Of all the grooving going down in American poetry these days, if there’s any at all, a large portion of it’s happening in Fred Moten’s work. The Feel Trio sets down three sets of lithe poem-series with fragile strength, “the beautiful black blonde thing / of destiny birdsong,” full of images destined for the tomorrow when the weight of memory returns, never forgotten.
Slinging language about in a frenzied assault across the page, Moten’s poetry sits upright in the spit sizzling off yesterday’s breakfast bacon, sputtering and growling as it engages readers in an across-the-board wake up call. Listen here.
His references are contemporary as well as historical, steeped in jazz and black history, representing a cultural lexicon of the utmost accomplished chops filled with slang, humor, and critical acumen. Those not in the know should “google” John Akomfrah and take it from there to discover what all is being said and unsaid here. What all is indeed embedded in “our echo” which resonates most fully the further you dig. “Lalia” for instance is “abnormal or disordered parts of speech.” “Theaster” is most likely Theaster Gates an American Social Practice Artist. Moten is on a roll, gathering steam as he pulls round him the accumulative effects of forces waged upon language, people, and place as resulted in the “panafrican” movement. Events and cultural collateral in the shared memory surrounding “Burningham” are but one result of what began hundreds of years ago aboard slavery ships off the African coast.
The reality Moten’s poems bear witness to demands precision and may be more specific a world than proves readily familiar to the average reader, yet it is this richness of viewpoint proves the most rewarding feature of his work. The validity of experience related is inescapable in its complexity and sonic draw.
we study partial folds in them alpine jukes, bent, bow-tongued stick
and move and mahagonnic rupture in september, in alabama, throat
sung to the kabaret’s general steppe and fade. out here you breathe
they breath, this bridge is just, this bridge is just a pile of bones this
load be breathing, this alpine rasp in this dry bridge just be weaving.
He brings to his eclectic mixture of resources a recalcitrant refusal to have it be any different. Moten knows what’s expected, but that’s not his game. Instead of meeting expectations he heads into his own territory. Exploring what’s in his ear. He goes all out chasing down “the off chance, the sooty groove.” He’s sharing what learning he’s gathered from out his personal experience, what’s ongoing and on time. He’s an off the chart, catastrophic riffing risk-taker challenging readers to keep up as he throws down.
Moten knows the score and offers it up on the down low. His speech is for those in the know but even those “just listening” will have some serious osmosis clutter to sort through and figure out. While the specifics of the poems are local, this isn’t small town, rather it is small world. That is, the concern is genuine and real born from the immediacy of experience. A circumstance resulting from knowing what you know because you care for it as much as others do who you find out about only by paying attention to what they do or have done. In any case, the interest is shared. The feeling’s mutual for a history that’s commonly been run through from birth onwards.
At times Moten’s line breaks fall rather flat as though the music isn’t being sought but rather just left to ebb along. This gives the notable effect of being as if prose has just been lopped off into a box-like formed set of lines. As with the opening of a lament on the death of soul music great Phillip “Soul” Wynne leader of the Spinners who passed away in 2012: “I used to drive soul wynne to the tavern every got damn / night so I know he just wanted to kill as many devils as / possible.” But these lines then give way to those which break out into illimitable beats, the poem bouncing to its own rhythm.
By the second stanza, it’s still shaped as a box, but the grill’s clearly been lit: “dropping motherfuckers off in shadow, on the outskirts / of ceased, at the edge of that cool move, then wash our / hands at our wash stand.” And the final stanza, which is again shaped as a box, closes hinting at the identity of the man he’s lamenting. Naming the art by which Wynne made a name for himself in this world, for it was “something about the music the music / curls up in boxes yeah but stretched out quietly with his / head off to the side like it would when he was singing.” In these moments the austere and severe beauty of language to gauge loss is quietly recognized.
Throughout the poems, there’s no shortage of self-important announcements made. Whether broadly ambitious, with sense of doom and gloom, “look who’s coming, it’s the world’s corrosion,” or wittily self-defacing in all its autobiographical splendid surliness:
I turn forty-four like leroy kelley but dug in. the fat
middle is like twenty-two in the afterlease. up in the
joint of protesting joints and unreliable joints and too
old to smoke but every once in a while I be smokin’
Moten keeps the music in the words. Often he’s swinging out boastful declarations like some young rap M.C. as above or as in lines below where he sketches out his thoughts when “on tour” a playbook of the poet on the road.
He’s switching between codes for divergent social groups, playfully mixing his cultural metaphors to create richly nuanced meaning while declaring the ground his own. It’s his dissection of historical tides brought home.
I feel good is brazen on the scene of personal injury. sugar and spice
is some country-ass shit in the middle of this shit. I know I’m not
supposed to say it like that, but what about the rock fights and
random blades when language lays out? there’s no language for the
too sweet object of everybody’s third thought any muhfuckin way.
He’s letting it be known, “this is fred moten y’all.”
I am foment. I speak blinglish. at work they call me
but I don’t come. I come when she call me by my
rightful name. I come to myself from far away just
laid back in the open. I ran from it and was still in it.
The above are the opening lines of the last page of the book. Here’s the final line: “I am fmoten.”