Book Review: Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags

Click for a larger image of Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags

by Brian Gilmore

    Publication Date:
    List Price: $12.00
    Format: Paperback, 108 pages
    Classification: Poetry
    ISBN13: 9780967504308
    Imprint: Karibu Books
    Publisher: Karibu Books
    Parent Company: Karibu Books
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    Read a Description of Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags

    Book Reviewed by Kalamu ya Salaam

    Brian Gilmore is a cut above. His 30-part poem on Duke Ellington is deep and deft. Each section can stand alone, but taken as a whole the piece is a magnificent, swinging suite not unlike some of Ellington's major compositions.

    Gilmore has done his homework and is thorough in using specific details of the lives and lifestyles of Duke and his band members. If you know the sound and history of Duke music, your appreciation for Gilmore's work will be increased three or four-fold.

    Rather than solely evoke the music itself, Gilmore gives us nuanced and knowledgeable portraits of these musicians as human beings with desires, contradictions and marvelous musical talents. The book opens with an elegant portrait of young Ellington:

    the boy who painted 
    signs was blessed 
    from birth, 
    played baseball 
    and hung out all over the city 
    where he was born, 
    ward place Washington, D.C. 
    rent party regular 
    down with the 
    buddy Bolden 
    Bunk Johnson 
    intrigued with this 
    New Orleans 
    Negro music 


    The book's ending is equally poignant, for now the spotlight is turned on Duke's son Mercer, who carried the band on after Duke was gone. Hear both the familial tenderness and the inevitable comparative tension of father and son who are also musicians and successive leaders of the same band:

    comes the son 
    to clean the house
    move the chairs 
    sweep the floors 
    put the books back 
    where they 

    get the house ready 
    for the world 
    the head of the house will not be 

    and the poem continues with this magnificent image of macho and sentimentality mixed into an inseparable duende:

    like an extra in 
    a film 
    the son was 

    to love the man 
    but not the father or 
    the father and not the 

    like we love the man 
    and never knew the father 
    and we let the 
    father become what 
    he had to become

    and the man what he had 
    to become

    to the side 
    like a bullfighter 
    with a red cape

    took the father's paint 
    into his hands

    smeared it all over the earth 
    gave it to everyone who 
    wanted to know how it felt 
    to be blessed

    The language of this long poem is simple, but the sentiments are bittersweet river deep, ocean wide, as right as rain and terrible as a thunderstorm. Gilmore is grappling with issues at a larger level than the majority of contemporary poetry attempts. Most of us go for the personal moments, the introspection of the self, and here comes Gilmore telling us about Ellington and Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Juan Tizol, Bubber Miley and Billy Strayhorn; telling us about the meaning of music that unerringly was the essence of us.

    Some would look for more alliteration and other poetic devices to dress up the words, but by the use of understatement and simplicity Gilmore more accurately conveys the grand complexity of Duke's mighty music. What Gilmore does is show the immensity of his subject by employing tiny, precise gestures that attract our attention more thoroughly than if he were waving huge colorful flags. I think Gilmore's technique is cinematic rather than dramatic, meaning like a good movie actor using just soft voice and facial gesture he reveals a world that on stage might require grand movements and tumultuous talk. This minimalist approach was a successful gambit that could have easily backfired had not Gilmore packed the spare stanzas with so much history, with so much meaning, and so much reflection of the rigorous beauty of Duke's music.

    On the deficit side of the street, I do not like either the layout or the typeface that was chosen; neither has the elegance of the music nor the subtlety of the poetry. The typeface is hard to read, and it is very, very difficult to distinguish commas from periods, which may not seem like a major problem, but in poetry as tightly crafted as this is, every word, every punctuation, every line break contributes both to the overall meaning as well as to the beauty of the poem's content and topography. Layout wise, the book would have been better served by isolating the sections instead of running them one after the other without breaks. The cover in purple, green and white with a black & white photo of Duke is gaudy rather than grand. I doubt Duke would have found this combination of typeface, layout and cover attractive.

    But regardless of the gaucheness of the package, the redemption is in the message. Let me close this review with one of my favorite sections, part 6.

    Dreamy Blues:

    a young girl 
    is somewhere waiting on 
    the boy she loves; she 
    has seen him everyday for the last 
    five years but today he will not come.

    an old man 
    is down by a river 
    standing at the spot 
    where he saw his only son drown.

    a woman who never knew her 
    mother but knew her 
    mother did not lover her 
    is somewhere walking the 

    i travel to all these places, 
    long to capture that 
    which seems to be our shadow 
    swells with absurdity 
    recalls jobs we can't have, 
    hotels we can't enter 
    restaurants which 
    show us doors instead of menus.

    ours is a deep dyed emotion; 
    marching bands 
    ragtimers banjo pickers 
    barrelhouse ballers 
    dangerous dance halls 
    segregated neighborhoods 
    too proud to weep 
    what they live.

    we are that drama. 
    we are this unusual arrangement 
    that speaks 
    for the millions 
    that is why 
    this song is full of 
    our dreams.

    heard in 
    late hours 
    on our radios 
    phonographs we love ourselves more 
    sleep well at night 
    rise from our beds 
    to work hard 
    and fancy future 
    triumphs where 
    we are wide awake 
    in the middle 
    of nightmare

    this sound 
    will carry us forward 
    and speak to the world 
    in a language that does 
    not lie

    just a ditty i wrote down 
    one day 
    before the show 
    while my 
    mother prepared supper

    and somewhere 
    we were living 
    this mood’

    Gilmore, I love this work, madly.

    Read Karibu Books’s description of Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags.