Metaphysical Free: The Poetry Of Henry
Copyright © by David
Musician Henry Grimes came out with a volume of poetry in 2006 published
Jazzedition based in Germany. Marc
Ribot’s foreword is rendered in German and
while the 49 poems are in the original English. Illustrated with mostly recent performance and publicity
photographs, the text, Ribot explains, was selected from notebooks kept during
the thirty-year period when Grimes enigmatically disappeared from the music
world, to reemerge in the 21st century. Pieces
are dated “early 80’s,” “circa 1979,” “undated,” and, humorously,
“somewhere between 1984 and 1999.” Only
one is slated precisely for “August 12, 1983.”
Because of the time frame and what readers know about Grimes from the
foreword, there is an expectation not of a collection but of the salvaging of
wisdom and worthy writing from a mature man’s life. Almost artifacts from a dig.
I was already a newcomer fan, having seen Grimes perform a number of
times in New
where he lives. Marc Ribot leads a group
that Grimes plays in, and Ribot’s revelation of his reaction to the book is
identical to mine: amazement and appreciation for the phenomenon of a music
virtuoso who is also a formidable poet.
In the first section of the title poem “Signs along the road being put
there,” the modern
fact of signs is broken into sentimentally, parenthetically by “I said, as I
I would ever see her again.” It
is as if, like a Mondrian, Grimes approximates the surface
urban commercialized life, then shows the emotional truth beneath.
He contrasts the
heart” with the “city’s heart.” The
effect is that of cool jazz segueing into a torch
and then a synthesis. “We who are
the country-born,” he admonishes. One
the sensibility of the black southern musicians who immigrated from plantations
farms to Chicago or New York, and, symbolically, of all humanists who must
industrial materialism. Concluding
with the refrain, simmered to “When can it be that
see her again,” the “desire to clamp them into time” can be read as
finding a balance
the oblique signs and the “warm sunlight” of the woman, and also as the need
the flux in musical measures and rhythms.
Can a poet make up words? Whitman
did. Wallace Stevens did. Can
he subvert words?
Atypically “Signs” is in quite standard English, until in the next
poem a Hardyesque-
“weather-worth” appears. Some
Grimes inventions are “eccequasive,” “apporic,” “spiritive,” “condistinction.”
Sometimes (as Ribot notes) one is unsure whether the word is correctly
spelled or left unresearched in the heat of creation.
Maybe these should be words, one thinks with mixed bafflement and wonder:
“oblocely,” “poresscence,” “din-activity,” “otherama...”
The poet also uses, as poets are wont to do, technical terms to spice up
his verse. I looked
the “hyoid bone,” “protagon,” and “antigen,” which Grimes spells “antigin.”
confer a tantalizing glimpse of a wide culture perhaps self-taught.
They let the
world into an imaginative realm where the coined words seem right as part of a
original syntax that feels as if a new wrinkle is forming in the reader’s
An influence that crops up throughout is the Bible.
There is a startling point where the
When men, who had
surveyed the wondrous cross
a phrase from a hymn suddenly in the midst of maverick free verse.
And in “Untitled”:
I knew that Lucifer was a liar
and that the Savior had long parted hair
evoking the “white” Jesus on the paper fans hand-held by the
congregation’s older women in the un-air-conditioned black churches of the
past: a detail that encapsulates more history than one would think its brevity
could hold. In “The Rivers Run
Into the Sea,” the last line echoes the conclusion from Ecclesiastes Chapter
1:7: “All the rivers run into the
sea; yet the sea is not full....”
“Tared” appears in “Otherama the King”:
an alternative definition of “tare” is “an
weed of grainfields especially in Biblical times.” And in “Peace”:
a little child shall lead them
Still, the Biblical influence, whether the direct and personal
identification with the ancient
heard in emotional black sermons, or the irony of religion as an opiate in
“Who But the Lord?” or the King James rhythms D.H. Lawrence used to
Whitmanize his verse – all this is not evident so dramatically, so
forthrightly in Grimes’ style. And
one can say the same about the eminence of jazz and the blues not as material
but as language.
Kerouac’s 239th Chorus in Mexico
City Blues celebrates Charlie Parker. In
this and other
Kerouac tries to capture the sound and the cadences of jazz soloing and the way
(and sometimes their audience) talk. In
this he enters a tradition that includes Yusef
and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Grimes in “Untitled” (there are two Untitled’s back to back) gets a
black colloquial gospel
going which ends in a reference to Cecil Taylor. The difference is that one feels it
a personal anecdote: Grimes knows
Taylor, they share the musician’s life. Whereas
appreciates jazz, Grimes is jazz.
