A Communion of Breath, Derek Harper
Eyewear, Lorgnette Series, 2017 £6.00
The role of body parts
I was interested in the way body parts showed up in these poems, in interesting ways.
In the title poem ‘Bugle’, from which the phrase ‘a communion of breath’ is drawn, there are two references to lips.
There are ‘soft lips’ in ‘Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground’.
In ‘Terminal Beach’ a ‘dark pier head’ ‘stretches her legs to the shore’.
In ‘Inside Out’, a ‘roadside shoulder’ is ‘shrugged’.
In ‘An Indelicate Balance’ there are ‘meshed fists’ to avoid.
In adjacent pieces about musicians we find ‘Jelly Roll Morton’s hands’ and (in ‘Lonesome Motels’) ‘Robert Johnson’s fingers’.
Even in ‘Silence’ and in the absence of music, an audience waits for the ‘hands’ of John Cage.
It is, of course, not that astonishing to associate hands with musicians. But in the case of the piano player Jelly Roll Morton the hands acquire a kind of identity of their own.
So far as I know there is no film of Jelly Roll Morton performing, though you can hear him on YouTube and can begin to imagine his touch on the keys. Or you can read the tribute poem ‘Jelly Roll Morton’s hands’ by Derek Harper and think about the way certain magical cadences once issued from shady dives (Morton’s formative experience as a jobbing pianist was in brothels):
[ ... ] you knew him from his fingertips,
the melody dripping from barrelhouse thumbs
that played cheap to nighthawks in low-rent beds
craving back-street jelly-roll
‘Jelly-roll’ is slang for female bodyparts, the intimate kind. But somehow the term also suits the gentleness of touch here, the tribute to a musician who died in his early fifties as the result of an inadequately treated knife wound: he was a man of colour and segregated medical services effectively saw him off. (I can’t help remembering that all poems are written, and this is accomplished with the hands, whether with a pen or a keyboard.)
And what an evocative image Derek Harper has created to pay his last respects to the early jazz pianist Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (a.k.a. Jelly Roll Morton):
Fingers once so full of light folded