A Love Supreme

Michael S. Harper (1938 – 2016)

“Poets find their voices when they articulate the wishes of the dead, especially those slain as sacrificial talismans to a larger frame of existence.

Michael S. Harper

Jazz Station

by Michael S. Harper

Some great musicians got no place to play

Above the freeway, over the music,
we speak of the strategy of poems,
bleeding wives who ulcerate
our voices rhythming in the cut-heat
Portland stink from the Willamette River;
arteries of smog fixate this place
in each recording, music, music, on Impulse.
This little racist community has few friends;
thousands of deerslayers hum into Beaverton,
the one talk show driven out for their talk
as the liberals dig in to KGO out of San Francisco;
we troop toward the Lloyd Center for the ice-skating,
the colorette bloomered dream merchants on rented skates,
and the Sunday Chronicle near the big hotel.
The poets, man and wife, write in the dimming air,
their daughter in the toy rooms connecting them,
the typewriter tacking the nails and snaps of her gown.
This image of separation begins in adoption:
her mother adopted out in San Jose; her father
disowned, abandoned, torn out of the will; her name: Phoebe.
And the sun does shine on them for this visit
in squat pigeontoes, and this beach ball sings.

New York City is a character, not just a place in the force that is jazz poetry.   Michael S. Harper, like so many other jazz poets, was born there, in Brooklyn in 1938. He took the opportunity as a young man to experience new horizons through his education, getting his undergraduate in California and his MFA in Iowa.   He would go on to travel the globe, while being one of the most influential professors of literature at Brown University.  Harper during his tenure would influence and mentor generations of writers and poets during his career. 

Brown embraced the nuances of jazz and black identity in his writing while finding common ground by embracing global culture and folklore.   As important for his academic work as for his art, his playful poetic nature infused his unique style as a writer. 

Harper, a celebrated music observer, essayist, and just plain fan, had a life long love affair with jazz.   In reading Harper’s poems, Coltrane is a reoccurring inspiration as both a symbol and a character of affection in his writing. Harper connects with the obstacles Coltrane had to over come.  In particular Coltrane;s challenges with pain in his embouchure at the height of his career and his need to be constantly looking for ways to ease the discomfort while never wavering in his mastery of master his craft. Coltrane would die of liver failure at age 40 as the result of addictions, to music, to heroin and alcohol.   Harper connected with both Coltrane’s music and his humanity.  In his poem Dear John, Dear Coltrane, Harper writes midway through; 

Why you so black?
cause I am
why you so funky?
cause I am
why you so black?
cause I am
why you so sweet?
cause I am
why you so black?
cause I am
a love supreme, a love supreme:
To read the entire poem, check out this link and try reading it as you listen to this live version of Coltrane playing – A Love Supreme – Pt. IV – Psalm. 

Here Where Coltrane Is

by Michael S. Harper
Soul and race
are private dominions,   
memories and modal
songs, a tenor blossoming,
which would paint suffering   
a clear color but is not in   
this Victorian house
without oil in zero degree
weather and a forty-mile-an-hour wind;
it is all a well-knit family:   
a love supreme.
Oak leaves pile up on walkway
and steps, catholic as apples
in a special mist of clear white   
children who love my children.   
I play “Alabama”
on a warped record player
skipping the scratches
on your faces over the fibrous   
conical hairs of plastic
under the wooden floors.
Dreaming on a train from New York   
to Philly, you hand out six
notes which become an anthem
to our memories of you:
oak, birch, maple,
apple, cocoa, rubber.
For this reason Martin is dead;
for this reason Malcolm is dead;
for this reason Coltrane is dead;
in the eyes of my first son are the browns   
of these men and their music.