Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

Harper and Trane: Modal Enactments of A Love Supreme

Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

Harper and Trane: Modal Enactments of A Love Supreme

Article excerpt

There is never any end.... There are always new

sounds to imagine, new feelings to get

at. And always, there is the need to keep

purifying these feelings and sounds so that

we can really see what we've discovered.... So

that we can see more clearly what we are....

But to do that at each stage, we have to

keep on cleaning the mirror.

-John Coltrane

It would be inappropriate for me to begin any serious disquisition on Michael Harper without reminding us of a story, for Michael is our poet-second only to his model and mentor, Sterling Brown- most apt to fire imagination in the smithy of narrational insight. Any given word, poem, event, encounter, memory is for Michael Harper itself a tale of narrative's pleasures and perils, and becomes yet again an opportune and demanding call for us to confront the unruly process of storytelling through which we assert and test our individual and shared self-images. Inevitably, then, there are an infinite number of "Michael Harper stories," since each yam must itself be partly an account of Michael's own wondrous capacity to find parabolic meaning in any given landscape or expression, to exhume and critically perform the shifting play of voices intrinsic to any crossing of place and person, any nexus of history and desire.

Since, then, even an anthology of Michael Harper tales cannot fully image the range and texture of their inexhaustible energies, let me begin by recalling one that is at least rife with the diversity and density of narrative figure that bespeaks the kaleidoscopic complexity of Harper's vision. One of Harper's many tales of traveling finds him visiting Sweden where he locates Gunnar Myrdal, whom he finds most anxious to speak of a figure that bonds them by a sinuous, nearly invisible thread of cultural history: "There would have been no An American Dilemma without Sterling Brown," Myrdal tells Harper in a tone betraying a heady mixture of homage, affection, and expiation. "He took me to Harlem and taught me everything about the Negro's culture." At which point, Harper tells us, "I gave him a copy of Sterling Brown's Collected Poems [recently compiled and edited by Harper], and smiled."

What is impossible for us here, of course, is to give the story what it overtly demands: a variety of inflection, an accented roughness, a resistance carried in the slurring of diphthongs and refusal of grammatical proprieties, its sly habitation of grammars that are left cleverly disturbed but ready for future (mis)use, its interruptive charge (directed at its own performance as much as against the smoothness of official narration), all delivered with the teller's Ali-like box-and-weave, a certain cock of the beret glimpsed in the half-beat of a deftly practiced pause. Those performative flavorings are integral to the tale's thematic textures, which layer experiences of quest, expressive transaction, and deceptive struggle for cultural authority on the racially uncertain terrain of modernity. Converting Myrdal into a medium of exchange through which the young black poet renews his bond with a publicly effaced yet conspicuously unforgotten ancestor, Harper's tale serves to revivify our awareness of how the story of modernity is truly an unfinished chronicle of subtly competing voices, an imperfect palimpsest of mastery and mimicry, a continuing history of expropriation and reappropriation.

Yet the richness of Harper's expressive vision encompasses the awareness that such exchanges of authorized and subversively effective knowledge occur also within the vernacular domain, and not just between it and the sphere of some putative master('s) narrative. And so- again in faint mimesis of Michael Harper's own performative habits- one more yam before we move on to this essay's central topic; as with Harper, the digression will prove, I trust, the shortest way to the point. Here is Harper on the slippery side of his childhood education:

My parents weren't rich, but they had a good record collection, and they prohibited me from playing any of their 78's, which was a guarantee that I'd investigate in my own time. …

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