(Masterpieces of American Literature)

From the first book of poetry he published, which used the name of John Coltrane in its title, through the fourth section of Healing Song for the Inner Ear (1985), which is called “My Book on Trane,” and beyond, Harper has written about the legendary composer and performer as a mythic but human figure whose life contains many of the most vital and troubling elements of black experience. “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” which is both an address to the spirit of the artist and a paean to his achievement, is written as a dramatized expression of the musician himself: “It is Coltrane . . . who is singing” explains Harper in his notes to Songlines in Michaeltree.

The poem carries as an epigraph the title of one of Coltrane’s most important albums, A Love Supreme. Harper quotes the phrase four times, establishing a rhythmic figure as a base against which much of the poem works as a form of improvisation or melodic variant. The long first stanza begins, in Harper’s words, “as a catalogue of sexual trophies for whites,” in which the anatomy of a slave in death or auction is reduced to the dubious market value of its separate parts. “Black men are potent,” Harper explains, “and potency is obviously a great part of Coltrane’s playing.”

As the stanza continues, however, the price of this power is inverted so that it becomes a burden that a black man must accept or suffer, resisting the hatred and fear...

(The entire section is 550 words.)