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In Review

Edited by liz gonzález

The Language of Saxophones: Selected Poems

By Kamau Daáood

City Lights Publishers, 2005

Kamau Daáood, performance poet and community arts activist, is the Artistic Director of L.A.’s World Stage Performance Gallery. His work can be heard on his award-winning CD Leimert Park.

Reviewed by ariel robello

When Adolphe Sax designed the Saxophone, his hope was to create an instrument that had the flexibility of string instruments, the power of brass instruments, and the tonal variety of woodwinds.  He was successful, but it wouldn’t be until the instrument, shunned by orchestras, found its way into the grateful hands of jazz musicians that the true potential of the instrument would be reached.  Enter Kamau Daáood, a native Angelino raised in an urban wellspring of raw and bitter notes, of hard knocks and paralyzed beauty trapped in the concrete facades of modern living.  It is not easy to be a leader in this place, even less so to be an arts activist.  But easy is a synonym for lazy and there is nothing lazy about Jazz, about art, or about this particular “word musician,” as Daáood became known while he performed with the Pan African People’s Arkestra.

Like the saxophone, the poems in Daáood’s The Language of Saxophones heave and bite, dance and flit, sway and slide as the notes of the sax would in the hands of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker.  Much like James Baldwin achieves in the jazz tale Sonny’s Blues, Daáood does not write about jazz, his poems are jazz, born as he pulls his words from inside the drum, from the pads of the dancers feet, from between the reeds, from under the keys, from the pull of the strings, from inside the trumpet players cheeks.  The rhythms of his lines blow with the same deluge of determined hot air, frustration, sensual spit, erratic pestilence and desperate hope that is evoked by the crescendos of a jazz song. 

                        silken gut songs
                        bubbling from the diaphragm
                        communities of consciousness
                        world music
                        soothsayer scatting landscapes
                        wailing hidden places
                        circles bust
                        listening hard for origins lullabies
                        celestial solos
                        sailing galactic wailing
                        bebop fingerpop from the top
                        anti mental slavery choir
                        avant-garde be on guard
                        to extinguish the self
                        into the golden cinders of the sun
                        in an air of smiles
                        hit this heart with a sledgehammer
                        it will not be moved

                                     —from “Liberator of the Spirit”

Daáood practices the form referred to as “freed verse”—lines that rattle like tin cups on jail bars, that unnerve like sirens at dawn, language that has caught the Holy Ghost and is left screaming in the ordered rows of pews.  There are no capital letters, colons, and periods to guide readers, as they are not needed.  As a true orator, Daáood’s freed verse assures its readers a liberating experience guided by a voice so permeating that even in print it echoes.  At times his lines take strides as long as landing strips: “my invisible turban is an angelic saxophone solo.”  And at times they fire as short and abrupt as a DJ's scratch: “bust the rat’s eardrum.”

In the poem “Army of Healers” the speaker tells of a boy who finds salvation in the hot winds blowing through the saxophone: 

                        arthur learned to finger the saxophone
                        by picking cotton with bloody fingers at the age of five
                        he moistens his reeds with dreams he collected
                        as he sang spirituals by his grandmother’s knees
                        when he plays his soul spills out from the bell of his horn
                        sometimes he vomits flowers sometimes barbwire
                        it depends on what his heart had to stomach
                        the night before

Daáood has dedicated his life and craft to draft members for this “army” with the hope that the creative process he lives and breathes can help heal the wounds of the community he loves.  Many poets are seen as fatalist with poems that are bound by what life has taken from them, but Daáood’s words embrace the world as it is and the people who are trying to navigate its obstacles.

And they do enlist every night of the week at the small storefront Mecca in Leimert Park known to all as The World Stage.  Since 1989 when Daáood and legendary drummer Billy Higgins founded “The Stage,” people from all walks of life, representing generations of healers and generations of wounds, with poem or Djembe in hand have come to testify, to surrender their burdens and their blessings unto the mic, to get lost in the music, to be revived.  “Leimert Park” captures the life and sounds in and outside of “The Stage”:

                        the sidewalk is hard mud cloth
                        massaging the souls of my feet
                        i do West African dance steps
                        reflecting the sun off my Stacey Adams shoes

                        i stand on the o.g. corner
                        tell old school stories with a bebop tongue
                        to the hip hop future
                        i see new rainbows in their eyes
                        as we stand in puddles of melted chains

Angelino or not, Jazz aficionado or hip hop, politically left or politically correct, we should all be grateful to Kamau Daáood for his unwavering faith in humanity, for his commitment to his craft and for his quiet moonsong that serves as both balm and catnip for the wounded army of healers working their way through this world as cabbies and waiters.  Daáood wrote this book for the people, not for the critics, down to its pocket size; it is humble and it is landmark, and we, we are so blessed.

ariel robello is the author of My Sweet Unconditional (Tia Chucha Press). She is a former PEN West Emerging Voices Fellow and the founder of Full Moon Phases—a multi-ethnic, multi-generational women’s poetry workshop. Currently, she is working on her MFA at Antioch University.

In Review submission guidelines: Please send a proposal of your review of a poetry book or chapbook to liz@speechlessthemagazine.org. Write "Proposal for In Review" in the subject line so I don't think it's spam. - liz


Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach