We remember and honor Alan Lomax for the work he did traveling around the country collecting recordings of blues and folk music, long before anyone else ever thought it was important. That work is preserved in the Library of Congress and is available to anyone online. But not many people know that Lomax also collected songs in Michigan—songs most of us have never heard. Early in 1938 he traveled from Detroit to the Keweenaw, collecting blues in Detroit, Michigan versions of French Canadian songs at the Soo, and half-remembered Finnish folk tunes in Calumet. I didn’t know this until I read Russell Brakefield’s first collection of poems, Field Recordings.
Brakefield is from western Michigan, and there are lots of state references all the way through this book. From Kalamazoo to Kalkaska, the poems bear the mark of the state. They feel utterly authentic, whether they are exploring Mackinac Island or northern Michigan bars.
But the big heart of this book, the long title poem, is spoken in Lomax’s voice, or partly so, as he explores the different parts of the state and finds the songs that move the people who live there:
Today, a shepherd’s song runs me through
in double barrel
and after, the vertigo
of wedding rites.
Hamtramck hums like a hive, a highball
of history and radio.
The ethnomusicologist’s car gets robbed, but he stays focused on the work—”We hunt for echoes, our ancestors / hunt wolves.” He knows that he is taking something important, but he knows it would disappear if he didn’t. “I’m taking shades of men’s souls. Their stories / and my story, cut by the shadow song of theft.”
Brakefield is a musician who has played widely around the state, so it is no wonder that music plays all the way through his book. Early on, he borrows a page of Lomax’s writing to create something entirely new, yet something that retains the ghost of the original. Toward the end of the book, in a crown of sonnets where each poem describes an instrument in a folk band, Brakefield gets to the magic of the guitar:
Stories balloon inside this resonant cavity
chords cut like flesh off the world’s
workers, skinned off their backs and struck
from the sneaky palm of history.
I think Woody Guthrie would approve of that.
Right at the end of the collection, Brakefield makes his aesthetics explicit. “In the beginning all art was audible,” he writes, even claiming that “cave paintings hang / in concentrated stains / at the points of best acoustic resonance.” I don’t know if that is true or not, but it is fascinating to see a young poet staking his claim forcefully and beautifully in his first book.
Russell Brakefield reads from Field Recordings at Literati Bookstore on April 6.