Nicotine Dreams: On Smoker’s Time, Desire & Writing

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I’m walking home, stuck on a narrow pavement, hemmed in by parked cars. Two men are dawdling ahead of me, both of them huffing cigarettes. They’re dirty fags, definitely Marlboros, a stench that’ll take out your lungs like a morning bloom of toxic frost. I feel nauseous as the smoke blows back in my face and it’s a struggle to breathe; I’m striding fast to get ahead of them, not caring at this point whether it’s rude to push them aside. My heart-rate is up too much, the bodily reaction palpable.

I’m in a friend’s flat. It’s July and we’ve been awake all night and now it’s 4pm the following day, three of us watching videos, drinking rum with blackcurrant cordial in lieu of food. Somebody rolls every hour or so; two of us smoke out the window. It’s been raining for weeks but today the sky is blue and the daylight sparkling. A warm breeze comes through. I’m reminded of the night’s shimmery feeling, a glorious cocktail of chemicals and dropped sugar levels producing slow-release euphoria. The cigarettes are neatly rolled, thin and compact. They don’t take long to smoke, but the two of us—not being proper smokers—relish and linger the moment of supplementary respiration. They don’t taste of much at all, a very faint tobacco flavour that twirls down our throats, the thing we’ve been craving all night. We take turns to gaze at the street below, a couple of lush-leafed trees, passersby offering glimpses of the reality we’ve temporarily dropped out from. Everything has that vaguely pixellated feel of the virtual. Sideways glances at each other’s faces; at times like these you notice the colour of eyes, the shape of noses. We’re listening to dream pop, hip hop, lo-fi. We gossip to forget ourselves, spark grand discussions on topics ranging from astrology to engineering to ghosts. There’s a certain ambience we’ve made out of pure haze, a hilarity of mutual laughter meaning nothing in particular, resounding through abyssal chains of meaning. It’s one of the most blissful afternoons of my life. I go home, hours later, still tingling with nicotine. I lie on my sheets and let the scenes flicker by like beautiful lightning.

Like many people, my relationship to smoking is a little complicated. I’m a Gemini, my loathsome desire always cut into halves. I find myself disgusted by the dry sharp smell and residue taste, but somehow addicted to the presence of cigarettes in narrative, their signifying of time, their eking of transition between moments. It feels natural that such action should then manifest in real life: the disappearance outside after a talk or song or reading, buying yourself time to mull things over, return anew—snatch chance interactions with strangers. I know a friend who started smoking at university purely for the excuse to talk to girls outside nightclubs. I guess it worked well for him. The universal language of the tapped fag remaining a perpetual possibility, footsteps approaching the rosy garden of your smile and your smoke, your contemplative aura. Veils over nature. This is nothing but nothing; this is just the vapourisation of time and space. Smoke gets in your eyes and reality feels smoother. Less needs to be said; intrigue can be held. You add that plenitude of mystery in your walk, your dirty aroma of cyanide, carbon, tar and arsenic—an edge above the vaporous plumes of sweet-smelling e-cigs. With a fag in hand, there’s less impetus on you to talk. With a vape in hand, people want to know about your brand, juice, flavours.

A Smoker’s Playlist:

Mac DeMarco: Viceroy
The Doors: Soul Kitchen
Nick Drake: Been Smoking Too Long
Sharon Van Etten: A Crime
Simon & Garfunkel: America
Oasis: Cigarettes and Alcohol
Otis Redding: Cigarettes & Coffee
The White Stripes: Seven Nation Army
My Bloody Valentine: Cigarette In Your Bed
Tom Waits: Closing Time
Neil Young: Sugar Mountain

Smoking is an object-orientated approach to daily existence. A way of distilling the Bergsonian flow of time into its accumulative moments, paring apart the now from then in the spilling of ashes—slowing and building anticipation by the mere act of rolling. Appropriate that Bergson should use a rolling, snowballing metaphor for temporality. To roll a cigarette is to accumulate a fat tube of tobacco, to acquire something that smoulders, continues, then what? Flakes off as snow, delays. So you interrupt the flow, so you start again.

Denise Bonetti’s recent pamphlet, 20 Pack (2017), released via Sam Riviere’s If a Leaf Falls Press, explores the temporal and bodily effects of smoking. The title itself relates to a deck of cigarettes—twenty once being the glut of an addict’s indulgence, now the standard legal purchase—but of course you can’t help thinking of a deck of cards. Especially since the numbered poems are all out of order, starting with ‘20’, finishing at ‘1’; but by no means counting down in order in-between. I think of Pokemon cards, Tarot cards. We used to play at school and you’d always ask how many in your opponent’s deck, like “I’ve got a 20 deck, want a match?”. With Tarot, I don’t think we understood that only one person was supposed to have the cards in hand. We probably triggered some real bad luck, doing that. Bringing two realities, two predicted futures, into collision. Messing up the symbolic logic. I always flipped over the sun card, savouring the dry irony of Scottish weather and clinging to that vibrating possibility of future joy. We swapped velvet tablecloths for the scratchy asphalt of playgrounds. The older kids drifted on by the bike sheds, wielding cigarettes, watching us with scorn and suspicion.

Smoking has a lot of symbolic logic: ‘the faith in the liturgy the telling of a story / the pleasure of knowing what’s coming’. This is a whole poem from Bonetti’s collection: number ‘4’.  A liturgy being a religious service but also a book. Cigarettes are made out of layered paper, scrolled possibility, something to become enslaved to. You just smoke your way through them, the way you might blaze through a novel, find yourself drifting on down a webpage. What thoughts roll round your mind in that moment, churning as soaked clothes in a launderette? You rinse them by the final intake, stubbing the line out and switching your mind like a refresh key. Take it off spin cycle and have a breather. Knowing what’s coming is that sweet anticipation, first cigarette of the morning, of the night or the shift. Remember what’s good for you. Physical relief disguised as imminent pleasure.

The poems of 20 Pack are quite wee poems, thin poems, poems with space inside them, milling and floating around the language. Punctuation is often erased to allow lingering where one pleases. These poems negotiate geometries of thought and situation, honing on imagistic visions which score upon memory: a seagull’s beak, swimming pool tiles, a gold leaf or ‘terrible sequin’, the sun and moon, ‘cyanic peas’. There’s the oscillations of desire, an almost mutual voyeurism that invites the reader within this intimacy, controlled as the cold celestials then warmed with a little wit. Each cigarette is tied to these ‘songs’, lamenting ‘the self- / replicating minutiae of days, / nights, encounters’; ‘An act of anachronism’. Every cigarette involves that mise-en-abyme of re-inhabiting each moment you once smoked in before, a concatenation of places and tastes starting to merge together with the first inhale. This is the seductive literariness of cigarettes. As Will Self characterises it, ‘it’s the way a smoking habit is constituted by innumerable such little incidents — or “scenes” — strung together along a lifeline, that makes the whole schmozzle so irresistible to the novelist’. Maybe also the poet. Easy to make necklacing narratives from the desire points instated by the gleam of a lit cig on a cool summer’s night. The worried observer or reader, clicking the beads together, watching with interest for events to slide into effect. The imminent possibility inherent within the duration of a smoke: what happens next? The loose stitches of a poem you pull apart for a better look, a glimpse of the future. Is all poetry a signal from tomorrow, that fragment of what comes next in the rolling tapestry of the present?

Simultaneous acts: 

A tobacco impression between two movies,
Fingertips brushed in the exchange of a lighter,
Expendable tips,
The thick lisp of silver foil,
Dark cigar husk of Leonard Cohen’s voice,
Where we hid from the rain, making miniature glows.

In Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014), a novel set in New York, poised on the brink of various recent storms, streetlights provide a sort of talismanic portal into other dimensions. The text’s obsession with Back to the Future plays out the film’s time-travelling logic of multiple temporalities colliding, but it is light that figures this as fiction’s possibility. Embedded within 10:04 is a short story titled ‘The Golden Vanity’, in which the protagonist is struggling to write a novel, an echo of the narrative arc of Ben Lerner’s text. The protagonist pictures his protagonist standing at the same ‘gaslight’ beside which he stands in Ben’s (10:04’s narrator) fiction: ‘he imagined […] that the gaslight cut across worlds and not just years, that the author and the narrator, while they couldn’t face each other, could intuit each other’s presence by facing the same light’. The vicarious union of all these writerly characters, standing at the same gas lamp in different points of real and fictional time, enacts this sense of immanence contained in (re)iteration. The lamp embodies this externalised marker of being—resembling the narrative I that cuts across the novel’s page.

We might think of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, describing the appearance of a shadow, a ‘straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter “I”’. It’s difficult not to think of the extra implications here: a straight dark bar is surely more than just a crudely drawn line on a page? Maybe also a heteronormative public space in which strangers meet under gloomy mood-lights, exchanging phone numbers and slurring words? There’s the association between the male voice and the act of smoking. How many times have you seen a male writer smoking onscreen, or in a novel? Is smoking an act of masculine dominance or, as Bonetti seems to suggest, a more fluid ‘act of negotiation’? Woolf writes: ‘One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it [the “I”]’. Like the emanating smoke of a cigarette, the literary I dominates context and setting with its insistent perspective, its rationalised display of determined personality. How can we see the fading moors, the elaborate trees, behind the I’s lament? What is it that recedes beyond the smoky planes of our everyday rhizomes, stories trailing over one another with a certain lust for narrative, precision, suspension—self-perpetuating molecules of thought? In poem no. ‘8’, Bonetti relays a ‘text from max: “i can’t stop picturing my first fag break splitting into a chain of identical fag breaks, each reiteration carrying a fainter trace of the initial reason”’. The pleasure of focus dwindles like a tiny dying seed, until all that’s left is this black, Saturnal kernel, reflecting outwards the rings of former moments.

Things people have spoken to me about in smoking situations: 

Family problems,
Sex and relationships,
Hunger,
Literature,
Politics,
Parties,
Mental illness,
Makeup,
The ethics of cheating,
Shared memories with deeper resonance beyond initial palpability.

Like some subtle, truth-telling elixir, cigarettes invite a space for confession. As Self argues, cigarettes are great for novelists. Not just because of their magic ability to garner stories from others, but because of their Proustian resonance. Gregor Hens, in his beautiful memoir essay Nicotine, describes the focus of smoking thus:

The chemical impulse initiates a phase of raised consciousness that makes way for a period of exhausted contentment. Immediately after the first drags an almost unshakable focus on what’s essential, on what’s cohesive and relatable sets in. I often have the impression that I can easily link together mental reactions to my environment that serendipitously arise from one and the same place in the cortical tissue during this phase. This results in associative and synaesthetic effects that help me to remember, along with the dreamlike logic that is the basis of my creativity.

The ebb and flow of a cigarette’s biochemical culmination prompts a certain rhythm of consciousness conducive to the rise and fall of creative impulse. Little flash-points of mental connection are made with each spark of a lighter; while joining the serotonin dots the nicotine rush soothes us into a mental state of dwelling, which allows those perceptions and expressions to take shape from the swirls of smoke. Consciousness lingers thirstily in the moment.

With an existentialist’s recalcitrant cool, Morvern Callar inhabits her eponymous novel by Alan Warner by describing the scenery around her, narrating her actions rather than inner feelings. Frequently she ‘use[s] the goldish lighter on a Silk Cut’—the phrase is repeated with little variation at least 30 times across the text. It’s a touchpoint of continuity in her turbulent world of suicide, secrets, solitude vs. claustrophobic community and most importantly the whirling raves of the 1990s in which you shed your identity. The rave scene itself ‘is just evolving on to the next thing like a disease that adapts’, as one of the ‘twitchy boys’ on her Spanish resort relates. Cigarettes are perhaps the little quotidian landmarks, the tasteful eccentricities that lend temporal solidity in a late-modern universe that warps and sprawls like some viral code, recalling the human ability to transmogrify base materials. Turn manufactured product to curls of paper, smouldering ash. Cruelly ironic, then, that they cause cancer—the terrible cells that twist, coagulate, balloon and elude.

Every cigarette recalls a former cigarette, the way you might look into the eyes of a lover and see the ghosts of all those who came before. That uncanny glimpse of deja vu that is human desire, the algorithmic infinitude of selfhood. Cue Laura Marling ‘Ghosts’ and sit weeping youthfully into your wine, or else think of it this way, as William Letford writes in his collection Dirt: ‘If you’re lucky you’ll find someone whose skin / is a canvas for the story of your life. / Write well. Take care of the heartbeat behind it’. You might never find a single soul whose skin provides the parchment for your ongoing sagas. Maybe you will. Maybe they smoke cigarettes and so you try to tell them to stop, thinking of their poor organs, struggling within that smoke-withered body. Maybe you’re single and lonely, writing as supplement for the love that’s trapped in your own ribcage like so much bright smoke waiting to be exhaled. There are many mouths you try out first. Poems to be extinguished in a crust of dust and lost extensions. Maybe you don’t think of it at all.

On average, romantic encounters triggered by a shared cigarette: 

3/5
+ one arm wrestle,
a distant sunrise,
a song by Aphex Twin,
a bottle of gin,
a fag stubbed out drunk on the wrist.

We tend to think of cigarettes according to the logic of ‘first times’. Again that elusive search for origins, innocence. I remember doing a creative writing exercise long ago where we had to write, in pairs, each other’s first times. Others tackled drunkenness, kisses, flying, swimming. For whatever reason, the two of us (both nonsmokers) chose smoking. My partner recalled being at a festival, aged sixteen, being passed a rollup by her older sister. She remembered the smell of incense, coloured lights, the little choke in the crowd that signalled her broken smoker’s virginity. I slipped back into the dreary vistas of Ayr beachfront, sheltering from the sea wind with a couple of friends. This tall girl I looked up to in ways beyond the physical realm passed me what was probably a Lambert & Butler and I remembered being so pleased that I didn’t cough, but probably because I swallowed the smoke greedily and didn’t know how to inhale properly.

It took me a while to learn how to breathe altogether; when I was born I almost died. The first smoke feels like an initiation into identity and adulthood. It was like coming home from somewhere you never knew you were before. That little spark, a doorbell deep in the lungs. You purposefully harm yourself to establish a cause, a chain reaction. Realising the strange, acidic feeling flourishing in his stomach after smoking his first fag as a child, Hens suggests that ‘in this moment I perceived myself for the first time and that the inversion of perspective, this first stepping out from myself, shook me up and fascinated me at the same time’. It’s hard not to think of the bulimic’s first binge and purge, the instating of shame and pleasure whose release enacts this sweet dark part of the self, an identity at once secreted and secret. Feeling the little spluttering sparks or tingles within you, you realise there’s a thing in there to be nurtured or destroyed. As the bulimic’s purge renders gustatory consumption material, a thing beyond usual routine or forgotten habit of fuelling, the smoker daily encounters time in physical context, the actuality of habit, transition. From the perspective of his spliff-huffing protagonist in Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), Lerner puts it so eloquently:

the cigarette or spliff was an indispensable technology, a substitute for speech in social situations, a way to occupy the mouth and hands when alone, a deep breathing technique that rendered exhalation material, a way to measure and/or pass the time. […] The hardest part of quitting would be the loss of narrative function […] there would be no possible link between scenes, no way to circulate information or close distance […].

The cigarette is Jacques Derrida’s Rousseau-derived dangerous supplement, the elliptical essence of what is left absent but also implied. The three dots (…) or flakes of ash left on the skin from another’s cigarette. Are we adding to enrich or as extra—a thing from within or outside? Derrida describes the supplement as ‘maddening, because it is neither presence or absence’; ‘its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness’. We find ourselves entangled; we smoke because we want to write, move, kiss, drink or eat but somehow in the moment can’t. Yet somehow those actions are imbued within the cigarette itself, the absent possibility making presence of that motion, the longest drag and the wistful exhale. Consciousness solidifies as embers and smoke: becomes thing; fully melds into the body even while remaining narratively somehow apart. The supplementary cigarette instates that split: even as smoking itself attempts a yielding, there is always a temporal logic of desirous cleaving. This is its process of transforming…the literal becomes figural—a frail, expendable ‘link between scenes’—the smoker dwindles in memory, stares into distance through a veil that is always there, then faintly dissipating…

The idea of melding with the body, melding bodies (O the erotics of skin-stuck ash), is compelling for smokers because there’s a sense that the cigarette becomes more than mere chemical extension. Like Derrida’s pharmakon, it’s both poison and cure: a release from the pain of nicotine deprivation, but also the poison that reinstates that dependence cycle within the blood. When smoking, you slip between worlds of the self, oscillate between freedom and need. All the old cigarette ads liked to tout smokers as self-ruling souls, lone wolves, Marlboro men who could conquer the world in the coolest solitude. The truth being really a crushing weakness: have you seen a smoker deprived of their vice? Tears and shivers abound, as if the body were really coming apart, the spirit melting. The cigarette becomes synecdochic mark for the smoker’s whole self. Think of Pulp’s ‘Anorexic Beauty’: ‘The girl / of my / nightmares / Brittle fingers / and thin cigarettes / so hard to tell apart’. Fingers and fags merge into one, when all that’s indulged is the un-substance of smoke.

I have certain friends who I could not imagine without their constant supply of paraphernalia; every interaction involves the punctuating rhythms of their trips outside, or desperate searches for lighters, filters, skins. I have seen them smoking far more times than I’ve seen them eating. The very nouns connote that sort of fleshly translucency; it’s a sense that these flakey tools really do mediate our experience of time, space and reality. There’s a horror in that, as well as a remarkable beauty. I have had many epiphanies, watching my friends smoke, the way they stylishly cross their knees or flip their hair out the way or cup their hands just so to protect that first and precious spark. There’s a sort of longing for that ease, that slinkiness; an ersatz naturalness of gesture which is itself a reiteration of every gesture that came before, the muscle memory of a million screenaging smokers always seeking that Marlon Brando original. The protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005), lusting after the way Robert De Niro so effortlessly sparks up a fag, as if each motion was the freshest, the purest expression. Authentic. The compulsive abyss of the Droste effect in advertising, mentioned by the young Sally Draper in mid-century advertising drama Mad Men: ‘When I think about forever I get upset. Like the Land O’Lakes butter has that Indian girl, sitting holding a box, and it has a picture of her on it, holding a box, with a picture of her holding a box. Have you ever noticed that?’. To smoke is to wallow in that loop-work of fractals, feeling each replicated gesture slip past in the artful skeins of the next.

10:04’s protagonist, Ben, observes his lover Alena smoking a post-coital cigarette: ‘“Oh come on,” I said, referring to her cumulative, impossible cool, and she snorted a little when she laughed, then coughed smoke, becoming real’. There’s an uncanny sense of removal in that: the notion that in playing character, channeling gesture, Alena becomes real. Observing her smoke, Ben is able to achieve a more sensitive awareness of his material surroundings, his attuning to nonhuman objects. He also feels as though the smoking transmits a particle effect that draws his and Alena’s being closer together, as if those tiny motes of poison were causing a mingling of auras, a certain transcendental longing nonetheless grounded in the physical: ‘We chatted for the length of her cigarette […] most of my consciousness still overwhelmed by her physical proximity, every atom belonging to her as well belonged to me, all senses fused into a general supersensitivity, crushed glass sparkling in the asphalt below’. The little chimes of assonance betray that sense of mutual infusion, which can only ever be fictive possibility, the poetic conjuring of words themselves. Later, after feeling the disappointment of Alena’s ‘detachment’ towards him, Ben sends her a fragmentary, contextless text: ‘“The little shower of embers”’. While he regrets sending it, it speaks of our human need to talk desire in material metaphor, often enacting the trailing effects of synecdoche. Here is my (s)ext.: my breasts, my cunt, my limbs. Extensions or reifications, lost signals or elliptical read receipts betraying aporia…We offer a glimpse then withdraw our being. What remains is that transitory passion he cannot let go of, while she so easily finds it extinguished in the sweep of her day.

