The Absurdly Poignant Poems of Sun Ra

CHICAGO — Twenty-five seconds into Sun Ra’s “Realm of Lightning” (1962), a muddy growl emerges softly, as if from another room, and never quite goes away. Registering between a muted trumpet and a distorted chortle, the sound is dubbed “Space Voice,” in characteristic Sun Ra mystery, and belongs to Art Jenkins. The largely percussive track simmers for 12 minutes in this lurching fashion; notes cling as if the piece can’t die — it’s done when it’s done. Sun Ra’s music is transcendent, his stage presence beyond, and his legacy outsize — all of this was  daunting for a new listener like myself. “Realm of Lightning” was the first track of his I ever listened to, and I picked it because of the title. Sun Ra, The Substitute Words: Poetry 1957-72, a tightly curated archival exhibition at Corbett vs. Dempsey, operates similarly, applying a literary lens to his output  and providing a welcome, alternative entry point into his universe.

The show is anchored by four publications that collect Sun Ra’s poetry, though only two, The Immeasurable Equation and Extensions Out: The Immeasurable Equation Vol. II (both 1972) were formally intended as such. The first two are liner notes for the early albums Jazz By Sun Ra (1957) and Jazz In Silhouette (1959) that happen to double as chapbooks. Also present are eight enticingly stained aluminum lithographic offset printing plates, some uncut signature sheets, and three albums from Sun Ra’s periods in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia that all feature poetry in some form. On the occasion of the exhibition, Corbett vs. Dempsey has printed facsimile copies of all four books.

Installation view of Sun Ra, The Substitute Words: Poetry, 1957–72, Corbett vs Dempsey, 2021 (photo by Robert Chase Heishman)

Consistency was not Sun Ra’s concern: like his records that sometimes list fabricated players, dates, or locations, his poetry surfaced sporadically. Play, especially when unexpected, courts a deeper attention. Indeed, the short poem “Parallels” is printed uncentered, dropped into a blank space on the sleeve of The Night of the Purple Moon (1970). “In versions of each other….. where/ nothing after something is not/ or even before something came to be.” He writes like he speaks, which is to say in adaptable koans. In Robert Mugge’s excellent 1980 portrait film Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, he is soft-spoken and yet his eyes reveal total clarity, perhaps from knowing the importance of what music could do. And occasionally, his words are absurdly poignant. In one scene, an off-screen reporter asks if there is any special meaning to the “Requiem for Trevor Johnson” he is about to play at Danny’s Hollywood Palace in Philadelphia, to which he replies, “The requiem? Well it’d be the first time one would root for a poor, unfortunate man.”

“The Space Age Cannot Be Avoided” is a simple, lucid poem that outlines the “greater future” through matter-of-fact delineation, and appears both on the back of Super-Sonic Sounds (1957) and in Jazz in Silhouette. “The greater future is the age of the Space Prophet,/ The scientific airy-minded second men./ The prince of the power of the air. / The air is music/ The music is power.” That music can be breathed, is all around a profoundly apt line considering the thrall of Sun Ra’s jazz. Listening to “Legend” (c. 1965-1969) is a strangely captivating experience. Overall, it’s discordant and yet jerks forward. Sun Ra cultivates overgrowth just to hack through it — here, it begins with a set of mumbling trombones before a clavinet interrupts starkly. There is almost a physical, sonic force to Sun Ra’s music; it delivers like an arrow floating around the bull’s eye. The aforementioned poem continues: “Greater music is art,/ Art is the foundation of any living culture./ Living culture is skilled culture” — through this logic, one can sense Sun Ra’s belief in continuity with ancient traditions, particularly those of dynastic Egypt.

Installation view of Sun Ra, The Substitute Words: Poetry, 1957–72, Corbett vs Dempsey, 2021 (photo by Robert Chase Heishman)

There is an unexpectedly pleasing visual dimension to The Substitute Words, in the crumpled plates that hang on the wall. Used to print the album sleeve for Dimensions 27-II (1972), they bear the marks of their use — scratches, tinted streaks of emerald, inky thumbprints in the margins. Images of the sinewy space trumpeter appear in multiple passes, variously pooled and eroding. Gallery co-founder John Corbett is also a music scholar and critic, and salvaged them with his wife Terri Kapsalis from producer Alton Abraham’s house when the archival material was at risk of being thrown away in 2007. The rest of Abraham’s collection was passed on to the Special Collections at the University of Chicago Library, and is accessible to the public. 

“[B]ut when every tomorrow is the/ same as every yesterday…/ Then, that every tomorrow is not/ the real tomorrow,” Sun Ra quips in “Dimension Spheres and Spirals,” which appears in the early pages of Extensions Out, a certifiable textbook of his values and aims with over 100 poems. Spheres, spirals and a spinning motion in general recur frequently in Sun Ra’s compositions, which in both music and text confidently posit that the future is ready. We just have to keep revolving, beyond this planet. 

Installation view of Sun Ra, The Substitute Words: Poetry, 1957–72, Corbett vs Dempsey, 2021 (photo by Robert Chase Heishman)

Sun Ra’s stanzas are riddles against passive reading. His twisters beckon you to reassess just as his music can leave you wondering, What is that sound? “Re,” the closing poem of The Immeasurable Equation, begins “Back in the backness of the blackness of the earth_black/ blackness backness.” The same repetition and stutter can be heard in some of his squealing tracks, as in four minutes into “Legend,” when a thrash of oboe short-circuits, as if the composition were an electric motor. Sun Ra finds a rhythm, allowing a work to spin on its own, before capsizing that structure — and in the choppiness, creates a cleverly stitched but purposely irresolute image of blackness, old as time and here to stay. 

Sun Ra, The Substitute Words: Poetry, 1957-72 continues through April 24 at Corbett vs. Dempsey (2156 West Fulton Street, Chicago, IL).

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