05 December 2023

320.95694 (Poem)


I’m recuperating from surgery after a broken hip and, along with catching up

on teaching and grading, I’ve been working on sets of short lyrics, some of

which have been roughed out pretty quickly. I’m aiming to engage—as with

many of the other poems I’ve self-published here on this blog—with what

Walter Benjamin called a politicizing of the aesthetic. I recognize the artifice

of my own language (that’s what lyric writing pretty much is for me), but also

a demand to connect that might even overwrite that artifice, cross it up and

fracture it.

      Here’s a piece written in an hour or two—so closer to a briefly attenuated  improvisation—about some media reports of bombed public libraries in Gaza. I’m also thinking about the poetry of Mosab Abu Toha, and his work on libraries, although I hope I have been mindful not to appropriate his poetics here. (In fact, that distancing might be my point.)





You get to see reports

about bombed out public

libraries, wire photos


that document rubble—

more slaughtered rows of books

dumped from stress-buckled shelves,


like some collapsed brick wall

at an abandoned dig;

torn spines, cloth covers caked


with pulverized concrete;

discarded ordinance, non-

fiction heaped in makeshift


mass graves. Dewey cutters

glibly obliterate

intractable conflict:


peace by bibliocide.

You can’t hope to erase

what you can’t hope to read.


05 July 2022

Asymptotes, Voicings: Amirtha Kidambi, Julia Úlehla, and Darius Jones at Ironworks, 3 July 2022

Asymptotes, Voicings: Amirtha Kidambi, Julia Úlehla, and Darius Jones

at Ironworks, 3 July 2022

For there is a musicke where-ever there is a harmony, order or proportion; and thus farre we may maintain the musick of the spheares; for those well ordered motions, and regular paces, though they give no sound unto the eare, yet to the understanding they strike a note most full of harmony. Whatsoever is harmonically composed, delights in harmony.

—Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici (1643) The second part, Sect. 9


Give or take a weekend ago,

the five available planets

looked to align like lit crotchets

along the predawn ecliptic’s

oblique stave: zircon studs glinting

in that sky’s freshly pierced left ear.


Jump to last night’s one-off trio—

voice, voice, and alto saxophone;

the local cosmos witnessed you

concoct an ad hoc almagest,

extemporaneous ravel

threading a three-body problem,


weaving nascent swathes of wordless

repair across the world’s ripe wounds:

vibrant fray, orbitals, vectors

of what songs justice wants to make.

      You urge us to attune, to hear:

Pure music is what you must face.

There is a tide in time, of sound.




This text is an experiment around responding to improvised music in lyric form. It was written during the morning of Monday, July 4, 2022 as a reaction to a profoundly engaging performance the night before—the closing night of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival—at Ironworks, a venue just outside of Gastown near the entrance to the Port of Vancouver on the Downtown East Side, which annually hosts a series of experimental and innovative musicking. The festival, now returned to in-person performances in the attenuated wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, has a long history of setting up one-time improvisational meetings of Vancouver-based performers with musicians who have come to town as part of the festival programme—many of which have gestated international collaborations. The evening of July 3 featured one such meeting, of Darius Jones, Amirtha Kidambi, and Julia Úlehla. New York-based saxophonist Darius Jones held a composer’s residency at Western Front in June-July 2019, commissioned by Coastal Jazz (under Artistic Director Rainbow Robert) and partially supported by the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (for which I am the UBC site coordinator) to create a composition that engaged with some of Vancouver’s improvisers; he premiered his “Vancouver Suite” for strings at Ironworks—after a three-year pandemic delay—employing Jesse and Joshua Zubot on violins, Peggy Lee on cello and James Meger on bass, with San Francisco-based percussionist Gerald Cleaver on drumkit and himself on alto saxophone, on Friday, June 24. (I’ll say more about this piece in a forthcoming post.) Darius Jones has currently taken up another residency at Western Front, this time to develop a duo with vocalist and composer Amirtha Kidambi around the poetry and thought of Sun Ra; later this week, they will be performing and discussing some of their emerging co-creative work. Vancouver-based vocalist Julia Úlehla has collaborated with both Darius Jones and Amirtha Kidambi almost a decade ago when she lived in the New York area, so their trio meeting—while in some sense a first—also emerges from a shared history. (Please follow the embedded links for more information on their music-making.)