For Ben, ‘the little shower of embers’ lingers. It’s difficult not to think of the street-lights again, the punctuating markers of spatial trajectory across the grid of the city, twinkling in millioning appearance on 10:04’s book cover. I’m reminded of the street-light ‘Star Posts’ in early Sonic the Hedgehog games (we used to call them lollipops—appropriately enough, another supplement for oral fixation) which you had to leap through to save your place, so that if you lost a life you’d revert back to that position in the level. They’d make a satisfying twanging sorta noise when you crossed them, and sometimes if you had enough rings the Star Posts could open a portal into the ‘Special Stage’. Even the virtual contains its checkpoints of place, the long thin symbols of presence not unlike those Silk Cuts, the I, the anorexic fingers. A sense of these moments that flicker, the length of the cigarette marked as physical duration and spatial decay. A Deleuzian fold or cleave in time. In the new Twin Peaks, Diane is an entity stretched across dimensions. No surprise that she smokes like a chimney, and every time someone tells her to stop she yells fuck you! The implication is a laceration, quite literal. There’s a violence to that delicious rip, the cellophane pulled off the packet. Then there’s episode 8, where the universal smoker’s code—Gotta light?—acquires the bone-splitting currency of horror in the crackling mouth of the Woodsman.

Associative moments lost in time: 

She gave up drinking and started smoking on the long flat dirty beaches;
People who burned bright & were extinguished young;
A neighbour whose house smelt so badly of stale fags we used to play in the garden instead;
His fingers shivering like leaves;
The reciprocity of this loose tobacco;
Taste of aniseed skins from Amsterdam, watching the film version of Remainder;
Broody Knausgaard in The Paris Review, admitting his continual addictions;
Smoking on the steps of my old flat saying everything will be okay—but what?

To smoke is perhaps to enact a kind of haunting, owing to the ghostly flavour of the former self performing the same action over. A poststructuralist elliptical supplement or sincere act of nostalgia. Masculine desire for luminous females, or the complicated politics of vice versa. A strange deja vu which mingles identity’s presence with absence. The fictive act of smoke and mirrors. In Safe Mode (2017), Sam Riviere’s ambient novel, the recurring character James recalls a phantom encounter, shrouded in imagined memory:

One summer at a garden party I danced with a girl in a green dress. I remembered her from high school, and built afterwards in my mind a certain mythology around the events of the evening…I discovered the next day that she had died a few months earlier. It seems I had been dancing with her sister. Almost any encounter can alter its configuration through the addition of detail or, more traditionally, a death.

In Safe Mode, problems may be troubleshooted as the brain or hard-drive enters a twilight zone of reduced consciousness, minimised process. The addition of detail: supplemented ornaments of thought, the drapery of memory or retrospective chain of events. What shatters through desire is the gape of that absence. A similar thing happens in 10:04, as Ben recalls his younger self falling in love with a girl he erroneously took to be his friends’ daughter: ‘She became a present absence, the phantom I measured the actual against while taking bong hits with my roommate; I thought I saw her in passing cars, disappearing around corners, walking down a jetway at the airport’. Always at the corner of his vision, she becomes an elliptical presence, diminished to the dotdotdot of memory attempting to make the leap. I think of binary code, the stabbed insistence of typewriter keys. In actuality, nobody else remembers who she is. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. What essence lies beyond or within that phantom appearance? What real need is channelled in the flimsy aesthetics of a lit cigarette, a girl in a memorable dress? We fashion narratives to make reality…what is this deep mode of operation; in what state of mind may we dispel rogue software, the signifying virus of niggling, unwitting desires? What jade-coloured jealousy of movement spins like an inception pin, stirring its quiet tornado of dreamy amnesia? How do we pick up our lost selves without cigarettes, what Self calls the usual rebirth of the ‘fag-wielding phoenix’?.

The mysterious ennui of Francoise Sagan’s chain-smoking heroines will always haunt me. Don Draper in the inaugural episode of Mad Men, ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, lingering over a Lucky Strike, will haunt me. Those moments of waiting for soulmates to finish cigarettes outside pubs will haunt me. Sitting by the sea on a picnic bench watching a friend smoke, talking of boys, will haunt me. The man who kept bugging us outside the 78 about ~The Truth~ will haunt me, even when I gave out a light to shut him up and tried to quote Keats—‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—losing his features to the veil of smoke as I myself drowned in chiasmus. Every teenage menthol enjoyed in clandestine fashion, on long walks up the Maybole crossroads, will haunt me. My clumsy inability to roll will haunt me. The cigarettes of stolen time behind the gym block at school will haunt me. The erotic proximity of those curled-up flakes, the crystal possibility of an ashtray haunts me. Frank O’Hara’s cheeky smoker’s insouciance haunts me. The way you stroll into newsagents and sheepishly ask for the cheapest fags will haunt me. Those dioramas of gore on each new packet will haunt me. The foggy spirals of facts and platitudes, health warnings and reassurances haunt me. The way you light up to kill time will haunt me. The dirty, morning-after coat of the tongue still haunts me. My own slow longing for breath will haunt me, I’m sure, in some other dimension where I start smoking and finally find the special addiction. For now, I choke behind strangers, stowing old packs in neglected handbags, writing as supplement for the first delicious drunken fag. Without that fixed, poetic, smouldering duration—Bonetti’s ‘comma between phrases’—I’m meandering through sentences, essaying in mist, waiting as ever for the next scene to begin.

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Dark Chocolate Auras and Strange Ecologies: Daisy Lafarge’s Understudies for Air 

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Sylvia Plath wrote many of her Ariel poems in the wee hours before dawn, sucking in the cold and inverse crepuscular air, its colourations of sinister lilac and absent sleep. We have a cliché of the poet’s spontaneous overflow, but instead with Plath there’s a sharp intake, a suspension of air, of breath: ‘Stasis in darkness. / Then the substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances.’ We have to think through the impossibility of a substanceless blue, as everything must be a component of something; we are all of a sort as perilous hybrids, weak in some place with the viral code of our own demise, shimmering within and outside us like a beautiful aura. The speaker paralyses herself on the brink of sublime, of suicide. Tor: a hill or rocky peak. Vertiginous depths to erase the scale of the self on earth. Tor: a free software project which protects your privacy online. Where history bounces back, is the elaborate sarcophagus that traps the foul air of your history. Think of layering, onions, peeling stench of purple flesh. Indulgent recipes for regret; the cloying addresses of cheap pornography, of midnight Amazon deliveries. Inside the deep centre a secret, liquid sweet as Timothy Morton’s chilli-dark core of chocolate ecology. Chilli, chilly; a shiver in the air that is freeze or fiery. I have been googling your name in my sleep. A shivering, unsettled enmeshment. The encryption an insufficient addition to the substance of memory, its thick brain mulch of skin and image. Such protocol stacks are hypothetical only, nested as the heavenly day that will not die. Wordsworth singles his day from a tangle of others, the onion clot and rot of forgettable hours. To dwell forever in that substanceless blue! To wear innocence on the sleeve of freedom! Plath’s line breaks are harsh and sharp, they flake off the page in their skinly abscission of sound and sense; the body is imposed on grander scales, made to stretch then wither in variable ‘dead stringencies’. All of a space, the thin poem shivering down a spacious page. All of this is so much of air. Take me to the edge, go on, it’s a dare.

