Steve Dalachinsky, The Final Nite & Other Poems: Complete Notes from a Charles Gayle Notebook, 1987–2006 (Ugly Duckling Press, 2006)
Tribute albums are a proud tradition in the jazz world. Tapping that vein, Steve Dalachinsky has devoted an entire book of poems to one artist—seventy-year-old avant-garde saxophonist Charles Gayle, a veteran of the New York free-jazz scene of the sixties and a fixture in the Downtown improv world since the early eighties. But there is more than hero worship going on here. In his very obliqueness, the poet answers many unposed questions: How does the listener process and experience improvised sound? How does a writer who is not a musician express his listening experience? And more bluntly, why should we care about twenty years of listening to one guy’s music?
Dalachinsky, an abstract poet who also composes haiku and other Japanese poetic forms, uses language in a unique way—words often do not have direct or literal linkages to what is being expressed. Unlike language poets, though, he seeks to unlock the words’ potential to evoke visceral emotions through their aural impact:
3 ball in the corner
the scratch of gut on vilestring
heart strung like notations on a scratch pad
The poems appear chronologically, in the order of Gayle’s performances, whether at the Knitting Factory, Tribes (the performance space/home of Steve Cannon, a longtime East Village luminary), or Ray Taylor’s Living Room, a late-eighties squat and hangout for musicians, junkies, and whoever dropped in to listen. The music itself can best be described as attempts to articulate grimness, desperation, conflict, and alienation—so often dominant elements in an artist’s world. These dissonant themes are propelled forward urgently, sometimes over a chasm.
Dalachinsky feels compelled not to capture and preserve these musical events, but rather to react to them and record his responses. He often follows the projected-verse/open-field writing technique of Charles Olson, which involves taking in everything in your field of vision, and experiencing stimuli through “all six senses.” So a poem could result from any number of stimuli, from an art exhibit to a memory of a lost notebook:
i, padlocked & lost in my own
like bone & broken lens
the mem’ry of a thing & always find
balled up attitudes
Dalachinsky’s work also brings to mind the immediacy of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose. “Poetry becomes like staves of music, writing within the musical realm,” Dalachinsky said. He often writes in glyphs, symbols that don’t resemble any written speech, as he’s listening to the music—his own private score. On the pages of Final Nite, words are strewn sparsely across the page in a seemingly random fashion—like the trailing notes at the end of an improvised solo.
One doesn’t often link jazz to politics, but Gayle’s performances sometimes come with a sermon or lecture. A tough, uncompromising purist with little interest in attaining commercial success, he often holds forth on such hot-button topics as abortion and racial separatism. The poet reacts to this as well:
i am angry with him
for gross behavioral disorders
but when i trap my oppressors
behind my eyes
it is the white of their greed
“The ‘black experience’ is mine too, the history of my people,” said Dalachinsky, a Jew who grew up in East Flatbush. “European history and African history—both owned slaves.” He’s reaching for some commonality of experience.
Some of the most moving and elegiac images appear in the title poem, “The Final Nite; or, Even Johnny Pumps Can Dream.” You can almost hear Tom Waits singing these “lyrics” that marry the mythical (sirens) to urban folklore (“johnny pump,” an affectionate nickname given to fire hydrants):
there’s always another life
another fury to call to you & drive you mad
another siren to sing you into slavery…
& for all the lounging we do
& stealing we do
& giving we do
& walking we do
there will come a time
if the music stops
& the clouds congest
when Johnny & all the other holes
will be dry to us.
It’s especially poignant when you realize that many of the venues where Dalachinsky was first mesmerized by these performances no longer exist. Such is the writer’s Sisyphus-like task of synthesizing the ethereal, of trying to process something that’s constantly transforming and evolving in 3-D, riding on the very air. This collection is unusual because it’s documenting not just the music but the listener’s state of mind at the precise moment of apprehending a musical phrase.
Why should we care about twenty years of listening to one guy’s music? After reading Dalachinsky’s impressions, you may ask yourself, why should we not?
Carol Wierzbickiis the editor of the forthcoming anthology, The Worst Book I Ever Read.