Songs of experience

Jul 9, 2003 at 12:00 am

There’s something playfully elegant in Ted Pearson’s poetry. His linguistic concerns are serious, but his idiom rides along as casually as a burning cigarette on a jazz player’s lip.

Four works — Acoustic Masks, The Devil’s Aria, Hard Science and Parker’s Mood — make up Songs Aside, the retrospective collection newly released by Detroit’s Past Tents Press. It’s hard to believe these pieces were written over a 10-year stretch. The voice and the music flow like one continual conversation, even-toned and congruous, as if they were the product of an all-nighter pulled in some loft downtown.

Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker can be heard from an open window all the way down to the street and in each of Pearson’s carefully laid-down lines, which look like they have their own time signature: two lines per stanza and four stanzas per poem.


Spare the rod

greet the lightning

out of nowhere

la musique savante

a rare monster

stalks the toybox

conjured there

by the onliest monk


(Number 14 from Parker’s Mood)


Clever wordplay is at its gutsiest, smartest and sometimes most humorous in lines such as “drive-by sonnets in scanthrax” or “a full moon over miasma.” In other places, phonetically masked words remember other words in a recognizable name or some scattered bits of Shakespeare. The effect is like catching a phrase in the limbo of mid-translation just before it hits the sublime and disappears.

In the thick of symbol on symbol, dream on dream, Songs Aside becomes meditative. The spirals of meaning slip and change like the sweaty dance moves described within them, from intellectual inquiry to the transcendent booty call.

Pearson, a jazz musician himself, has an extraordinary talent for making music palpable in his writing. It’s not done with the narrative rushes of a jazz-influenced writer like Jack Kerouac, but with quick flashes of imagery, compelling criticism and precise language pared down to something that can be taken in note for note.

Its imagery works pop culture, politics, math and sex into word-induced visions crossed suddenly by darkly plaintive lines:

Unspeakably modern

by choice or chance


how a city dies

when you leave it


(Number 9 from Hard Science)


But even in sharp shifts of emotion, this poetry is deliberate and in control, signaling a striking complexity and depth. Maybe that comes from a love of language and years of experience as teacher, musician, writer and poet.

Roaming decades of jazz, centuries of literature, along with visual art, culture and curious urban encounters is an ambitious project, but it’s in good hands. Pearson is rebellious and clever but intellectually honest, and there’s an affecting courage in his expression.

While the songs that play out of his poetry have an improvisational bent, they’re no less certain about their own open-ended philosophies and moods. They bear their authority, but show a willingness to open up a dialogue:


Wintering over in a wound
that burgeons

the representative
skull at noon

When the median strips
to whose delight

in your own words
name that tune

(Number 21 from Acoustic Masks)


When a poet can move a reader into his dream, unravel the specific mysteries of his perceptions and open them up as a template for others, he has created something that demands to be taken in. This is true of Pearson’s work in its sound and soul experiments, its dynamic erudition and ingenious bridging of music and words.

All notions aside, open your eyes and listen.


Norene Cashen writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].