Poetry Blog by David Cooke

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The Way Art Pepper Tells It

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In San Quentin prison the psychos,

thieves and junkies exchange

desolate tales, and each one’s

a variation on a theme

that ends the same. Breathing in

and breathing out

to keep his panic at bay,

the man with the sax

is no exception when he tells his

in a different way.

Reinventing where he’s been,

one shimmering note

at a time, the way ahead’s unclear.

Stuck ...

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Horace Silver

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Feeling no urge

to ransack harmony

or play more notes

when a few were enough

– burnished

and buoyant

as waves that wash

the Cape Verde Islands –

he hunched down

over the keys

and dug in deep

until, at last,

he made out

his old man’s features,

smiling back


and smoking, as ever,

his rank cheroot.


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For John Coltrane

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As over and over the same chords churn

your notes pour forth in spate –

sheets of sound erupting till harmony


is wrenched awry; and when you sweated

smack to cleanse your system,

you were hell-bent on an afterlife,


a body refreshed, believing.

You could call it Love, but sombre,

that force that drives you on.


Hearing you now, I feel reproved

for all the...

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Miles Davis

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Your barest whisper at first suffices,

expanding slowly to an arc of sound;

each reticent phrase the horn releases

freights the air as a theme is found.


In dapper suits, expensive shoes,

you stand, your back half-turned to a crowd,

giving no more than what you’re paid for –

the music you make and time.


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Miles Davis in Paris

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I remembered someone saying

– with first-name familiarity

but too young to have known him –

Miles would never

have stooped to a moonwalk.


Looking back through a nicotine haze

to the husky chic of the fifties

and then beyond, I might have added

or a Bojangles shuffle.


The first time he played in Paris

the habitués of St Germain 

queued up to see him bac...

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An Elegy for Charlie Parker

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I can see you sitting outside the Reno

where the Mob’s tight hold makes dollars spin.

You are scuffling the dust, then homing in

whenever Lester launches his solo.


Or I see you breathe at the music's source

through a taped and battered alto. Through scale

after scale you soar, egotistical,

obsessive, chasing sounds no ears endorse.


Later on the hipsters hailed you...

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Chasin' the Breeze

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la petite phrase  Proust


Back home and married

after our year abroad,

the heat was on all summer

as mortgage rates

and temperatures soared.

Recording it now,

the memory’s triggered

by the music a DJ plays –

which happens to be

George Benson’s Breezin’,

the track that eased me

into jazz, clocking on

in the council yard

to get one step ahead.



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I surf and click, then raise his complex shade,

the presence and the poundage of a man

who took care of business, transcending his name

along the road between White Station,

Mississippi, and the juke joints of Chicago.


A diminutive screen contains him,

as he expounds the meaning of the blues –

a patriarch and mason, who had grasped his letters

like thorns, until his la...

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The Way We Were

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for Joni Mitchell


Cactus Tree was our song, the one

that lit a flame, when I heard you sing

and taped you, bruised and plaintive,

on John Peel’s Top Gear. Straight off


your gift possessed me, too young

in sixty-eight for you to even notice

how I tagged along: the one face

in the entourage who really got you


and realized that other men

would leave you wa...

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Getting It Taped

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For Martin


When I couldn’t keep up with the cost of music,

I found a solution: the second-hand

reel-to-reel I picked up at a snip –

a Philips most likely or maybe a Grundig,

some brand I thought would last.


Its clickety counter gave no insight

into the digital age. It couldn’t remember

or shuffle a thing. Pre-CD and pre-cassette,

it lacked a remote or any inkli...

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A New Shirt

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In the Shangri-La of San Francisco

they called it The Summer of Love,


tuning in and dropping out

to a soundtrack of spacey guitars.


Bookish, shy, and too young

for a droopy moustache and sideburns,


I was hothoused instead by Hayes

for the maths I was taking early,


but got a hint of something else

in Scott Mckenzie’s anthem.


Against her better ...

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When Smokey Sings

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To get past the door to the Top Rank

disco every Saturday afternoon

you needed a suit, so mine

was a lifeless grey, a cast-off,

with narrow lapels that even then

I knew had never been fashionable.


Once in, you were lost to darkness,

until your eyes adjusted,

bumping around the outer tables,

where you searched for mates

who talked big and smoked,

nursing Pepsi ...

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John Martyn

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i.m. 1948-2009


In the picture-perfect scenery of Challes-les-Eaux

in seventy-five, locked in private darkness,

I played your lost indefinable music

on a tired loop of tape: Solid Air –

its title track an elegy for a friend you couldn’t save,

while you were destined to survive.

With a brawler’s zest for living,

you absorbed the booze and heartbreak.


When I heard...

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For Robert Johnson

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The King of the Delta Blues


The hellhounds always trailed him –

for that’s the drift of legends.

Fuelling spooks with shots

of malt, he wailed out blues

across the Delta.


Between us now the record

crackles bleakly, his scratchy voice,

a conjured ghost, sings clear

as barrelhouse belles who fleeced him

strut across my sight.


In the rattling dives he p...

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Aretha Franklin

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Your father could hold a congregation

in the palms of his hands raised to heaven;

and when he spoke of Daniel

at prayer in the lion’s den his words

were a song. His wayward daughter,

with your gift, like his God-given,

were you a sinner or sinned against

the first time you weakened?  


It takes you years to find an answer

and years to find a voice

beyond polished ...

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for Peter Robinson


I was listening to Dylan’s Time Out of Mind,

his late renewal after wasted years

– all simmer and wry despair –

to find that maybe he was rated again.

The voice was a wreck on a burnished track,

the songs a palimpsest of antique blues.


In the end the words will come

if they have to, like music that’s ghosted

by echoes stored in a phonograph’...

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They were matter-of-fact and mercantile,

their deities stockpiled in lumber rooms,

containers, or the air-conditioned acres

of a state-of-the-art clockwork hangar.

Too good to clear away, they laid them up,

just in case, alongside incense and charms,

the stacks of cheap libationary bowls.

It didn’t take that much – distant thunder,

a tremor, or the rumours of a quarrel


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Staring at a Hoopoe

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'joyful, slandered bird'

Eugenio Montale


Caught in the moment,

there is no way of knowing

who might have blinked first –

the old man or his visitant,

the bright, crested

ambivalent bird. A few

scattered objects

implying a workspace,

the room is otherwise

unfocused beyond

the reciprocal stare

of two survivors.

The eyes of one are stoical,


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