Book Review

The listener is treated to, and hopefully moved by, the sound of something being born, coming from silence, and an hour later, returning there somehow—making it even bigger, more cavernous, and colorful as a result of this trio’s awesome creation. —Thom Jurek, All Music

My interest in Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio rests as much in its making as it does in what’s been made. An unlikely finalist for the 2014 National Book Award, the book is composed of three difficult, heavily allusive and experimental long poems, each divided into shorter subsections, ranging from compact sonnet-like lyrics to typographically fractured ones that take unabashed advantage of white space on the page. The voice, if we can consider it singular, is polyphonic, ranging from academic jargon to black vernacular to “eloquent vulgarities.” Moten uses the phrase to describe the social relationship between consumers and commodities, but it applies quite acutely to some of the bawdier portions of The Feel Trio. It is also a collection about—or better put, in the mode of—jazz: the poems themselves enact the improvisation necessary to the genre’s production, and in so doing, exhibit the processes of seeking and learning fundamental not just to jazz music but to human thinking and being. In this way, Moten converts poiesis into product, challenging poetic technique in a tome that not only preserves sensation, desire, and experience, but fixes it in language, transforming and extending the poet’s world in the process.

Before I commence a closer reading of The Feel Trio, let me first address the epigraph included above. In it, Jurek, a music critic, describes the 1990 free jazz album by Cecil Taylor, William Parker, and Tony Oxley, from which Moten’s collection takes its name. The album is comprised of improvisations recorded in Berlin in the summer of 1989, not long before the Wall came down. But replace “listener” with “reader,” “trio” with “poet,” and you’d have an accurate description of The Feel Trio, which itself emerges from absence, exhibiting for a short while the utter strangeness of its own being, only to return the reader to nothingness at the volume’s end. Perhaps this could be said of any book; they all begin and end. Its improvisational quality, however, marks The Feel Trio as a tortuous, wildly inventive work, one that, and for that reason, forces readers to participate in Moten’s jazzic methodology—his constant seeking and learning—rather than passively absorb the text.

The first poem, “block chapel,” begins in medias res as the speaker moves through the day’s events—listening, notably, to music—which triggers a continuous chain of associations that endures until the poem’s end: “whenever I listen to cornelius I think of cecily / then fry then house then read the blacks with / peter pál.” The allusions quickly become esoteric. “[P]eter pál” seems to refer pretty definitively to Peter Pál Pelbart, the Hungarian-born Brazilian philosopher and psychologist noted for his work on time, schizophrenia, and biopolitics, but that’s about as far as I can decipher. Understanding the allusions, though they enrich our experience of the text, isn’t the point. More significant is Moten’s movement through the poem, which, even in this first subsection, shifts rapidly from the colloquial-lyric mode exemplified above to the vernacular “I’ma run, I’mo run, I’m gon’ run to the city / of refuse.” Later segments grow visually fractured:

you are the                  we propel we               drive away the bloc experiment
flex principle               drive the bloc                          it falls away we’re
to build a new             away it falls                             driven by what
impulse                        away                                        we carry
in everyone      we’re carried away.                 drive away. fall out, engine, fallaway.

In the poem’s final section, Moten abandons typographical fragmentation in favor of a large and visually dense prose block (the book’s large horizontal pages render the piece especially daunting), wherein readers encounter some of “block chapel’s” most erotic images: “house party of abandoned buildings”; “corn meal on your hands”; “we dance and eat and rub.”

Fragmentation—whether it’s verbal or visual—is pivotal to The Feel Trio. It’s one of the few constants in the book, with the exception of change itself. Little apparent formulaic structure underlies such shifts; readers quickly learn to anticipate them, and to expect them often, but it’s impossible to predict what will follow. “[B]lock chapel” seems to have evolved from a process of intensive meditation, the product of a skilled poetic hand which, rather than focus its skill toward careful construction, channels its daedal energy into a performance from which the piece itself emerges. (It’s not so different from the Feel Trio’s recordings in Berlin.) The poem, then, is a mere memorial to its own creation, valuable inasmuch as a monument signifies and memorializes the figure it represents, but whose true value rests in the act of creation, a performance-process to which readers become partially privy through reading but may never fully comprehend.

“[B]lock chapel” is followed by two more poems, “come on, get it!” and “I ran from it and was still in it,” each of similar length, breadth, and depth as the former. “[C]ome on, get it!” most fully evinces Moten’s typographical experimentation, featuring long lines indented at various points on the page, with frequent, sometimes radical enjambments. The piece probes the materiality of language, oscillating between language’s ability to render the transient eroticism of the actual world, its attempts to apprehend abstract thought, and the extent to which language itself becomes a prison, limiting the potential for expression to the sonic and semantic tools available to the speaker. “Performers feel each other differently,” writes Moten, “as material things that never happen.” The final poem, “I ran from it and was still in it,” evokes the visual density of the early “block chapel” segments, introducing a sense of humor and verbal play less present in the earlier pieces: “curling around corners puts me in mind of jean toomer. / I think I’ll change my name to gene tumor.” “I ran” extends The Feel Trio’s eroticism, growing outright bawdy at points: “let me slip my slap-tongued speech in your ear”; “akLaff is still some kind of still self-stimulation”; “come feel my shoulder just to see if you still feel me.” The poem’s verbal play climaxes in the final section, where Moten opens and closes with the following phrases, suggesting the stimulation endemic to his own identity as creator and innovator: “I am foment […] I am fmoten.”

At its most basic level, Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio does what Herodotus did: it sets down the world as it can be known in order to preserve desire and experience, and keep it from passing unremembered into non-being. That said, The Feel Trio is layered with the complexities of modern experience—of blackness, academia, consumerism, and Southernness—rendering language both a mode of preservation and a prison for the speaker. After all, isn’t expression limited to the codes, idioms, vernaculars, lexicons—etc., etc.—into which one is born or subsequently experiences? Still, there’s something undeniably pleasant about observing this speaker bump up against his own expressive limits, pushing those boundaries where he can. There’s also something pleasing in Moten’s constant subversion of expectation, the one exception to which is the reader’s expectation of subversion. (After a few segments of “block chapel,” we know to be surprised, if not by what.) What counts for us as readers is our experience of improvisation as it unfolds throughout the text’s evolution. That, mind you, is the essence of jazz—of thinking, making, changing, being—and Moten captures it flawlessly.

About the Reviewer

John James is the author of Chthonic, winner of the 2014 CutBank Chapbook Award.
His work appears in Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Massachusetts
Review, Best New Poets 2013
, and elsewhere. He lives in Washington, DC, where he
serves as Graduate Associate to the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at
Georgetown University.