‘ErranCities’ by Quincy Troupe

  • COLDFRONT RATING: three-half
  • PUBLISHED BY: Coffee House Press, 2012
  • REVIEW BY: Mike McDonough


“…intuitive hints of bonding with what we do / not know—”

Quincy Troupe has been steadily producing bluesy verse for more than 40 years now, and ErranCities is his eighth full-length collection.  The coinage is loosely based on the French term errance, which means “roving, wandering life” with connotations of edge and risk; it also refers to the “plural wanderings of many lives.” Troupe’s roving patchwork of memory is unpretentious and tuned to joyful sound. This relaxed, syncopated journey through American and Caribbean time, through storms of cultural contradiction and political amnesia, is remarkable both for its optimistic faith in the poetic art and its occasional admission of failure. When it works, as it does in “Where Have They All Gone,” Troupe’s line almost reaches a Howl-esque level of syncopated joy:

Where have they all gone to, those exuberant edgy misfits,
Those glorious madcap poets of precise inexactitude,
Those lunatic purveyors of transcendental flights through space

The poem easily shifts from the past to the present time, so that we clearly see the optimism of the earlier time, and the sad results of today, without really understanding how we got here. Memory for Troupe is always slippery and seductive. Though he helps us suspect this is the result of cultural amnesia and/or political chicanery, this speaks to the very human situation of having our best and most honest efforts not come to much. We took a wrong turn somewhere, and it is not always obvious who to blame.

In Bill Moyers’s 1995 companion volume to his PBS Series The Language of Life, Troupe compares the twin influences of jazz and blues on his work:

The blues is constructed close to the way Americans, and especially African Americans from the Midwest and the South speak.  We tend to speak in circles—we come back and say things over and over just for emphasis—and there you have the whole repetition of lines coming back like refrains. Jazz, on the other hand, can be notated.

Troupe’s call for poets of “precise inexactitude” suggests a bluesy tolerance for redundancy. For example, a line such as “Wearing a boutonniere in his buttonhole” is productively redundant, as the poem is speaking of those  “moments within moments/when you find yourself feeling at home.”  Another take on this idea is offered by his friend Amiri Baraka. In his essay “Expressive Language,” Baraka describes a street preacher singing, “God don’t never change!”:

This is a precise thing he is singing. He does not mean “God does not ever change!” He means, ‘God don’t never change.’ The difference, and I said it was crucial, is in the final human reference… the form of passage through the world.

The reader will also become accustomed to Troupe’s use of “eye” for I. A quick check of Snake-Back Solos: Selected Poems 1969-1977 reveals that he has used this convention throughout his career, making it easier to see this as a gesture to collective memory. His focus on the difference between eye beams and I-beams helps us move beyond the limitations of the autobiographical eye. Eye can see. Eye can be astonished, and eye can be blind; eye can be you or me.

Quincy Troupe is in the enviable position of having co-written Miles Davis’s autobiography, Miles. After transcribing dozens of hours of tape, Quincy was able to tell a great story in Miles’s own voice. It remains a great achievement and a crowning creative act. In order for this literary ventriloquism to work, the teller has to disappear into the tale. Troupe does this very effectively in “The Legend of Pablo Escobar.” Here, and in other poems including “Taps for Freddie,” his storytelling voice is strong and memorable. However, elsewhere in the book, he also slips into exclusively autobiographical contexts such as, “margaret & eye go to the homes of our friends michelene and luc to eat.” We must also get used to Quincy not meeting our strictest expectations.

Tellingly, the I (not eye) makes its most prominent appearance in the beginning sequence, “An Art of Lost Faith,” a syncretic, multicultural creation story celebrating Creole American culture. Troupe writes, “ I have come to this text to sing the gospel of Neo-Hoodoo,/ the rediscovery of self in this new, cruel whirl/ of dilettantes seeking greed through senseless wars…” Troupe tries to avoid facile formulae for personal engineering, except for the constant call to memory, and the healing, spiritual powers of art. While never shying from calling out the crimes of the Bush Administration, he has not drunk the Obama Kool-Aid, and does not offer political solutions or the ringing rhetoric of Baraka.

Troupe makes no bones about how he’s giving us the syncretic gospel, the paradoxical good news of human imagination and creativity, complete with theological and logical contradictions. OK. I’m with him; but let’s walk carefully, here, because as Troupe writes of his Goyave home:

scream of a dog hit during rush hour reminds us
death is always near, right around the corner
& all is not paradise here, though as close as anything
eye have ever imagined, close as anything beautiful
can be to the paradox of mystery, surprise, wonder

In ErranCities, Troupe gives us a loose, wide ranging tour of the double worlds he occupies, Harlem and Guadaloupe, and is willing to entertain the troubling contradictions of urban and island life, of hope and despondency, with an insouciant ease that is almost troubling in itself.

Many of his poems combine lush praise of the tropic of creativity with the reality of sudden death. In “Hurricanes,” Troupe seamlessly morphs a meteorological discussion of the development of hurricanes into a comparison with gathering political forces and linguistic maelstroms that can be equally unstoppable and equally deadly. Inside the poem, there is no difference between death by hurricane and death by lynch mob. Somehow, the speaker can imagine all this while still dreaming of “the golden eye of the sun warming my day with its beauty & healing power.”

