The Many Faces of Jazz

November 4, 2006 at 12:04 pm 2 comments

Billy Collins


There’s the one where you scrunch
your features into a look of pained concentration,
every riff a new source of agony,

and there’s the look of existential bemusement
eyebrows lifted, chin upheld by a thumb,
maybe a swizzle stick oscillating in the free hand.

And, of course, for ballads,
you have the languorous droop,
her eyes half-closed, lips slightly parted,
the head lolling back, flower on a stem,
exposing plenty of turtleneck.

There’s the everything-but-the-instrument look
on the follow at the front table,
the one poised to mount the bandstand,
and the classic crazy-man-crazy face,
where the fixed grin joins the menacing stare,
especially suitable for long drum solos.

And let us not overlook the empathetic
grimace of the listener
who has somehow located the body
of cold rage dammed up behind the playing
and immersed himself deeply in it.

As far as my own jazz face goes –
and don’t tell me you don’t have one –
it hasn’t changed that much
since its debut in 1957.
It’s nothing special, easy enough to spot
in a corner of any club on any given night.
You know it, – the reptilian squint,
lips pursed, jaw clenched tight,
and, most essential, the whole
head furiously, yet almost imperceptibly
in total and absolute agreement.

Collins does it again. Takes something ordinary and everyday, something that’s part of our lived experience and makes it come vividly alive on the page. Reading this poem is like looking around a smoky nightclub, watching the people at the other tables get into the music. The words themselves are a kind of jazz, a series of riffs casually tossed off but exquisitely beautiful, that leave you “nodding / in total and absolute agreement”.


P.S. So what does your jazz face look like?


Entry filed under: Billy Collins, English, Falstaff.

Morning Poem The Man in the Moon

2 Comments Add your own

  • […] Play it again, Sam. You played it for him, you can play it for me. … If he can stand to listen to it, I can. Play it! […]

  • 2. Ted Onulak  |  August 8, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    On Bluesday Tuesday late nights
    when I talk with a metal mouth
    or sitting at the edge of B-flat minor light
    Dark russian brows
    protect the blind dark eyes
    like the Vanguard’s awning
    from the bird shit
    A wry smile when Dex quotes
    “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”
    But don’t you try it!
    forefinger propped against the nose
    circular breathing bourbon vapors
    Good-Bye Pork Pie hat


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