There is in Grimes a detachment, an omniscience, a looking down on the
world from a
and regarding it with an abstraction born of stoicism.
It is hard to highlight a point
view- the quick asperity of Amiri
Baraka, the cogent symbolism of James Emanuel,
conversational street tone of countless contemporaries - all these poets have
Noteworthy of Grimes is how poems just start and end, not with a
but as if with a bookmark, until he resumes recording his thoughts.
In “The Arch Stairwells” Grimes adopts a formal rhetorical tone that
may remind one of
Stevens and Archibald MacLeish. But
it quickly dissolves to a seemingly cubist
“it (may be) a guitar in a window,” which could just as easily be
from the New York school of poets, followed by a feeling of the city drawn from
experience not literature (which seems to belie the rhetorical beginning), and
ending in a dreaded non-modernist-allowed abstraction:
“the Peace of Solitude.” The
point being that many of these poems are beyond stylistic analysis or rather
that the tedium of doing so yields less than a simple reading.
So why bother? To show the
multifold, variegated and deft depth and pleasing texture of this oeuvre.
I have divided the poems into seven kinds, understanding that they may
(and often do) overlap.
1) About Music:
“Monk Music,” “The Infant of Attention”
2) Pure Aesthetics:
“The Arch Stairwells,” “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”
3) Poems of Place:
“The Place,” “Untitled” (Cecil Taylor), “Back to Down Along
4) Primal, Mythical:
“Easternal Mysticism, Virtue, and Calm,” “Water Wax,” “The Walk in
the Dark That Was Heard at Night,” “Grenth,”
“Hieroglyphics,” “Ghost and Spirit,” “Lilith,” “Amazed Heart, All
5) Historical and
Luckbill,” “The World Our
Society, Society Our World,” “Coasts,”
“The Feeling of Ahaz,” “In the Day”
“A Pre-Revolutionary Cabin,” “Moments,” “Egregious Grows the
Light of Dawn”
Grimes is a maddening, unsatisfying poet only trying to obfuscate and
his amalgam of learning. Sometimes
Grimes is an eccentric amateur writing to himself
his solipsism. One gets caught up
in a conception as sticky as a spider’s web, as murky
a swamp, and one recoils, wants to go back like a timid pioneer.
Grimes’ tic of repeating
word is sometimes prolix, perverse, as if he delights in his disregard of the
disinclination to edit. One yearns
for a “professional” poet, discouraged, fatigued,
with an occasional jewel like “mummified in cosmic bind” and the satisfying
scan of “This was the secrets of the heart/that this dead ancient man had
one comes across “large harps and small lyres” shining like a nugget.
Such rewards define writing as poetry.
I call Grimes a metaphysical poet because while
along the serpentines and arabesques and mazes of his thoughts and images,
reading the hieroglyphs on the hoary walls with a torch, one must linger and
mull over this strange language and foreign context. For Grimes is anything but light: one cannot race through these pages like a hyperactive kid on
a field trip. Yet, though solid as
an ancient, Grimes is mercurial as his music. He is American avant-garde, he is
He takes on the great themes of history, mysticism, geography, religion,
cities, good and
Compared to the paltry bourgeois world of careerist contemporaries,
catholicity will come as a shock and a revelation, an acquired taste that upon
certainly illustrate the difference between a full meal and finger food.
A critic like
may cite stylists such as Donne, Thomas Browne, Whitman, and Amiri Baraka to
an idea of the force and pith of Grimes’ germinative power.
Yet the prevailing
reality is that Grimes is an amateur poet who has genius.
For though it may be especially enjoyed by those with an appreciation of
this is not a book for fans only. It
is not merely an adjunct such as a
book of lyrics from a songwriter or a roman
a clef by a celebrity. A harsh
a renowned artist must not be given credit for distinguished work in a different
genre; this is partly the fault of
proprietorial critics, partly the fact of exclusive audiences.
jazz nor poetry is popular at present. The
lack of “crossover” may threaten to
Grimes’ readership even scantier. As
a critic, I recommend “Signs Along the
to anyone interested in jazz, poetry, twentieth-century American history, or
This book should be more widely known. It
is provocative, compelling, soulful, and
Its publication should cause controversy in the rarefied world of poetry
the ampler and deeper and expanding universe of the mind, to which it belongs.
States has become a bureaucracy with a caste of academic versifiers and
originals like Henry Grimes notwithstanding.
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