Doctor Jazz

Doctor Jazz

by Hayden Carruth

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In his first collection of poems since he won the National Book Award for Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, Carruth writes the threadbare memories of old age and from the bleakest circumstances-such as the death of his own daughter-defiantly reclaims dignity and beauty. With the spit and bop of a jazzman playing all the right notes, Carruth lives his music, finding the low… See more details below


In his first collection of poems since he won the National Book Award for Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, Carruth writes the threadbare memories of old age and from the bleakest circumstances-such as the death of his own daughter-defiantly reclaims dignity and beauty. With the spit and bop of a jazzman playing all the right notes, Carruth lives his music, finding the low tones of terrible loss, the highs of great friendships.

Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement
Published to coincide with a celebration of his career on his eightieth birthday, Doctor Jazz is Hayden Carruth's thirtieth book, the first collection of new poems since Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, for which he was awarded the 1996 National Book Award in poetry. Its publication is accompanied by the re-release of his Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991, the book that won him the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992.

Though Carruth has received several other honours for his poetry, his work as critic, poet, anthologist and essayist is little known in Britain. The publication of this new book, the re-issue of the vast Collected Shorter, and the availability of A Listener's Guide, a CD of Carruth reading from the Collected Shorter Poems and Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, are good opportunities to rectify this neglect, and for a wider range of readers to discover the work of an important, accomplished and humane poet.

"Dearest M---", the longest poem in Doctor Jazz, is subtitled "The first day of her death (as recorded by her father)". A "surging elegy", the poem drifts through the many emotions and remembrances that arose through the day and the first sleepless night after the death from cancer of Carruth's daughter, Martha. The poem's plain language and the directness of its descriptions of the outer world, and its transcriptions of the inner, give it a heart-rending immediacy. It struggles to contain the memory of Martha "riddled by cancer, wracked by pneumonia, / comatose in a stupor of morphine, attached / by tubes and wires to the gleaming apparatus", to make some sense of the fact that "Martha was dead for two minutes, then two hours, / then ten". As in the beautiful and tender memoir of Martha that Carruth published in Reluctantly (1998), his last book of autobiographical writings, the tones of "Dearest M---" are of rejoicing and of devastation; he records a version of his daughter's life within the poem, rejoicing in her talent, beauty and imagination, but this telling is always overshadowed by a feeling of the injustice of her death, what the poem describes as the offence to nature of a father outliving his child.

"And like all elegiac words, these swirl / around the question forever unanswered: 'What for? What is it all for?'" Though the poem can give no answer--answers are usually beyond the range of elegy--the rest of the book, without directly addressing the question, does supply a kind of reply. The section immediately following is entitled "The Afterlife", and consists of nine poems written from the viewpoint of the poet's own death. One begins "You may think it strange {...} that I'm writing / a letter in these circumstances. I thought / it strange too--the first time."

Carruth's letters to the living reflect on beauty, pleasure and appreciation, on love and friendship. They lay claim to the hindsight of posthumousness, but what they actually enjoy is the perspective of an elderly man reflecting on his experience and on what has been most important to him, a perspective here specifically invoked, but which naturally informs the other poems in the book. The final poem in the series recalls the face of the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, his cheeks distended, sweat-streaked, the "brilliance, {...} clarity and force, [the] / Extraordinary originality", of his playing and concludes with lines that are a kind of signature for the book as a whole: "I know, / He knew, everyone must know that beauty / is always, always, accompanied by pain. " In the face of this knowledge, Carruth continues to write his poems, just as Dizzy continued to play his trumpet.

One of a series of poems written in a form of syllabic haiku stanzas, inspired by the Japanese poet Basho, describes as the most significant event in human history - "No / other occasion / in all our lives has been as / important as this" the first time a poet "murmured his praise to / a twisted sapling". Carruth's new poems are, essentially, songs of praise and celebrations of beauty; for all the real anguish and pain they record, they remain enactments of a fundamental attitude of faith and wonder that has always run through his work. The closing lines of an early poem reprinted in Collected Shorter Poems address Venus, the goddess of Love.

Great queen, an ignorant poet's heart
Is all his faith, yet still his art
Can prick your source to tell the truth
So teach him, lady. Then always
Among the people her who praise
Your powers, one will be Carruth.

Throughout all the intervening years, through all the loss and sadness of an ordinary life, Doctor Jazz demonstrates that the poet has kept faith with his early promise.

Publishers Weekly
Octagenarian poet Carruth, who won the National Book Award in 1996 for Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, and whose anthology The Voice That Is Great Within Us remains a stalwart of 20th-century American modernism, is a familiar and respected figure on the lit scene, having overcome decades of psychological and physical illnesses... the very appearance of another book will please this prolific writer's many fans.
Library Journal
"A memorious old man" approaching his ninth decade, Carruth continues to question authority, fate, circumstance, and our assumptions about aging...His sense of humor surfaces repeatedly and if the domestic marginalia of sequences like faxes to William seem lighter than air, the elegiac gravity of "Dearest M-," on a daughter's death, refuses to release us until its final syllable.

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Product Details

Copper Canyon Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


So green the leaves in late September sun
So glossy those dark spikes of seed
Lying between the potatoes and the orchard
A hunting ground for the good king snake
       that searched for shrews
"A tonic for the cows before they go into the barn
       for the long winter,"
Marshall said, and he would turn them into it
How they romped and sang
How they gorged on the sweetness
At last it was trampled and rubbled, the leaves, panicles,
       and stalks were all eaten
And then a day or two later the cows went reluctantly
       to their stanchions
Into the dark muttering and complaining

Now I'm sickly and old and altogether somewhere else
Marshall is a voice from the dusty closet of history
I keep looking for my own half-acre of millet
       in the autumn sun
       but I don't find it
Now I'm told they don't plant millet around here.


In Pharaoh's tomb the darkness reigns.
       The air was stale and musty.
A thief broke in and stole his eyes
       and wasn'teven stealthy.

Pharaoh saw less than he had seen
       before, which seems unlikely.
"Ah, what have I ever done to thee
       that thou so indiscreetly

should'st rob my face?" great Pharaoh cried.
       But the robber was undaunted.
"Shut up, old man. Go back to sleep.
       Vision's not what you wanted."


Hip hop to the auto shop
gonna get us a Jeep with a fringe on top
with bulletproof glass and silver wheels
gonna be the king of the automobiles.


Did anyone ever believe that the dead woman
they buried with a bone needle in her hand
would use it to sew a new jerkin in the country
beyond the moon? Or that the young man whose
mutilated corpse they placed on a shield would
use it to defend himself? No, our ancestors
were not so simple. They did these things
without expectation. They did them in despair.



The University of Arkansas Press

Copyright © 1997 Roy Reed. All rights reserved.

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