Between Sets: A Review of Wayne Zade’s Aurora
Duke Ellington’s 1931 hit, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” brought the term “swing” into the American lexicon. “Swing,” Ellington claimed, was “Harlem for rhythm,” but came to be understood by musicians as a combination of easy flow and vigorous drive (Jefferson). The poems in Wayne Zade’s Aurora swing. They begin in gentle, seeming innocence and move on to explore what is regretful, difficult and dissonant. The poems perform like a conversation that takes place between musical sets or like scenery on stage that shifts between acts. Several of the poems include the phrase “between sets” as they move from jazz musicians and songs to literary figures and on to family and small town characters. Like the music that the poet writes so knowledgeably about, the book plays between and among familiar topics like a melody we’ve heard before: early memories of concerts and clubs, the lives of parents and children, details about writers and other artists. Yet, Zade’s poems inevitably wrest themselves out and away from what we originally perceived, curving out from their genesis to consider the complexity of things like memory, history and violence.
Zade’s decades of dedicated listening, his lifetime study of jazz, mark his poetic rhythms and his poems’ odd juxtapositions and turns. (At Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri where Zade taught for forty years, students and faculty alike used to call his office “the jazz cave” for the hundreds of recordings he kept there.) We find meaning in these poems in the way that rhythm and sound communicate when words fall short.
In the poem “Sunday Matinee at the Plugged Nickel, Chicago, 1963” Zade plays with time and place. The poem begins:
Between sets, they look more like accountants or lawyers than jazz musicians, a scribbled sheet laid out between them. Horace Silver and the bass player new in his group, who looks nervous and confused. Will the music sound different to him as it will to me? We both have played all the albums over and over, waiting (62).
The poem’s narrative, about the Chicago club the poet used to frequent as a teenager before being “old enough to drive or drink,” focuses on the musicians and the music, but also connects them to the shy young writers that the speaker and his friends already were: “When Horace comps, it’s like he solos too, so when his turn comes he sounds/shy at first and spare, like the poems we write after school” (62).
The poem weaves together a story of jazz where white middle-class Chicago teens idolize black jazz musicians even as the worlds that each inhabit are so different. And yet, the music being played, Miles Davis’s “Agitation,” and Horace Silver’s “The Natives Are Restless Tonight” and “Filthy McNasty” is suggestive of the “aggression” and “inner-city turmoil” that was part of Chicago at the time and which we learn about by poem’s end (63). Zade treats the world of the club and the Chicago he walks out into afterwards tenderly, with a touch of awe. But, he is also the seer or prophet of his own life and that of the world around him. It will be five short years later that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination will take place and ignite the Chicago Riots of 1968:
Heading home in the snow, we know nothing about pent-up aggression and inner-city turmoil and don’t know that in 1954 this music was ‘narcissistic libidinal activity’ in Dr. Margolis’s Theory On The Psychology Of Jazz, which I will read someday (63).
The flash back in time to Margolis’s theory book, the near future of the turmoil of the late 60s and the flash forward to Zade’s life-long love and study of jazz create the temporal swing of the poem. Like song, he moves between the boys who “don’t dance,” to the aggressive episode in which Miles Davis, on another Sunday “stopped, slid to a table, grabbed the tape recorder, and drop-kicked it” before walking out on the set. The poem gives us this brief moment of innocence where underage kids listen to their musical idols on a Sunday afternoon, but we understand by poem’s end that this innocence is poised to end soon as the violence begins.
In “Chock Full O’ Nuts” the subject matter shifts to family, memory and secrets. While the poem starts out considering his mother’s love for Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee which she drank during the war years in New York City, and remembered her whole life, it slips beyond this to consider the details of the brand’s pronunciation and the repeated message to the poet-son: “Don’t get old” (5). But it’s the discovery of the medals of the mother’s first husband that turns the poem into something larger and more mysterious and reflective of the process of living, aging and dying:
You wouldn’t keep telling a secret for twenty years.
Yet this advice about aging must have been her secret
the one she could tell me, not the one we found out about later,
going through her papers, finding the name of the man whose medals
for valor were packed away in drawers of slips and camisoles,
I’ve been wondering if my mother were thinking of this man,
her first husband, in the final days of her life,
and if, in some vague, Proustian way, a cup of coffee might
have brought him back for a brief visit on a cold afternoon.
Would he have hugged her and just slipped into his place
beside her in those torn photographs of 1942? (6).
The movement of the poem in its reach back to the coffee (like Proust’s madeleines) reveals the poet’s talent for dealing with and keeping time. His repeated use of the coffee as image and sound connects us back to the poem’s opening and the innocent interaction with his mother, “one of the great coffee drinkers of the world,” while driving the poem forward towards an amplified web of thought and feeling. The sensory experiences recall the past as if it weren’t past, but also in this instance, giving body to family history that has been secret. He imagines his mother thinking of this first husband, calling him into the last days of her life as if no time has passed. We understand now that her advice “don’t get old”—the secret “she could tell”—takes on another kind of lesson that exceeds the aging body. Be in the present, she seems to be saying, pay attention. This present attention is a temporal holder—like the repetition of a beat that brings back what we just heard, keeps the song going and is a prediction of what’s to come. The mother’s advice seems a softer version, perhaps, of William Carlos Williams’ witch-crow grandmother who in “The Wanderer” gets him to ask himself, “how shall I be a mirror of this modernity?” (Williams).
In the poem “This Journey,” we see Zade’s attention turn specifically towards poets and the poetic eye:
When James Wright died I tried
to tell a class, but heard
my words fill up with fear
I’d start to cry, and then?
Wright’s poems come as close
as any I trust to live and look
inside our fragile lives.
He didn’t joke or lie until
wars became his way to pray.
We see him wait, under a branch,
to watch the bird about to leave.
and then? Each time I look
the country’s still a mess (47).
His treatment of Wright uses the assonance of the long “I” sound to connect the speaker to Wright himself, but also to underscore the difference between their visions. Wright’s poems “wait…to watch the bird about to leave,” and we understand the writer’s admiration for that patience and that openness to simply look. The juxtaposition of the two visions is what complicates the admiration for Wright and contrasts with the speaker’s own reflection on forthcoming loss, encouraging us to think about the complex nature of sight, especially poetic sight. The “we” in the last stanza is that of the collective reader seeing Wright wait and watch in contrast to what the “I” sees: “the country’s still a mess” (47). The stanza feels ironic or like a wry musical joke played or improvised between musicians. It’s Zade riffing on Wright.
The title, Aurora, while named for the poet’s granddaughter, is also suggestive of liminal time, day’s beginning. These poems subtly explore liminal spaces—those between memories and the closer present; among and between places like Chicago, Japan, small-town Missouri; and subjects that range from personal reflections of a father to those of the writer, reader and listener to teacher, colleague and neighbor. How to see and think between the spaces is what these poems teach us—a gentle, yet energetic lesson.
Jefferson, Margo. “Ellington Beyond Category.” New York Times. October 15, 1993.
Williams, William Carlos. “The Wanderer.” Al Que Quiere. NY: New Directions, 2017.
Lea Graham is the author of the poetry collections, From the Hotel Vernon (Salmon Press, 2019) and Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You (No Tell Books, 2011), along with four chapbooks: Murmurations (forthcoming, Hot Tomato Press/Minnesota Center for Book Arts, 2020), Spell to Spell (above/ground Press, 2018), This End of the World: Notes to Robert Kroetsch (Apt. 9 Press, 2016) and Calendar Girls (above/ground Press, 2006). She is an associate professor of English at Marist College.