Imhotep Quo Vadis: the Poetry of Sun Ra

“Sire, I am from the other country. We are bored in the city, there is no longer any Temple of the Sun”

Ivan Chtcheglov

Sun Ra’s early LPs give a PO Box number in Chicago on the back sleeve. Space was important to him and a post-office box is a very small space indeed, surrounded by identical cubes of the same size in a district devoted to doll-house addresses. Someone should compose a history of these banal steel insect coffins which have ever hidden identities. Gray organizations of one, gypsy get-rich-quick concerns, and souls on the lam all swear by them. Post-office boxes are also used as the official headquarters of the great off-shore banking houses such as Bank of America, Deutsche Bank and HSBC. Set side by side in the walls of tax havens like the Cayman Islands, they are probably comparable to Sun Ra’s old contact module in square foot.

In working-class black neighborhoods, next to the boutiques and storefront churches, you can still find the old Coptic curio shop. Incense, Pharaonic sculpture, exposes of UFOs, and spirit communications from Nile sages are laid out in all their bright colors. These current artifacts are part of the modernist tradition of political collage, of a certain egalitarianism which puts marginalized speculation on par with schoolhouse fact and holds the ultimate promise that every black person will be both artist and adept. The PO Boxes of mail-order mystic colleges and hoodoo magi offered the same grimoires, charms and gris-gris for a moderate fee and a stamp, using the accordion-like technics of postal time to transmit these powerful objects.

Your history books say one thing
the sun says another

Kicks Books/Norton Records has recently published the first volume of Sun Ra’s Prophetika trilogy, a posthumous salvo by the Master that goes some way toward explaining his cosmologic and historical world-view. It is a series of poems which recalls Wilhelm Reich’s rabid Listen Little Man mixed with the poetic admonitions of Ezekiel and the wild electrum of Richard Shaver-era pulp. Figures sunrapropand themes from history and theology return, but this time standing on their heads: Pharaoh is a wise governor and revelator of heretical meanings hidden in the divine scripture; Satan is given back the equal status given him by Mani.

Our history books still gloss over the Slave Coast and the Indian genocide, managing at best a blush of shame (guilt is clemency in the world court of bad conscience). But decades of primary education have unwittingly produced a noble lie to counter the violence of the official story. Gentlemen, the reservation has a reservation. You discovered the great kingdoms of Africa but assigned them to re-burial; you called those who saw in the Dog Star our true homeland superstitious savages; you doctored holy books to reflect your manufactured evidence and made icy statues to supplant black Athena. Legend and myth must be constructed on the spot in order to attack this essential cover-up. As well as the signals of the secret police, speed can also carry the poetry of origins and dignity:

I am the presence of the living myth
I am the presence of the magic lie
and the living myth

Propehtika Vol. I is composed in a triad of declamatory voices: a kind of lofty Tiresias figure ear-boxing the reader, a Royal Assembly which uses the sovereign We (perhaps similar to the Qur’anic We), and a time-travelling witness who speaks like a wild radio broadcast and occasionally offers comfort in the ruins. Although ever-expanding outer space is the main subject, the hierophonetic blank verses collectively give the feel of a conspiratorial room or a cell: The entire planet is a prison house with no future.

Like William Blake[1], Sun Ra considered it bad taste to reveal his system in simple words. Words are part of an outmoded program that might one day be overcome if humans ever reach a higher octave in the Pleiades. If Lao Tzu told people to study the void, Sun Ra reveled in clutter. His thought integrated any discordant object that struck him. He strolled easily around Egyptology, pulp sci-fi illustrations, poetic etymology and puns, End-of-Days tractates, animated films (Walt Disney’s in particular), and the world-theory of popular books of crankdom such as the 8th, 9th and 10th Books of Moses (James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus flip through a copy of the latter in Ulysses). Philosophically, he was a junkman who valorized the cast-offs and miniature obsessions of the Republic by fitting them into an elastic system as revolutionary as a child’s mobile. In method he was patient and methodical, perhaps to the point of playing everything for a protracted universal prank:

Planet earth, hear my voice
and listen intently to the things
I do not say
rather than
to what I say

Costumes, new names, the dialectic unity of heterodox elements, and the profound ability to muddle the fault lines between humor and seriousness run through black American music and cultures. Hitting the obvious note sounds crude. Far better to imply it like a ghostly overtone or garb it in a joke. It will take centuries before we figure out the dead-serious jests of Sun Ra, the music and the man. Did he take Garvey’s Black Star Liner literally? As in moving in the stars themselves?

Sun Ra’s poetry owes a little to John Dewey. There is a sense of childhood pedagogy throughout which make the verses read like lessons from a secret, ideal school. Matter rejected by the state institutions, a screen composed of the projected obsessions and dreams of the student (or rather here, the counter-history of black art in America), hangs over the world of formal education and its training for work in a great constellation we might call real life or politics, culture or art. To map – and also to teach – this constellation, Propehtika uses the tone of some future witness of past and present events. Prophetic in the old Apocalyptic sense: to speak of the present by using the landscape of both the future and the past.

If the earth shakes and quakes
and tears down the buildings upon it…

Sun Ra’s prophecies and music were not the product of stargazing in fields but rather of looking up at the night sky from the urban rooftop. Ancient elementals revealed themselves in plaster fetish, late Roman-columned banks and the pleas of lonely investigators stuck to lamp posts or off-pressed in spidery tracts. Scientific breakthroughs and gadgets surrounded him; so did the star voyages he demanded. But the industry of the space race, and the galactic white supremacy implicit in its very name, is the antithesis of the Arkestral voyage in the planets. Rather, race of space: Nubia in Saturn, ringed by repetition:

we’re living in the space age
we’re living in the space age
we’re living in the space age
we’re living in the space age….

The municipal post building is one of many structures placed like moveable type on the street. The wide boulevard is a product of a state which does not trust its citizens and was created for troop movement in the case of civil unrest or foreign invasion. This paranoid piece of city planning is the work of agitated, resentful minds who see themselves as gods above the traffic masses. Sun Ra was another kind of often angry god.

This is why we refuse to be
a part of your reality
and we chose to call ourselves
citizens of the myth.


[1] Sun Ra’s system is usually ignored or passed over in embarrassed silence by many jazz critics as a by-product of the composer’s supposed ‘eccentricity’. Blake suffered the same fate until E. P. Thompson’s brilliant book Witness Against the Beast revealed a perfectly explainable cosmology for Blake’s art and politics; without this system his poetics could appear incomprehensible (or ‘eccentric’). There would seem to be similarities in the systems of both Blake and Sun Ra, arguably the greatest artists of their respective centuries.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.