The poem responds to an extended (around 55 minute) free improvisation that these three offered that night. It’s a little hard to describe—hence, perhaps, my response in lyric form rather than denotative prose—but essentially consisted of layers of nascent texture and vestigial melodic lines. Darius Jones began by blowing breathy, whistling overtones through his saxophone, to which the two singers responded in kind, with murmurs and whispery phonemes that very gradually gained voice and thickness; collectively, they seemed to feel their way into various surges and ebbs of sound, layering lines that looped back on, crossed over, and raveled each other. At times, ghost tones and other phasing vibrations lifted up into the room, generating a resonances palpable on a listener’s skin and ears. The sound-space took on a profundity, manifesting not so much as volume but as deepening quiet, an increasing sense of presence to the music and to each other. There were no solos, but each made space for the others, attending to shifting interactions and mutually responsive discoveries. Both Amirtha Kidambi and Julia Úlehla bring sensibilities to their performances that are vibrantly rooted—at least in part—in folk traditions, and there was for me a keen sense of connection to the human planet in the ballad-like shared melody that appeared at the close of the piece, as if all three had arrived at temporary common ground. It was a deeply moving, spiritually engaging music; it was a tremendous privilege for me to have been there in those moments.


A few explanatory notes on the poem I hope might help. The prosody is not free, despite it being correlated to a free improvisation; the stanzas and metre are built mathematically around 3! and 4!—six- and twenty-four syllable groupings, cut across by an eight-syllable line, clustered in three (for the trio of voices) 48-syllable choruses—though the last stanza adds an irruptive extra eight. Tetrameter lines like these are often found in folk ballads. This pattern emerges retroactively from the last two (italicized, eight-syllable) lines, which are quotations from the writing of Sun Ra—in this instance lifted from a 2019 essay on his poetics by Harmony Holiday. The quick drafting of this poem lends itself, for me, to a kind of free forming that the final pre-set lines lock back into compositional place/space. The quotation from the seventeenth-century Englishman Sir Thomas Browne’s autobiographical Religio Medici coordinates the revisionist cosomology of Johannes Kepler with the Ptolemaic music of the spheres to describe a spiritual listening beyond listening. See also earlier medieval versions of Ptolemy’s Almagest. Kepler’s harmonic attunement is also the source for the Urania-inspired astronomical word-music of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The three-body problem is a mathematical quandary around chaotic motion caused by the shared gravities of three celestial bodies; apparently, Kepler fudged his calculus around such quandaries in order to make the idea of harmonic planetary motion work. An alignment of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (Sun Ra’s planet of origin) took place on Friday, June 24, 2022, the date of the premiere of Darius Jones’s Vancouver Suite, and enacted a kind of orbital harmonics of that cosmic music. The reference to justice is an oblique gesture at the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the human rights precedents set by Roe v. Wade, which has been in the air these recent weeks, among other things. I’ve been reading Nathaniel Mackey’s Double Trio lately, too. For me, the poem counterposes Afrological and Eurological cosmologies, and wants productively, somehow, to negotiate with their cross-talk. At least, that’s the idea.

Darius Jones playing Sun Ra in 2019:

28 February 2022

Kobzar Quatrain (Poem for the People of the Ukraine)

Kobzar Quatrain


Bury what’s left of me near | home. What’s done needs to be done.

Word is, to get free requires | even the meek to shoot back. 

Go soak your broken shackles | in some bogus tyrant’s blood.

But spare those you leave behind | a last kind line, if you can.


Reworked from Taras Shevchenko’s “Testament” (1845), 

28 February 2022

This four-line impromptu translates, very loosely, and expands upon some lines extracted from "Testament" (Zapovit), a poem by the nineteenth-century Ukrainian bard (Kobzar, in Ukrainian, which I don't speak or read) and artist Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), who was born near Kyiv and who died in St. Petersburg, in the Russian Empire. The poem is known by heart by many in the Ukrainian diaspora. I'm thinking, also, of John K. Samson's songs derived from the experiences of Ukrainian-Canadians, of Geeshie Wiley, of Joe Strummer, and of the beatitudes, and of today's events around the invasion of Ukraine.

