Winner of the Samuel T. Coleridge Prize, Lois Roma-Deeley’s latest poetry collection High Notes tours the bleak, unforgiving world of jazz in the late 1950s with a cast of five dramatis personae who move through impoverished landscapes of bars, pawnshops, grimy hotels and police stations. Carrying burdens of regret and despair, death and rage, the figures who people High Notes pacify themselves with liquor and dope in the loneliest corners of Chicago, New York, Detroit, Kansas City, and Los Angeles, destroying themselves on the edge of hope.
Saxophonist Jake Delmonico essentially murders his two young sons as captain of a car accident while driving high. His common-law wife, Sugar Baby Hayes, a blues singer so wracked with the agony of losing her children (and unable to forgive her husband), is soon strung out on the same drug that contributed to their deaths, as though she is both numbing herself and reaching into her busted veins to find her boys and bring them back to life. “Not Yet a Junkie Whore,” begins with the result of Sugar Baby’s increasing deterioration and the little she has left:
I am afraid of the air
between midnight and
noon – afraid of running
out of cigarettes and
running out of booze.
Seven poems earlier, “Not Here, Not There,” Jake predicts through the same language of fear the junkie whore Sugar Baby will inevitably become, and how through both the past and the present he will serve as both cause and eventual perpetuator of her dehumanization:
I am afraid I am that man who finds strangers for you, brings them home.
I am terrified of the sound a zipper makes.
Rough fingers between your legs.
Of voices at our door.
And Jake knows he owes her – owes his dead children and himself – something that can never be repaid, his prison of futility most painfully expressed in section two of “After the Jam Session,” “Jake Delmonico, Jazz Man in His Dressing Room”: “I owe / money to the man for ponies who land, head first, in the dirt – / they die – right before my eyes – inches before the finish line.”
Blues singer and waitress Jasmine June seeks redemption and freedom from her battered existence by transfiguring her rage into righteous anger as a black woman who reflects upon both her cultural history and identity while she lives through the brutality that accompanies the Civil Rights Movement. In “Jasmine & Jazz,” she explores these sources of jazz and self, intertwined forces of sorrow and joy:
Open me –
You will find a Sunday afternoon in Congo Square.
Slave ships. Drummers. Brass Bands. Creoles
in the street dancing memory
into my blood.
Later, in “Jasmine Watches the Little Rock Nine on TV,” Jasmine June’s internal world gains the momentum of discovery – an understated epiphany – that she is more than a singer and waitress, but a participant in the struggle for equality:
Now I am counting my tips,
thinking of the last time I left home…
How my little brother begins to stutter
every time Mama grabs his arm and whispers
Rounding out the quintet are two figures that hover over and haunt the collection with menace and grace: hustler, dope dealer, and loan shark Harry Jones, and the disembodied Angel, who may be the ghost of Billie Holiday. While Harry controls Jake, Sugar Baby, and Jasmine June with his powerful shackles of money and drugs, “Now get down on your knees, / kiss the floor and believe / I will hurt you,” Angel blesses the wretched with hope, though too often they fail to see her:
The sirens in the street are rising.
She recognizes the sound
as something whole, perfectly round –
the ghost of high notes
touching the face of a late night sky.
Though the individual poems can best be described as lyric as opposed to narrative, High Notes as a whole is woven with a narrative trajectory often reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Though Slaughter, a novel in which poetry and prose occupy the same space, based loosely on the life of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. Roma-Deeley avoids the pitfalls of laboring to describe the sound of jazz, but instead gives the music shape through the inner worlds of both its performers and those who cross into their lives with steady supplies of death and hope. High Notes succeeds in innumerable ways, particularly in how the book answers its own last line: “What story can contain us?”