Lois Roma-Deeley’s High Notes: Singing as Survival and as Salvationby Margaret Rogza
(first published in the LA Review, Fall 2010, reprinted here by permission of the author)
“You cannot sing a song and not change your condition,” declared Bernice Johnson Reagon in a 1991 interview with Bill Moyers. Poet Lois Roma-Deeley affirms such a belief in the power of music in High Notes, her third collection of poems (Benu Press, April 2010). Roma-Deeley’s work also makes clear that while the song may be free, the life that produces it often is not. A song is a hard-won accomplishment; its power to provide moments of reprieve and to forge an enduring vision of earthly salvation moves first through pain. Roma-Deeley’s background testifies as well to a belief in the integration of the arts. She has collaborated with visual artist Beth Shadur to produce works that weave words into paintings with themes of identity and social concern. She and Shadur were co-curators of the widely exhibited, three phase, five year Poetic Dialogue project. In its third phase, “Collaborative Vision,” this project paired thirty poets with thirty visual artists to create together works that combined words with images. High Notes itself began as a collaborative project, a jazz opera, with music by composer Christopher ScintoThe poems in High Notes deliver with lyrical intensity specific dramatic plot points in a story of the struggle for beauty and music in a racially segregated world. In subtle ways, the book contextualizes the incipient civil rights and women’s movements. An Italian American and professor of Women’s Studies as well as creative writing, Roma-Deeley presents a group of characters who “represent Italian-American, African-American/White, African-American and British origins.” She reports that audiences have been receptive to her portrayal of these characters. Her enthusiastic publishers, LeRoy Chappell and Lesly Chappell, who are African American and Native American, focus on literature with social justice content.The 1950s world of these poems is a far cry from popular images of 1950s innocence. It is a world where addiction seems like the only possible alternative to a thwarted pursuit of happiness. On tour through cities like Detroit and Kansas City, these characters find a grim reality of cheap hotel rooms where “yellow walls grow thin”. Each of the five characters suffers an addiction, whether to drugs (saxophonist Jake), power (drug dealer Harry), grief (Sugar Baby), anger (Jasmine), or hope (the angel). In the opening poems, each character can only sing the recurring line of an addiction, each voicing a variation on the insistent, “Give-it-to-me; give-it-to-me; give-it-to-me … “Basic facts of these intertwining stories are outlined in the list of dramatis personae. The poems themselves, then, like redemptive songs, plumb the depths beyond that outline. The language, with frequent internal and end rhyme, pulls the reader from the sidelines into the experience. Jasmine June, like a band leader counting the tempo, sounds out a series of words that echo the long o sound: “I already know /about Jim Crow”. Thus when “the music finally flows /into the trumpet, piano, bass and saxophone” that music is a source of power to sustain her beyond the immediate moment: “I can see the future”. Given her sensitivity to the song even before it is played, she can move beyond the cash counting task that begins this poem into a vision of a possible future: I have this feeling a thousand wings are beatingagainst “Colored Only” signs … this, our some day, some time,this seventh heaven dreaming …
Still this vision of a heaven on earth seems only remotely possible, and there is the question of all the life between songs until that “some day.” Even moments of success have undercurrents. Sugar Baby notes that “Now the light inside my eyes is raw, / and every time the audience applauds/ it hurts”.Into this volume of mostly free verse poems, Roma-Deeley weaves the firm logic of English sonnets, sometimes where they might at first seem most surprising. In “Arguing with Angels,” for example, three subtly rhymed quatrains build toward the concluding couplet and the key question of this book, “How will you live?” The sonnet’s last line provides the answer as gesture. “I make my hands a cup: with only this”. Likewise in “Improvisational Memory” Jasmine raises from her point of view a similar, though more forward looking, question: “Now what will you do?Bernice Johnson Reagon in that 1991interview explained to Bill Moyers that “the purpose of a song is to get singing going.” Her explanation does more than belabor the obvious. It tells a truth about music: its effects endure beyond the sounding of the last note. It also tells a truth about freedom and redemption: the arts have power to transform experience, to sustain us, to point the way to freedom even as they provide a freeing experience. For the characters in High Notes, the art that carries such an effect is most particularly music. For Roma-Deeley, poetry shares in this power. The surprising and inevitable open ending of Lois Roma-Deeley’s High Notes concurs with Johnson Reagon’s assertion. “The Biography of Now” concludes with another seeming truism: “In the stepping—/the lifting of the foot, the foot set down into the dust—/we are moved”. The hidden difficulties of lifting the foot and setting it down in dust are made clear in the music of these poems even as their music also lifts the foot.
