On 'Short History of the Saxophone'

Editorial note: This review of Tom Weatherly’s Short History of the Saxophone (New York: Groundwater Press, 2006) originally appeared in The Poetry Project Newsletter no. 212, October/November 2007). — Julia Bloch

Of course the word is a brick. This notion, and also that of poet as mason, is gorgeously confirmed in Thomas Weatherly’s new book, Short History of the Saxophone (Groundwater Press, 2006). Though Weatherly has been publishing poetry for almost forty years, Short History of the Saxophone is his first published work since the early ’70s, when he put out two books — Maumau American Cantos and Thumbprint — and coedited Natural Process: An Anthology of New Black Poetry. Rumor has it he lives in Alabama, but little can be gleaned from traditional sources. Whether Weatherly is exceedingly quiet or more curiously obscure, the apparent humility of his biography befits his poems.

As with the title and the press, every word in this book is in lowercase. This, along with the appropriately boxy Courier font, emphasizes the pure physicality of Weatherly’s poems. Many of them take on explicitly geometric proportions. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether one is reading poetry or attempting to solve an emotional quadratic word problem. Take “blatherskite,” for example, a poem composed of (or built from) five lines of three words consisting of six letters each. There is an almost volumary logic to it: 5 x 3 x 6. A ninety-cubic poem where each constituent part is similar but not identical, identifiable only in the relative difference it exhibits from its counterparts. Like, say, a gathering of meerkats. That is the effect of seeing words like “seeing” and “exiles” in close proximity to each other yet also compounded by their proximity to “selves” and “travel.” The letters appear to drift from word to word, trailing chunks of meaning with them. There is a mysterious consonance — visual, conceptual, musical — at work between these building blocks and yet the more mysterious thing is that they remain unique.

Despite the tensely constructed nature of these poems, Weatherly is not merely a minimalist. A passion always intrudes here and even, thankfully, slips into profanity. In a delightfully self-deprecating poem, “legendary,” he writes: “known aloof / renew aloud / lewd renown.” The various vocabularies Weatherly employs serve to open language up and bring it back together on equal footing. Among the more abstract anagrammatical passages — “vain die / a divine / i invade / naïve id” — one finds blues poems and backroom talk — cunt, coon, hoodoo, hardon, jellyroll, shitface, poontang, even a “bojangle villanelle” — that multiply the possibilities of voice. The result is that “hardon” can sit sturdily beside “humane” without either taking up too much room.

And there is also room here for names beside “thomas” and “weatherly,” both which appear repeatedly. In addition to ezra, elias, mabel, medusa, and many more, there is an index of dedications in the back corresponding to nearly every poem. No poem, apparently, is too small to dedicate. One of my favorites, “babe,” is for Steve Salinas:

babe ruth
rare july

Another of my favorites, “open,” is a wonderful elbow to the kidney of the self-important poet, a mathematical admonition of sorts: 

o p e n
p a g e
e g o s
n e s t 

These are poems that simultaneously warn, humble, focus, and free. They are products of a “never muted heart,” as the refrain of Short History of the Saxophone’s longest poem, “wally,” reminds us. His is a music of masonry, a sonorous structure entirely composed of unique bricks. Or, in Weatherly’s own words, “muscle / tucked / inside / buicks.”