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Live Evil: A Homage to Miles Davis

by Richard Stevenson

Poet George Bowering asked the question: “(How to) come out of/ literature, right into the roar/ of that belly’s horn…” Live Evil is Richard Stevenson’s response: a book-length poetic suite based on the life and art of the legendary Miles Davis. Stevenson’s poems are held in a narrative chronological line augmented by the poet’s emotive reaction to many of Miles’s most important recordings. At eight sections and 80-plus poems the book may be simply too big, but Stevenson is an ambitious cat.

The opening section, “All Up in My Body,” documents the early years. The temptation might be to talk about the music rather than attempt to capture its cadence on the page, to write commentary rather than word-notes, but for the most part Stevenson avoids this trap. He does lean somewhat heavily on the anecdote, but that’s an understandable attraction with such a mercurial figure as Davis. Clearly, Stevenson has read all the right sources on the trumpeter, and has obviously spent a thousand listening hours with the man.

The second section of poems, “That Mournful Ballad Sound,” is the high point of Stevenson’s collection. Here, the poet captures the fragile purity of this musical genius, “those doeskin notes” transformed on the page into enjambement lines as soulful and tight as the best of the master’s improvisations.

It becomes more difficult for Stevenson to hit the high notes as Live Evil extends itself, and it’s no wonder – there are simply too many gigs toward the end. And, on occasion, Stevenson tries too hard to tell us too much, as if words should always have meaning.

What’s clear is that with Live Evil, Richard Stevenson has become a charter member of the Great Poetry Orchestra, playing with the likes of Langston Hughes, Amiri Bakara, Corso, Ferlinghetti, and Frank O’Hara. It’s illustrious company to be sure, but Live Evil is that good.