One way to enter Donald Levering’s new book, Coltrane’s God, is to start at the back with the Liner Notes and type the titles of the music he references into Google before you read the poems. This starting point puts you safely in the passenger seat next to Levering, strains of music floating through the atmosphere as he drives through language steeped in jazz, blues, bluegrass, traditional, and world music — anchored by a firm use of the poetic line.
In “A Night in Tunisia,” he describes a jazz band that seems out of place at the Mine Shaft Tavern, as local hippies try to dance to undanceable tunes: “Packs of dogs patrol the bar, as if we’d arrived/in some dusty African outpost/and not a revived mining town//of the American West called Madrid,/ which you just mispronounced in your head;/the residents stress syllable one like an upbeat.//The band is wrapping Scrapple from the Apple/as los perros squabble over scraps.”
Not every poem in the book is tied to a specific song or composition. “For a Glass Harp Player” is dedicated to Marianne Davies (circa 1743-1818), an English musician who pioneered the glass harp, also known as the glass harmonica or bowl organ. It is said that players of the instrument — a set of glass bowls of differing sizes that produce tones when stroked with wet fingertips — went mad from the sound, which excessively stimulated the nerves. A more recent explanation is that the bowls were made of lead glass that poisoned musicians through their skin, though there isn’t a great scientific basis for this theory. In Levering’s attempts to replicate the sounds of the instrument, or at least evoke similar sensations to those felt when listening to its music, he might be most successful here, in this sometimes distressingly visceral poem: “Vibratos from your instrument disoriented listeners,/seeming both near and distant, like something inner/deemed to arise from outside the psyche. Your/skimming fingers conjured that realm across the bridge/where seraphs dwell, suffused in music of pure water,/ethereal, almost beyond human hearing.”
Levering, who is retired after 25 years with the New Mexico Human Services Department, has been writing poetry since he was fifteen years old. He grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, moving back and forth between Kansas City and Long Island due to his father’s job in the airline industry. Coltrane’s God, published by Red Mountain Press, is his 13th book, and he is the recipient of numerous awards, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Quest for Peace Prize in rhetoric. In the past he has written about environmental and social issues, as well as more personal topics. He began work on a book specifically about music eight years ago, when he realized it often appeared in his poems. After that, he started looking for opportunities to incorporate it.
Though he has always loved music, he doesn’t play an instrument. Childhood piano lessons taught Levering that “Whatever it is that musicians have, I don’t have it.” But he was open-minded at a time when music appreciation was really opening up in the American counterculture. One of his brothers introduced him to Indian ragas when he was a teenager, piquing his interest in non-Western music. His grandfather was an itinerant fiddler and laborer in work camps during the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, and helped build the Hoover Dam. He writes about his grandfather in “Fiddle Fest Contestants,” an ekphrastic poem about a photograph, in which he melds his grandfather’s life with Woody Guthrie’s:
“Half a year before the crash/that scattered armies of the dispossessed,/my dad’s father poses with bow in hand/among his kindred with their fiddles,/ mandolins, guitars, and single balalaika,/ready to be plucked from their era/to rest within a frame on my mantel.”
“I feel really lucky that I came along at a time when there’s recorded music,” Levering told Pasatiempo in advance of his book launch party at Teatro Paraguas Studios on Sunday, Dec. 13, at which he will read from and sign copies of Coltrane’s God. “Think of all the music people could only listen to firsthand. Of course that’s the best, but we have so much at our fingertips now.”
Poet John Macker (Disassembled Badlands) will introduce Levering at his reading. Macker told Pasatiempo that Levering is one of the finest, most disciplined poets around. “This book won’t let you go. It covers a broad spectrum, but it’s basically Donald riffing on what music means to him.” Macker said that the poems speak to “a world in transition,” and that it’s also a book about memory, family, and tragedy. “But the music transcends all this.” He recalled a short poem by Amiri Baraka, “In the Funk World,” which can serve as another perfect entry into Coltrane’s God:
“If Elvis Presley is
Who is James Brown?
Baraka’s question — who really invented modern American music? — lies at the heart of Levering’s “Before the Blues Blues,” which laments a time before a public art form emerged to give voice to the personal and political suffering of African Americans, while also questioning the source of that suffering with a clever use of negative syntax:
“There were no black keys on piano/No senators of color/And everyone was of the pure/Grey race before the blues//Nobody studied war before the blues/None were sent to the back of the bus/No one ordered Lift that bail/This was before Bo Jangles danced in jail … //Not a one spoke in tongues/ Before the blues no scat/No rap no hip-hop no slam/No cool cats jammin’ before the blues”
Levering’s adherence to the line as an essential unit of poetry can make his work seem slightly old-fashioned in the contemporary landscape, where individual words and white space are often the norm. “I don’t think one is necessarily better; this is just what I know how to do well,” he said. “You will see a lot of iambic rhythms in my poems, and other rhythms as well, and that goes back to Shakespeare, that kind of fundamental rhythm in a line. Most people — even if they don’t know poetry — that sounds good to their ears. It keeps them engaged on a sonic level.” ◀