As Snake-Back Solos proves, Troupe has taken the same interest in weather for 40 years. Certainly living in the Caribbean heightens the sense that a beautiful breeze can turn deadly violent by almost unnoticed degrees. It also makes sense when he reveals to us that he will be cremated after he dies.  Often, some of Troupe’s most violent images are juxtaposed with some of his blandest. In “a Man Walks in Slow Motion,” Troupe weirdly compares the creative act to having your head chopped off by a guillotine, or being effortlessly lapped by Usain Bolt while you flail away down the stretch. Creativity is a natural force like lightning or sudden death.

So, just when his work seems most naively optimistic, it leaves us in a very real and troubling place. In “What Old Poets Keep Telling Me,” 73-year old Troupe speaks about the inevitable horrors of aging before leaving this world. It’s not that Troupe is in love with death, but chaos. It’s the same peril we fall in when we attempt to define such concepts as duende or Zen.  Who can command the lightning?

Troupe offers us equally an almost stereotypical tropic lushness combined with the awareness of the seductiveness of allusion, and the ever present threat of natural violence in the form of hurricane and earthquake. He takes it in such stride that there seems to be a disconnect between his sudden awareness of death and his songs of earthly praise:

whatever the human cost the energy here is always at a boiling point
& those who live here recognize the blowback of this scintillating chaos,
music clipping through cracks to surround you like nirvana &  you
love it, deal with it—if you plan to stay here—just keep “getting up
on the one,” on the one, just keep “getting up on the one”

This last line was a quote from his friend Miles Davis, who remains a creative touchstone worn smooth by constant handling over the years,  definitely Troupe’s mojo bag. But ErranCities offers nothing new about Davis that is not beautifully explored in his book Miles and Me, where you get a valuable analysis of a friendship and a firsthand account of what it was like to hang out with a genius.

Sometimes in ErranCities,Troupe seems to equate creativity with hipness. One could counter that Davis’s personal style had little to do with his music, except that it was a kaleidoscopically fascinating, coruscating armor that protected the actual man who needed to create it. In some sense, pictures of Miles Davis have as much to do with his music as the ink has to do with the cuttlefish. Let no one rhapsodize to you about style or hipness who does not also say “style is death.” Troupe sometimes suggests style is the necessary magic that makes that creativity; it seems equally plausible that style obscures the point that Miles needed to work harder to render himself invisible enough to create. Miles needed a better dodge, and he came up with a brilliant one. As Troupe would be the first to tell me, dressing like Miles or speaking like Miles does not mean you will create like Miles.

One of the most fascinating poems in the book may be “Mix-y-uppy Memory,” where the poet is uncharacteristically snapped out of his reverie by a spectacularly bad smelling flasher on the subway. He loses his cool, confronts the flasher, and orders him off the train at the next stop;  the flasher meekly complies. This failed transaction simply flummoxes the poet, who then backs and fills with all his might.

…eye yo-yo back
to the moment before his shock almost froze my liquid creativity, questioned
my fluidity in this chaotic alternate state of the big apple, eye do not know why,
or understand what brought this shadow to slouch as an apparition across from me
a moment ago, though eye do know the mysterious truth of language failed

him—as it has for so many—did not grant him space to move with freedom  into an embracing home amongst the breathing who truly coexist here, …

This remarkably prolix vamp in the face of confusing chaos continues until it ends by default (and there is no easy syntactic handle to come back into the quote):

meaning as gesture, though offer intuitive hints of bonding with what we do
not know—have never reached out to know—in this clashing culture of values,
when words embedded inside the same tongues hold love, fraternity, liberty,
brotherhood, but are not recognized as equivalent for this kaput man
who dragged the shadow of his ruined spirit after him when he left the train

I find this a remarkable admission of a failure of his poetic faith; but on page 48 of a long collection, it will hardly be the last word. Is what’s missing in this poem moral authority, or is it that here he forsakes the storytelling voice for the explaining voice? I think I understand it better in the light of his praise of one of Miles Davis’s most controversial albums, On the Corner, which consists of 4 long instrumental vamps, endless improvising over Sly Stone-style funk grooves. “Mixy Uppy Memory” is where the promise of the endless Whitmanic vamp comes crashing against hard reality. It, Youruba, Ashe, Shango: Troupe finds real joy in this mélange of worlds, of magics, of miracles, of Creole faiths. It all seems to work for him until it doesn’t. We are led to the idea of poems as amulets, as charms.

Here, I fear Troupe’s optimistic faith risks becoming a desperate magic.  If things are too interchangeably “miraculous, magical and mysterious,” we risk grasping at straws and not hearing the single word that will set us free (maybe it is single, maybe it is plural, maybe it is both). You also feel, in these moments, that Quincy has earned his happiness. You almost want not to wake him up. If you think about it too much, this God becomes a sadistic, mad genius, a theological horror worthy of Annie Dillard, and we are all onions waiting to be peeled by a stroke of lightning.