An understudy is someone who learns another’s role in order to act at short notice in the person’s absence. You lurk in the background, an absent presence of possible flourishing. The poem as understudy: recipes perhaps in the absence of breathing. What we read when there is no air left to breathe. Poems in reserve for a gradual apocalypse. What exists as core substance, what complements the element whose insouciance charms the lungs without thought. Derrida’s maddening supplement: neither presence or absence, something added and something in place of. An understudy for air, a rehearsal of air’s function. Anthropocenic, tarry air, stung with coal and thickly textured.

Robert Macfarlane asks that we find a ‘thick speech’ for articulating life in the time of climate crisis. Enter Daisy Lafarge’s Understudies for Air (Sad Press, 2017). This is not a collection, ostensibly, about ecology or even the end of the world. It is a phantasmic scaffolding of words and lines for living, breathing, being. Its epigraph takes the axiom of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximenes: ‘The source of all things is air.’ Air being then the ubiquitous neutral substance, something available for occasional roles in physical process. A reluctant but capable actant, developing itself or forced upon by other natural causes. Air’s principle shifts bring about the other main elements: flicker into fire through precious density, condense into wind or water, earth then stone. Anaximenes articulates this through a simple example: if you relax your mouth and blow on your hand, it’s hot; if you do so with pursed lips, the air is cold. So rarity correlates with heat, density with cold. A beautiful, quiet, material intimacy. Everyday action, for Anaximenes, here forms the source of a theory of matter, and yet ever with time this matter recedes. There’s a scarcity of air, something sparse and grasped for in the gelatinous enjambment of Lafarge’s lines.

Precision of form: shortness of breath. When we pause at caesura, pause to breathe, when we lilt our words over the ambiguous interval of a line-break, we are forced temporarily to think about air. I recall the little ticks my brass instructor would make on a sheet of music: remember to breathe. The ticks would supplement a conventional musical pause; I guess I just needed more time to breathe. Breathing is temporal, but also material. There’s a precision to Lafarge’s form, a negotiation of reflective lyric transposed through material effects and affects. In ‘sapling air’, a sense of childhood’s loss is articulated as nonhuman ailment, the ‘first outbreak’ which is a poisoning of the air or the bark of trees. At first I think ash dieback, but then we are taken somewhere more grandiose, planetary, magmatic. Lying in the liminal space between ‘child / and whatever came next’, the speaker is in the bath, ‘gazing up through the skylight / as a plane passed overhead’. This sense of temporary epic scale, its vanishing écriture of ‘vapour trail’, is a writing of fleeting sheen. I think of glassels: those stones which appear glossy beneath water (in river or sea) but when picked and brought home they revert to dispirited dullness. It is as if life has left them, where momentary they truly appeared as vibrant matter, appealing to the senses with electric connection. Is this the fate of the bath-varnished body? How beauty consists in the wounded part of a thing, a fragile glitch in the viral code—what makes death inevitable. Stones ground down by the sweat and chafe of salty water, the sky a landfill for carbon dreams, modernity streaked across substanceless blue.

The speaker glimpses the oscillating scales of panorama and miniature: the passing plane and the ‘passengers’ eyes’. She sees through the eyes of others; a vertiginous, fleeting sublime in which she is the one looking down and the one looked down upon. Humans become binary nodes in this networked communion of sound and sense: ‘the passengers’ eyes flickered on and off / with signal’. Air carries, air travels. Air miles, as both temporal noun and verb. I find myself tangled in the space between transitive/intransitive. Air signifies the dialectic flickers of presence/absence. Accumulates, billows. What the speaker notices is a peculiar distortion, a toxicity overlaid with her own poisoned body: ‘I looked down. the bath water / was the colour of porphyry and I could no longer breathe’. The excess of the skin flakes away as feldspar, silicate rich and igneous, carrying traces of radial or volcanic exposure, imperial purple or deposited copper. Containing within it divergent scales: wee matrix crystals and larger phenocrysts. The speaker experiences her body as this suddenly alien thing; the sight of the bathwater steals her breath. Is it the first glimpse of what the outside does to the inside, the staining within us we leave on the world in a permanent toxic chiasmus? But I can’t help think also of period blood, given the speaker’s interlude adolescence: something tricky to articulate that nonetheless clots in the mind as childhood’s instated loss of innocence, a condensation of excitement that clings then turns readily and stickily to red, to blood. That moves in turns, cycles as the waxing mist of the moon. What is this substance, this iron-rich bodily flood? Where matter confuses, we turn back to air.

She tries to express to her father a bewildered grief, ‘there’s something wrong with the air’, but her ‘words went through to dial tone’. There’s a delay, language meeting its buffer at difference: through what? Gender, generation, divergent points of vision? Her special melancholy is something that lingers down the line, seeps inside the passage of time. The poem closes: ‘I still wonder, how many months, years from now / he will listen to the message’. Throughout Understudies for Air, Lafarge uses this technique of unfurling: instead of saying simply, ‘how many years from now’, she adds in the months, practices a sort of delay or lag. I think of smoke billows, slowly dissipating. Of what it means to say, there was chemistry between us, an atmosphere in the room. The way voiced words vibrate momentarily in meaning then once again settle to silence, stasis. An almost electricity, crackling then out. Compare this to the written word’s more permanent, inevitable viscosity. Language sticks: you can tease it over and over, read the same thing till centuries down the line the ink wears off from the page. You can replicate. Speech is quite a bit more fleeting, unless you set it down on wax or tape, find new ways to materialise language’s spit, crackle, lilt. The forcing of sign and shape from sound.

Air in Lafarge’s collection is a sort of pharmakon, in Jacques Derrida’s sense of an undecidable fluctuation between poison and cure. It is a substance acted upon with the medical impetus of invasion: in ‘desecration air’, ‘brittle waves of grit’ are ‘growing, syringe-like / into the air, and in so doing suckle / and cleave the dunes around them’. There’s a sense of maternal genesis and geologic violence, an injection of force into air’s spaciousness. For air at once signifies space and density of matter at the brink of scattering, sparking, forging. I start typing what is air into my search bar and it suggests, where can it be found? I am suddenly struck by air’s mystery, the possibility of everyday deception as to its ‘nature’. What is taken for granted has elusive substance; after all, can we view air in the object-oriented sense of ‘object’, or even, at transcendently nonhuman scale, ‘hyperobject’? For air blends and bleeds, both substance and accident. The painting or glass had an airy quality, we talk of a room as light and airy. Does this mean more air, or air less dense, more receptive to breath and space and quiet? Air is rich with the silt of existence: dust being its materialised twin, these myriad phantasms of hair, fibre, textiles, minerals, meteorites, mostly skin. Air is nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide flavoured with traces of neon, methane, helium. We breathe air but also pass constantly through it, as our molecules swim in the vast bombardment of other molecules swirling. Ambient air is safe, we pass through it daily; but air can also spark, as fire’s immanent ingredient, awaiting some flagrant chance to burn. We talk of dry air, damp air, air that feels ‘close’. Air signifies both absence (space) and presence (elemental matter, tangible substance). Air is always potentially transformative.

