By Tony Roberts

Shoestring Press. 73 pages. £10. ISBN 978-1-912524-15-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The “noir American” is a jazz musician in Paris, enjoying a lifestyle where his colour isn’t an issue, and he can have a white lady friend and not cause a fuss. It has its attractions, the life he can lead, and the local jazzmen he works with “are pretty good, but they’re not on the edge”, while back in New York there’s much more going on: “The stuff that Trane and Monk/are into – and then Miles, the modal thing –“. Jazz fans will be able to fix the time referred to from the references. The late-1950s.

He thinks back to the early-1950s, when he first arrived in New York, looking for 52nd Street which, by then, was mostly strip clubs and the like. But soon he’s jamming with Bird at the Open Door in Greenwich Village, the club opened by Bob Reisner and called “The Red Drum” in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. Bird gives him sound advice, “Be bold, be resolute – and don’t play me./You got to show what’s in that bag of yours”.

Making it as a jazzman is not easy, even in New York, perhaps more so in New York, where the competition is tough, and black musicians are rarely called for lucrative session work. He takes gigs working with rhythm and blues performers and backs Big Maybelle, a bawdy singer, who wants him to walk the bar while he honks his horn to keep the noisy crowd happy.

But he gets to meet Miles Davis, sees Billie Holiday in her final days, works at Birdland, hears Bill Evans, and engages in a tenor tussle with Dexter Gordon, a near-legendary figure from the 1940s. Like the noir American he had his ups and downs but survived to carry on. Back in Paris and there are appearances from Camus, Sartre, Koestler, De Beauvoir, not to mention Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke, two veterans of the bebop era who decided that living in France was a better option for a black man than scuffling in New York.

Tony Roberts moves cleverly around the locations and the years, mixing in anecdotes from the world of jazz, and allowing his noir America, an autodidact with an awareness of Debussy, Rachmaninov, Thomas Hardy, and Shakespeare, to reflect on his situation. What is admirable about the whole sequence, which covers thirty-six pages, is the way in which Roberts sustains the tone and the mood. Together with the relaxed rhythm, which is that of the spoken voice, it adds up to a spirited and impressive achievement. I have a feeling that, with suitable musical accompaniment, it could soon be turned into an entertaining performance piece. But it does work well on the page.

It would be easy to imagine that going on from the power and punch of the story of the noir American’s adventures might be a difficult thing to manage. But there’s a persuasiveness and clarity in the poems that follow which can be extremely attractive and they soon engage the reader. “Anniversary poem for Tina” is a tender, relaxed love poem, and “Night Closure” movingly provides an account of visiting an elderly mother in a care home. Both are quiet poems, making their respective points without fuss.

If Roberts can write personal poems that will strike chords with anyone who has gone through similar experiences, he can also construct quite formal pieces which assume the voice of another observer, and place events in a historical context. “A Death for Captain Carey” tells the story of an unfortunate officer who was court-martialled in South Africa for what  appears to have been dereliction of duty, and later died “under mysterious circumstances” in India. In “At Skerryvore”, Robert Louis Stevenson talks about John Singer Sargent’s portrait of the Stevensons, and philosophises around life and art. Both poems have a slightly ironic air: “Sweet quickenings of the pulse are what/we get from Art; from Life, exquisite pain”.

Poems about lusting after cakes in a Viennese café, and drinking wine and beer in a bar in Flagstaff, Arizona. Lines about listening to Robert Lowell at a reading, and being in the audience for a performance of The Seagull. Reminiscences about seeing a startled pheasant rise up from a hedgerow, and memories of an old friend who was “the mildest, kindest and least confident/ of men”. There’s an anecdote about Benny Goodman at Princeton that is neatly turned into a poem, and the short but effective “Cloud Walking After an Argument”, which deals lightly with an uneasy situation.

What I admire is the way in which Roberts handles each poem, and its movement, and the subject-matter, with cohesiveness and confidence. The poems never show off their technique, but it’s clear that a great deal of care has clearly gone into constructing them. Little hints of rhyme crop up here and there, but the general mode is what is often referred to as “free verse”. It’s actually less “free” than most people think, and requires skill to handle it successfully.

The Noir American & Other Poems is a strong collection. It’s obvious that the noir American sequence is a key part of the whole, but the book doesn’t depend on it for its appeal to the reader. Enthusiasts for the music will no doubt enjoy the jazz angle – I know I did – but that isn’t to suggest that it will be limited to them alone. The sequence is about the struggle to create in difficult circumstances and so has a broad appeal. Blend that with the more-diverse poems, and you have a very attractive book.