The Little Edges is a large-format book that contains what Moten calls “shaped prose,” which according to the jacket flap, are “a way of arranging prose in rhythmic blocks, or sometimes shards, in the interest of audio-visual patterning. Shaped prose is a form that works the ‘little edges’ of lyric and discourse, and radiates out into the space between them.”
I prefer to read them more simply as poems, and as the poems spin across the blank space of the pages, they wrangle that space into fresh meaning, taking by force the reader’s focus; the poems push through their attention to their subjects—for example, Ralph Lemon’s political and geographic dances, Jaki Byard’s bebop stride, or the idea of authority and ignoring authority, as represented by a subway shutdown in 1969.
In the way so much of hearing jazz is visual, the poems in The Little Edges use the book’s big format to their advantage; the lines shove across the white space in a nearly physical way and demand you reconcile the audio information with the visual information. For example:
but no soft delight
just hard delight
just curl talking
just urge talking
Griffin, a tenor saxophone specialist known as the “Little Giant,” here of the little edges, is a “scratch angel”. The audacity and physicality of the lines’ arrangements on the page do insist on their specificity; it’s a poem not just “about”, but also “of” its subject, which is jazz—choosing to be joyful in spite of conditions.
The white space in this example, and over and over in The Little Edges works as a mode of interrogation. The insistent questioning of the space, the equivalent of silence, shows the political manifestation of these “jazz-related” poems. Not content to simply delight in the pleasure of sound—though the poems certainly do that—they reorganize space to force the reader to pay attention. And paying attention is a form of generosity.
In this way, Moten’s poems in this book do not really come out of a tradition of Langston Hughes and Modernism, but owe something more to a generation of black American poets after Hughes: Russell Atkins, James A. Emanuel, Bob Kaufman, Jay Wright, and especially Nathaniel Mackey.
For example, in “the gramsci moment”, Moten “worries” the word “project” in several ways: it’s prah-jekt, as a noun and also prow-jekt, as a verb. The word is many things: an individual enterprise, government-subsidized housing, an estimate, and the extension of a thing beyond something else:
we love the projects. let’s move
the projects. we project the projects. I’m just
projecting the project’s mine to give away. I’m not
mine when I dispossess me I’m just a projection.
I’ve heard Jaki Byard’s Blues for Smoke, a solo piano recording, and Byard’s debut recording as a leader, made by Candid in 1960, probably 100 times, but until The Little Edges, how it’s an ideal vehicle for expressive language; it’s really the perfect metaphor for using new forms in poetry (prose-lyric-political manifesto, etc.) because that’s what Byard was.
He integrated so many historical forms from James P. Johnson to Cecil Taylor in a risky way, a way that moved pianism from an historical exercise, or inert object, to a moving and breathing moment in the present. Perhaps that’s why Byard was an appealing foil to Charles Mingus, who sort of wrangled Duke Ellington with his own persona into new forms of composition. Byard was horribly shot and killed in 1999 in a still-unsolved case, but hearing Blues for Smoke again through Moten’s eyes/ears is just a delight; we can recall the sheer beauty of what Byard accomplished and created.
It occurs to me, too, reading Moten’s poems how much physicality and athleticism exists in jazz piano. The performance artist William Pope.L is useful here. Pope.L discusses the “amphorus somebody,” a person trying to disrupt the relationship in the cultural imagination between the black male body and an entrenched idea of what it represents. For example, Pope.L says: “If every black male on earth were to die tomorrow, the industry of its myth would still live on. The black male body is simply a conduit to other things—that’s why the BAM [a.k.a. black male body] is so titillating: not because of itself but because of what it is not. In this sense, the BAM is a mask, a defense for someone else’s desire, even that of black people.”
Moten alludes to this defense in The Little Edges when he writes, in the poem “sweet nancy wilson saved frank ramsey”:
Bring across the secret that trusts no words.
Saying something beyond saying, in the exile
of voice and horn, whistled
though it can’t be whistled, said in singing
though it can’t be said, said in leaving
singing, said in leaving
it unsung, song of desire, safe from desire, saved in desire.
Referring to the alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, the pianist Cecil Taylor, and the singer Nancy Wilson, Moten shows himself to be not just an experimentalist, but a briocleur of sound, black music, and also of metaphoric language.
Moten’s long lines, and the way those lines are either the subtext of the white spaces’ “texts”, or texts to the footnotes of white spaces (if that makes sense), show the interplay of music and silence. The poems are the materiality of words shaping the blank space the way a classroom’s walls might shape empty space; the meaning of such spaces are shaped by the materiality whether it’s brick, glass, concrete, or poetry.
Space is an expression, and Moten is a master of projecting it, the way Charles Olson projected verse. He very deliberately articulates sound into his two-dimensional shapes. The white space is not a physical property of the poems so much as part of the movement of the language itself.
The avoidance of the strictly diatonic in harmonic modulation in avant-garde jazz, as in Eric Dolphy’s music, is sometimes called “intervallic.” The intervals in Moten’s poems might make them less “sensible” to a reader, but their imaginative leaps and metaphoric capability increase with each interval. Moten’s aesthetic generates possibilities instead of reducing them. This is a very accomplished collection of poetry.
Sean Singer was born in Mexico in 1974. His first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. His second book Honey & Smoke was published in London by Eyewear Publishing. He has published two chapbooks with Beard of Bees Press, Passport and Keep Right on Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water. He is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.