(first published on Newspages.com)Poetry by Lois Roma-Deeley
Benu Press, April 2010
Paperback: 67pp; $16.95
Review by Patrick Michael Finn
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 airSeven 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:
between midnight and
noon – afraid of running
out of cigarettes and
running out of booze.
I am afraid I am that man who finds strangers for you, brings them home.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.”
I am terrified of the sound a zipper makes.
Rough fingers between your legs.
Of voices at our door.
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 –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:
You will find a Sunday afternoon in Congo Square.
Slave ships. Drummers. Brass Bands. Creoles
in the street dancing memory
into my blood.
Now I am counting my tips,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:
thinking of the last time I left home…
How my little brother begins to stutter
every time Mama grabs his arm and whispers
The sirens in the street are rising.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?”
She recognizes the sound
as something whole, perfectly round –
the ghost of high notes
touching the face of a late night sky.
Review of Rules of Hunger and northSight
by Lewis Turco, Hollins Critic (2006)Rules of Hunger by Lois Roma-Deeley
Lois Roma-Deeley, Rules of Hunger, Star Cloud Press, 2004, ISBN 0-9651835-5-6, quality paperback, 104 pp.
— northSight, Singularity Press, 2006, ISBN 0-9765711-2-9, cloth, 90 pp.
When in 1990 he had seen the first issue of Bill Baer’s The Formalist, A Journal of Metrical Poetry (alas! no longer extant) Arthur Miller wrote, "I am sure I will not be the only one who will be grateful for it. Frankly, it was a shock to realize, as I looked through the first issue, that I had very nearly given up the idea of taking pleasure from poetry." That is the trouble with American poets nowadays, they have forgotten how to entertain the reader. The result is that almost none of the general public reads poetry anymore — it is no longer a pleasurable experience. That's why running across someone like Lois Roma-Deeley is so satisfying. Her first book of poetry, titled Rules of Hunger, is not only readable, it is enjoyable to read. She is a poet who often writes out of her Italian-American background, but not only that. She can conjure up that world in words. You don't believe me? Look at this from "The Apostle of Wax and Shine":
If St. Paul should ever lose his way
on this road that leads through 1959
to my seven-year-old self sitting on the front steps
staring into the nothingness that would become my future,
he would find a rag top convertible and my father
the Apostle of Wax and Shine.
And then she follows that book up two years later with another terrific collection, northSight, which is just as enjoyable to read as her first. She has continued to develop her talent for capturing the personality and character of an individual in a few absolutely solid, pinpoint-focused lines. Not to mention the milieu that her subject inhabits. She is able to pull a reader into her world by the nape of the neck and make him live there until she's done. Then, when you’re through reading, you want to thank her for the abduction.
And that's not all. She is no kind of metrician, but she has such an ear, and such a solid grasp of what the language can do that her experiments are sometimes amazing, like "Obligatory Sex," which doesn't have a sentence in it, just words: verbs in the first triplet; nouns in the second; adverbs in the third; nouns again in the fourth, adverbs and adjectives to end it, but it's one of the sexiest (maybe even one of the dirtiest) poems I've ever read. I suppose a teacher would have to tell students not to try to write like this, because the odds against its working are vast, but on the other hand we will be glad that Roma-Deeley probably never had a teacher who'd point that out to her.
Another thing about Ms. Roma-Deeley is that she is a fine narrator, and she can handle dialogue with the best fiction writers. Her brief four-poem series “Voices from the Aftermath: New York City Requiem” is the most affecting tribute to — and evocation of — the disaster of “9/11” that I have seen to date. These are monologues by people who were left behind, but who are forever trapped in the event: “Young Boy Running in the Street,” “Woman Standing at Ground Zero,” “Widow Waiting Outside the Station House,” “Father Among the Rescue Workers.” I will not quote from any of the poems because to do so would be grossly unfair to readers. However, I do not exaggerate when I say that these poems alone are worth the price of the book, and more than that.