There is a poem called ‘calque air’. Calque means loan translation: a word-for-word exchange of meaning across languages (examples include ‘fleamarket’ and ‘skyscraper’). In French it means literally ‘copy’, derived from calquer: to copy, base on, trace; derived again from Latin calcāre, to tread, press down. Thus in the abstracted xerox of translinguistic exchange, we meet a sense of material rubbing, the friction that exacts its inscription between two substances: stone on stone, wood on wood, paper on paper etched with lead. It’s a physicality that chills the spine. Yet tracing somehow also connotes residue, the excess material produced by this rubbing, the patterning stains set down by a tread, like footprints sunk deep in the sand and preserved semi-permanent by glitters of frost. Lafarge writes: ‘people / were finding messages / in their bodies they hadn’t / written’. Again this sense of material semaphore, whose translation is a phenomenological act of physical reality, a sudden otherness within us that requires an empathy, an excess, a confusion of words rubbing wrongly against one another: ‘it was decided the system was malapropic’. Language spiralling as if in the hands of the nonhuman, the air or machine or book.

Anthropomorphism reaches its textual extreme: ‘the book grew hair, organs, toes’, and so even ‘accurate translations’ become disputed, subjective, active and physical. What is it about air that somehow substantiates the symbiosis of language and matter, its aching and perilous leak? Here we are, tipped in the gaslit eve of twilight, where ‘the sky throbbed / sideways like a haemorrhage’. Matter acts upon us, causing a gulping or gaping as we churn through it, our bodies mucilaginous mulched into altered form, new affect. We can try to discern the nature of air, but in some way its inner essence remains recalcitrant, resistant to the interpretive instruments of other forms, including humans. Lafarge plays on the semiotic plurality of ‘forms’, poking fun at science’s ‘consent and feedback forms’, ethical necessities which prove useless upon the elusive air. This raises the question of how to extend a nonhuman ethics, what forms of consent are required when probing and monitoring their patterns of agency or behaviour? In ‘attempted diagnosis air’, Lafarge concludes: ‘in the end, / you left the forms in the airing cupboard / to let the air fill out itself; it acquiesced / in many hands of mould, dust and heat, / none of which you could hope to translate’. The air transmogrifies into purely itself, is available only as sensation in the perceptive ‘hands’ of other substances. It’s worth quoting Jane Bennett at length here:

 Thing-power materialism figures materiality as a protean flow of matter-energy and figures the thing as a relatively composed form of that flow. It hazards an account of materiality even though materiality is both too alien and too close for humans to see clearly. It seeks to promote acknowledgment, respect, and sometimes fear of the materiality of the thing and to articulate ways in which human being and thinghood overlap. It emphasises those occasions in ordinary life when the us and the it slipslide into each other, for one moral of this materialist tale is that we are also nonhuman and that things too are vital players in the world.

Air is surely the channel for thinking through this vibrant materiality. Lafarge’s poetics, shifting through sparsity and density, perform this slippage between human and nonhuman at variable scales. Rooted in ordinary life, in personal memory, the poems of Understudies for Air root out these collected knots of ontological ‘torsion’, the ‘bunioned’ meanings that wash up like offerings then shut down all visible meaning—‘they closed in my hand / like eyes’. The lack of capitalised titles renders the poems’ drift into one another, in free-flow without the arche conventions of literary closure, of textual finality. A sense of fractured or wounded text, poems chipped out of a grander object, left now to change and drift. In ‘driftwood air’, driftwood makes a temporary semiology of the shore. Driftwood being perhaps the airiest form of wood, a text well-chewed by aquatic bacteria, lightened and smoothed by the tide; erosion performing its nonhuman act of calque: a copying of wave upon wood, the tiny treads of millioning microscopic appetites, like the imperfect press of a nonhuman telegram. With her spells of air, Lafarge conjures a vibrant ecology of non-anthropocentric process; evocative still as such effects take place through the decomposition of the lyric ‘I’, whose voice drifts out in nonhuman confusions, signals and distance. Human affect returns in glimpses like delicious flotsam, jetsam, moments of reflection gleaned from material debris.

The ‘I’ often shrinks or recedes, but sometimes floats over the ambient scene with declarative assertion: ‘the twin lines of naming and being / run parallel but never touch’. Such philosophic pronouncements then melt away in exploratory thought, lines closely attuned to trans-species process: the swell and lurch and pleat of water, plant, lichen or toxin. Once again we come to air as pharmakon, and so its process arises as a sort of pleasing monstrosity. The odd thing about plants is they just grow, often without purpose, foregoing teleology for an impersonal, gorgeous flourishing. In ‘asbestos air’, the speaker marvels:

lichen and moss
grooming your body;
it is a relief to watch
things grow without
difficulty

End-stopped punctuation is often foregone for free-flowing, morphological enjambment throughout Understudies for Air, so the inclusion of semicolon here is its own kind of force. I think of imagism’s stop-motion visual equivalencies: Pound’s apparitional faces in the metro and wet black petals. The ‘body’ in question could be human or nonhuman. There is a plain admiration of process and flow, the ease of growth that feels significant against the endless stuttering, knotted bolts of human maturity. And what about ‘asbestos’? More silicate minerals invading the air, released by abrasion and enacting a slow-release of symptoms, as deadly fibres clot in the lungs. Asbestos makes its own mark upon air. The speaker clearly craves that insulation, a felting of absence with ‘lichen and moss’ that comes as a ‘grooming’. Grooming being the softening and smoothing of matter, but also tinged with danger: to be groomed is to be seduced towards some form of invasive peril. Twin signals, twin materials; a chiasmus of death and sleep’s electricity. Sucking in air, we sleep towards death; slowly we rove over lines that enamour with deceptive simplicity. We can’t help but breathe in sleep; it’s just evolution. What’s more, nature isn’t mere positive growth, but might be compounded poison, cancerous swells. Tumours accumulating almost mycologically, darkly twisting and rising in the shadowy mulch of the organs, the undergrowth. Behind a benign appearance is the spectre of asbestos; for of course mosses and lichens are indicator species, material harbingers of polluted air. Air is the cure, the restorative; but air can also kill. It is both oxygen and carbon monoxide, its healthiness hinges on a delicate balance.

Air’s undecidability, perhaps, is a deconstructive motion of question and answer, a maddening circuitry of frazzled nerves and linguistic synapses. In Lafarge’s attempt to materialise air, to verbalise its form as supplementary poetics, writing does the work of metaphysics. Enter Maria-Daniella Dick and Julian Wolfreys in The Derrida Wordbook, glossing Derrida’s term undecidability:

If metaphysics teaches us how to read, and reading teaches us metaphysics, birthing each other in a twin maiuetics, then deconstruction also calls us to a reading. To read undecidability is to resist that other resistance which would efface it.

