Mess Is Poetry’s Mass: Music at the Heart of Thinking by Fred Wah

Music at the Heart of Thinking reads much like the song “Lonely Woman” by saxophonist Ornette Coleman. There is a relentless rhythm, almost atonal melody, and the sneaking suspicion that, for the artist, feeling “this / isness a nebula of a dense self-reflected frame that questions limit” is impossible without understanding: “Don’t think thinking without heart no such separation / within the acting body.” It is fitting these “notation[s] of thinking as feeling” were started by Wah in the early 1980s “provoked by a request from bpNichol” as they acutely articulate the borderblur poetics Nichol so strongly advocates. The book is both poem and essay, music and language, improvisation and fine craft, feeling and thinking. Wah unsettles “the drawer of poetry, closed to keep the lake from flooding.” This decades-long engagement with reading, art, music, and critical thought gives an example of what Theodor Adorno calls in Minima Moralia “the attempt to present aspects of our shared philosophy from the standpoint of subjective experience.” The reader understands the fragmented text as a historical document, a journal of reading and thought that asks to look outward as much as it looks inward, that posits confusion as much as it does insight: “you / know what I can’t get over is the synaptic speed of now you / don’t see it now you do make it up.” Wah binds thinking and feeling into thinking as feeling through the structure of the long-poem, where fragments (feelings) are granular, but can be understood within the whole (thinking). Wah grounds the reader in a simple thing: a life of thought as opportunity, “On this side the door is open I am standing in the doorway.” Music at the Heart of Thinking is aware of the possibility of alienation that comes with the long-poem’s unfinished and “difficult” sensibility. Still Wah deals with a characteristic humour: Oh god please give us a second chance we’ll hit the nail square on the head we’ll dance for love instead of shadows if you’ll forget our other prayers we’ll build a house out of bananas something concrete we can hang onto. Like Spicer before him, Wah proves that in the right (write) mouth the poem itself might be the best critical tool we have.   Geoffrey Nilson is a MA student in English Literature at Simon Fraser University, and the author of four poetry chapbooks. Recent publications have appeared in filling Station, Hamilton Review of Books, CV2, and Sweet Water: Poems from the Watersheds (Caitlin Press, 2020). He is the BC-YK Regional Representative for the League of Canadian Poets. ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.
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