words are important for the mind/the notes are for the soul.
In truth I call what I have been granted the opportunity to share ‘Gifts’. I would like to personally claim to be the source of the melodies and ideas that have come through me, but that is just the point. Many of the shapes of sound and concepts have come upon me from no place I can trace, notes and chords I’d never learned, thoughts and pictures I’d never seen – and all as clear as a sky untouched by cloud or smog or smoke or haze. Suddenly. Magically. As if transferred to me without effort…
They have been gifts from the Spirits – so perhaps these songs and poems are ‘spirituals’.
Don’t ever let the spirits die.
James Blake’s music has a kind of bruised poise to it; pain pressed and polished into exquisite shapes. The Colour in Anything, his third LP, is a harrowing, purgative experience, a cold wet slog to transcendence. We journey with Blake through emotional extremes: desperation, numb paralysis, nostalgia, bitter resentment. Love. He must break the soil, rake up hard clay, if there is to be any hope of revival.
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
‘f.o.r.e.v.e.r.’ finds Blake at his piano stool, his voice a chilly mist perfusing a gaunt chord progression. He’s thinking about transience and permanence, the impossibility of eternal love in the age of Attention Economics.
In modern times… it seems a little bit intense to say to somebody that you’ll love them forever, regardless of what happens, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You might grow apart, all sorts of things, life situations. So that conversation spans the idea of what “forever” means to a relationship: I didn’t see how that could be possible and actually, it was sort of disingenuous to even make that promise.
Time and its divers passages are central to ‘f.o.r.e.v.e.r.’ – even the punctuated title gives an idea of time congealed, Blake painfully present, aware, for every instant of a difficult period. Early in the song, he tries to command himself, ‘You can’t walk the streets a ghost any more’, but by the final verse Blake has ‘noticed I can still ghost the streets.’ A resolution is broken, resolve has failed, time has passed but little has changed as the song unfurls. Stasis: while his lover is gone, our narrator is trapped watching ‘days form like new figures down my road’, time blooming slow like ink dripped in water. In his state of heightened sensitivity, Blake starts loving the one he spurned:
I noticed just how slow the killer bee’s wings beat
And how wonderful you are.
It’s this final motif that sparks a link.
One might think of Brideshead Revisited, of Charles ‘drowning in honey, stingless’ as his fortnight in Venice with Sebastian passes ‘quickly and sweetly’. Why a killer bee? Something deadly, aggressive, capable of grievous harm, slowed to the point that it’s a machine, Blake can see its mechanisms, understand how its chaos evolves. And at this speed, when it’s churning the soupy air with its wings, tracing gorgeous ellipses, he can see the beauty at its still centre.
Think further, spread the fractal net of thought farther.
There was always a great deal of “heart”, of humanity, in these writers. If I could choose one story to be printed alongside this article as demonstration, it would be David Foster Wallace’s “Forever Overhead”, a 10-page effort that has come to obsess me.
Wallace has a manner of writing that makes you think, ‘Yes of course this is true this is exactly what I’ve always thought but could never put into words yes how?’
What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth. Yes, one feels, I should never have thought that this could be so; I have never known people behaving like that. But you have convinced me that so it is, so it happens. One holds every phrase, every scene to the light as one reads—for Nature seems, very oddly, to have provided us with an inner light by which to judge of the novelist’s integrity or disintegrity. Or perhaps it is rather that Nature, in her most irrational mood, has traced in invisible ink on the walls of the mind a premonition which these great artists confirm; a sketch which only needs to be held to the fire of genius to become visible. When one so exposes it and sees it come to life one exclaims in rapture, But this is what I have always felt and known and desired! And one boils over with excitement, and, shutting the book even with a kind of reverence as if it were something very precious, a stand-by to return to as long as one lives, one puts it back on the shelf.
So it is with Forever Overhead. Wallace writes in the second person, encouraging his reader to empathise with his protagonist. Do you remember your thirteenth birthday? When ‘hard dangerous spirals of brittle black hair. Crunchy animal hair’ were emerging, when your voice ‘moved between octaves without any warning’, when your dreams suddenly became ‘moist and busy and distant’, furrowing towards ‘spasms of a deep sweet hurt’? If you never were an adolescent boy, something about Wallace’s wording surely convinces you that this is male puberty, this is what it is like to inhabit a disproportionate, tentatively male, pubescent body.
