Review: Fred Moten's The Service Porch

Henk Rossouw

On the sprung floors of the Eldorado Ballroom, in Houston’s Third Ward, before Fred Moten read from his new book The Service Porch, he began with a track by Carmen McRae, “Sometimes I’m Happy.” He let McRae’s riff on the jazz standard play through, without comment, let the bass-line and lyrics—“Sometimes I’m happy / Sometimes I’m blue / My disposition depends on you”—fill the space where, from 1939, African-American musicians, whether Lightnin’ Hopkins, Etta James, or Count Basie, had fostered “sociality”—a recurrent term in Moten’s thinking—fostered a sense of communal occasion, despite a segregated, often hostile city. Yet, as if in counterpoint, in the poem “harriot + harriot + sound +” Moten writes:

           what’s a black singing body                                                                                                                                                                                                                          got to do with it? look at

           my shoes. the setting partly frees                                                                      the dissonance in compensation

           and tsitsi ella jaji frees the rest.

In a leitmotif that flits throughout The Service Porch, Moten invokes others with sonic names from his circle—Tsitsi Ella Jaji’s research at Penn focuses on “representations of sound, music and listening.” Names, then, are integral to his music. If we run with Louis Zukofsky’s definition-in-motion of his poetics in “A”-12 as “Lower limit speech / Upper limit music,” few contemporary poets reach the upper limit that Moten can. As in The Feel Trio, his earlier book, Moten’s work enacts music. At the upper limit, this syllabic music ranges from the stratospheric cadence of “the star at midnight’s arkansas” to the evocative vowel-consonant combinations of “transit piano” to the full-throated affirmation of “aiihyeah.” In Moten’s titles, names, and places occur and re-occur, to the point where the table of contents, which has no page numbers, could be a poem in itself. Now and again, Moten punctuates his work with vocables, such as “oo,” and these vocables shift-quick from sound play to vocable-become-noun, in a call-and-response to the multi-layered “mu” of Nathaniel Mackey’s serial poems. In his dedication addressed to Mackey, for instance, Moten invokes a sense of play, as if the vocable “oo” were a place the reader could visit, when he writes: “(o / shard, o share in secret, / ‘cause it’s recess in the oo!)”.

For readers of The Feel Trio, a finalist for the National Book Award, Moten’s sonic ease in The Service Porch comes as no surprise: his modulation of tone, cadence, and diction continues to test and expand the upper limit, that is, continues to elicit a singular, aural pleasure. For instance, witness the bass line recursion of consonants in the poem “ofili is the chapel / ligon is the curé:”

             blue ride serial blur. this                                                                                        the bruise blood blues. re                                                                                         cessive, nachel blue be                                                                                        down here on the ground

Where The Service Porch builds on and departs from Moten’s earlier book is at the lower limit, the social foundation for the poems, their source in conversation: More so than before, Moten’s new book foregrounds the generative presence of others—sociality as the site of his poetics. Many of the poems, in the sinuous course of their upper limit music, summon others—friends, artists, musicians, thinkers—through their names, as if the grounds for speaking were the fact of being among. At times, as in the poem “what’s left,” naming suggests both the strength of these social bonds and the vulnerability of the black body in the context of recurrent police shootings:

             weights are things with stories,                                                                            storied with waiting, weighted                                                                                                                                                                                                                    bearing bearing open burial in                                                                                                                                                                                                                    shatter, pall impossible to bear                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    but weight-bearing like my old                                                                                                                                                                                                                    friend, harry. he waits on me in                                                                                                                                                                                                                    a secret we share, our shard, no                                                                          body shoots our new collection.

In the section “All Star Crit,” where each poem is titled with a name and addressed in turn to a series of artists and writers, perhaps students, in which the speaker offers critique and encouragement in a riff on their work, Moten writes to a figure named Layli that “the irreducible sociality of speech can’t be spoken in one voice.” Likewise, perhaps it’s the sense of multiple voices at the lower limit of speech, the social groundwork, which allows Moten to reach his singular “Upper limit music.”                   

At the same time, Moten acknowledges the unnameable; in other words, what’s out of reach—even of his upper limit. In the poem “could be gone,” he riffs on the dialectic between names and the unnameable, opening the poem with “me and laura got engaged in the music / of the names our babies” before shifting into “the lonely music of ornella / nella / in flew bird.” Here, “bird” enters the poem at the upper limit, where music fades out and the cirrus clouds, which signal what cannot be said, begin. This “bird” recurs throughout The Service Porch—it echoes as a cipher in The Feel Trio also—and always without articles “the” or “a,” as if “bird” were a subject, a proper noun. Moten ends the poem in flight, unresolved, as if “bird” enacts thought: “the name, then name the image, then the recess, then flew / bird, then / could be gone.”

Perhaps Moten’s occasional use of complex, Latinate diction, such as “sociality,” can then be read as a strategy of naming. If “sociality,” as an abstraction, becomes the metaphor to carry across Moten’s actual experience with others, then sociality names the “we” that his poems call forth. At the same time, in the openness of its abstraction, the name “sociality” leaves ample space for Moten’s precise uncertainty: for the unnameable, for the upper limit, for the music of the opaque. As Moten writes in this regard, “if you can make the latin / run the anglish hard.”

Sociality becomes the ground for Moten’s sonic playfulness in The Service Porch. Whether a love poem addressed to one person, Laura, whose gestures are rendered as if she were a drummer, “you brushed / and broke with small flicks like Antonello, like Sonny,” or the remarkable, concluding poem, with its double-title—“andrea geyer” at the beginning and “margaret kerry” at the end, as if Moten’s lines were to introduce two people who should talk to each other across time and space—there’s a constant sense, throughout The Service Porch,of multiple conversations going on, not only internal to Moten but also with—and among—the people that his poems name. Essentially, the underlying achievement of The Service Porch becomes the invitation it offers to the reader: these poems include you, unnamed.

If Moten’s upper limit music is rooted in the inclusive, lower limits of speech, of the errday, of city streets, some of the most affective poems involve listening to figures who are unnamed. For instance, in the poem “80,” the bus driver can be read as if he or she were the narrator of public space in motion—“this bus go to e. 14th? this bus go to san leandro bart? / now joe you been ridin this bus / long as I been drivin”—where the repetition of “thank you” reenacts the “transit piano” of daily exchange, culminating in the chant of “send me, send for me, come on back and ride / with me, come on ride back with me.” Bus riders would recognize this music.

Likewise, Moten grounds the penultimate poem of The Service Porch, “stone gas,” in a grocery store “on western, right below adams,” in the interaction with an anonymous woman over the everyday miracle of a fish: “The gravity and lightness of her step as she walked up the hill with that / fish.” In his reading at the Eldorado Ballroom, as Moten told the story of this interaction, which gave rise to the poem, he kept repeating her words of radical satisfaction: “I got my fish!” Because of the poem’s groundwork at the lower limits of speech, because of its rootedness in the uplifting presence of other people, when “stone gas” modulates without warning into the ostinato of “Blue scat, blue scatter, some old lusakan blue in a cave at twin / rivers,” its music satisfies, that is, brings the upper limit within reach. I got my fish.