Eve West Bessier’s Roots Music: Listening to Jazz is a blast from first to last, a word feast from West to east. Each poem in the collection was inspired by listening to old jazz numbers. From Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and co, the poet found her bounce, her rhythm, and the linguistic playfulness that makes this book stand out.
She begins with a bang. “Zoo You, Boogaloo” leaps off the page, hoots, yowls, and growls its way into existence. It’s a Noah’s ark of a poem, cramming internal rhyme, street slang, onomatopoeia, alliteration, even a Whitman reference, into twenty-four joyous lines all about a bestiary that’s doubling as a jazz club.
Using jazz-like extemporization and free verse, West Bessier keeps up the pace. Rich language and imagery conjure cityscapes from Paris to New York to Havana, the work full of rain and night-sweats and linguistic hi-jinks.
But there’s more to this poet than exuberance. Robert Frost once said that writing free verse was like playing tennis with the net down, and some of the finest moments of the collection come in the more formally rigid works. The best poem here, the bilingual “Dos Gardenias Para Tí,” is a pantoum (two lines from every four-line stanza are repeated in a different order in the next stanza) that is both funny and haunting. The repeated lines add poignance, a perfect example of form giving depth to meaning.
Other standout poems are “The Love Tattoo,” the longest poem in the book, which looks at the life of a former violin prodigy returning to her roots, and “Oklahoma Memory,” with its tale of a couple struggling in the Great Depression told in taut three-line stanzas that pulse with energy.
Finally, to you, reader, a piece of advice. Find recordings of the same jazz numbers as West Bessier (they’re listed beneath the poems’ titles), pour a glass of something rich and dark, and read the poems slowly, one by one, while you’re listening, savouring every word like it’s a note sung by Ella Fitzgerald. If there’s one thing jazz teaches us, it’s that none of us are getting out of here alive, but we can sure enjoy the ride. Roots Music bears the same beautiful message.