Review of The Wellsprings by Harry Lewis, Momo's press, 45 Sheridan St. San Francisco CA, 94130, $12.20 cloth, $5.95 paper. 1982.
Harry Lewis’ Wellsprings is an engaging book of poetry. It is involved in the world, life in and around Manhattan, but it is also, in this word’s multiple senses, a joining (like gears or even weapons), a pledge, and in the now obsolete sense as “to offer or place as security for a debt or the like.” And I have to add that it is also engaging in that it “draws the affections.” And in spite of the fact that I disagree with some of the ideas he presents —and, as is not common these days, he is a man of ideas— I am always drawn to the music. And it is not only because it is jazz music, and not only that he pays special homage to my favorite jazz musician, Thelonius Monk, but he allows the lines to seek their own musical shape. And while that is not unusual in good short lyrics, he has done the more accomplished task, and the work is evident, and I consider that praise, of presenting the long poem through the music of facts. In the poem from which the book takes its name, “The Wellsprings: A suite for Thelonius Monk and Wilhelm Reich,” he succeeds in the audacious and seemingly impossible incorporation of long quotes of Reich’s psycho-analytical writing while maintaining the music, a musical blending of William Carlos Williams’ sharply focused isolated frames with the ongoing dynamic dissonance of the jazz musicians’ respect for each player’s own rhythms:
Sexual energy operated in the whole body not just in the tissues of the gonads.
Kept on analyzing
—but Freud slipped into
the authority of death: giving up
a polite place in
the new age
—gave up Reich, and
—like a caged animal
It is hard, certainly not fair, to take out an excerpt, but to read the whole of this poem is to demonstrate to yourself that the music moves the facts along in a way that Monk at least should have appreciated. There are also several shorter poems, poems that demonstrate Lewis’ preoccupation, and it is a necessary one, with the body, the painful and the tender realization of the body’s superior wisdom:
I feel my body each day
my heart: that’s
There are poems revealing a needed male gentleness, an uncommon strength not often seen in these strident times. And to take you as close as you may ever get to a jazz/poetry performance without actually hearing it in person, there is a poem called “The New World” which is a blend of jazz and, I think again of Williams, his “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, that takes you on a journey through a painting, dinner with a friend and his family, the solid nourishment of cabbage soup and the paintings of Cezanne and Breughel, a love affair, all a refreshing musical mystery ride that ends in the revelation of a celebration of Spring. A ride worth the price, and like an album by Monk, worth taking over and over again.
And finally, not by any means to exhaust the thematic concerns (let alone the fine orchestration of the book as a whole and especially the long poem) there is a quality to Lewis’ perceptions that remind me of my favorite writer on the American landscape: Edgar Anderson. Lewis is definitely a city poet, but in a special sense mentioned by Anderson in his essay “The City Watcher.” After criticizing the pseudo-Thoreaus who need to be isolated from man to enjoy nature, Anderson speaks of the need for a sane ecological attitude that sees nature in the cities: “It is quite as easy in the city as in the country; all one has to do is accept Man as a part of Nature.” Lewis already understands this warning and helps us approach that needed sanity.