The title of Fred Moten’s latest collection, The Little Edges, pinpoints the border country where his poetry unfolds. Wandering far from language’s imperial center, where speech is presumed to be transparent and stable, Moten brushes up against the edges of what can be communicated in words, and isn’t shy about venturing beyond them. He toys with nonsense and inventive new spellings, and his many allusions, drawn from a vast storehouse, can be opaque. But the poems, though squarely in an “experimental” mode, aren’t chilly or forbidding. Quite the contrary. Moten’s edges are little, after all, though not so much diminutive as localized, intimate, often soulful, and serialized in movement that asks continually to be negotiated anew.
As the poems spool forth across the page, their provisional structures split apart or break down, a process that Moten seems to describe when he writes, “Make a prompt a foursquare then the squares collapse as separates but other than before till work is made to disappear to register its fields as present in the sound and its sources.” The line’s temporary armature disintegrates, but the poem itself is sustained by the verbal energies that bear it along. Once acclimated to the jaggedness of the poems in The Little Edges, the reader comes to expect the unexpected, as with music where the time signature seems always on the verge of a sudden shift.
Music, one way to think of “the sound and its sources” in the line I’ve just quoted, is the most fruitful way into these poems — which I’ll stop calling poems, bearing in mind Moten’s description of his recent work as exercises in “shaped prose” (a phrase he’s used in interviews, and that appears in the publisher’s copy for The Little Edges). He wants us not to be sure what we’re reading, generically: the long-lined pieces that depart from the usual look of poetry are not what we’ve come to know as prose poems, either. But he leaves little doubt that what we’re meant to experience is akin to what happens during a musical performance, in jazz especially but also in other forms of African-American music — “how bound am I / by music!” he wrote in his previous collection, The Feel Trio (2014), a declaration that signals, paradoxically, how freeing music can be for Moten, and how essential: “there’s a theory of sound in the autograph.”
Moten, a professor who early in his academic career taught in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU (he is currently professor of English at the University of California, Riverside), stages his writing as events or, if you like, gigs: the immediacy of his wordplay, alighting on alliterative discoveries or felicitous internal rhymes, suggests the method of a freewheeling improviser at play within the most flexible of structures. What is given in the very sound of words is to be seized and fooled around with, turned over and propelled outwards (even to outer space, with a wink: “your hand is my pocket. // I’m a pocket man. your / hand is in my pocket. I // fix broken rockets. you // are my starship.”). His abiding interest in philosophy and theory adds a conceptual dimension to this brand of play, as when cultural figures come into the same orbit for what might seem like the first time: “my reasons turn your snows to green, what sass sound like in sarah vaughan. is wittgenstein silent / on love or just muted?”
Like any good improviser, Moten is in continual dialogue with a tradition that he has at once inherited and chosen to revisit and revise. He acknowledges in “sweet nancy wilson saved frank ramsey” that “Even our arrangements move in relation // to the troubled pleasures of the first instance, / that can be sung (through the singer, // through words or their turning).” This heritage, the “black radical tradition” that he has treated at length in his book In the Break (2004) and elsewhere, runs a broad gamut of expression and protest. But the deep grammar of its politics and its recommended way of being in the world—social, oppositional, resilient, and profoundly aware of the past—is epitomized in African-American music, which is ever a fresh source of renewal.
This tradition, in other words, is not simply a subject or discrete theme for Moten, even if he pays homage to specific musicians and makes frequent shout-outs to jazz giants like Cecil Taylor and Miles Davis. Music surges through his writing as a force that can never really be isolated or contained. In the section “Your body is a mixing board” of “hand up to your ear,” Moten describes how attunement to music, or at least to sound, can lead to a happy confusion of the senses, of one listener with another, and of the reception of sound with the making of “soundworks”:
Come take a listening walk and admire your hand twisting. The listening is in watching how you move to
touch in sounding, brushing up against your friend, to see how his position sounds to make the music we are making by moving the people moving around. Make soundworks out of rustling to notice the material that
comes up on us, that we come upon, do something with. Do something with the sound like it’s your friend,
like you met her at the quadrophenic playground.
The repeated imperatives here are exhortative but hardly prescriptive or dogmatic; instead, they offer an invitation to join an “erotics of art” (to adapt Susan Sontag’s famous phrase), ludic and open-ended. Get on up, as James Brown would say.
We might conclude that even if we don’t always hear it, the music is always on when we’re reading Moten, always crucially in the background. Given his biography, this may have been inevitable: speaking of his mother’s immersion in radical politics while he was growing up (in “highly, intensely segregated” Las Vegas, then in Pittsburgh and Arkansas), he recalled that “there was always this massively beautiful musical soundtrack.” He has carried that sense of music’s entwining with all other spheres of life into his writing. In its extravagance—a word Moten likes—African-American music can elicit a heightened kinship with its listeners, by turns sensuous or politicized (sometimes both at once) and suffused with pleasure, joy, deep feeling, resistance. Moten aims to do likewise, using mere words, their sounds, and the visual rhythms of the black-and-white page.