home at seven­teen, when some­thing grew stale and poi­sonous. We have since been able to speak about a small num­ber of things. For ex­am­ple, we can talk about race and about songs. We can­not talk about liv­ing or about sad­ness or about the par­tic­u­lars of our lives: I don’t tell her who I am dat­ing; she does not tell me when she has lost an­other friend. When I am not with her, I think of things we can talk about. I or­der them in my head and plan to speak them as though to al­le­vi­ate an un­spo­ken heav­i­ness: a mem­ory of her singing Nat King Cole’s “Un­for­get­table” and touch­ing lightly the tip of my nose with her fin­ger; Prince’s Mu­si­col­ogy con­cert in Penn­syl­va­nia, a new video of him per­form­ing, which she will play on the tele­vi­sion in some tiny liv­ing room, nod­ding and danc­ing and call­ing him a ge­nius. The day he died, I re­ceived an email from her with the sub­ject line “Oh My,” and felt guilty for my dis­tance and my emo­tional un­avail­abil­ity. The next time I called home, it was shortly after his death, and my brother was turn­ing eigh­teen. My mother, drunk, said they were in deep mourn­ing. I think the ex­pec­ta­tion was that I would mourn too, but I am afraid of mourn­ing, and so I said very lit­tle.

John, drunk, came home some nights and stum­bled into the liv­ing room, and when he did not come home and Naima imag­ined him stum­bling in smoke-filled rooms full of des­per­ate mu­sic, she felt as though her stom­ach had been emp­tied, its con­tents re­placed with some­thing vast and dark. The first time he looked at her, it was at a party. Peo­ple were smok­ing around cof­fee ta­bles, and she felt his gaze be­fore she saw it. When she met his eyes, they were ap­pre­cia­tive and warm and dark. He told her she shouldn’t wear the belt she was wear­ing, told her some­thing plainer would suit her bet­ter. The next thing he said was that he didn’t talk much. She would think, later, that it was funny for him to have said that and then talked the whole night about mu­sic, about be­ing, and about heav­i­ness. He asked her, softly and po­litely, to give her­self to him. John only ever asked for things po­litely.

My mother de­cided on the fact of my poi­son while I hov­ered in the nar­row door­way be­tween the kitchen and her of­fice: “You are a heart­less child,” she said. Heart­less­ness, I thought, might be a kind of strength.

My brother is named after the mu­si­cian and not the mu­sic. He oc­ca­sion­ally tells me things I do not want to know. For ex­am­ple, he tells me that my mother’s drink­ing has got­ten so bad she is for­get­ting to take din­ner out of the oven. The small liv­ing room off the kitchen fills with the smell of smoke. I feel, be­cause I am older and be­cause I am named after a song, that I should know ex­actly what to say. Be­cause I don’t know what to say, I say things that have grown hol­low and feel guilty for my emo­tional dis­tance. He tells me he doesn’t un­der­stand, and though I also do not un­der­stand, I often pre­tend to. Emo­tional dis­tance is achieved, some­times, through a pre­tense of un­der­stand­ing. The mu­si­cian: a bassist with the Chicago Jazz En­sem­ble.

I won­der if, when Sy­eeda got a flute from her step­fa­ther at her high school grad­u­a­tion, she wanted never to touch it again, if she ever sat in the back of an am­bu­lance, or lis­tened to the paramedics talk about al­co­hol poi­son­ing, or won­dered if now was an ap­pro­pri­ate time to cry. Won­der­ing is, some of the time, a way of ask­ing, a kind of hope or ap­peal. The hope is that poi­son will, in the fu­ture, lose its power.

John Coltrane ended his heroin ad­dic­tion by ly­ing in his bed, sheets stuck to his body with sweat, un­til he could hardly breathe for shak­ing. He asked his wife to bring him wa­ter and only wa­ter. He might have asked in re­sponse to a knock on the door, a quiet in­quiry, an “Are you all right?” She might have stood out­side the bed­room hold­ing a glass of wa­ter in one hand and a dish­towel in the other. Her daugh­ter’s foot­steps might have sounded on the stairs. Bare­foot and beau­ti­ful was her child, who pressed against her mother and asked when din­ner would be ready. She said, “Hey baby girl,” and pitched her voice low so the trem­bling was only in her hands. She opened the door and looked for him in the sheets on the bed. She placed the wa­ter on the bed­side ta­ble and re­moved the old glass, which he had drained. His eyes were open be­cause he was afraid to let them close. They were good eyes, but she saw in them now a kind of wor­ship, and it scared her. She had seen the same kind of wor­ship when they had met at the party, had felt it in the songs he had writ­ten for her, felt it pool and deepen in the song he had writ­ten for her daugh­ter.

