THE NOIR AMERICAN & OTHER POEMS
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
He thinks back to the early-1950s, when he first arrived in
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
Tony Roberts moves cleverly around the locations and the years,
mixing in anecdotes from the world of jazz, and allowing his noir
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
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.