Certain passages pulse with the rhythm of nascent sexuality: we linger over swimming suits ‘held by delicate knots of fragile colored string against the pull of mysterious weights’ that we ‘almost understand.’ Carnality still awakening, inchoate, rubbing puffy eyes, murmuring confused: ‘Older boys watch older girls’ bottoms as they go up. The bottoms are in soft thin cloth, tight nylon stretch. The good bottoms move up the ladder like pendulums in liquid, a gentle uncrackable code. The girls’ legs make you think of deer. Look bored.’
Like ‘f.o.r.e.v.e.r’, Forever Overhead circles around moments and periods and intervals and their durations. Our adolescent resolves – or doesn’t, he chooses to push away thoughts because he has ‘decided being scared is caused mostly by thinking’ – although he has ‘thought it over. There is the high board. They will want to leave soon. Climb out and do the thing’ – to ascend the impossibly high tower teetering above the pool’s deep end, and dive. In the space afforded him by the queue, the boy struggles to fend off his fear as fingers of adult self-awareness and over-consciousness press in at the edges of his nearly adult mind. As he nears the front of the line, this thinking-space is compressed, and even though the prospect of climbing and diving ‘needs to be thought about’, there is no time. The line ‘is a machine that moves only forward.’ The people ahead seem to advance faster and faster:
She pauses for just that beat of a pause. There’s nothing slow about it at all. It makes you cold. In no time she’s at the end of the board… she disappears in a dark blink. And there’s time before you hear the hit below. Listen. It does not seem good, the way she disappears into a time that passes before she sounds.
In the breath drawn between paragraphs, we’ve moved to the top of the tower. Hit the brakes. Now time moves like a drop of pitch, like glass in old church windows. ‘It thickens around you as your heart gets more and more beats out of every second, every movement in the system of the pool below.’ Our teen drifts to the edge of the board at the speed of agony, everything outside of his skull unreal and barely in motion:
No time is passing outside you at all. It is amazing. The late ballet below is slow motion, the overbroad movements of mimes in blue jelly. If you wanted to you could really stay here forever, vibrating inside so fast you float motionless in time, like a bee over something sweet.
There it is again, the bee frozen in midair. This is the sweat bee that seemed ‘to hang motionless over the can in a sweet blur’ as the boy walked past his parents, determined to push thoughts and fear away. Wallace uses this creature as a symbol, to encapsulate the problems of mind and body, self and other. At first it seems that the boy ‘could really stay here forever’, never having to take the terrifying plunge because he is separate from the outside world, freed from time by virtue of his mind’s frantic speed; mind over matter, the inner holding sway over the external in a kind of monistic idealism. Like a monk perfectly poised in meditation. Or an addict forced into withdrawal.
Feeling the edge of every second that went by. Taking it a second at a time. Drawing time in around him real tight. Withdrawing. Any one second: he remembered: the thought of feeling like he’d be feeling this second for 60 more of those seconds – he couldn’t deal. He could not fucking deal. He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down into like one second – less: the space between two heartbeats. A breath and a second, the pulse and gather between each cramp. An endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. Living in the Present between pulses.
But the world breaks back in, the man next in line wants to know, ‘Do your plans up here involve the whole day or what exactly is the story.’
There’s been time this whole time. You can’t kill time with your heart. Everything takes time. Bees have to move very fast to stay still.
Wallace doesn’t let us off the hook so easy. It’s not as simple as matter over mind, or mind and matter being one. Our emerging man sees this as he stares beyond his feet at the dichotomies ‘forever below’. The water that is ‘only soft when you’re inside it’ but from overhead is ‘full of hard coins of light’. The sounds of below, ‘wind radio shouting splashing’ do not exist from overhead, they are replaced by ‘newly clear’ smells that were imperceptible from the ground. On his thirteenth birthday, our hero’s ‘first really public day’, he has become aware of complex multiplicities, within and without himself.
The lie is that it’s one or the other. A still, floating bee is moving faster than it can think. From overhead the sweetness drives it crazy.
New York 1964. Nina. Roots and fifths. The least amount of complication possible. Nothing too slick. Simone leans wearily into the keys, sings, moans, her cadence childishly nasal then booming up basso, resonating like a bell.
At that time, she was playing a little of everything. Some of it was jazz, some of it was folk-like spirituals and ballads. Nina was a hell of a pianist.
