under the aegis of a winged mind
Winner of the 2019 Autumn House Poetry Prize
Autumn House/2020/95 pp/16.95
Reviewed by Lynnell Edwards
Makalani Bandele’s second full-length collection is a stunning jazz fantasia that thrums with Bandele’s deep knowledge of music and the post-war jazz scene in the United States. Throughout, he plunges readers into the world of greats such as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie and Art Tatum and Mary Lou Williams, who, according to Bandele’s note, is “the most important and well-known Jazz composer, arranger, and pianist that people do not know about.” And at the center of this world of rent parties and cutting contests, of cabaret cards and trading eights, is piano player and composer Earl “Bud” Powell, the “Earl of Harlem.”
Powell is the prodigious talent whose winged mind lived in, as described in an elegiac final poem in the voice of his only child, Celia, “that lawless space between the laws of music/and the laws of meaning” (“celia” 85), and whose loose biography spans the book’s five sections. Bandele imagines Powell’s life from the early, heady days in Harlem to his waning months spent partly in Paris. In the book’s opening section, bebop convention, the music is flying and the scene is jumping. The early poem, “earl of harlem meets the high priest of bebop (alternate take),” perfectly riffs on the scene:
dig that hat rakishly tilted to the bank. you, the cat with them hats, scooch over some. put your bailey on and play awhile. (8) The stunning second section, when you bug out, follows Powell when the lawlessness overtakes him, chronicling his descent into the alcoholism and madness and violence that culminated in an involuntary psychiatric hospitalization. One of the central themes, the thin line between madness and creativity, takes shape in the metaphorically titled “tune as an asylum”:
ear of lithium ringing. we
argue with the charts you can’t argue with. the sun thin and mean through the window like cheap gin ( 28) The collection is a showcase for the symphony of forms innovated by contemporary Black poets: the “fret” (Mitchell H.L. Douglas); the “Golden Shovel” (Terrance Hayes); the “syncopated sonnet” (Tyhimba Jess); the “Gigan” (Ruth Ellen Kocher). Bandele’s contribution to this tradition of innovation is the “etudes,” which he divides into opuses each with its own set of instructions for composition and variation, a form that looks to the similar tradition in jazz and classical music. A series of these comprise section three, suite 120 etudes (etudes for chalk piano and shadow on the wall). In his notes Bandele explains that “these are pieces Powell composed on a piano he had drawn in chalk on the wall while deprived of a physical piano in the mental hospital.” Though intensely interior and occasionally inaccessible beyond the larger context, the sense of these remarkable poems is that of Bud Powell’s winged mind playing through a blur of what is, what was, and what might be during his hospitalization. Various in their shape and method on the page, the expository titles guide us through the experience. For instance,
“etude op.8, no.2 (eight piano voicings of brutality)” that evokes the beating he took that many believe triggered his mental illness:
bits of face spilling onto the ground.
this dissonant vengeance of disfigured
back slaps, bootkicks to the ribcage, spleen, pancreas
and you piss yourself. (42)
or “etude op. 8, no.6 (eight piano voicings of a straightjacket)”:
an elbow of bas- relief elbow. criss- cross applesauce of a white-angled bowl leaves the stank of duck clothe in the palate. (43) Section 4, un poco loco, (also the title of one of Powell’s most famous compositions) continues the work of excavating Powell’s genius. Time and present reality are again blurred in “mnemonic fragments (ballad for crossing the unbridgeable chasm).” Non-sequentially numbered stanzas blur time in the hospital and document his unsteady grip on the world:
53. as a follow up
question: how to play
and delight your way through the diagnosis? (54)
The final section, paris spring, autumn in new york, brings Powell’s life to a close, documenting his time first in Paris when, briefly, he got sober and sane with the friendship and patronage of the artist and amateur musician Francis Paudras. The beautiful synesthesia of his genius demands we acknowledge his extraordinary gift, even as we sense the end in New York is near:
. . . a G major as a kind of fog-belted clearing in the ‘fore day morning waiting to warm. F sharp like sunup is a loud popping of light. (82, “aubade: earl of Harlem composing extemporaneously”)
under the aegis of a winged mind is a book that rewards and rewards again with each reading. These poems that skitter and roll across the page in long or short staggered lines, their composition rivaling a jazz syntax, sing something new every time we experience them. White space syncopated against breath pulses the stanzas, and the whole jam pushes and pulls you into the bop at the end of the world. This collection doesn’t immediately offer itself for easy paraphrase, for quick categorization or the handy poetic take-away. It might be about music. It might be about mental illness and police violence and alcoholism; it might be about creativity and the winged mind. Readers unfamiliar with the history and canon of jazz are advised to read Bandele’s substantial notes in advance, and to reference them throughout. But rehearse the music; let it lift you with its song.
Lynnell Edwards is associate programs director for the School of Creative and Professional Writing, where she is also faculty in poetry and professional writing. Her five collections of poetry include, most recently, This Great Green Valley (2020); Kings of the Rock and Roll Hot Shop, Covet, The Highwayman's Wife, and The Farmer's Daughter. Her book reviews, poems, and short stories have been included in numerous journals including Pleaides, New Madrid, American Book Review, Sou'wester, and Waccamaw.