Two nights be­fore, he had sat up in bed and be­gun to speak. He said her name, said “I’m through,” and she felt as though the dark she had only ever glimpsed was pressed against her or­gans. She waited for him to say some­thing that wasn’t what she thought he was say­ing, and un­til he did, her breath caught some­where in her chest and re­fused to leave her body. He said he was go­ing to stop drink­ing, stop smok­ing, stop do­ing drugs, said also that he needed her help. Naima felt a re­lief which seemed, for a mo­ment, like pain. She wanted to say he didn’t need to ask, that she would help him un­til her dy­ing breath, that he was the only per­son she had ever met who could de­stroy her with a look, the only one who was afraid of speech, the only one who rec­og­nized what words could do. And so when he asked if she would back him up, she said, “You know I will” and meant it. Coltrane’s mu­sic is a liv­ing thing. To lis­ten is to hear it breathe; the slow push of the horn at the be­gin­ning of “Naima” is the first breath of a long ex­hale. Lis­ten­ing to Gi­ant Steps at night from the stereo of a mov­ing car is like pulling stale air from one’s body, free­ing the limbs, al­low­ing it to move again.

Some­one is usu­ally in more pain than I am. For ex­am­ple, my brother was al­ways sick, and be­cause we were very poor, we could af­ford his med­i­ca­tion and not much more than that. He has never been afraid in the same way that I am. For ex­am­ple, when he asked my mother to stop drink­ing, it was be­cause he was hop­ing for an ex­hale. I think, when­ever they are fight­ing, that it might be my fault, or that I have suc­cumbed to the same in­ac­tion that is akin to paral­y­sis. The first time, we were gath­ered in the liv­ing room of some small apart­ment. There was a couch, a long green ta­ble, and a mess of a kitchen. What my brother said, what I was afraid to say, was, “You need to stop drink­ing.” I don’t re­mem­ber what was said be­fore or after. Here is what I re­mem­ber: the look on my fa­ther’s face, her ex­ag­ger­ated nod­ding, her fin­ger stir­ring an olive into some kind of liquor. I did not look at my brother, ex­am­ined, in­stead, my hands, knot­ted into the quilt on the bed, which sits in the liv­ing room be­cause there is nowhere else for me to sleep. Here is what I re­mem­ber: think­ing that be­cause it was after six o’clock and she was al­ready drunk, she would wake up not know­ing what had been said the night be­fore.

John Coltrane ended an al­co­hol ad­dic­tion, a heroin ad­dic­tion, and a mar­riage. My mother has ended nei­ther her ad­dic­tion nor her mar­riage be­cause the fact of their poi­son re­mains a naked and un­know­able truth.

John was afraid that speech might fail. Naima was not afraid in the same way he was, but she un­der­stood that mu­sic was a way of speak­ing and held, in­side it­self, an ex­pec­ta­tion. She knew more about mu­sic than he did. It would play in her small and dirty home when she fin­ished build­ing sewing ma­chines. Her par­ents had sounded Bartók through the house; as a child, she had lis­tened. They sat, one night in a dark­ened bed­room, where they lis­tened to a record­ing she had taken of a solo he had played on a stage where she watched him ha­bit­u­ally. He asked her what it was he was hear­ing. She knew then that she was some­how im­por­tant, that she had been granted ac­cess to the world he had built in his se­ques­tra­tion. She said it re­minded her of Daph­nis and Chloe. They lis­tened again, in si­lence, and she thought she heard arpeg­gios. He asked, even­tu­ally, what in­stru­ment he was hear­ing. She rested her chin on a closed fist and fought ex­haus­tion so she might bet­ter no­tice the ten­der­ness she felt when she looked at his eyes. “There’s a harp solo,” she said.

John thought, when he asked Naima for help or ad­vice, that she seemed deep and soul­ful. When she stood out­side his bed­room door and held a glass of wa­ter in one hand, she did not feel deep and soul­ful. She felt as though she would break with fear. She told her child when din­ner would be ready. Naima did not ask for things be­cause she was afraid if she needed peo­ple, peo­ple would not also need her. The only peo­ple who seemed to want her were the peo­ple who also needed her. When John asked her to marry him, he did it as if he were ask­ing for a glass of wa­ter. They sat across from each other at a diner. He looked at her and said, “I’m go­ing to marry you.” She smiled be­cause she couldn’t help it, said, “How do you know?” Said, “You haven’t even asked me yet.” He said, “Well I’m ask­ing you now,” and she thought no­body would ever ask her some­thing that made her shiver the same way.

I feel my iden­tity is com­posed of a se­ries of ex­pec­ta­tions and a sub­se­quent fail­ure to meet them.

For ex­am­ple, my loved ones ex­pect that I will not be dis­tant or emo­tion­ally un­avail­able. For ex­am­ple, when I said to my brother that his al­co­holic mother was an un­happy per­son, I was re­ally say­ing “Please ex­cuse her be­hav­ior,” but he is her child, there is no ex­cuse, and I might as well have said noth­ing at all. I feel, some­times, that com­mu­ni­ca­tion through psychic in­ter­fer­ence, were it pos­si­ble, would do more harm than good be­cause it would con­sist, nec­es­sar­ily, in the rev­e­la­tion of naked and un­know­able truths. For ex­am­ple, my mother does not need to know that I have, in the past, thought things would be bet­ter if she left my fa­ther, found a home for her­self some­where far away, if we vis­ited her only on week­ends. When my brother asked her to stop drink­ing for the sec­ond time, he was no longer hop­ing for an ex­hale but fight­ing suf­fo­ca­tion. My mother once asked me if I was try­ing to hurt her. I didn’t know the an­swer, but I knew any­thing I said would be a lie, in the same way that it is a lie when I tell her it is good to hear her voice. Her voice has sev­eral ca­dences. My fa­vorite emerges when she is on the phone with her friend from South Chicago. My least fa­vorite is the slurred con­fu­sion that comes every evening like clock­work. I won­der if Coltrane had sim­i­lar ca­dences—ar­gu­ments slurred, mu­sic warm. I won­der if Naima ever sat in dark­ened rooms, lis­tened to an al­bum named for move­ment, and wept for what she once had. We are the same height. She was mar­ried in the same month I was born and died the year after, and I was named for the song named for her. I feel, in the ab­sence of psychic in­ter­fer­ence, that I am ly­ing con­stantly.