James Shelton, who wrote ‘Lilac Wine’ a decade earlier, apparently pinched the vital lines from Ronald Firbank, the evanescent English author of Sorrow in Sunlight. This tale of a rural black family attempting to clamber up society’s ladder reads uncomfortably now, with Firbank rendering the family’s speech in racially-caricatured phonetics, but in 1924 it sold excellently well in America with the title Prancing Nigger.
Offering a light, lilac wine, sweet and heady, Miami circled here and there. She had a cincture of white rose-oleanders, and a bandeau of blue convolvuli. She held a fan.
But Nina has always been able to see a secret light in the obscure, to hammer the problematic out into something new. In her hands ‘Lilac Wine’ expands airily. Simone is intoxicated by the twin ‘strange delights’ of alcohol and delusion as she lies beneath a lilac tree: ‘it makes me see what I want to see, and be what I want to be.’ She ‘puts [her] heart in the recipe’ of her wine, mixing the impossible hope of her lover’s return with increasingly muddled memories, drifting gently into oblivion.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk
‘Ode to a Nightingale.’ Keats melancholic, his mood twinned with Simone’s. He broods over ‘the weariness, the fever, and the fret’ that harry humans and define our condition: we are relentlessly aware that everything good in life – youth, beauty, and love – grows ‘pale, and spectre thin,’ and necessarily dies. The nightingale Keats addresses is untainted by this terrible knowledge; it ‘singest of summer in full-throated ease’, seeming ‘too happy in [its] happiness.’ The poet longs to ‘fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget,’ to join his bird in thoughtless bliss, because ‘but to think is to be full of sorrow and leaden-eyed despairs.’
Then father Anchises replied: ‘They are the spirits to whom
Other bodies are promised by fate; at the waters of Lethe
They drink a draught that carries their anguish away,
The cup of lasting forgetfulness.’
Keats’ torpor thirsts for a stronger anaesthetic, insensibility to dull the ache of insensibility:
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
‘Lilac wine…’: as Simone intones the title, a double bass begins to throb, filling our ears and constricting space until the bewildered appeal: ‘Listen to me! I cannot see clearly!’ rings out alone.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Keats has joined the nightingale ‘on the viewless wings of Poesy’. His soul flies weightless with the ‘immortal bird’, through hallowed spaces cloistered by Nature, to ‘ancient days’ and ‘faery lands’ pierced by the nightingale’s song. Keats floats like a feather into an almost psychedelic ego death: ‘half in love with easeful Death […] / now more than ever seems it rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain, / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!’
I lost myself on a cool damp night
Gave myself in that misty light
Was hypnotised by a strange delight
Under a lilac tree
But before he can achieve complete transcendence – from awareness, his brooding thoughts, himself –
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
Solange Knowles is thirty years old, but she’s had this feeling for nearly a decade now. Or at least that’s when she first tried to write it down, the spectre of a song that had percolated around and through and around her mind. ‘Cranes in the Sky’. Metal clouds. They loom and leer nightmarishly from overhead, blotting out light, hope, and escape.
I remember looking up and seeing all of these cranes in the sky. They were so heavy and such an eyesore, and not what I identified with peace and refuge. I remember thinking of it as an analogy for my transition—this idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us.
As the song opens, a string section grows slowly into focus, unfolding like a flower’s petals. A nonchalant bass guitar meanders about, knocks into a plucked harp every now and then. It’s all incidental. The texture of Solange’s breathy falsetto envelops you, a soft fumy rain that she never lets near her chest during the verses. She builds her voice into choral layers until the instruments can barely peek through the interstices. This repetition of a whisper that connects only lightly: insubstantial like her attempts to break out of a rut. And cyclical – Solange has been endlessly trying the same quack remedies:
I tried to drink it away, I tried to put one in the air
I tried to dance it away, I tried to change it with my hair
I ran my credit card bill up, thought a new dress would make it better
I tried to work it away, but that just made me even sadder
I tried to keep myself busy, I ran around in circles
Think I made myself dizzy. I slept it away, I sexed it away, I read it away
She saves her deep, fuller register for the chorus, when she describes the cold steel reality of her heartache.
What the system does to the subjugated is to destroy his sense of reality. This means, in the case of an American Negro, from the moment you are born every stick and stone, every face, is white. Since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose you are too. It comes as a great shock around the age of five, six, or seven to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.
