ruth weiss — we are sparks in the universe to our own fire (Edgetone, 2020)
This 2018 live recording can also serve as a tribute to Ruth Weiss, the beat poet, lifelong iconoclast who recently died at age 92. Weiss, who was at work in San Francisco earlier than Kerouac and the other, more “household” names, was sometimes referred to as the mother of the Beats, and it’s an interesting coincidence that this CD reached my doorstep just days after Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed. The album is a nice memorial in that it shows ruth weiss (who preferred her name in lowercase) still performing and creating in her later years, and it serves as a complement to the documentary film Ruth Weiss, the Beat Goddess, released in 2019.
We are sparks is a single performance consisted of nine poems in two settings. Doug Lynner’s electronics back one set, followed by the same nine poems in the same sequence, backed by Rent Romus on sax and Doug O’Connor on bass. Hal Davis provides spare percussion throughout, using only a wood log in place of the stereotypical congas.
Davis works well with speed and mood, but I sometimes wish we could break loose from the monochrome nature of the instrument — it’s literally a wooden log. Lynner’s sci-fi sheen pushes the sense of pondering and wonder in the poetry without being overbearing; it’s a good dose of color and adds some momentum. But I do prefer the jazz trio tracks, with Romus and O’Connor laying down cool sophistication, a genteel ambling that probably would have been well received in the ’50s. Weiss seems to spark more brightly in that setting. In fact, my understanding is that she was among the earliest Beats to pair poetry with jazz jamming, fueling the idea for the better-known names who got more credit in later decades. This is her home.
The performance hardly pauses between tracks; each half, consciously or not, becomes one continuous flow broken only by Weiss’ occasional introductory notes to certain poems. I would have liked more blank space, but then again, some of the poems last less than 1 minute and don’t require much brain-resetting time.
The set includes a generous helping of recent work. “90,” written in 2018, is a brief musing on passing that milestone, and “Dump Trump” is a miniature rant, pinpoint accurate and needing no elaboration. The mood of the concert is overall light, but Weiss reaches into her past for some especially heavy imagery. “BYPASS LINZ” is a cluster of passages from Weiss’s Desert Journal, written 1961-68, and it opens in 1938, with 10-year old Weiss traveling by train to Amsterdam, departing Vienna. In 1938. Linz is another Austrian city, one with an uncomfortable history. The math isn’t hard.
Indeed, one reason Weiss left no survivors is because the Holocaust took most of her extended family. These poems are more than her legacy; they are her children, the last survivors of her line. Her bloodline ends with an exclamation point, with a career in letters that secured a place in history and received its biggest recognition during her final years, while she was not only alive but also healthy and able. I choose to see it as a happy ending, and this album is a part of it.