What Book of Poems Should Be Read With Jazz Music and a Glass of Whiskey?

BOOK: Doctor Jazz

AUTHOR: Hayden Carruth



I picked up Doctor Jazz almost by accident. The train station in my town offers free used paperbacks (courtesy of the local libraries from the donations that they receive from the public) to anyone waiting in the station. I liked the title, and couldn’t remember at first just why the author sounded familiar. Then I figured out how I knew the name: Hayden Carruth had several selections in Good Poems, an anthology edited by Garrison Keillor, which I’d read recently.

Terrific, then! I picked it up, opened it to the title page, and realized that I had in my hands a copy that had been signed by the author. Even more reason to take it on board the train with me. The poet had held this volume in his hands and written someone (I can’t quite make out the name) a note of thanks, in a rather scraggly hand.


I’d read two of the poems before (as they were in the aforementioned anthology), one being “The Fantastic Names of Jazz,” which is just that, an exuberant catalogue of jazz artists, beginning with Zoot Sims and ending with “And of course Jelly Roll Morton,” and the other, “Memory,” an elegy for the author’s former wife, who died forty-four years after he’d last seen her, and remained fixed in his memory “As she was. Brown hair, brown eyes,/ Slender and sexy, coming home/ From her job…” Both are worth reading more than once.


The heart of the book, however, is a long poem, “Dearest M—,” about the loss of Carruth’s daughter (she died of cancer, in her 40s), which is sincere and painful, touching in both the specificity of his memories of her and in the universality of mourning. The end of it is almost unbearable to read:

Noon is the ominous hour. Not midnight
when we celebrate our joy. Not dusk or dawn
when we take our pills and sit back to
consider. Noon is the ominous hour.
The puny sun mounts toward the apogee
and a thin curtain of snow begins to fall.
A father’s vision becomes fluttery,
like his breath. He has reached the end
of the first day of his daughter’s death. His sight
is hazy as he looks out at the apple tree.


Garrison Keillor writes that Hayden Carruth is associated with “rural Vermont and upstate New York, with politics, with jazz and the blues.” That’s about right. I’d also add a certain sadness, a knowledge that the world is going to break your heart, an appreciation for both people and animals, and an eye for beauty, wherever it may be found.


Pick this one up…the poems are accessible, personal, and intelligent. It’s probably better to read them at night, though, with a glass of whiskey and a jazz clarinet soundtrack.


RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 3 1/2 Whistles




Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com


Lead-In Image Courtesy of Alexey Lysenko / Shutterstock.com


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