In the tradition of the Langton Hughes classic Montage of a Dream Deferred, Mitchell L. H. Douglas uses persona poetry to explore the personal and professional struggles of soul legend Donny Hathaway in his debut collection Cooling Board: a Long-Playing Poem. Evoking the sense of listening to a concept album, Douglas presents a narrative in two sides: side one focusing on Hathaway’s development as a young musician and subsequent rise to fame and side two bearing witness to the adversity that plagued his later years. Readers will see Hathaway as true to his family, true to his faith, and uncompromising in his quest for musical innovation.
In a nod to Hathaway’s legacy as a musical trailblazer, Douglas implements a significant poetic innovation in the format of the book. By including alternate versions or “takes” of poems throughout Cooling Board, the reader hears an echo of ideas that can be likened to an album with previously unreleased versions of popular songs. When the poems are revisited in alternate takes, new information emerges, and the reader is forced to consider new interpretations. Along the way, poems resembling liner notes and pop charts enhance the experience, never letting the reader forget that the heart of this ride is the music.
Above all, Douglas’ depiction of Hathaway gives readers the human side of a man who has remained a mystery in the 30 years since his death. Not only does the poet speak in the voices of Hathaway and his long-time collaborator Roberta Flack, the reader also hears the voices of those closest to Hathaway whom we are less familiar with: his mother, Drusella Huntley, his grandmother, Martha Crumwell?Hathaway’s earliest music teacher?and his wife, Eulaulah.
As the book’s first “Liner Notes” poem recognizes, “Cooling Board is about life lessons, the difficult things you don’t always get on the first take.” With Douglas as a guide versed in the power of possessing many tongues, Cooling Board captures its reader like the best Hathaway song: passionately, honestly, and with an undeniable sense of purpose.
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