A.B. Spellman, Things I Must Have Known (Coffee House)
Reviewed by Grant Grays
Fundamentally, A. B. Spellman’s book of poems, Things I Must Have Known, asks a rhetorical question: Who am I, and how did I become this way? Spellman explores this question through ruminating on his life experiences. These include love – platonic, romantic and parental – and life as a black man in America. While these themes are undeniably important, two strands inform the poetry in A.B. Spellman’s Things I Must Have Known: jazz music and introspection. As an author of books on jazz criticism and a jazz commentator on National Public Radio, Spellman’s use of language throughout this volume serves as a literary homage to the music Spellman holds so dear. Likewise, Spellman’s poetry reflects on and questions life’s various meanings. Specifically, he analyzes how external influences – importantly, the nature of the relationship between life and death – influence his existence as a poet and as a human being.
Music is of utmost importance in Things I Must Have Known, both in subject mater and in the musicality of the language used. For example, these uses of music are presented in “Dear John Coltrane”, in which Spellman juxtaposes the title person and Johann Sebastian Bach. While reading a book of poetry, Bach’s “keyboard concerto/in f minor” comes on the radio, forcing Spellman to
put (his) reason down
to trail the bach of endless line
through beauty, past knowledge, into
that state that shines too much
to be wisdom (....)
Compare this use of language when discussing the transcendental nature of Bach’s music to the metaphysical knowledge experienced when Coltrane fills his senses:
now, it’s your life that opens, & opens
& opens, & i’m flying that way again
same sky, different moon, this midnight
globe that toned those now lost blue rooms
where things like jazz float the mind
this view the one i cannot see with my eyes
i know the line i traveled was a horizon
the circle of the world. another freedom
Spellman closes the poem with an image of Bach and Coltrane swapping notes on music and partaking in a jam session somewhere past the astral plane. The author shows a great love for each musician but experiences them differently. Bach exposes him to beauty; Coltrane, to truth. If beauty is truth and truth beauty, as Keats observed, it is apparent that to Spellman both classical music and American jazz are intimately related.
A playful homage to jazz is presented again in “Groovin’ Low.” This poem is a riff on aging – Spellman no longer operates with the “hardbop drive” of his youth but “more of a cool foxtrot”. The music affects him differently. He has found that the backbeat can put him into a sweet groove: he’s “still movin’, still groovin’/still fallin’ in love.” He no longer needs to go into the high section; he’s not in the “staccato splatter of the hot young horn”. Instead, he walks with the bass line, considering the nuance of the music. He views aging not as a detriment but sees himself as an elder statesman. Spellman’s the cat “with the smug little smile/and the really cool shades”, and you feel you’re right there, cool struttin’ along with him.
Music and introspection often work together in Things I Must Have Known. In two particular poems, “On Hearing Sonny (“Newk”) Clark in the Park on a Hot Summer’s Night” and “Bobby’s Ballad,” Spellman reflects on his own mortality through the lyricism of Sonny Rollins’ and Bobby Hutcherson’s music. In “On Hearing Sonny...”, Spellman shows the aged man on stage “with worn hips barely support(ing) the horn” whose “sound is deep enough to live in.” This is followed by musings on the inevitability of death; Spellman envisions Rollins in his last days, holding onto his art, fighting to the end to create. He compares Rollins to Matisse, Count Baise and W.E.B. Du Bois, three creators who did not succumb to frailty in the twilight of their lives. This poem is an assertion to the self; Spellman will be like Matisse, like Rollins – he will “age anywhere/but the horn.” He will create until he cannot create anymore.
This marriage of music and introspection is presented again in “Bobby’s Ballad”. While watching Bobby Hutcherson perform, Spellman is transported back to the days of his youth, when he and Hutcherson were players on the Lower East Side jazz scene. Spellman ruminates on how the years changed his perception of self; while in the 1960s he and his contemporaries admired themselves for their hipster qualities, and vowed to never become squares, he realizes now the inevitability of time – he knows now the things he thought he knew. This poem ends with a recognition of truth in Hutcherson’s music; the truth of jazz has lead him to this revelation.
While ruminations on death are prominent in Things I Must Have Known, Spellman also offers musings on life. Nature plays an important role in these discussions. For example, “The Cruelest Month” acts as a celebration of existence. Spellman acknowledges that he cannot write a poem on spring without sounding cliché, so he rails against the pollen in the air, the “ejaculations of fornicating flora/attacking (his) sinuses.” However, despite his irritated respiratory system, he sits in awe of the emerging greenery. He is joyful for the lengthening of daytime. He breathes in the warmth of the air. This natural rebirth also reinvigorates Spellman: he notices women “so nubile that at the sight of them/the years retreat from this out-of-season body/that winter told me would not last.” This is an exploration of how Spellman fits into a larger frame of nature. As the earth is reborn, so is he.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of Things I Must Have Known is its accessibility. Both the untrained reader of poetry and those who have made this form of artistic expression can appreciate this body of work. Spellman’s poetry often reads as a collection of stories relayed by a favorite uncle, who has seen the world and is, instead of weary, excited for what has happened and what is yet to come.