Behind God’s back | On Thulani Davis’s poetry collection Nothing but the Music

Here are the first lines of Thulani Davis’s 1978 poem “Mecca Flats 1907”:

On this landscape

Like a thin air

Hard to breathe

Behind God’s back

I see the doors

I wanted to underline the line Behind God’s back—such an image! But the book itself is so pretty, lithe, lovely. Better to leave it unmarked?

The book is Nothing but the Music, a new collection of Thulani Davis’s poems. Its subtitle Documentaries from Nightclubs, Dance Halls, & a Tailor’s Shop in Dakar: 1974-1992 is a somewhat accurate description of the content here. These are poems about music—about Cecil Taylor and The Commodores and Thelonious Monk and Henry Threadgill and Bad Brains and more. “About” is not really the right word, and of course these poems are their own music; reading them aloud reveals a complexity of rhyme and rhythm that might be lost to the eye on the page.

But where was I—I wanted to underline the line Behind God’s back, but I didn’t. I didn’t even dogear the page. Instead, I went back to read Davis’s acknowledgements, a foreword by Jessica Hagedorn, and an introduction by Tobi Haslett. The material sets the stage and provides context for the poems that follow. Davis’s acknowledgments begin:

I have heard this music in a lot of clubs that no longer exist, opera houses in Italy that will stand another hundred years parks in Manhattan, Brooklyn, L.A., San Francisco, and Washington, DC as well as on Goree Island and in Harare, Zimbabwe. Some of it was in lofts in lower Manhattan now inhabited by millionaires, crowded bistros in Paris that are close, and legendary sites like Mandel Hall and the Apollo, radio studios, recording studios, and my many homes.

Acknowledging the weird times that have persisted (behind God’s back or otherwise), Davis touches on the COVID-19 lockdown that took the joy of live music from her—and then returned it in the strange form of “masked protesters massed in the streets singing ‘Lean on Me'” during the protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Poems in Nothing but the Music resonate with the protests against police violence and injustice we’ve seen this year. The speaker of “Back Stage Drama (For Miami)” (surely Davis herself?) repeats throughout the poem that “I was gonna talk about a race riot,” but the folks around her are absorbed in other, perhaps more minute affairs:

They all like to hang out

Thinking is rather grim to them.

Composed in 1980, the poem documents an attempt to attempt to address the riots in May of the same year in Miami, Florida, after several police officers were acquitted in the murder of Arthur McDuffie, a black man.

The speaker of the poem embeds a poetic plea, a poem-within-a-poem:

I said, ‘they’re mad, they’re on the the bottom going down/

stung by white justice in a white town

and then there’s other colored people

who don’t necessarily think they’re colored people

taking up the middle/leaving them the ground.’

But her would-be audience is weary:

I am still trying to talk about this race riot.

Minnie looked up and said, ‘We don’t have anywhere

to put any more dead.’

Snake put on his coat to leave, ‘We never did,

we never did.’

1992’s “It’s Time for the Rhythm Revue” takes for its erstwhile subject the riots that ensued after the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King. The subject is far more complex though—the speaker of the poem desires joy of course, not violence:

did they acquit somebody in LA?

will we burn it down on Saturday

or dance to the Rhythm Revue

the not too distant past

when we thought we’d live on?

Is God’s back turned—or do the protagonists just live behind it?:

…I clean my house

listening to songs from the past

times when no one asked anyone

if they’d seen a town burn

cause baby everybody had.

In Nothing but the Music, music is part and parcel of the world, entangled in the violence and injustice of it all, not a mere balm or solace but lifeforce itself, a point of resistance against it all. In “Side A (Sir Simpleton/Celebration), the first of two poems on Henry Threadgill’s 1979 album X-75, Vol. I, Davis’s narrator evokes

at the turning of the day

in these winters/in the city’s bottomless streets

it seems sometimes we live behind god’s back

we/the life blood

of forgotten places/unhallowed ground

sometimes in these valleys

turning the corner of canyons now filled with blinding light streams caught between this rock & a known hard place

sometimes in utter solitude

a chorale/a sweetness/makes us whole & never lost

And again there that line, a note from a previous jam—it seems sometimes we live behind god’s back—I’ll dogear it here, digitally, underline it in my little blog scrapbook.

I think seems is the right verb though, above. Does the star of “Lawn Chair on the Sidewalk” not remain in God’s gaze?

there’s a junkie sunning himself

under my front tree

that tree had to fight for life

on this Brooklyn street

disease got to its limbs

while still young

Typing the lines out, I wonder who I meant by star above.

Nothing but the Music is filled with stars. Here’s avant-piano great Cecil Taylor in “C.T. at the Five Spot”:

this is not about romance & dream

it’s about a terrible command performance of the facts

of time & space & air

In a synesthestic moment, the speaker merges her art with its subject:

the player plays/Mr. Taylor plays

delicate separate licks of poems

brushes in tones lighter & tighter/closer in space

In the end it’s one art:

I have heard this music

ever since I can remember/I have heard this music

There are plenty more famous musicians, of course, but more often than not minor players emerge with the greatest force. There’s the unknown hornplayer whose ecstatic playing inspired 1975’s “He Didn’t Give Up/He Was Taken.” In “Leaving Goree” there are the “two Bambara women…gold teeth gleaming” who “sit like mountains” and then explode in song.

Davis crafts here characters with deft economy. Here’s the aforementioned couple of “Back Stage Drama (For Miami)”:

Snake & Minnie

who love each other dearly

drink in different bars,

ride home in separate cars.

They like to kiss goodnight

with unexplored lips.

They go out of town

to see each other open.

Or the hero of 1982’s “Bad Brains, A Band”—

the idea that they think must scare people to death

the only person I ever met from southeast DC

was a genius who stabbed her boyfriend for sneaking up on her in the kitchen

she was tone deaf and had no ear for French

 

she once burned her partner in bid whist

for making a mistake

At the core of it all is Davis’s strong gliding voice, pure and clean, channeling miracle music and synthesizing it into new sounds. The speaker of “C.T. at the Five Spot” assessed Taylor’s performance as a work of physics, a transcendence beyond “romance & dream,” but the speaker of 1982’s “Zoom (The Commodores)” gets caught up in the aural romance of The Commodore’s pop magic:

zoom I love you

cause you won’t say no/cause you don’t want to go

cause it’s so cruel without love

give me the tacky grandeur of Atlantic City

on the Fourth of July

the corny promises of Motown

give me the romance & the Zoom.

I love those corny promises too. The romance and the zoom are not, at least in my estimation, behind God’s back, but rather, if you believe in that sort of thing, might be God’s special dream. Nothing but the Music cooks raw joy and raw pain into something sublime. I like poems best when they tell stories, and Davis is a storyteller. The poems here capture place and time, but most of all sound, sound, rhythm, and sound. Lovely stuff.

Nothing but the Music is forthcoming from Blank Forms Editions.

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