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George Kalamaras Poems

Quick, Quick, the Most Beautiful Vowel is Voiding

                            based on a painting by Meret Oppenheim, 1934

She was a Valentine, and I was
a Valentine. When the sounds shifted, Meret bled bees
into my mouth. And all the beautiful vowels followed.
Words finally appeared, when the moon entered
his throat. My throat. There are seasons only the dogs know
when they roll their joy through the intoxicating smell
of the dead. Night soil and rain. Yes,
my wife brought me the words
from the painting’s title. Yes, it was painted the year
of my mother’s birth, though she’s reborn now
into the night. Something in me remains
chained to language. Liberated only
by the sound of now. I wish I could speak fire
and have it flame again through the fossil dead.
Had I been Man Ray’s assistant, I would have
surely blushed, offering Meret a robe to cover my misgivings
and all the lustful thoughts that in her
nakedness I try to forget. I try to forget the silk of her armpit
hair, my name embedded in her underarm scar
as the necessary vowel of my mouth. When Dalí leered,
she knew to line the cup and saucer
with fur, reversing the gaze, to protect yet hint at her
most private. Even the spoon shivered a little
with the thought that the moon made words
as violent as love. When we make love, we cook cabbage
or collard greens and call them soup. We search the eelgrass
for the instinctive clotting of ants and know the hair
on our forearms is just as alive, a secret expression
of wind. The earth shakes loose its long strands
of throbbing seaweed, robing the ocean’s shy
trigger fish and an enormous pain
they pump, breathing the coral breaks
at the bottom of the world. When Meret
painted the vowels chained to a place
of indistinct gray hair, she was showing the strain
of a woman’s mouth aching to be heard
among absent sheep in the halls of wool and tweed. My lips
reach toward hers—all these decades late—not to hunt
blood, gather and keep the sucrose-dappled bones
of bees, but to touch their fierce
flow somehow inside both the woman’s sound and her
intelligent mouth. She is more beautiful than winter
weight. Than the woods emptying the night. Empty
of night. Than shagbark hickory peeling back parts of itself
in layers of healing and hurt. She is beautiful
because she knows the deep soils
of the self and speaks among all that seek
to silence her, able to articulate the hidden
trace of trees. And the soft skin of her brain
tells me we could be partners, equal
among the plants, decoding the mystery
skin of the sea in one another’s ache. Let us tongue
every kind thought we’ve ever had
, I think. Every thought
that stills the sorrow place. And in the doing, undo
the round honeycomb of the throat. The urgent now of a quickening
vowel. The urgent now of our mouths. Her mouth,
the most beautiful vowel there is, remaking me
as it emerges, deep, from a darkening down and claims the world
in a voicing that is, for once, finely heard. And is, finally, hers.

Our Man in Paris

                            for Dexter Gordon

You’re our Man, Dexter. Paris, ‘63. One of the first jazz LPs I owned. Your roughly smooth licks still knock the air right out of the air. You cleansed my ears. Brought tears to my mouth. Removed garlic from the mouths of the dead. Yes, you had moved to Copenhagen. Said, because it was less racist. That—of course—and because of the women. Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke were both expats and, along with Parisian Pierre Michelot, had been performing as The Three Bosses. How could the four of you become the four pillars of my then-young life? “Scrapple from the Apple,” “Willow Weep for Me,” and your blistering “A Night in Tunisia”—as if the sands sizzled and fell to grip our ears with the sound of wind cleansing grit cleansing wind.


Yes, Our Man in Paris. Our Man in Copenhagen. Our Man in Chicago. In Fort Wayne, Indiana.


That dream where in every photo of me I’m wearing a beret. A mouche just under my lower lip. Yes, a jazz dot. Like you, I’m smoking a cigarette, Dex. Always. And when I go to blow the aching rain right out of my sax, out pours Tunisian hawthorn and myrtle, Algerian scorpions and sand onto the Paris streets. André Breton is a mime dressed in black, and Robert Desnos a female fortune teller, then the woman who sells me flowers for some unnamed fiancé a boulevard or two east. Our man, hisses the rain-smoked streets, our man in Paris.


Was supposed to only be all originals with you and Kenny Drew. Not standards. Then Kenny split. And came the rain. And with it, Bud Powell’s piano notes refusing pine-needle wind, all those notes laying themselves down like knocked-out prize fighters.


Our Man in Paris. Our Man with the Cigarette on Every LP Cover. Our Man with Kidney Failure. Our Man with Emphysema. With Cancer of the Larynx.


Felt the wind. Wind feeling for more wind within the wind. Within the saxophone breath for more. Heard it. Heard the wind in my mouth. Felt moth-flutter each time you played behind the beat, Dexter. Both Rollins and Trane said they learned from you. Man, oh, Our Man—all that’s left now are these classic sides, like Doin’ Alright, Dexter Calling . . ., Gettin’ Around, Go!, and—of course—Our Man in Paris.


Négritude, Aimé Césaire called it. And followed the lush saxophone stops in his throat, chanting, I who Krakatoa / I who everything better than a monsoon. The world is splitting apart in our words. In the missing. The skipped. And how your sax, Dex, explodes riffs the world refuses to speak or see or seek.


Now it’s “Scrapple in the Apple,” and I swear some exotic island bird has lodged in your throat, unfurling its beautiful Bornean plumage up from muddy saxophone depths that don’t know how to say I love you without first invoking the colorful curve of the earth.


Less racist, you had said, reiterating it to me in my dream in some café over black coffee. André Breton now the street sweeper, maybe the lamplighter. And Robert Desnos, his father. The owl in the tree, Remedios Varo. The tree itself, Meret Oppenheim with her fur-lined cup. The branches, the tuberculous tubes of our belovèd René Daumal as he lay on his cot wheezing in Paris.


How many saxophones, you ask, does it take to change a light bulb? How many fish?

Okay, let’s say everyone could find his or her god by breathing in and out to the tune of “Willow Weep for Me.” Let’s say that tree grew from one’s own navel (otherwise known as the Garden of Eden) right there at the center of our earth, branching out unto the world.


How many pairs of saxophones, you ask, should be brought into the hay beds and wood stalls and lonely creaking of Noah’s Ark?

Oh, Dexter, just seventeen seconds of your sax could crack the most durable among us. Sink us into the ocean of forgetting our name, race, or creed. Oh, Dexter, how’d you know to get out of the States right when you did? How’d you know to scour the ground with the healing dissolve of your sound? To enter not just our ears but the mole holes of our mouths with words yet to be sung?


Our Man in Copenhagen. Our Man at the studio in Jersey. Our Man in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Our Man Going Down the Depths, Dissolving into the Broad Belly of His Sax. Our Man Who Knows the Snows—and When the Wind Stops, Where the Snows Go. Our Man, Dexter. Our Man in Paris. Our Man and His Beautiful Oozing Tunes. Our Man. Our Man.


                            for George Braith, and his double saxophone

Your name is George and
With these words, George,
Think of the double alto-sax
Ways of mouth
Drop of the sun’s set
Like the boy, tongue-tied
Some razor-sharp word held
Sometimes it binds, peppering our
The yogi with two bodies sits in two
Always equals zero? sure
Slant      the man with the double-
Perspectives at once      buttoned up, tight
Of measuring the lack of spiritual
With which to examine the patient’s
Extension, I am reminded
Which bind their spines
Which binds these words to a sacred
We walk toward a door
But a frozen ache of rain
Your music brings reminds us
To skin a cat      forgive the cliché
Of all you jazz cats
Of a coin      heads I win      tails you
Home      now it’s “Ethlyn’s Love”
With a name as strong and lovely
That makes me want to make the world
1964 again and find this woman
I am in love, George,
Sax obviously loves her
Billy Gardner’s organ
Of your love      of your George
Of you      and me

my name is George
I extend you      and your thinking
there to breathe one or more
tonight two moons rose in the phoenix
west is left      right is night      is ash
with two frenums, there is always
below the tongue      sometimes it frees us
mouth      the eggs need more salt and salt?
places at once? One plus one
the sun’s slant is slanting toward the sun’s
breasted sport coat saw things from both
sure, Ethiopian chicken bones are a way
bleed      we have two good eyes
two good ears?      listening tonight to
of your soprano & alto sax, and the screws
so you can play two at once      a glue
oath of rain      we breathe in and out
and through      snow is nothing
stop / wait / listen      the sorrow-centuries
that there is always more than one way
but I’m thinking
one plus one rarely equals the three sides
tell the coyote tracks the snow’s road
and I swear I now want to date a woman
and exact      it’s your double alto-sax
move beyond dualism      make it
with the way your breathing
as does Grant Green’s guitar and
this extension
into my George      makes a mirror
and the milk of all that love      in between

Planet Coltrane

                            after Clayton Eshleman’s “Planet Trilce”

On Planet Coltrane, the world begins anytime there is a thought of it possibly ending.

The only color there is blue—skies, eyes, and apples. Even the sound of the belovèd’s voluptuous thigh.

The time is always 12:03—for those born on December 3.

Planet Coltrane is a star, a moon, a scar, the Milky Way engraved on the underside of the tongue.

All restless thoughts go there to die.

On Planet Coltrane train loads of coal become the blood’s salt, and Tibetan lamas calm their nerves, flying their bodies across mountain crevasses for morning prayers.

Planet Coltrane is not far from Earth. It revolves around Earth, at the exact moment Earth revolves around it.

We’re supposed to call out our calling of one another there, on this gorgeous planet.

Planet Coltrane houses many riverous mouths. Ears without mountains. Mountains without hills.

The only color there is green—owls, trains, midnight rain. The thirteenth and fourteenth ribs where sleep unfolds the night river’s stream.

Everyone on Planet Coltrane spends Mondays reading the exact same book: Ritual Poetry and the Politics of Death in Early Japan.

Takahashi Shinkichi—Dadaist and Buddhist—is a farmer cultivating buried bamboo flutes and a forest of koans on Planet Coltrane.

Paradox does not exist there, even when it does.

Stars lie down to nap on the third Sunday of the third month on Planet Coltrane. Rafael Alberti’s lost angels finally locate themselves in the sound of a saxophone masquerading as a death poem searching for life among willow leaves and olive root.

The time is always 12:04, but only for those born in January.

And winter is winter, even when summer is the song of an autumn song.

Only certain films are shown on Planet Coltrane, mostly those of Akira Kurosawa—not the Samurai series but the early ones like The Idiot and No Regrets for Our Youth, the only Kurosawa film with a female protagonist.

Chinese poetry is often read there. Only those poems translated into one of the three lost languages of salt.

Oceanographers who visit prefer coral reefs to Planet Coltrane. And no one knows why except blowfish secretly jealous that they have not yet mastered the art of underwater saxophone breathing.

There is a room inside the page corridors of every hotel Bible, with only one passage always marked: DADA gives birth to all, splits and synthesizes all. / All is encamped behind DADA. / Nobody can be on the DADA’s side.

Planet Coltrane is visionary, the way an owl eats a mouse that has eaten a snail to which a tapeworm has lovingly attached itself.

Wallace Stevens and his wife, Elsie—after remaining sexually continent twenty-four years, nine months, and thirteen days—finally make love on Planet Coltrane. The walls to their separate bedrooms, a finely grained dust, dissolved now in the sound of the planet’s rotation. And “The Man with the Blue Guitar” resides there in maroon hue—ancient, solitary, elegantly alone.

On Planet Coltrane one can be a Buddhist and a Dadaist. Even the tender young tea trees Takahashi Shinkichi tends. All is not two. A saying from the Buddha’s clear vision emerges: all is all.

Redbone hounds are bluetick hounds on Planet Coltrane. No one dies, not even the hunter who, in killing things, discovers the thin wailing walls of his heart.

Those who live on Planet Coltrane have at times considered dropping acid—just to come down a bit from the pulsings of plant frequencies and the rich mineral rinse of the stars. But then they decide not to, much preferring the conversations among plants, which only exist in secret, even those that grow in relation to the mewlings of Beethoven, Brahms, or Bach.

When we yawn, Planet Coltrane yawns back, threatening to swallow us.

Planet Coltrane is light years away from Planets Mingus, Miles, and Monk, though they surround one another, living inside the orbits of one another like tapeworms or memory devouring itself, forgetting even as it remembers.

One plus one thrives there, always searching for zero.

And the only one to use the word please on the planet is the word Please.

Planet Coltrane is not a new place but two or more ways of mouth.

