Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Jeanne Heuving, Mood Indigo
Selva Oscura Press, 2020, $15.00

Jeanne Heuving begins Mood Indigo with two epigraphs which are worth quoting in full. The first is from William Carlos Williams: “The form of prose is the accuracy of its subject matter - how best to expose the multiform phases of its material. The form of poetry is related to the movements of the imagination revealed in the words - or whatever it may be - ” (Spring and All, 1923). The second is from Cecil Taylor: “The player advances to the area, an unknown totality, made whole thru self - analysis (improvisation), the conscious manipulation of the known material” (liner notes from the album Unit Structures, 1966). These quotations speak directly to both the form of Heuving’s writing and her methods of composition. Consisting of twenty - one sections of prose sentences, each a single paragraph but broken up and centered on three pages, Mood Indigo is a sustained, inspired exercise in “the conscious manipulation of the known material,” material which does indeed unfold and reveal its “multiform phases” with startling accuracy.

Given its form, Mood Indigo can be regarded as the latest instance of a type of experimental American writing which Stephen Fredman identifies and analyzes in his book Poet’s Prose (2nd edition 1990). Writing of this sort demonstrates the formal congruence of prose and poetry as Williams defines them, and it was Williams, along with Gertrude Stein, who pioneered this mode. From a historical perspective, “poet’s prose” results from a crisis of poetic form which Fredman associates in turn with the crisis of modernity. Its development over the course of the twentieth century and into the twenty - first represents, as Fredman puts, an ongoing refusal “to separate imagination and intellect, inner experience and the world.” What results is, to use the title of a work by Michael Davidson, a more recent worker in this mode, The Prose of Fact.

Imaginatively employed by the experimental poet, the outward form of prose, and even more importantly, its inner, syntactical workings, often yield deeply unsettling results. In Heuving’s case, the result is also politically savvy and hypnotically beautiful. As the poet “advances to the area, an unknown totality,” Taylor’s understanding of improvisation as manipulation of known material becomes increasingly important: gradually it becomes clear that this is a sort of jazz writing, but one which undermines any of the expectations one may have in regard to that genre. Through its carefully honed syntax, the accuracy of factual presentation is charged by the poetic imagination.

Each section of Mood Indigo begins with the phrase “To begin with...”: “To begin with ink,” “To begin with paper,” “To begin with shore,” “To begin with images, “To begin with synthesis.” Going from one section to the next, these introductory sentences become increasingly abstract, but concrete statements of fact permeate the prose, keeping the entire book grounded in the real and “the multiform phases of its material.” The material itself is woven from various sources: nature, manufacturing processes, commerce, arts and crafts, history. The movement from sentence to sentence, section to section, seems associational, even dreamlike, but as Heuving tells us in her afterword, “I have utilized multiple internet and print sources in order to create the textures of Mood Indigo, borrowing, riffing, and making....Often I have fudged or budged a word or two, and sometimes I have added whole new phrases and sentences, and reordered the passage.”

This deliberate and highly artful manipulation produces different “textures,” different tones and registers of discourse, but there is also a sense of seamlessness as one immerses oneself in the text. Since this is difficult to convey with a quotation of just two or three sentences, here is section 17 in its entirety:

To begin with mood indigo. My impulse is to convey a mood and not to impart specific grievances causing that mood. A mood can consume the populace as dye penetrates a cloth, altering dispositions that before had seemed inclined to go along with things. Standing on a crust of sand above the inks, a vestige of green could be seen in the dark waters. In a very low tide, the inks are all mud and stranded grass, but when the waters come back in they resume their heft. For a deep and sad Greene, as in the inmost leaves of Trees, mingle Indico and Pink. Common or Flanders blacks are really ultra blue - blacks and purples. True or Spanish black can only be made with copper as mixed with galls, and optionally steel filings or slip also. When I use the word black I mean in the American sense where anyone who has any colored blood, no matter how white, speaks of herself as black. Adjoining White Town stands a much larger Black Town, where Portuguese, Armenians and a great variety of other People live. He had shown how those mood - poems which surge through men can be written down in music as symphonies. There is one fundamental difference between swing and classical music. In classical music, the composer and conductor are all important. The score must be interpreted according to the teachings and traditions of the masters. But in swing the musician-the instrumentalist-is all-important. He must add something to the original composition and do it spontaneously without preparation. Things harder to talk about are the satisfaction of playing because it’s a thing you’d rather do than anything else. You ain’t never been blue. No, no, no.

Here we see how Heuving, in modulating the discursive registers from sentence to sentence, creates a unified poem in prose and advances the series as a whole. She employs terms which she introduced and elaborated upon in previous sections, such as ink, paper, dye, cloth, blue-back, and indigo. At this point, she turns to her title, which is also, of course, the title of one of Duke Ellington’s most famous tunes. Jazz improvisation, especially the way in which a jazz musician appropriates a range of preexisting musical motifs, serves as her model. In her note on this section, Heuving acknowledges Ellington, Barney Bigard (Ellington’s clarinetist), and Irving Mills (the music publisher who “discovered” Ellington and his band) as the composers of the song “Mood Indigo,” and the section ends with two lines from the lyrics (here is Ella Fitzgerald’s performance). Ellington’s essay “Duke Ellington Explains Swing” is also the source of the text starting at “There is one fundamental difference...” Heuving additionally acknowledges Zora Neale Hurston as the author of the sentence which begins “When I use the word black...” (it’s from Hurston study of voodoo, Tell My Horse). But this is only the beginning. A google search reveals that the sentence about “mood-poems” comes from George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite, that “For a deep and sad Greene...” comes from The Compleat Gentleman, by Henry Peacham (1634), that the two sentences about black dyes comes from Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England, by Eric Kerridge (1985), and that the sentence about White Town and Black Town refers to the history of the city of Chennai (Madras) as controlled by the English from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. Madras cloth takes its name from this city and is typically dyed in a distinctive plaid pattern.

Racism, colonialism, industry, African-American and European music, and the power of emotion, of “mood,” in the creation of art: these are the threads which Heuving weaves together. The subtle intelligence at work in this poetry produces an integration of form and content. We witness the poet investigating the materials of history, at the same time reflecting upon the processes which constitute her art. While her social and political investigations are never subordinated to her artistic self-consciousness, we understand that for Heuving, poesis, making, is always of the utmost importance. “My hand moves down the page,” she writes as the book begins, “ink marking its passage, seeming ahead and behind it.” And in the last section, “Life only seemed worth living when the threshold between waking and sleeping was worn away by multitudinous images flooding back and forth. Language only seemed itself when sound and image, image and sound, interpenetrated with automatic precision and such felicity that no chink was left for the penny-in-the-slot called meaning.” The flood of images coming to us between waking and sleeping is transformed “with automatic precision” when the poet’s awareness of her craft is at its height. Such is the case in Mood Indigo, from start to finish.

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 7/18/2020 at 3:30 PM