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On "Brother John"


Meta DuEwa Jones

Harper's poem "Brother John," is an exemplary model to use for a discussion of prosody in jazz poetry because it resonates on a structural, syntactical and lyrical level. "Brother John's" adept intra-linear shifts in syntax and phrase changes between stanzas draw on the power of repetitive iteration, what Aldon Nielsen would term "Black Chant " In addition, Harper playfully alters the extra-lexical marks in each verse in a manner that is only "audible" within a visual context. Thus, the poem brings together the motif of orality and textuality that I have been examining. Despite what its title might imply, "Brother John" is not a prototypical "Coltrane poem." The poem's content at first seems to have no ostensible connection to music in general or Coltrane' s sound in particular. The speaker in the opening stanza proclaims:

Black man:
I'm a black man;
I'm black; I am—
A black man; black—
I'm a black man;
I'm a black man;
I'm a man; black—
I am—

On one level, the statement is a simple one, comprised of merely five monosyllabic words. Yet the complexity of its utterance ties in Harper's variation in punctuation marks and word arrangement. For example, the first verse contains a generic noun modified by a plain adjective—"Black man." Harper extends this description into a declarative sentence: "I'm a black man."1 Like Alexander, Harper manipulates a minimal number of words to achieve the maximum aesthetic effect. Unlike in Alexander's "John Col," however, the extra-lexical marks are more pertinent to the poem’s design than word count. A colon punctuates the ending of the first line; subsequent semicolons and em dashes are placed in an asymmetric pattern which helps create a syncopated cadence when reading each line aloud. Harper's irregular punctuation and word inversion reads as a poetic visualization of a particular improvising technique that Coltrane employed. To understand the source for Harper's structuring techniques, it helps to consider Coltrane's style of playing during the early to mid sixties, a period contemporaneous with Harper's composition of "Brother John." As Gridley explains, Coltrane "developed solos by repeating the same rhythm with different pitches, changing the notes without changing the rhythm, sometimes placing the same rhythm at different spots in the measure, occasionally inverting a phrase, as though peering at it from several different angles and sharing each view with the listener.2 Coltrane's improvisational method appears to directly correspond to Harper's punctuated word play. Instead of altering pitch, however, he alters words. He places a semicolon at different spots in the line, "occasionally inverting a phrase," to share with the reader different slants on the same phrase.

Comparing Harper's organizational scheme for "Brother John" to Coltrane's methodological approach for constructing an improvised solo befits Harper' s poetics. In an interview, Harper detailed the marked impact listening to Coltrane and other jazz musicians had on the development of his writing style. Because his influences "were more musical than poetic," he remarked that he was "writing in phrasing" while all his colleagues in a MFA program he participated in at the University of Iowa "were writing in rhyme and meter." This he claims, "gave me my own sense of lineation, the increments of stanzaic progression, and thematics as my own invention."3 Such "increments in stanzaic progression" are evident in "Brother John." Each successive stanza introduces new phrases and ideas (much like the introduction of a musical phrase) while still maintaining a rhythm that both resembles and builds upon the first stanza's cadence. Witness the displacement of the word "high" in the stanza embodying Bird, into "Miles high, another bird" below:

I am Bird
baddest night dreamer
on sax in the ornithology-world
I can fly--higher, high, higher

Miles, blue haze,
Miles high, another bird,
more Miles, mute,
Mute Miles, clean,
bug-eyed, unspeakable,
Miles, sweet Mute,
sweat Miles, black Miles;
I'm a black man;
I'm black; I am;
I'm a black man—

The above lines depart from the initial stanza's refrain, "I'm a black man," then return to it again—each time in varied forms—as a modification of "black Miles" and "black Trane." Repetition alliteration and slight variation create a multi-layered effect that is based on a basic word pattern established at the poem's beginning, Gridley's descriptions of Coltrane's developmental practice are pertinent to the poem's form and content He notes that "Coltrane also developed his solo improvisations in the logical manner he had learned from a famous book of practice patterns and compositional devices by Nicolas Slonimsky that demonstrates how to vary note choices in an enormous number of ways and still remain related to a fundamental chord or scale."4 Although the name of the musician changes from Miles Davis to Charlie Parker in the above stanzas to John Coltrane in the lines below, the structuring principle—statement, echo, restatement, extension—remains the same. Harper weaves the titles of specific Coltrane compositions and albums in the following stanza:

Trane, Coltrane; John coltrane;
it's tranetime; chase the Trane;
it's a slow dance;
it's the Trane
in Alabama; acknowledgment,
a love supreme,
it's black Trane; black;
I'm a black man; I'm black—
I am, I'm a black man—

The penultimate stanza in "Brother John" includes the lines from which the title of the poem is drawn:

Brother John, Brother John
plays no instrument;
he's a black man; black;
he's a black man; he is
Brother John; Brother John—

Harper's use of irony in the poem, "Brother John" "plays no instrument" is key. He is probably obliquely alluding to Sonia Sanchez's "a/coltrane/poem" in which three lines refer to Coltrane's death with the query "are you sleeping/ are you sleeping/brother john?" Sanchez's repeated "are you sleeping" and Harper's "Brother John" refrain are also most likely intended to invoke the French musical round that children are taught to sing, "Frere Jacques, frere Jacques, dormez-vous?5 Hence the stanza's singular reference to Coltrane is questionable. It is the only stanza in the poem in which the "I'm a black man" chorus shifts from the first person singular to the third person singular pronoun—"he's a black man" who "plays no instrument." Is Brother John without an instrument because he is not Coltrane, or because Coltrane is no longer alive? The question remains unresolved. Resolution occurs by the poem's end through its cyclical return to the opening stanza, modified by additional variation in punctuation and phrasing:

I'm a black man; I am;
black; I am; I'm a black
man; I am; I am;
I'm a black man;
I'm a black man;
I am; I'm a black man;
I am:

Like the intricate beginning-to-ending structure of Alexander's "John Col," Harper's final phrase "I am" circles back to join the poem's first line "Black man." It also, taken together, functions as another variation on "Brother John."

Of critical importance is the tone and language of the poem's speaker's recurrent, emphatic, phrasing—I am a black man. Here, the limits of a strictly formalist analysis in an evaluation of Harper's poem become evident. "Brother John" is the first piece in Harper's collection of poems, Dear John Dear Coltrane, published in 1970, and echoes the masculinist slant of the Black Nationalist period during which it was written. Hazel Carby’s critique of a dominant societal tendency to conceive of "African American society in terms of a perennial 'crisis' of black masculinity whose imagined solution is a proper affirmation of black male authority" aptly suits the tenor of the poem. At the same time, I would like to read Harper as potentially contesting monolithic constructions of black masculinity. To do so requires an appreciation of the historical context. For example, in a recent interview the novelist Samuel Delany recalls "breaking into libraries through the summer of 1968"—just two years before Harper's "Brother John" was published—and:

taking down the signs saying Negro Literature and replacing them with signs saying "black literature"—the small "b" on "black" is a very significant letter, an attempt to ironize and de-transcendentalize the whole concept of race, to render it provisional and contingent, a significance that many young people today, white and black. who lackadaisically capitalize it, have lost track of."6

In Harper's poem, the phrase "Black man" is only capitalized at one point in the entire poem—as the syntactical beginning of a phrase. Could it be that Harper's structural modifications and reiterations of "I'm black; I am—," I'm a man; black— / I am—man; I am; I am;"7 are intended as ironic appraisals of codified concepts of race or gender? In this case, the alleged didacticism found in such phrases becomes, through Harper's skilled manipulation, audible and visual wordplay that is strikingly influenced by very specific developments within jazz improvisation. In other words, the textual elements of "Brother John" are just as compelling, when considered in the light of a tradition of jazz poetry, as its cultural ones.

Notes:

1. One could argue that the contraction of I am to I'm abbreviates the phrase to four words.

2. Gridley, Jazz Styles 257-258. John Gilmore was Sun Ra's main saxophone soloist; the technique described here that Coltrane employed was also one of Gilmore's trademarks. Coltrane acknowledges Gilmore's influence on his compositional style during that period.

3. Michael Harper, Interview, "The Situation of American Writing 1999," American Literary History 11.2 (1999): 215-353.

4. Gridley, Jazz Styles, p 257-258.

5. I thank Fredrick J. Berry for pointing out this allusion.

6. Samuel Delany, Interview with Charles Rowell, Callaaloo 23.1 (2000) 250.

7. Michael Harper, Brother John." One can't ignore Harper's invocation and transformation of William Carlos Williams' "The Desert Music," which was read as the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard two decades previously. Towards the end of "The Desert Music," Williams writes "I am a poet! I / am. I am. I am a poet." See Williams "The Desert Music," Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (New York: New Directions, 1962) 108-120.

Copyright 2000 by Meta DuEwa Jones. Excerpted from a longer essay.


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