Comments on Tonesmith, by Al Basile

Some poets are floating senses, and others are floating intellects. The first produce poems that project their experiences into the reader’s consciousness as if nobody had ever owned those experiences, which are pristine, the world perceived through clear glass. The second produce poems whose steady commentary on their perceptions hardly leaves any room for the world in the reader’s consciousness. Al Basile is neither.

Hardly clear glass, and certainly not disembodied mind, he produces poems that are almost holographic in their insistence on bringing their author into the reader’s space, where he—his tone of voice, body language and facial expressions—constitute an uncanny presence. The very title of the book identifies the author as a music-maker determined to be heard, and as a poet whose first concern is achieving the tone in which he wants to be heard by the reader.

Almost wholly blank verse, except for a few very fine pieces in rhymed tetrameter and some persona poems that reveal a strong flair for dramatic writing, these poems include autobiographical rites of passage, regrets and celebrations, personal and family memories, immigrant folklore, travel impressions, encounters with revered musicians and sports figures, and ambiguous lessons learned. Everything about them comes to the reader bearing the unique stamp of the teller, just as the musical notes that emerge from his horn are the literal product of his breath. All, even the poems that achieve their effects through brilliant extended metaphors—“Seven Hundredths of an Ounce,” “Straight Outta Antiquity,” “The Cracked Plate,” “Black Pearls,” “My Bow Ties,” “1 + 1 = One,”—are dense with the essence of the metaphor-maker, who occupies the language as tenaciously as the ‘knots and burls” hidden in the “Burl” of the opening poem will “defeat and redirect the chisel’s edge,” admitting “no easy progress.”

That remarkable poem’s epigraph, drawn from the I Ching, declares that “Human life is conditioned and unfree.” It suggests that reality is a tough substance to work with, for Everyman and certainly for the artist. But the poem, and Basile’s work in general, goes a step further, to claim that the business of the artist is not to render that tough substance easier to work with, but only to acknowledge its difficulty and be prepared for an honest outcome that may be “imprecise” and “blunted.”

This is poetry, not for the timid, but for those willing to contend with the “close-grained” nature of a highly individual artist whose “permission” they will need before this work, “wrought fine by will,” allows them entry. The good news is that the reading experience is more than worth the effort, and rich for the poet’s uncompromising presence in every line.

Rhina P. Espaillat