“Go ride the music.” These are the words that Ganga Ghose, a student at Benares Hindu University, hears late at night in her dorm room, coming through loud and clear from a radio that’s been turned off for hours. And so begins her journey in Ghost and Ganga: A Jazz Odyssey, a delightful short novel by the New York poet and spoken-word artist Kirpal Gordon, published by Leaping Dog Press. Off we go, too, with her, on a wild, sacred ride from India to Mexico, Baltimore and through the American south, in 95 pages that feature a highjacking, hostage takings, sex, love and romance, and a life and death struggle, all in swinging jazz time, teasing the scales and walking through the melody line of modern America.
Gordon is a poet who also possesses a fine sense of dialogue, narrative pacing, and character development, and has created in Ghost and Ganga a work that is satisfying both as poetry and as story. Built around three short novellas or suites, the book centers around the characters of Ganga Ghose, jazz singer and Billie Holliday impersonator, and her sideman and pianist, Ghost Wakefield. The title of each suite honors a jazz artist or poet. The first, Ganga Runs the Voodoo Down, is a tribute to Miles Davis and Bitches Brew, and begins as Ghost waits for Ganga in the parking lot of a radio station in Baltimore where Ganga, in the guise of Billie Holliday, has taken the DJ as her “jazz hostage.” Gordon takes us right into both the action and the rhythm and music of his work as Ghost muses on the sound of his employer’s name: “Something strange. Sweet. Forbidden. Like deep down in the guttural where he pronounces her name Gun-gah Goh-say: three hard g sounds but on the fourth syllable something musical, blowing out her name like a kiss – say.” When we first meet Ganga, running from the Baltimore radio station, having botched her hostage taking and leaving the DJ handcuffed naked to a pipe, she’s raw and edgy, impatient and ready to jump out her skin. Your not sure you like this woman and Ghost isn’t sure he likes her either. What has he gotten himself into? Is she getting him into hot water with the law? She’s done something illegal but she seems to have “… a standard operating procedure for bending the law to its loophole.” As Ghost drives them west, into the Maryland countryside, Ganga becomes more complex, vulnerable, confused, driven by dark forces she doesn’t comprehend. She’s discovered she’s in love with Ghost and Ghost makes the big mistake, engages in the one act that no sideman on the road should ever engage in the one who signs the checks. “He was the fool on the wrong side of the slippery slope of ‘I love you’ … that ended in the slipperiest slope of all, ‘no matter what’, the words wrong women whispered underneath their masks of obedient wife and coy mistress…”
The title of the second suite, Raid Kills Bugs Dead is taken from a line of ad copy written by the Bay area poet, Lew Welch, when he worked for an ad agency in Chicago. Here, we go back in time, to when Ganga is a student in India and sings at a local jazz club. It is here that Ganga hears this jingle and muses on its “…Pavlovian lyric with a musical hook.”, here that she first hears Ghost playing Come Sunday on the radio and breaks into tears, here that she hears the voice from her dead radio telling her to “Go ride the music.” Getting from India to America via Mexico is a wild ride that I’ll let you discover on your own.
The title of the third suite, Come Sunday, honors Duke Ellington and his powerful and beautiful musical prayer seeking redemption and freedom. As Ghost lies in a coma, on the sharp edge between here and eternity, Ganga transcends the jazz impersonator to become Mahalia Jackson and sing this prayer plea to her comatose lover.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Ghost and Ganga is no more than a quick fast ride of adventure and jazz. Ghost and Ganga is generous, kind and unpretentious. This work has heart and soul. Gordon is not afraid to go wherever the music takes him. This is the mature work of a master word slinger who Huck Finns his way down a Mississippi of song, of jazz, folk and blues. It’s the kind of give and take improv that can only come with discipline, skill, deep knowledge and years of patient hard work. It’s Neal Cassidy, Alan Ginsberg, Lew Welch, Grace Slick and the Grateful Dead, the whole mad post-WWII American dream of love, violence, sacred seeking, and all on the move move move. You will come to care about Ganga and Ghost. They have come alive and I hope that you, like I, want to see more of them, know what life has in store and how they will handle it.
Ghost and Ganga is language at its finest – healthy, whole, playful and incisive. Meaning is not sacrificed for musicality, as too often happens when poetry leans toward performance. Nor is the music ever lost in the telling of the story. A great deal of damage is done in what passes for public discourse in the daily drag of American mass culture. Politicians and pundits, corporate suits and news shills pepper their speech with so many “if you wills”, “moving forwards”, and “so to speaks” that they turn the free and wild air of language into a dense and soporific cloud. Ghost and Ganga is an antidote to that, if you’re willing to hop into their blue Dodge with them and ride the music.
Michael Adams is the author of six books of poetry and essays, and has been published in numerous journals. His latest book of poetry is Steel Valley (Lummox pres 2010). Michael is also an accomplished banjo player and performs poetry and music with three other poets and musicians – James Taylor III, Phil Woods, and Jim Sheckells – as the Free Radical Railroad. He lives in Lafayette, CO with his wife, Claire.