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This review is taken from PN Review 130, Volume 26 Number 2, November - December 1999.

BIG EASY YUSEF KOMUNYAKKA, Thieves of Paradise, (Wesleyan University Press)

My new rule is that no American poet can write about jazz for at least the foreseeable future (and, while I'm at it, the same goes for nature).

If we're going to argue that poetic forms structure or strangle what is being said along ideological or political lines then we should admit the limiting impact of certain subjects as well. Whatever freshness of material, or analogue as an art form, jazz once provided to poetry, the vein is about played out. By now, jazz in poetry never takes us anywhere we haven't gone before. Adopted to provide instant cred, the voice of the authentic but artistic (not like banal pop or nasty rap, for instance) its reiteration riffs the great subjects in America - race, voice, and travelling - in ways which have become as familiar and as empty as Brian Setzer covering 'Take the A Train'. Jazz references are nearly always retrospective, historical, and ossified by convention and cliché. They serve to validate the author's politics or culture or sense of style by glomming on to a by-now canonized cultural figure in a process of hipness by association. For one thing, nobody writes about David Murray or Jackie Terrasson or the unknown guy playing in the park. It's always the legendary names: Prez, Diz, Bird and occasionally Robert Johnson thrown in for a touch of blue Delta darkness. A photo of Robert Johnson is now on a stamp for crying out loud! How outré and dangerous ...


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