Essays

Breath’s Urgent Song

Breath’s Urgent Song: Philip Levine’s “Call It Music”

The final poem in Philip Levine’s collection Breath, the poem from which Levine has drawn the title for this volume, is a stunning piece entitled “Call It Music.” The opening of the poem locates Levine, “alone here/ in Brooklyn” while the “radio is playing/ Bird Flight, Parker in his California/ tragic voice fifty years ago, his faltering/ “Lover Man” just before he crashed into chaos.” (Bird Flight is a radio show devoted to Charlie Parker’s music that’s broadcast weekday mornings from Columbia University.) The poem proceeds with the story of Charlie Parker’s famous breakdown during and after what has come to be known as the “Lover Man” recording session in Burbank, California, on July 29, 1946 (though Levine says in the poem that it was late March). Parker’s sideman at the session, and friend, trumpeter Howard McGhee, himself relates to Levine (“I know this because Howard told me/ years later…”) part of the dramatic story as the poem unfolds into one of Levine’s superbly braided narratives, weaving together the event itself, McGhee’s memories, and Levine’s personal reflections. McGhee takes Parker from the session to the hotel room they share, and then goes out, leaving Parker to sleep it off; McGhee believes that Parker is simply wasted, and doesn’t realize that he is in the middle of a breakdown. Levine says, “I’m not judging/ Howard, he did better than I could have/ now or then.”

Though the conclusion of the story isn’t told in the poem, it is part of jazz legend. Parker keeps leaving his hotel room and going downstairs naked until at last the manager locks him in his room. During the night, Parker sets his mattress on fire with a cigarette, runs through the lobby in only his socks, and is finally taken off to the Camarillo State Mental Hospital, where he ends up staying for six months. Instead of describing Parker at the end of that night, Levine, in a tour de force passage, imagines what confronts Parker earlier that day, in the clear California sunlight, as he stands outside the recording studio: “… the worst of yesterday’s rain/ had come and gone, the sky was washed. Bird/ could have seen for miles if he’d looked, but what he saw was so foreign he clenched his eyes,/ shook his head, and barked like a dog – just once –/ and then Howard McGhee took his arm and assured him/ he’d be OK.” In that bright light, it is a harrowing foreshadowing of the darkness about to descend upon Charlie Parker.

Other of Levine’s poems have invoked jazz legends in the course of his many books, and in Breath itself many of Levine’s musical exemplars are given nods and shout-outs: Bud Powell, Clifford Brown, Max Roach. The book itself has as its cover a remarkable photo of the trumpeter Don Cherry waiting for his train in the New York subway. “Call It Music” is nominally about Bird, and his genius, and his illness (his breakdown as a result of his heroin addiction, and his compensatory drinking when he couldn’t get heroin, as was the case before the Burbank session when Parker reportedly drank a quart of whiskey just before recording began), but the poem’s attendant angel is really Howard McGhee. For me, the truly breath-taking – so to speak – moment in the poem occurs when Levine meets McGhee, many years after the event: “I remember in ‘85/ walking the halls of Cass Tech, the high school/ where he taught after his performing days,/ when he suddenly took my left hand in his/ two hands to tell me it all worked out/ for the best.” Levine considers why McGhee might have reached this estimation of his own life, adding, “Maybe he’d gotten religion,/ maybe he knew how little time was left, / maybe that day he was just worn down/ by my questions about Parker.”

Yet let’s not forget that “Call It Music” begins with this signature Levine line: “Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song/ in my own breath.” This could be the ars poetica for all of Philip Levine’s poetry. In poem after poem, over the many years of his career, we have seen Levine’s belief that any poet’s individual songs – the lyric voice and its verbal inscription upon the page, those simple rhythms of a poet that we might call his or her own “music,” his or her own “voice” – all come from the simple source of the poet’s breath, the elemental human activity that joins us to all other sentient beings on this earth. It is a sentiment and proclamation as startling and radical as anything in William Carlos Williams or François Villon.

In much the same way that every note delivered from every sax, trumpet, clarinet – any instrument that requires one’s lips and one’s lungs to form and project a sound – becomes a music that depends upon both the regularity and power of breath, the issuance of breath out of the body and into the world, the songs of the jazz artist and the poet are similar. Musicians deliver their music and their songs out along their breath, the stream of notes coming from their instruments. Poets offer the sounds of words, the sounds of language, the music of a poem as it escapes out of their mouths; of course, the contemporary convention is that they first inscribe those sounds as words fixed upon the page before allowing those words to sing upon the air.

But poetry is always song for Philip Levine, and breath is its own essential poetry. For Levine, breath is the most elemental aspect of any human song (with or without words), just as breath is the most elemental aspect of poetry itself. Poetry is like life itself, depending upon that most essential of all human acts – breathing, taking in and releasing one’s own breath. The music by which we live our lives is the music of our own breathing. And we celebrate that the variations, in both jazz and poetry, are endless and rich. They are also personal and individual, specific and proper to each poet, each musician. In an early poem entitled “Breath,” from his book They Feed They Lion, Levine concludes the poem by saying, “I give/ the world my worn-out breath/ on an old tune, I give/ it all I have/ and take it back again.”

A little more than twenty lines into “Call It Music,” Levine says, “I listen to my breath/ come and go and try to catch its curious taste,/ part milk, part iron, part blood, as it passes/ from me into the world.” These are the basic components – each delivered out upon the breath – that the poet tries to identify as being, somehow, himself. Yet he recognizes, “This is not me,/ this is automatic, this entering and exiting,/ my body’s essential occupation without which/ I am a thing.” There we have it. The breath is not the speaker, even if it becomes the engine of the speaker. Likewise, without the essential element of breath, a person soon becomes a thing, each individual becomes a corpse. Just as, without the essential element of song, a poem becomes a dead thing as well.

In just that seemingly small moment, Levine has revealed that “Call It Music” is also a profoundly focused meditation upon mortality. Levine wants us to consider how those voices that once found their ways to us along the breaths of others will be, at the end, silenced. Look how often, in this poem with “music” in its title, the word “silent” or “silenced” appears. There is breath and song and human music, and then there is silence. Levine himself talks of coming into adulthood as being, “…nineteen, working/ on the loading docks at Railway Express/ coming day by day into the damaged body/ of a man while I sang into the filthy air/ the Yiddish drinking songs my Zadie taught me/ before his breath failed.” Before his breath failed. Before the music of his body was silenced.

At the conclusion of “Call It Music,” Levine says of Howard McGhee, “To him Bird/ was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note/ going out forever on the breath of genius/ which I now hear soaring above my own breath/ as this bright morning fades into afternoon.” Here is the convergence of the breath and music of the great Bird (over the airwaves of the radio) with the simple breath and breathing of the poet. The songs of the masters help us to continue; it’s that simple. Their voices become the pulse that joins our own pulse, the urgency that is the measure of our own breathing. What does Levine say next? “Music. I’ll call it music.”

Not only to himself, a poet looking toward the mortality that lies ahead – that landscape without breath – but for all of us trying to continue living in a world with constantly eroding shores, Levine reminds us, speaking still of music, “It’s what we need/ as the sun staggers behind the low gray clouds/ blowing relentlessly in from the nameless ocean,/ the calm and endless one I’ve still to cross.” It is with these lines that Philip Levine has chosen to conclude both his poem, “Call It Music,” and the book Breath – or one could say, The Book of Breath – itself.

First published in FIELD [2009]