Sometimes when I wash the dishes, I am seized by the notion that I can attain some kind of transcendent absolute, will have brushed my scrubby against a joyful, radiant beauty if I can just clean every speck, every burnt skirmish from the surface of the pots and pans. It’s a lovely idea really, but perhaps I’d be better off cleaning the dishes reasonably well, learning to appreciate the imperfections and burned-on rice fragments, and then leaving the kitchen and playing saxophone or organizing poetry readings which have a stubby, spattered, ill-attended beauty all of their own. Poetry is great at asking questions, at destabilizing and making us look things (language, life, baboons, dishes, abstractions) in a different or renewed way, asking where is the poem coming from –who and why are behind or in the poem—and what is the occasion that it was made for or presented. And how do we read things, including ourselves? What is stuff: language, the world, ideas, values, communication, looking, reading, hearing, speaking, listening, witnessing, making, power, bodies, hierarchies, values, life, poetry, thinking. And how are things connected to other things. What’s going on and what isn’t. Creative rioting, writhing, riting. Rising.
Sunday, June 06, 2021
You know that maddening thing when you’re trying to write on computer, a phone or another device, and autocorrect changes what you’re saying? And you have to retype up to three times just to get the divoice, davace, dorwoose, device to type what you want? I’ve been thinking about that digital stutter, that push against language that seems to do something that it wants rather than what you want to do, and wondering how it might change our idea of language. Our sense of a template operating in the background. Or people behind the code. Behind the device. And how we have to dialogue with it, how we have to sculpt our use and presence in language, in communication. Or is this just a modern iteration of something we’ve always felt, perhaps just realized in real time with a technology?
Tuesday, June 01, 2021
|where I grew up|
I was listening to David Naimon interview Doireann Ní Ghríofa on his podcast “Between the Covers” (which I’d highly recommend) and just understood something I’d never understood before (in addition to all the things I learned from their discussion.) Doireann Ní Ghríofa has a captivating voice, rich with the sound of an Irish speaker of English. (She speaks and writes in Irish, also. And her reading voice is particularly mesmerizing.)
I grew up in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland and left when I was 9 for Canada. We weren’t Irish—my Litvak parents moved there from South Africa—but obviously Ireland was formative in my acquisition of the English language. I know that there are things I continue to stumble over, all these years later, hesitating between a North American locution and a Northern Irish one. I don’t have an Irish accent, though I do retain something of my earlier language context. For example, I say “carn’t” instead of the more normative North American “can’t.” And I sometimes feel a grammatic difference, an unfamiliarity, an undertow, when I speak though I am monolingual and haven’t lived in Ireland for 48 years. I also feel this pull when I listen to Irish people speaking English. Sure, I have an identification, a kind of nostalgia for my childhood. I do adore Ireland and the sounds of Hiberno-English as it is called, from both North and South in all its varieties. But I think there is something more happening. I know I feel a related kind of pull from the kind of English Jews speak, particularly Yiddish inflected speech. That’s an identification more than actual exposure, I think. Sure, there was some of that kind of speech in my parents’ and my grandparents’ speech patterns but not very much, at least not that I remember. And certainly, I didn’t speak this way. For me, I began to channel it more during and after when I was writing my novel, Yiddish for Pirates.
But back to Ireland. In the way that I’m pulled by the colours, textures, smells, tastes, stories and landscapes of my Irish childhood—and, I must admit, the ways in which I have recreated them in my own mind over the years, I also have that sense of language as a landscape. I’m not nostalgic for it, and though I certainly feel somewhat of an identification, a leaning in, an impulse to ventriloquize greater Irishness when I hear it, there’s an earlier layer of language acquisition at work I think. (When I last returned to Ireland, to Dublin, I showed my Canadian passport and the custom officer said, “Welcome home,” because she saw that I was born in Belfast. I didn’t say, “Ah to be sure,” but somewhere in my brain, it was forming in all its fake liltedness—not that I ever had that kind of accent—I was from the North.)
But this is what I think I learned listening to the podcast. My connection to this speech isn’t just the leaning in of identification, of wanting to participate in a group, but it the fossilized traces of my earlier understanding of language. A kind of lingual body memory. I feel like I'm always in translation.
And to think I thought I was a poser—or only a poser. I wouldn’t say it now, but I think “he’s only codding around.” “What a desperate wee maun.” “Och aye.” It’s harder to explain the grammatical pull, the shape, the pacing, the contours of language rather than just phrases. My voice was very high, more than was usual for a North American man, and it had the uptalk of Northern Ireland. In my early 20s, I began to deliberately lower its register and to lose the uptalk to meet more normative notions of the male voice and thus, I suppose, masculinity.