23 May 2021

Poem: Horn Threnody 3.11 (feat. Toshinori Kondo)


Here is the print text for an audio-poem I have made, which I'll be premiering today on The Words & Music Show from Montreal. It's a reflection, for me, on distant witness and a meditation on global responsibility. The recording uses some electric trumpet lines from Toshinori Kondo, offered by his family license-free through Bandcamp, over--or under--which I have layered some of my own muted pocket trumpet textures. My own recording is available free of charge on Bandcamp, although any payment I receive for downloads will be matched by me and donated to local food banks here in Vancouver. Toshinori Kondo passed away--transitioned--at the age of 71 on October 17, 2020, so this piece is also an elegy for him, offered with deep respect for his life and art. The audio from which I have borrowed is Mr. Kondo's posthumously-released recording called "Blow for 3.11." 

Horn Threnody 3.11 (feat. Toshinori Kondo)


Ce ton qui nous colle aux oreilles, la vision de la catastrophe collée sur la rétine, se superposent à d'autres que nous avons connus depuis l'enfance, et il faut vivre avec cette vision de notre futur possible, à jamais gravée sur la rétine, qui hélas surgit parfois distinctement devant nos yeux. 

—Ryoku Sekiguchi, Ce n’est pas un hasard


No form of lament seems massive enough:

tectonic peal, 

the supersaturated keen

of jacked electric brass wet with effects,                       

like denatured gull screech, like seismic shriek,

woebegone siren wail; a frazzled taps;

atrocious, injured blare—irradiant, cranked.

Lachrymal squelch beaches itself in slabs.

Come ten years back, one bad March afternoon

saw Tōhoku swallow 

its own live east coast whole,

tongue to pelagic tail, entire shorelines 

sucker-punched by a sudden obese surge,

the trench-deep pitch and heave made by a wall 

of blunt ocean murk walloping landfall;

crude, big seabed upchuck; catastrophic, 


headlong saltwater slap, pulverizing

harbours, houses, and power-plants 

in the hard churn

of its remorseless, whelming gut. Take out 

your mute. Retaliate with what small dose 

of spitty empathy your human mouth

can muster. The word tsunami blisters

your lip like leakage from unquenched fuel rods.

02 June 2020


Listen can’t breathe. Listen what voice whose voice can’t breathe. Listen what broke what voice who says listen can’t breathe. Listen cop knee to neck what broke can’t breathe. Listen what hope can’t breathe. Listen whose neck whose voice what broke can’t breathe. Listen cop knee to neck speak up can’t breathe can’t speak shut up listen shut up. Listen what broke whose voice cop knee to neck don’t choke who says can’t breathe speak up. Listen shut up what hope don’t speak don’t choke whose voice cop knee to neck what broke can’t breathe what voice listen. Listen speak up what hope who says. Listen can’t breathe.  Listen.

29 April 2020

Voiceover / Shoring, a videopoem

This video poem, completed two years or so ago, is made from edited scrap Super 8 footage taken by my grandparents — mostly by my grandmother — during a return visit to Nova Scotia in the summer of 1962. I composed the texts for the two poems, "Voiceover" and "Shoring," and read them. Geoff Mitchell composed and performed the music and constructed the soundscapes from field audio he recorded around the Bedford Basin in Nova Scotia. The voice and music were recorded at a studio in Montreal in June-July 2017. The texts form part of an ongoing series around the idea of the nostos, the return journey, and address, for me, something like what Svetlana Boym has called off-modern nostalgia.

Voiceover / Shoring, a videopoem from Kevin McNeilly on Vimeo.

Constable (poem)

I’m using this blog to self-publish a few poems from home, most of them elegies and other public pieces that have emerged in the recent months. “Constable” is an elegy respectfully dedicated to RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, who was murdered in Nova Scotia a week and a half ago. It’s intended to offer sincere condolences. I grew up in Truro, Nova Scotia, and still have friends there.

Heidi Stevenson, 1971-2020
Maintiens le droit.

You’re told, hold to what’s right, no matter what,
which if taken to heart you take to mean,
first off, you’re the one called to look out for  
the wounded, the bewildered, and the shunned.
Service inscribes its craft across the law.
There’s anybody could be your neighbour:
common decency forms the better part
of what ought to pass for justice. You swore
to temper fear, favour, and affection,
but maybe not at the cost of close-grained
kindness. From the folks you stand on guard for
you learn what real care costs. Come the last shift
on your current patch, for instance, a good
ways north of Cole Harbour up the 102,
you might pull your cruiser to the shoulder
to think through how your oath might get you killed,
how kids and husband, left to reconcile
duty to loss, might persevere, and how
no place else comes remotely close to home.