The disaffection and the gap between people, only on the basis of their skins, begins there and accelerates throughout your whole lifetime. You realise that you are thirty and you are having a terrible time. You have been through a certain kind of mill and the most serious effect is again not the catalogue of disaster–the policeman, the taxi driver, the waiters, the landlady, the banks, the insurance companies, the millions of details twenty-four hours of every day which spell out to you that you are a worthless human being. It is not that. By that time you have begun to see it happening in your daughter, your son or your niece or your nephew. You are thirty by now and nothing you have done has helped you escape the trap. But what is worse is that nothing you have done, and as far as you can tell nothing you can do, will save your son or your daughter from having the same disaster and from coming to the same end.
Imagine a world with no escape, no peace no not ever. Of course Ralph Ellison did in Invisible Man, thirty years and change before Solange was even born. Its opening lines are among the most celebrated in all of literature:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
There is no place for the invisible man either: ‘I no longer deluded myself that I either knew the society or where I fitted into it.’ The ‘inner eyes’ with which white Americans ‘look through their physical eyes upon reality’ do not allow them to see past their prejudice, the idea of black people that their imaginations project. Society cannot countenance the possibility that beneath that darker epidermis is a person with unplumbed depths. With intelligence and desires and dreams just like a white man.
There are days – this is one of them – when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How precisely you are going to reconcile yourself to your situation here, and how you are going to communicate to to the vast heedless unthinking cruel white majority that you are here. I’m terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long they really don’t think I’m human.
How does it feel to move unheeded through a world that will not see you? ‘It is most often rather wearing on the nerves.’ Your sense of self is eroded and ‘you ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognise you.’ Invisibility makes you ‘formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death.’ What medicine then? Like Solange, you can try to drink, sleep, or read it away. You can push away those you love, thinking, ‘If I was alone then maybe I could recover.’ You can run away from any commitment, refuse to engage, take one look at your crummy hand and fold. But it won’t help and you’ll find you can’t ever stop running, you can’t pause even to catch your breath.
So I took to the cellar; I hibernated. I got away from it all. But that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be still even in hibernation. Because, damn it, there’s the mind, the mind. It wouldn’t let me rest. Gin, jazz and dreams were not enough. Books were not enough. My belated appreciation of the crude joke that kept me running, was not enough.
The invisible man wants resolution: ‘Into my being had come a profound craving for tranquility, for peace and quiet, a state I felt I could never achieve.’ He gets unwittingly high one night, hallucinates ‘an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco.’ She sits moaning the soft sorrow that sits in her marrow. She tells the invisible man that she loves freedom, and he asks her what it is:
I guess now it ain’t nothing but knowing how to say what I got up in my head. But it’s a hard job son.
Yes. The invisible man spent years speechifying, delivering the stale words of his teachers and employers, saying what society expected him to say but failing to really communicate. He could not really enter a dialogue because he never said what he meant, never knew what he meant. But finally after being ‘hurt to the point of abysmal pain’, he is ‘through with all your illusions and lies, I’m through running.’
And I looked up through a pain so intense now that the air seemed to roar with the clanging of metal, hearing, HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE FREE OF ILLUSIONS…
And now I answered, ‘Painful and empty,’ as I saw a glittering butterfly circle three times around my blood-red parts, up there beneath the bridge’s high arch. ‘But look,’ I said pointing…
And high above me now the bridge seemed to move off to where I could not see, striding like a robot, an iron man, whose iron legs clanged doomfully as it moved. And then I struggled up, full of sorrow and pain, shouting, ‘No, no, we must stop him!’
And I awoke in blackness.
The crane in the sky has dissipated along with delusion, replaced by determination and ideas of black identity that ‘keep filing away at my lethargy, my complacency.’
Why should I be the one to dream this nightmare? Why should I be dedicated and set aside – yet, if not to at least tell a few people about it?
Ellison speaks beyond blackness, too. Each of us is the invisible man – he comes to symbolise the essential struggle we all face.
Which of us is truly visible to those who look at us? How many of us truly see ourselves, let alone know who we are, especially as Americans since, for Ellison, ‘the nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are’?
We are invisible when we struggle, again, to connect with the people around us. We are invisible when fear – of ridicule, of being a nuisance, of blank stares – stops us from reaching out to our friends. We are invisible because we won’t talk about the fear that buzzes around our heads at night when we’re sat flicking fingers across our touchscreens, or shifting sleeplessly in our beds, or staring at a wall in our rooms. Loneliness, worthlessness, boredom, frustration, depression. Convinced that only we feel this way. Unwilling or unable to share our feelings, but compelled to share unreal dioramas of our lives on every channel, live streaming instant messaging twenty-four hours a day.