What other vestigial grammars exist in my speech? What viral inflections? I mean other than the voice of my Grade 7 teacher speaking about spelling and grammar. Language and speech is sedimentary, not only over historical time, but within each voice.And so the texture, the flavour of how I experience the world, the conceptual and musical portals through which I experience life are suffused with this earlier sense of language. To paraphrase a Doireann Ní Ghríofa book title, ghosts haunt the throat.
Right now I’m listening to Sonny Rollins play, “I’m An Old Cowhand,” off his 1957 album, Way Out West. I put it on because earlier today I tweeted, “I feel like I'm Sonny Rollins when I want to speak to the world like Coltrane. Really, what an astounding thing if one could be Rollins.”
Of course, you remember that old story about how Rollins heard Coltrane and so stopped performing, instead going out to the Williamsburg Bridge to practice, questioning his vocation as a musician. “Sure,” Rollins is said to have thought, “he was good, but Coltrane was important.” What to do in the face of such possibility, such importance? Was it enough to just be a marvellous and virtuoso player or should one strive for the wisdom, depth and transcendent spiritual and political significance of Coltrane. Or at least that’s how I remember the anecdote.
And in the face of the world, as I was learning saxophone, deciding what I wanted to do as a musician, composer and writer, I felt that I naturally should aspire to be on the Coltrane side of the Rollins-Coltrane divide. Gravitas. Wisdom. The spiritual, at least in the sense of digging deeply into the spirit of the world, of searching for insight beyond entertainment. As if it were the difference between being Bozo the Clown and Martin Buber. Chuck E. Cheese and Spinoza. (Though those pair-ups might make good MMA matches. I mean with enough grease.)
I should say that Rollins personally has been involved in spiritual pursuits and learning, particularly from Eastern traditions since the 60s and speaks of living a deeply spiritually informed life. I’m here talking about the Rollins-music avatar of my imagination and perception as I was earning my Vandoren's and Rico Royal 2 1/2s.
I once heard Sonny Rollins play in Toronto. It was a perfect summer day in the 80s when I was studying music at York University, and a bunch of us went to the Molson Amphitheatre on Toronto’s waterfront. We lay on the grass just outside the cover of the roof watching Sonny, the blue of Lake Ontario in our vision. I remember one extended solo by Rollins, where the band dropped out and it was just him. Such a delightful squonking. Low register honks. Motifs broken up and tossed around. Time made into a salad. And all of it connected with Rollins’ characteristically playful intelligence. As Wallace Stevens says, “the poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice."
Ok, so gravitas didn’t seem to be explicitly there and the Coltrane-like bursting the seams, burning through the gates to another world. But there was meaning. Significance. And humility. And the sense of deeply being oneself. How? For Rollins his playing is often all about “the mind in the act of finding.” And what will suffice? Intelligence. Resilience. Creativity. Joy. A celebration of being. Of communication.
And the other thing I’ve come to understand in Rollins’ approach is ethics. Living through action and making choices. In a recent interview, Rollins says, “I’m just progressing through life, able to evolve now and to realize that to really live in a spiritual way I have to be an ethical person.” In his music I hear this decision to live ethically. To be in the world. To choose one note after the other as an ethical act. To embrace life. To choose positivity, communication, joy. The life-force. To keep playing, performing. To be an old man and to St-Thomas-the-hell out of life.
It's an astounding thing.
So, all that’s true. I admire Rollins. He’s a giant of jazz and the saxophone and seems a profoundly great guy. And now, at almost ninety, he’s unable to play anymore, but is giving thoughtful and inspiring interviews and has a lengthy career to look back on. A “Saxophone Colossus” indeed. As I’ve gotten older, I have learned to consider practice, to consider action in the world as an ethical act. Unlike when I was younger, I wouldn’t only wander around, or loll about considering things, perhaps leaving a poetic trail like some Basho traipsing through the deep north that is Canada. Being there. For myself and for others. For my family, for example.
However, I couldn’t forget that thing that I heard in Coltrane. That sense of numinosity but also of penetrating humanity. That thing that I heard in the chanting of Hebrew prayer in my boyhood synagogue. That was the Trane that I was chasin’ in tracks like “Alabama” and “A Love Supreme” and “My Favorite Things.” I’ve thought of it as “The Saxophonists’ Book of the Dead.” A guide to the most profound aspects of life. Or perhaps, it’d be more accurate to say, a map detailing the terrain, what was possible, what were the things to consider. So, I didn’t explore Coltrane’s infinity or his interstellar space. And I didn’t explore the infinity of Jewish theology, but rather gained an intimation of what my own world and identity might contain. What might be contained inside the blue velvet bandshell of my own mind.