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Call It Music Analysis

Author: Poetry of Philip Levine Type: Poetry Views: 614

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Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song

in my own breath. I'm alone here

in Brooklyn Heights, late morning, the sky

above the St. George Hotel clear, clear

for New York, that is. The radio playing

"Bird Flight," Parker in his California

tragic voice fifty years ago, his faltering

"Lover Man" just before he crashed into chaos.

I would guess that outside the recording studio

in Burbank the sun was high above the jacarandas,

it was late March, the worst of yesterday's rain

had come and gone, the sky washed blue. Bird

could have seen for miles if he'd looked, but what

he saw was so foreign he clenched his eyes,

shook his head, and barked like a dog--just once--

and then Howard McGhee took his arm and assured him

he'd be OK. I know this because Howard told me

years later that he thought Bird could

lie down in the hotel room they shared, sleep

for an hour or more, and waken as himself.

The perfect sunlight angles into my little room

above Willow Street. I listen to my breath

come and go and try to catch its curious taste,

part milk, part iron, part blood, as it passes

from me into the world. This is not me,

this is automatic, this entering and exiting,

my body's essential occupation without which

I am a thing. The whole process has a name,

a word I don't know, an elegant word not

in English or Yiddish or Spanish, a word

that means nothing to me. Howard truly believed

what he said that day when he steered

Parker into a cab and drove the silent miles

beside him while the bright world

unfurled around them: filling stations, stands

of fruits and vegetables, a kiosk selling trinkets

from Mexico and the Philippines. It was all

so actual and Western, it was a new creation

coming into being, like the music of Charlie Parker

someone later called "glad," though that day

I would have said silent, "the silent music

of Charlie Parker." Howard said nothing.

He paid the driver and helped Bird up two flights

to their room, got his boots off, and went out

to let him sleep as the afternoon entered

the history of darkness. I'm not judging

Howard, he did better than I could have

now or then. Then I was 19, working

on the loading docks at Railway Express

coming day by day into the damaged body

of a man while I sang into the filthy air

the Yiddish drinking songs my Zadie taught me

before his breath failed. Now Howard is gone,

eleven long years gone, the sweet voice silenced.

"The subtle bridge between Eldridge and Navarro,"

they later wrote, all that rising passion

a footnote to others. I remember in '85

walking the halls of Cass Tech, the high school

where he taught after his performing days,

when suddenly he took my left hand in his

two hands to tell me it all worked out

for the best. Maybe he'd gotten religion,

maybe he knew how little time was left,

maybe that day he was just worn down

by my questions about Parker. To him Bird

was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note

going out forever on the breath of genius

which now I hear soaring above my own breath

as this bright morning fades into afternoon.

Music, I'll call it music. It's what we need

as the sun staggers behind the low gray clouds

blowing relentlessly in from that nameless ocean,

the calm and endless one I've still to cross.


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