Music from Small Towns. Al Maginnes. Jacar Press. Durham, North Carolina. 2014.
Almost every poem in Al Maginnes' fine Music from Small Towns has previously been published in a magazine or journal that you and I would be tickled pink to appear in. That is an enormous accomplishment, colour me green.
These poems are tremendous machines of muscle galloping across the page like a red-haired Secretariat.
Mingus and Stars
I am writing this on my 56th birthday.
On my father's 56th birthday, he died,
leaving little to measure my steps against
from this day forward. This day when I'm afraid
to close my eyes. The day Charles Mingus died
fifty six sperm whales died on the beaches in Baja.
And Mingus was 56. He left behind
a garden as sweet and thorny as the fields
father and sons have warred in since the first
measure of time, since stick or rock
first pounded imitation of the human heart.
Tonight, presents and phone calls, the prizes
for completing a year, done, the little cake I can
be allowed, gone, I should listen to music
instead of watching a movie whose outcome
I know, turning pages in books I read last year.
I'm old enough now for real listening, to close
my eyes and let music have its way with me.
"I want to be a star," said Mingus after he knew
he was dying, meaning not the faces on magazines
or the metal shapes in Hollywood sidewalks,
but the burning orbs or rock and gas we see
only at a distance, whose light continues long after
they go out, the way music continues after
the hand that wrote it is done. When I close my eyes,
fields of stars unfurl there. Those are the stars, bright,
unreachable, each singular as bass notes, stars
I want to shine among, but not today.
These poems say too much, go on too long, have streamers in their tails -- but they do sing.
Milo, our office crank and technical wizard, always claims to hate jazz but unabashedly loves poems that he calls "Charlie Rich voice ditties", that Milo is a romantic at heart. And so is Al Maginnes.
Maginnes calls on various Gods both large and small to pepper these poems with notes hard as hammers, soft as your heart.
Something Words Will Not Say
For Don Adock, 1926-2011
How long will it be before I buy
some jazz or see an announcement
for a show without thinking I need
to burn it for you or call to see
if you want to go. Last night, I listened
to different piano players until
I told myself I could hear the difference
in the pressure of fingers, could tell
their signature licks, small decorations
of melody, apart. Perhaps I can,
but it's knowledge that only lasts
until the next disc comes on.
One night you came in the bookstore
where I worked between semesters, pointed
to the speaker and said "That's Cedar Walton,"
and when, a few nights later, it was
Red Garland, you knew it too.
One evening while we watched a quartet
work through "Body and Soul,"
the piano player stumbled on his solo.
"He doesn't know what to do with it."
You elbowed me as the hapless pianist
nodded it to the sax player,
whose playing all night had surged
with invention. "He knows what to do
with it," you chuckled and leaned back.
Watching you was a lesson
in how to listen. There are chords
underneath the chords being played.
There are leaves blowing down sidewalks,
alleys filled with wind, the sound
of a name broken into three long notes.
I have always believed music was
trying to tell me something
words will not say. When I drive
at night, I sometimes listen to CDs
you copied for me--there are enough
to fill a shoebox--and those hours
are empty enough for the searching horns,
the splash of drums, the piano waiting
to drive, empty enough for me
to listen until I think I hear you say,
"He knows what to do with it."
Al Maginnes gets it. Marcus Aurielius might be walking around in these suckers along with Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, the Prez, John Keats, Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm too. Thomas Edison and Peter Coyote drop in. You just cannot predict who is going to sit in on something to make it just right, but everyone plays nice. The quartets and quintets Maginnes finesses out of his noggin astound just a little.
You get the drift though, these poems are full of hard-edged knowing and charm.
Passage Through the Body of Fire
Impossible to fathom lightning without
dark and silence. One of our commandments
is contrast. There is silence so deep
words, even thunder, will not find
the end of it. The house burning down
on the news might be the church
of your childhood, dissolving in fire
while half the town watches.
Can't faith crumble the same way?
The nameless man pulled from the lake
offers the same excuse to break
our soft code of silence as rain
or any weather we can name but can
do nothing to change. Give us anything,
and we learn to make language,
the way prisoners invent code to send
shorthand messages tapping through stones
or flashing in bolts of light from mirrors.
His eyes were still open, said a woman
at the bank; his body showed
he was not in the water long.
The finger of lightning that touched
the church into flame, the ragged scars
across the drowned man's chest
hold us in a place language will not
free us from. Words will never be
all we have of language, as flame
cannot be the whole of fire. The stare
of the drowned man, the architectures
of burning wood might be signals from
the unspeaking world, like sullen braids
of smoke rising from the ruin
of the church the night after the fire
did its work, shards of metal, glass,
even wood still undigested after
their passage through the body of fire,
the ghost of what had been there
more real than when the door could be
opened, the body entered. Some prayers
outlast every vow to forget them.
What you have of the fire-eaten church
is smoke so thick it was language
all its own, body that might insist
on seeking its own path,
as you resisted the hand that seized you,
shoved you into the soundlessness
of water, making an unreachable heaven of
the surface you suddenly prayed for.
We here at Today's book of poetry are especially fond of narrative poetry. We love poems that tell a good story. Al Maginnes is a master storyteller and they are rarer then hen's teeth.
Maginnes has a voice we want to listen to.
ABOUT THE AUTHORAl Maginnes was born in Quincy, Massachusetts and teaches at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, NC. His poems have appeared in many journals and magazines, including Poetry, The New England Review, The Georgia Review, The Antioch Review, Shenandoah and Quarterly West. He has been the recipient of a Writer’s Fellowship from the NC Arts Council and is the author of two collections: Taking Up Our Daily Tools (St. Andrews Press, 1997) and The Light in Our Houses (Pleiades Press, 2000), which won Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize.
BLURB“What I love about these poems is how they manage to be so eloquent without being pretentious. I’m also drawn to the way Maginnes juxtaposes fire and its quick losses with fire’s complement, slow vanishing. Not all the poems in this collection directly address either of those ideas — Maginnes is too smart for that — but I finished these pages thinking it was change that infuses the finest of them and that Maginnes, like so many of us, has striven to accept what is, even when it’s transition, and through that acceptance find peace. I admire that, and this book.”
— Lola Haskins, The Grace to Leave, Still the Mountain, Desire Lines, New and Selected Poems
Reading at Poetry Hickory
Video: T. Peeler
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