Playlist: A Poem by David Lehman

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Reminiscent of his 2000 collection, The Daily Mirror, which is a kind of daily diary of poems, Playlist is also a collection of daily poems, these written from November 20, 2017, through January 15, 2018.  But more so than the previous collection, these poems are conceived of as a single work, a single poem in homage to and an elegy for his friend, the poet A. R. Ammons (“Archie”). As in the previous collection, but perhaps with a greater emphasis, more in the foreground – as indicated by the title – jazz and classical music form a sort of soundtrack to his thoughts and impressions. Movies, the weather, and poets are also recurring themes in both works.
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Lehman explains his long acquaintance and collaboration with Ammons in a foreword. Indeed, the form of Playlist is itself an homage to his mentor, whose 1964 Tape for the Turn of the Year is also a long diary poem. Like Ammons, too, Lehman uses punctuation sparingly, basically just commas. This style mimics the free flow of jazz notes, a musical style to which both were devoted. Ammons taught at Cornell, in Ithaca, NY, and Lehman a hundred miles away in Clinton, where he is on the faculty at Hamilton College.  They met in 1974 and enjoyed a long, warm, collaborative friendship until Ammons’ death in 2001.
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Several of Lehman’s verses directly address his friend, starting with the first, 11/20/2017, which begins:
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Dear Archie, today
I drove past 606 Hanshaw Road
where you haven’t lived
since 1993…
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Noting Archie had “left us // in February 2001, a week before / you would have turned seventy-five,” Lehman goes on:
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I thought of your coil
of tape for the turn
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of the year while I was driving
and listening to the radio
and deciding I would write
this poem to you, old friend.
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Ten days later he writes, on 11/30/2017
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Hey Archie,
I thought of dialing your phone number today
257-6181
to see if I can still make you laugh…
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He goes on to recall a joke they’d shared.  In 12/4/2017, there’s another joke, following a direct, loving poetic invocation:
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Archie you must be my guide now
be to me what Virgil
was to Dante, what Rousseau
was to Shelley. I made you laugh
today we were talking about Lolita
the movie, with Shelley Winters
as the poor mother of the nymphet
and I said, “If Shelley Winters comes,
can spring be far behind?”
Archie, your guide was the wind
Mine is the voice
of Cecile McLorin Salvant, “Nothing
like you has ever been seen before”
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Lehman refers to other female jazz vocalists throughout. On consecutive days, 11/24/2017 and 1/25/2017, it is Peggy Lee. Subtitled “Comes Love,” 11/25/17 begins:
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I’d be a beggar or a knave for you
Peggy Lee, “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
and why Lee Wiley?
you’ll find my reasoning is logically sound
and if that isn’t love it’ll have to do
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Ella Fitzgerald, June Hutton, Rosemary Clooney, Billie Holiday and others make appearances, as do movie stars. December 15, 16 and 17 are meditations on Alfred Hitchcock films and their stars. “I Live in Hitchcock’s America,” begins 12/17/17 . “Hitchcock’s America” is the title of an essay Lehman once wrote:
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As one who has written on “Hitchcock’s America”
I keep waiting for a magazine editor to ask me to write
“Hitchcock’s Blondes”
who was the most beautiful of all
Stacey says Grace Kelly and I guess I agree though Ingrid Bergman…
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The poem goes on to mention Kim Novak in Vertigo, Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, Janet Leigh (Psycho) and Tippi Hedren (The Birds and Marnie).
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Similarly, The Godfather is alluded to in several poems (11/26/17 and 12/26/17). “‘One O’Clock Jump’ with Count Basie now / that’ll grab your attention…” the latter begins before muting the sound to listen to dialogue from The Godfather, and we can hear Marlon Brando: “I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman. / Blood is a big expense….”
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On 1/8/18 and 1/10/18, there’s a focus on the stock market. “Jazz is the music of the stock market / As it zigs and zags…” in 1/8 and in 1/10: “and the Dow is now / in positive territory / erasing earlier losses”: ah, there’s the reason for the interest! That poem goes on: “The two most boring words / in the language are / ‘Russia investigation’”
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Is it any wonder that the next day’s poem, 1/11/18, is subtitled “Fake News”?
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On the last day, 1/15/18, Lehman laments he is
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happy to be alive
sad to bring this
poem to an end,
propose a toast to Archie
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and concludes sweetly
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the music was great
from Ithaca to New York City
with you beside me.
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On top of an impressive knowledge of music and movies, though never in the form of “lecture,” Playlist entertains and engages the reader and is a sweet accolade for a dear old friend.
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf
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