Hip hop historian Harry Allen described the need for music to reinvent itself, to riff on existing themes, to improvise and break from tradition as “freaking the note.” In his first collection of poems, Mr. Jampole adheres to Allen’s dictum to reinvent, to riff, and freak the note.
The book begins with the charm of a master poet recreating stories of men or women just before a crisis begins or ends, at a precarious equipoise before a moment of change. Some are famous, others ordinary people. A modern-day Moses sees the burning bush in the suburbs. Gilgamesh is caught in a traffic jam. Plath makes fudge. Pascal genuflects to a new geometry of poetry. Lenny Ross slowly disassociates into psychosis. Hugo Ball, one of the founders of the Dada movement, sells his wife to soldiers. All of the characters come alive in verse, their stories echoing moments of ecstasy, tragedy, irony and comedy. Mr. Jampole creates some of the deepest feeling people you will ever meet.
Then, slowly, section by section, Mr. Jampole begins his riff. He cycles into poems of protest and loss. He echoes Coltrane and Charles Ives in his melodic range. His work is a subversion of confessional conventionalism: his celebrations of self are much more carefully abstract, until the reader cannot fathom if they are celebrations of self or retellings of the Everyman myth.
The poems will surprise you, because they thoroughly examine life and ideas in new ways. For example, he riffs on a love song by directing a speaker’s affections to a woman in a Seurat painting. Stylistic play, iconoclastic form, heightened imagination – “Music from Words” is a sensitive and astonishing first collection.
The music in this debut is not “pure” anything. It is hybrid elegy, jazz, sonnet, and rock and roll. Its movements are symphonic, its protest as loud as techno in a downtown club. The capacity for stylistic metaphor and the considerable energy in experimentation makes this a revolutionary first book. For example, take the adaptation of Jain philosophy to a love poem, or the “Dream of Post-Historic Times” which explores the “mask of naming” in a poem that criticizes bourgeois trappings. Each establishes a central theme and then plays with it, switching line after line in tone and a wide array of colorful phrasings.
The multiplicity of layers of meaning and experience is what sets the poems in “Music from Words” apart from other contemporary poetry. Many of the poems gradually dissolve into more abstract levels of communications. In the confines of a single poem, Mr. Jampole takes the reader from simple phrases to complicated post-modernism, one step at a time so that the reader glides naturally and with no discomfort into a dense woods of experimental language. These flights into ever more abstract variations mirror the developmental dynamics of a jazz solo.
In almost all of the poems, the speaker is not Mr. Jampole. Whomever the speaker, they easily slip into moments of chaos that crystallize into epiphany. It is an easy transition into experimentation which then explodes with insight. The reader reads the entire poem, then he reads it again in light of that one line at the end that makes him reconsider every syllable, every intentional pause.
Lush with allusions to mythology, history and literature, “Music from Words” also contains moments of simplicity - from a domestic dispute to a daydreamer in a staff meeting. At times, in moments of insightful humor or simple joy, the reader will laugh out loud.
Despite its diversity of subject and form, “Music from Words” is unified by its adherence to the subject matter within a poem and to the wide range of metaphor that the subject entails. As E.B. White suggested of a sentence, all thoughts must be unified to the main point. Mr. Jampole riffs on this technique in “Source of All,” expanding on the elemental water, exploring all of the ways that water can be made beautiful and centered, again and again.
The careful frame of his work around a single subject within a poem leads to his arresting endings, which celebrate the poem’s linguistic or experimental aim. In “Apollo,” a moving response to cancer, Mr. Jampole’s concluding stanza is: “a dream so real / I won’t remember it.” In “Remember the Fool in the Rain,” we feel the confusion of “will soon who we will soon who we will soon / who we will soon.” build momentum, and then crescendo into the end: “It’s good to know the rain will fall / many times again before I die.” The severity of truth echoes throughout this collection; it is studded with lines that underscore the human condition.
In his stochastic equation between language poetry and narrative, Jampole invents new forms and metric variations. “Music from Words” is incisive, at times funny, at other times challenging. It can be simply enjoyable - reading as entertainment - but it also makes the reader see literature as craft, not confession, literature as invention and experimentation, not immediate gratification. This book is a beautiful and comforting revolution, a literature to take with you, a spirited and eloquent music against the wind.