When one sees that the time is 12:05, she must stir the cold ash of February over and again with an undigested spear of asparagus.

King Lear is not tragic there. And only the grass is blind, blowing as it does, back toward a daughter’s torn, terrible seed.

Books on Planet Coltrane have favorite books of their own. André Breton’s Nadja adores Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur. Tom McGuane’s The Cadence of Grass favors The Secret Life of Plants. Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry retires to the mountains of Planet Coltrane each night to devour every fragrant syllable of Leaves of Grass.

Words mangle one another there. Like an emu attempting to have sex with itself.

When dogs sleep, their third eyelid folds down to crown the eye. Planet Coltrane is that eye. And all that it sees and does not see is recorded there like live music filling the memory pockets of the brain. Like the music on a rainy night in a smoke-filled bar nourishing fog-stroked pines on the hills outside of town. Like clock hands that narrow as they leave midnight. Chakras that gather light, nourishing the music they are.

Love reigns supreme on this loving planet. As it should be. As it will be. And must.


                            “I love playing with Bobby [Hutcherson]. . . . Bobby is a very honest person. He couldn’t play the way he does without that honesty. He has an innocence that’s childlike in a way. He’s a great player and a great person, and that helps boost humanity a little bit.”
—Sonny Rollins

Let’s say an angel made love with a whale.
That they lie together in a bay, by an inlet. Birth
a weeping willow. Let’s say there are such things
as wind. As wind chimes in the spine. That we could climb
to higher chakras simply by kissing the air
your exuberant vibraphone sticks exude. Bobby, I could listen
to you all night. And often do. I wish I could
describe the taste of Drum Mountain White Cloud Tea,
tended since the fourteenth century in mountain shade
by Zen monks. Your music moves molecules
only my tongue takes, in sipping the good
from the bad. Like those mythical swans in India,
known for extracting only milk when it mixes
with water. If I asked you what happened
during your ’66 session for Happenings—often described
as “post-bop”—you’d likely speak in koans, like the moon
breaking apart, oozing milky fire, exuding song titles
like “Bouquet,” “Aquarian Moon,” and “When You Are Near.”
Even “Maiden Voyage”—that early Herbie Hancock tune
he played a year later in this set with you. I’m often too dumb
to count the rings in tree bark to date the spiritual growth of bees,
even when that ringing comes from you. How can I count
the forever-age of these songs that bring me back
to more of what I could possibly be. Time is wider,
my friend Gene Hoffman used to say, than it is long. Seems
we can step into the middle of your songs and sink
upward, looking east and west at the same time. Or,
as Trane used to say, we can start in the middle of a sentence
and move both directions at once
. Like drinking white tea
on this dark night in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Tea
all the way from Fujian Province, as we sense the soil-centuries
of broken jars, jewelry, and bones nourishing your wordless
words. You make my happy sad, my lifted mood
a melancholy shake of hair. As if lying under the cool wept
of a willow and kissing the sky at once. As you take me
on a maiden voyage into the marsupial pouch
of now. This vibraphone bouquet you give me
over and again, Bobby. Not what I hear but what I one day
more fully might flower into. As I scent the blood oath
of your vibes, your tree growth of notes, your surge of earth.
Nights like tonight, nights like mornings, when you are near.

George Kalamaras, former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016), is the author of seventeen books of poetry, ten of which are full-length, including Luminous in the Owl’s Rib (2019), That Moment of Wept (2018), and Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck, winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Prize (2011). He is Professor of English at Purdue University Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne), where he has taught since 1990.
The italicized lines in “Our Man in Paris,” “I who Krakatoa / I who everything better than a monsoon” are from Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry, translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, University of California Press, 1983.
The italicized lines in “Planet Coltrane,” “DADA gives birth to all, splits and synthesizes all. / All is encamped behind DADA. / Nobody can be on the DADA’s side” and “All is not two. A saying from the Buddha’s clear vision emerges: all is all,” are from Takahashi Shinkichi’s Dada Manifesto, “Assertion is Dadaist,” translated by Ko Won and quoted in his article, “A Comparison of Dada Manifestoes by Takahashi and Tzara,” Dada/Surrealism 4 (1974): 42-49.
This issue was guest-edited by John Olson.
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