The fact is that you carry part of your sickness within you, at least I do as an invisible man. I carried my sickness and though for a long time I tried to place it in the outside world, the attempt to write it down shows me that at least half of it lay within me…
You go along for years knowing something is wrong, then suddenly you discover you’re as transparent as air. At first you tell yourself that it’s all a dirty joke, or that it’s due to the ‘political situation.’ But deep down you come to suspect that you’re yourself to blame, and you stand naked and shivering before the millions of eyes who look through you unseeingly. That is the real soul-sickness, the spear in the side, the drag by the neck through the mob-angry town, the Grand Inquisition, the embrace of the Maiden, the rip in the belly with the guts spilling out, the trip to the chamber with the deadly gas that ends in the oven so hygienically clean – only it’s worse because you continue stupidly to live. But live you must, and you can either make passive love to your sickness or burn it out and go on to the next conflicting phase.
You can try. To relate. On a genuine level. To share. To sing your own personal blues and listen to those of the people around you and learn that no one is as alone as they thought.
The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.
At the end of the novel, the invisible man tells us that ‘humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.’ It is not something that we are born into but something we must aspire to and achieve. This connection between people that makes us more than ourselves. Let’s join our invisible man back on that accidental stoned night:
So under the spell of the reefer I discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths…
At first I was afraid; this familiar music had demanded action, the kind of which I was incapable, and yet had I lingered there beneath the surface I might have attempted to act. Nevertheless, I know now that few really listen to this music…
I had discovered unrecognised compulsions of my being – even though I could not answer “yes” to their promptings…
Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?
Did any of that make sense?
Did it ring true to you?
Can I ask you to believe – if not in spirits then in spirituals, in muses invoked, people wired in?
Because it could be that Blake read Wallace, Simone sang to Keats’ memory, and Solange wrote with Invisible Man open on her desk. It could be that the above is an example of a human brain seeing patterns where there is only a wall of static, a chaos of white noise; tracing shapes in clouds that stutter across the sky and waves that shift atop the sea. Or it could be that there are signals – imperceptible to most, inexplicable, rationally – that reach down, to and beyond us, that inspire.
echoes from overloud voices get rapped inside
badass black thunderclouds and carried to God who sits at
the corner of forever.
God sent down correctly.
God sent down right on timely:
music – muzak – muzick
messages that cannot be decoded by stale brains
words and notes that mean:
inside you is where life is and not at woolworthless 5&10.
the message is here: inside the man
bubbling brain cells and heart/soul cells
ax/cell-er-rating faster until understood
and used and passed on and used and passed on and used
 Scott-Heron, Gil. ‘Plastic Pattern People’. Now and Then. Canongate, 2000. Print.
 Scott-Heron, Gil. ‘Spirituals’. Now and Then. Canongate, 2000. Print.
 Anon. The Gospel of Thomas, 70. Web.
 Blake, James. Interview. James Blake in the Studio. BBC Radio 6. May 2016. Radio.
 Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited. Penguin Books, 1978. Print.
 Smith, Zadie. ‘This is How it Feels to Me’. The Guardian. October 2001. Web.
 Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Classics, 2014. Print.
 Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Abacus, 2016. Print.
 Booth, Philip. ‘Lisle Atkinson – On Learning from Jazz Singers’. Bass Player Magazine. July 2006. Web.
 Firbank, Ronald. Sorrow in Sunlight. Dodo Press, 2008. Print.
 Virgil, & Oakley, Michael. Aeneid. Wordsworth Editions, 2004. Print.
 Knowles, Beyoncé. ‘Solange’. Interview Magazine. January 2017. Web.
 Baldwin, James. ‘University of Cambridge Union Debate – The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro’. I Am Not Your Negro. Raoul Peck, 2016. Film.
 Baldwin, James. I Am Not Your Negro. Raoul Peck, 2016. Film.
 Callahan, John. ‘Introduction’. Invisible Man. Penguin Modern Classics, 2016. Print.
 Ellison, Ralph. ‘Richard Wright’s Blues’. The Antioch Review, Vol. 57, No. 3, Jazz. Summer 1999. Web.
 Scott-Heron, Gil. ‘Pre-Notes on Notes to Come’. Now and Then. Canongate, 2000. Print.