Mu­sic is a bet­ter way of speak­ing than speech is be­cause it does not con­sist in words or names; those things are put there later as a means of failed sig­ni­fi­ca­tion.

I won­der if, in lis­ten­ing to a song called “Wise One,” I am im­plic­itly as­so­ci­at­ing my­self with the ex­pec­ta­tion that I be wise. I won­der if, in lis­ten­ing to a song called “Wise One,” I am look­ing for ad­vice from the per­son who is its sub­ject, its name­sake, its ob­ject, and who might, loosely, be my name­sake, ob­ject, or sub­ject. My mother once told me, drunk­enly, that I was stupid and fool­ish. A friend once told me, drunk­enly, that I was wise. Had I not been drunk, I would have told him he was wrong. Had I been hon­est, I would have told him that when a child is told re­peat-

edly that she is stupid or lazy, her stu­pid­ity and lazi­ness be­come deeply rooted con­vic­tions and can­not be un­done by words that come later.

We took my mother to the hos­pi­tal on Mother’s Day, and since there was only room for one per­son in the back of the am­bu­lance, I sat there alone and won­dered if now was an ap­pro­pri­ate time to cry. The same friend, when it was over, hugged me in the way peo­ple do when they do not know how to help you. I was, just then, in­ca­pable of any kind of emo­tional dis­tance, ca­pa­ble only of in­tense cru­elty. For ex­am­ple, when I was a child, there was never a time when my mother was not beau­ti­ful, but in the back of an am­bu­lance, all I could think was that her flesh re­sem­bled un­cooked bread. She once sang to me, touch­ing my nose lightly with the tip of her fin­ger, that I was un­for­get­table. Some peo­ple are aware of speech, of what it can and can­not do, of where it fails in the same way names do. For ex­am­ple, some friends, when you tell them you took your mother to the hos­pi­tal to­day, will say, “Oh my god,” and then not say any­thing, choose in­stead to nudge you with one shoul­der after the si­lence has stretched.

There are three peo­ple that named me, and my fa­ther is not one of them, but when I once hummed the first three notes of a par­tic­u­lar song and asked him to guess, he knew what they were. I won­der if Naima Grubbs ever felt her iden­tity was com­posed of a small se­ries of ex­pec­ta­tions, if she felt the weight of them. I won­der if she ever sat in the back of an am­bu­lance. The weight of hav­ing a song named for you may ex­ceed the weight of hav­ing a per­son named for you; a per­son, un­less that per­son is my mother, does not pro­pose or im­pose a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion for or on the per­son for whom they are named. Peo­ple are not time cap­sules in the same way songs and let­ters are. “Wise One” was a retroac­tive time cap­sule, de­signed for cap­tur­ing what is vis­i­ble from a van­tage point of­fered by emo­tional dis­tance. Char­ac­ter­i­za­tion is also some­times ex­pec­ta­tion. For ex­am­ple, if you are called wise, the ex­pec­ta­tion is that you will be. For ex­am­ple, if you are emo­tion­ally dis­tant, the ex­pec­ta­tion is that you are also cold. For ex­am­ple, if you are called Naima, the ex­pec­ta­tion is that you will say I’m Naima, and it will res­onate every time you do.

The first three notes of the song called “Naima” are C, B-flat, E-flat.

In or­der to change a scale from har­monic to melodic, it is nec­es­sary to flat­ten cer­tain notes. To flat­ten a note on the pi­ano is to move it down a half step so that its sound is eerily al­tered. It is eas­ier to flat­ten notes on a pi­ano than it is on a tenor sax. In or­der to flat­ten a note on the tenor sax, your fingers have to move with your breath. In or­der to flat­ten a note on the pi­ano, your fingers have to move. To lis­ten to a song is to ex­pe­ri­ence what it cap­tures; a house in Philadel­phia, a house party in New York, a con­ver­sa­tion about the harp, an­other about laugh­ter. Mu­sic is a way of speak­ing. It holds, in­side it­self, an ex­pec­ta­tion. In or­der to play “Naima” on the pi­ano or on the tenor sax, the mu­si­cian must un­der­stand that its res­o­nance and its melan­choly are the re­sult of prac­ticed flat­ten­ing. It might also be nec­es­sary to un­der­stand that the notes will fall in­stead of ris­ing and linger where they have fallen, as if afraid to stand again.

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