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Tap-Root
Indigo Moor
Main Street Rag
ISBN Number: 1599480468

Reviewer: JoSelle Vanderhooft



If Jean Toomer had written his landmark Cane in 2007 instead of 1923, it might well have looked something like Indigo Moor´s vivid and soulful Tap-Root. This latest installation in Main Street Rag´s Editor´s Selected Poetry Series rings with echoes of the vibrant imagery, personalities and music that made Toomer´s work memorable. Tap-Root is a beautiful evocation of the rural South, the industrial North and the lives of African-Americans situated between them told with honesty, humor and a blues musician´s ear and sensibilities.

The first of many striking things about Tap-Root is its structure. In a departure from many poetry collections, even experimental and gutsy titles from the early 20th Century, Moor´s collection is literally structured, like much of classical drama, into five acts and an epilogue. Although each of these acts focuses on a different subject, such as rural Southern childhood in "Act II: Dressing the Set" and the blues in "Act III: The Score," the acts, like those in a play, work towards a single purpose: creating a unified picture of Moor´s life and the other lives and cultural influences that have touched it.

Appropriately subtitled "Call to Stage," Act I begins Tap-Root with a single, charged poem. In "Back through the Storm Door," a phone call about a dying relative prompts the speaker–one presumes Moor himself–to remember the South that has shaped him. Although he no longer calls it home, the speaker admits he can still taste its "honeysuckle on my tongue":

Weed, codeine, scotch. I´ve ingested enough
fog and brain-ash to black out the moon.
But the crucible of the past is relentless,
grinding behind eyelids. Memories spark
wild along the nerves´ telegraph. The lens
focuses backwards and the mind grays decades.

I dream my past a fragmented play, spliced
together with rawhide ties and silk thread.
It grows claws and jumps the stage: a beast
my hands don´t know how to tame.

There is no balm for the past´s dull ache.
When the blue jay rolls up his song,
the whole damn world spins down on me,
falling back through the door,
I´m broken again.

In the next act, Moor skillfully dresses the set that haunts him. As with Toomer, Moor´s South is a land of breathtaking beauty, hard work, inescapable history and relentless sunlight. This act is devoted to the fierce beauty of farmers, harvesters and the mere act of laboring under the bright "M´ssippi" sun, typified in poems like "Harvest," "Uprooted" and "Last Summer´s Elegy"–a set of three haiku-like poems. Indeed, to fully understand the beauty of the world this section evokes, the reader need only turn to one such "haiku," "Solstice: The Parting":

Summer, no less love
for fat Sol´s tooth-grins and lies,
reaches for his hat.

This is also the act where Moor establishes another Cane-like theme: the history African-Americans have carved out among such a landscape. The dance-like rhythms of "Bound" tell an epic story of slavery and flight in a mere six stanzas, a story which finds continuation in "Splinter of the Path." In "Splinter," children search for their own language and rights of passage into adulthood in much the same way their ancestors did when humming "long forbidden songs":

Our dance is
Spin
for dark flesh mounds
beneath the small of the back.

Our chant is
Jump
for mahogany moons
swelled behind navels.

Our drum is
Stomp
for brown suckled nipples
between lips and fingers.

Our song is
Scream
for the places where we learn
the worship of all things round.

While Toomer neatly divided Cane´s geography into North and South, such divisions are not as clear in Tap-Root. The reader will immediately notice this in "Act III: The Score." In this section, Moor explores the evolution and rhythms of the blues, a music which rings just as much through the Southern fields as it does in Harlem clubs. From the night-wanderings of blue collar musicians frequenting jazz joints to escape dreary factory jobs in "Nomads" to a bluesy lament for the damming of the Mississippi River in the collection´s titular poem, the blues is without a doubt the driving force behind Tap-Root. It is also the means by which Moor introduces the first of the many colorful characters who populate his collection. Here is Ma Rainey discussing her appreciation for Bessie Smith in "Schism," her words shaped into the rhythms and images of pain she and Smith made famous.

Bessie&Me. Folks didn´t know
we was the same person, split.
Schizoid: A and B sides
of the same vinyl 45 turned
slow. We both knew pain
would croon if it had voice.

Now I´m left, cleaved down
the middle, a wound
I can´t stop touching; my days
filled with half-sung

Blues

that follow me through the house like pallbearers,
heads bowed.
Blues that lie drunk across the pale
silence of phone. They sit in the corner,
legs cradled, rocking to a deep-
throated moan.

Here, too, are Charles "Baron" Mingus commenting on apparently exaggerated reports of his death and ladies´ man Robert Johnson ruminating about recurring dreams in which sex, death and music intertwine, and which seem to foreshadow his mysterious death at age twenty-seven (some historians believe Johnson was poisoned partly over an affair with a married woman). In illuminating the stories, real and imagined, of these iconic musicians and singers, Moor creates a connection between them and the nameless characters who populate "Act IV. Cast of Characters." Here Moor mixes scenes of, one assumes, his own travels through the South and North as a seasonal worker with the stories of other men. Here is an aged former crossing guard in "Shepherd" who now sells lilacs at a busy intersection, a preacher who has seen one too many emergency room deaths and a homeless man who vanishes down a subway after asking the speaker for a cigarette light.

These four acts serve as prologue to the fifth and most striking section of Tap-Root: "Act V. Curtain Up." Subtitled "The Displaced Child," this is a story, told in prose, poetry and song, of two New Orleans brothers, the criminal Eli and his younger brother, the blues musician John. John´s lighter complexion suggests to Eli and the reader that John may have had a different (that is, white) father, a fact which becomes increasingly more important as Moor recounts the growing distance–both emotional and eventually geographic–between both men. "The Displaced Child" section ranks among the finest prose pieces of Cane, and indeed the finest monologues in any August Wilson or Suzan Lori-Parks drama: Indeed, as is the case with Wilson´s work, they share a concern with the divisions between male family members, the sweep of African-American history and, of course, the blues aesthetic. The second piece in this section, "Cameos" (here reproduced in full), best sums up the entire play in verse and prose:

Eli:
You mad? Roll my eyes
backward. Painted in my skull,
freefalling through clouds,
two halo jumpers, tangled.
Brother, it´s hard to love you.

John:
Brother, you see past
my absence of dark only
when trouble calls. I
want to be more than just the
dice you throw when things go wrong.

From its gorgeous, warmly colored cover to the sweeping stories bound beneath that cover, Tap-Root is one of the finest collections North Carolina-based Main Street Rag has yet released. It is a must-read not only for fans of Toomer, Wilson, Lori-Parks and Harlem Renaissance poets and playwrights, but for any reader with a vested interest in black history and culture, and therefore American culture.

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