Air’s invisible toxins make themselves known with prickling, painful insistence at the miniature level of surface pollutants, scum left on water or stains on metal. A poet’s Keatsian eye would draw out this material tread of Anthropocene effect, illumine its slow evolution with the linguistic wit of a chemist. The irony of deep-time causation at the hands of humans, those obfuscations of cause and effect that place humankind as geologic agents. Reality, matter, climate change become undecidable. We are being taught, in these poems, the call to the earth that is really a subtle conversation within our own bodies—palimpsests of dangerous nature we tried to fashion but grew otherwise, anyway. Despite melting icecaps, the air grows colder in winter, it thickens.

Lafarge develops this viscous, hyperobjective symbiosis through her descriptions of air’s sticky contaminations. There are ornaments of scattered matter: bitumen, seed heads, the wildfire possibilities of ‘drying leaves’. There is a constant overlay of the biological, spatial and arboreal: ‘we soiled our mouths to mimic / the good fettle of root and seed’; those ‘dark thickets of lung’. I think of the word forest, then ‘for rest’. Places we go to shelter, to cleanse ourselves scented on pinewood air. We can’t see the woods for the trees, or was it the trees for the woods? Morton’s idea that we need a return to parts over wholes, this notion of subscendence: the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. A tree more important than a forest. Lafarge strains her ear to every little activity, the expressions of suffering that come from sources beyond the human: ‘on every corner a tree / articulates its script’. Tree language is material too, it is sound in the air unique, and seedlings glistering on rustling rhythms. It is the flail and droop of branches diseased, stung acid by rain or ravaged by leaking methane.

To put words in air implies a sense of declaring, but this is less the enlightened ejaculations of a singular genius and more a sensual symbiosis: ‘the words / identified me as carrier / and now along I go / sowing their imprint in air’. To sow, to plant seed, to let meaning take root and feed upon air and soil, sound and shape. By tuning to nonhuman forms of inscription, Lafarge attempts to answer the call of the absolute other. This is ecological poetry’s luminous tool, its potential ethics.

This is also, to a degree, Michael Marder’s ‘plant-thinking’: a thinking about plants, a thinking through plants, a symbiosis of human and vegetal thought at the level of form and content. Not discursive domination of subject but a perceptive, non-anthropocentric and multisensory modality of what Marder calls ‘transfigured thinking’. I cannot help think of a shadowy, cooperative alchemy in which the baroque foliage of language ravels round the utterances of the absolute other, those bladed shivers and flashes of light, that speak of time felt close in the skin of a cell. It is a metaphysical elixir that deconstructs its own postulated recipe. Metaphysics, for Marder, is unable to think coextensively ‘with the variegated acts of living’ that exist in plants; it seems to ‘affirm the quasi-divine life of the mind’, but actually ‘wields the power of negativity and death’. It risks becoming ‘a cancerous growth’, smothering the plants it attempts to draw ‘vitality’ from in knowledge and energy. I think of the chemical kill that Keats in Lamia implies is the effect of philosophy, which ‘will clip an angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line / Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine’. Writing poetically, we must be tender, channel the lurid sounds that fill the sparkling air, nevertheless deathly polluted as a charnel ground. Embrace inexplicable oscillations between the living and dead; challenge binary conceptions of stasis and liveliness, animals and matter. Retrieve a kindred sense of mutual mystery, preserve the lingering aura of species-being. Plant-thinking must instead be ‘receptive’ to the ‘pole of darkness’ within botanical existence. There is a Keatsian sense of negative capability here, a chameleon dwelling in the infinite and multiple, the rhizomatic offshoots of unknown effects, undecidability. There’s a Deleuzo-Guattarian intermezzo too, as Marder puts it: ‘To live and to think in and from the middle, like a plant partaking of light and darkness, is not to be confined to the dialectical twilight […]. It is, rather, to refashion oneself […] into a bridge between divergent elements’, to allow that darkness to shine as much as the light of visible knowledge. Remain discursively flexible, morph through variant perspectives.

We have here an immersive rhizomatics, hinting also towards Graham Harman’s assertion of the object’s metaphysical withdrawal. Lafarge’s speaker certainly stands in this middle, exploring ‘a vernacular for pipelines, / circuitry, the fetid grids and systems’. She doesn’t penetrate essences. Stinking like soil mulch, our carbon economy is overlain with what we traditionally take to be ‘nature’: those lichens, mosses, leaves. We are reminded that cancerous growths, chemicals and shameful asbestos are as earthly as the daffodil or ash tree; each to each, irrevocably and intimately enmeshed, from the clinging of air to shared DNA. The speaker lets nonhuman forms speak through her: the shape of those gusts and shudders, those incremental growths and sudden ruptures, take effect in the passage of language. She brings us quietly, unassumingly, to aporetic conclusions, refusing to clasp meaning’s assertion from the lateral sprawl, preferring the precarious, seductive dissolve towards undecidability: ‘I still think of them, their clod eyes / roiled with fever, churning the peat / of a stagnant loop’. Clod: insensitive fool or chunk of mass. A clod of stone, an ignorant clod. An estrangement of nature, a closure of humanity to uncanny matter, churned in the loop of signature tautology—a metaphysics of presence that is ever an ‘argument’, a stagnant pool. How we must dwell, thickly, in these poems, these fleshy pools of blood and sap and dripping air. The declarative trochee like a stone thrown in a pond, ‘roiled with fever’; these shivers on the petrified skin with its fur of moss, toxin, mould. Conveyers of nonhuman temporality. The speaker licks such substances with lapidary language; the effects are circling, strange, recursive as a maddening philosophical problem. She dwells quite certain in uncertainty. Perhaps this makes her the perfect understudy, questioning but never at the point of egotistical revolt.

If all that is solid melts into air, then we know this now to entail less evaporation than transmutation. Solid objects arise elsewhere. What daily we flush, cough and excoriate from our bodies floats out in the hothouse biosphere, only to be reborn as fragrant waste, the fettered matter that is fetid at the point of being/becoming other. In the pamphlet’s final poem, the speaker passes a ‘high-rise’ and in the shrill of its alarm encounters an ‘elderly lady’, naked in her white towel like a terrible angel wrenched from the heavens to corrode on earth. The white signifies a kind of surrender to time and matter; the woman addresses the speaker thus: ‘one day I will know how it feels / to haul around a body of rotten flowers, to let memory / chew holes in my mind like maggots’. I’m reminded of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, where Peter Walsh witnesses a vagrant woman, ‘opposite Regent’s Park Tube station’, her gurgling vowels speaking in a tongue he cannot understand. Is this a primitive ecofeminist figure from the future-past, her voice ‘bubbling up without direction, vigour, beginning or end, running weakly and shrilly and with an absence of all human meaning’?  She speaks with ‘the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth’, channels somehow that geologic core, its rupturing pain. There’s Jonathan Bate’s insistence on poetry as ecological dwelling, in The Song of the Earth (2000). Woolf’s eerie, primeval wanderer stirs up the dead leaves from their settled grave, recalls an ancient song that aligns feminine suffering with planetary pain. I think again of Lafarge’s speaker, lying in the bath with a sense of her own body eking out a substance unfamiliar, the water stained a curious, feldspar colour. Poetry as monstrous giving-birth, poetry as vegetal thinking; poetry as lichenous growth or ambient eddy and flow.

