A Raga for George Harrison
by Sharmagne Leland-St. John
94 pages ~ 54 poems
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Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
For those who may be unfamiliar with a keyword in the title of poet Sharmagne Leland-
St. John’s new collection, “Raga” refers to the many melodic patterns found in Indian
music. Through a series of “swaras” (something like metric feet in poetry) the singer
progresses up the musical scale then down. There are numerous raga variations which
lend themselves to improvisational treatments of both instrumental and voice intonations.
With this background sketch in hand, A Raga for George Harrison is a composition
which ascends, lingers, extends and descends in a rich tonal interplay.
This interplay is introduced early on with a focus on difference-makers in entertainment,
social justice, literature, philosophy and more. Her subjects include: George Harrison of
Beatles fame, Claudia Jennings, Queen of “B” movies, singer Janis Joplin, writer Virginia
Woolf, poets Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg. Here is an excerpt from the book’s
keystone poem, A Raga for George Harrison, the setting is Reno, NV:
To see the night sky
in all its glory,
and to hear George Harrison’s music
lilt across this high desert plain
And to know glaciers were right here
This was the very edge of them,
A strong connection is growing.
Sitar strings sing
in this desert night,
his music still flowing.
I would like to emphasize a particular phrase from the above excerpt, “A strong
connection is growing.” Leland-St. John’s work is characterized by an unusually strong
“connection” to things, places and people. She is emotionally connected; that is, she feels
life at great depth; with Leland-St. John, nothing remains superficial for long. She is
“invested,” to employ an oft-overused phrase. However, this investment never gets in the
way of art. She is a professional who writes after reflecting for long periods on how her
subjects have impacted her life.
In Pearl’s Song, written for rock/blues singer Janis Joplin, who died tragically in 1970 at
age 27, we see how the poet’s pathos marries art through couplet rhyme:
I remember her in the studio that night
Restless, and her voice was tight
All in a knot
Yet when she said goodbye who would have thought
She’d never see the morning light
But the sky was dark and the clouds were pale
And she rode out on the midnight rail
They came to mourn
They came to cry
They came to wonder
How someone like her
Could ever die
Stylistically, Leland-St. John is very much her own poet. What appeals to this reviewer is
her skill at lineage. If we notice the line breaks in Pearl’s Song, we find them to be
irregular, she is not counting syllables to comply with a predetermined format. However,
the lines flow conversationally, without tightness or strain; very much like two people
reminiscing over coffee.
Leland-St. John writes with poignancy about poets Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. Each
made contributions to literature which live on even though their personal lives ended
tragically. Poet-activist Garcia Lorca is memorialized in Lorca. Through a career lasting
only 19 years Lorca spoke out against the brutal regime of Spanish dictator Francisco
Franco. You won’t want to skip over this important tribute poem. There is more: Hector
Pieterson was a 13-year-old martyr against Apartheid. Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, was a
Native-American activist murdered in 1975. Here is part of the poet’s tender response:
water songs unsung
teardrops in the river
a loving wife
a human sacrifice
a slice of Indian life
These “Raga” notes represent only one dimension of Leland-St. John’s poetic range. Her
music rises and falls in surprising and entertaining ways. I Said Coffee, is sensuously
suggestive; Things I’ll do now that he’s gone, reveals the heartbreak of lost love; Tiny
Warrior, brings tears in the poet’s loss of her infant son, Nikolai, “Who never saw the
spring.” In Seascape, we encounter the skillful employment of “personification”:
Sea I love the way you tremble
Your waves will pound and crash upon the sand
Her tangled auburn hair strand for strand
Will mingle with the crystal tears
Your emerald ocean sheds
As is the case with many poets, memories comprise an inexhaustible source-pool for
Leland-St. John’s work. On the Riverboat that Day, treats a feeling many readers share:
realizing that a love relationship is declining. Lost love is recalled in All He’s Left Me.
Love as play, delighted me in Ticonderoga Wind.
I once reviewed a travelogue which amounted to a world tour of exotic places. A Raga
for George Harrison, is a magic carpet to Cairo, Lima, London, Kashmir, Chicago,
Hawaii, mountain climbing and Indian reservations; this is but a partial list. Leland-St.
John carefully weaves settings, characters and subjects into poems that moved me
emotionally and intellectually.
If I were to choose one word to describe both the poet and A Raga for George Harrison,
taken as a whole, that word would be “Love.” At bottom Leland-St. John is an artist who
faces life in its dazzling array of complexities, disappointments, confusions and joys.
Through it all, she emerges with both hands raised in triumph shouting, World I love you!
Life I love you! I punctuate that assertion with Apple Blossoms, quoted here in full:
pink and pale
sheer and frail
on the wind they
float and sail
scent the night
wrens take flight
Your reviewer has never been quite the same since reading A Raga for George Harrison,
I’m bold to assert, neither will you.