There isn’t much pastoral about Understudies for Air, where things are scorched or ‘unspeakable’, full of porous holes and an inexplicable, surveilling gaze, those eyes which absorb and emit reality with cytoplasmic osmosis. There’s a dwelling in-between; a refusal of pastoral’s smoothed surface, its crudely soldered contradictions. Lafarge’s material history is thick, polluted, complex: irrevocably enmeshed with the speaker’s autobiography, a slow enclosure of tainted expiration; the result of some unreachable, originary trauma—the first infected inhalation. As the first poem opens: ‘difficult to pin the beginning / of the bad air’. In the Anthropocene, as with shame and trauma, it’s tricky to find causes, to trace singular beginnings. We have to face the impossibility of the transcendental signified, keep crossing over the same old tracks, tuning to peculiar scale effects in the dust and dirt, shaking the rain from our wilting manes, blades, branches, names. We can hack at the data, break the trees. In the end it is all just mutual suffering, the poem as supplement for what we can’t say, the horror of thought that is personal guilt and environmental blame. Yet somehow, Lafarge stirs sweetness from the wastelands of contamination, a little bit of the old Eliotic ‘breeding / lilacs out of the dead land’, or Morton’s molten, dark ecological chocolate. We move from depression to mystery to empathetic, mouth-melting sweetness. What you bury might come up lavender later; death still tainting, beautifully, the fullness of life. There is a shivering ethical suspension between the one and the other, cheating human text with the infiltrating voice of the strange stranger, where even the poet doubles back on herself, shrinks and fades, becomes alien against her own voice and song. Amidst all these ‘unspeakable things’, Lafarge reflects the coruscating absence, the flicker-to-effect of the dust in the air; motes of melancholy love, life and death, that cluster temporarily in poems and feel like a homecoming, yet always on the brink of becoming unsettled. Forever this ‘speech / impaired through contact / with the air’, the wrenching of justice from staunch aporia.

All this is so much of air. The words clot and float, they are pushed elsewhere as stacks of data, the coded reverie of software forgotten. Dwell in the dark web, a gossamer poetics that drips with the fringe-work of hackers, pirates, spiders. Once again: ‘homes / for unspeakable things’. Protection of privacy, pelt of fur, air that gluts on the temporary flesh of speech. A child’s ‘moonmilk / crusted round its mouth’. Language for future generations, raised on the logic of ‘selenography’; all human attempt to make sense of time beyond the body. There is a rhythm and a dwelling, a child’s bright cry in mica-flecked darkness. We all find overlays for our love or trauma—‘perhaps it was an early leak of the air / that conjured the image of his mother’—but instead of burial there is only entanglement, the sentencing ever excess of ‘a bad root / growing in every direction’. Trouble is, we can’t find it exactly; it grows and grows regardless. It shrouds us, auroral, auratic. Lafarge picks at flakes of flesh and star and paint, travels arterial between filament, taproot, wire, synapse and galaxy. Understudies for Air feels performative, a traversal of myriad sorts that folds back on itself, reflectively prone to spiralling dialogue, a postured void. For, as Steven Connor reminds us, the thing about air is ‘it encompasses its own negation […]. Take away the air, and the empty space you have left still seems to retain most of the qualities of air’. It’s in this multivariant, phenomenological pulse that Lafarge’s speaker dwells, sparked against the air’s vibrant matter as much as its ever conditional abyss. I read her words over and over, fragments of collected matter; conjuring in the cold winter light some other possible, nonhuman chorus. I’ll vapourise now, leave you trailing in the ‘fuzzy, fizzy logic of volumes rather than outlines’ (Connor), for it’s the sheer glut of language, coming in and out of phase with human perception and nonhuman form, that really matters. Matters. Connor again: ‘We earthlings, we one-foot-in-the-grave air-traffic-controllers, may have much to learn from the clamorous cooccupancies the air affords.’

Roseability

Disclaimer: my middle name is Rose. This means nothing, as far as I’m aware. I have never received roses for Valentines (as far as I’m aware). What follows comprises an essay on what a rose is a song is a word is a rose(?), feat. the likes of Gertrude Stein, Idlewild, Oscar Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, the French Symbolists and Lana Del Rey…

🌹🌹🌹

Despite having two degrees in literary studies, a lot of my more convincing intellectual references were first encountered through music, not books. The Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible album introduced me to Foucault, Plath, Ballard, Nietzsche, Mailer and Pinter in one fell, aggressive swoop of a Richey Edwards lyric barked over the guttural shudder of Nicky Wire’s bass-lines. Gertrude Stein, the awkward goddess of modernism, first came to me via an Idlewild song—deep in some distant vestige of the noughties, when I still bought CDs. She’s mentioned in ‘Roseability’, the last single to be taken from the band’s 2000 breakthrough, 100 Broken Windows. It’s a typically angsty track, reflecting on the futility of being dissatisfied with the present and finding pathetic solace in the past: “stop looking through scrapbooks and photograph albums / because I know they won’t teach you what you don’t already know”. Say it and already you know, right? ‘Roseability’, like ‘Idlewild’, is a compound word, a mashing of nouns that seems to promise deep meaning as its very premise. But where is it pointing us? What of Stein and what of her roses?

Stein’s famous quote on roses, ‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’, seems to do two things. Firstly, it indicates an essentialist perspective on semantics—circularity conveying the uselessness of further description. Secondly, it enacts a qualitative echo chamber by which the reader must question what constitutes this essence, this roseness which is the rose’s identity. The repetition suggests the elusiveness of this essence, deferring with dreamy assertion—the kind of beautiful aphorism you might coin on an acid trip, completely sure of your own new logic. There’s a sense, with every ‘rose’, of meaning’s possibility blooming. You want to wrap the sentence in a circle (as Stein did, selling the phrase on plates) and close a precious loop, devoid of full stops and fixed meanings. Is a rose a rose or the space between a rose and what a rose is? Swap Saussurian triangles for sweet hips and sepals, a new rose budding in the roots. Lose all fixity for the chance trellising of structure, turn attention to sunlight, rainfall, temperature and other environmental conditions. Acquire tautologies and promise of spring. A rose is a whorl, a loop; a delicate head so heady with beauty. Humans like roses share beds sometimes. Look too long into the corolla and maybe you’ll lose your mind.

Idlewild: the secluded meeting place in L. M. Montgomery’s 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables
Idlewild: the original name of John F. Kennedy International Airport in NYC
Idlewild: to idle wildly; to wildly idle; to idly go wilding.

You’ll always be, dissatisfied.” Perhaps the mere act of flicking through memories is a form of idle wilding. Making a wilderness of memory’s stasis. Depart only at airports; dwell between continental impressions of kisses.

100 Broken Windows marks a turn in Idlewild’s direction: from their 1990s brit-pop/punk roots to a more spacious, ambitious sound, influenced by the likes of The Smiths, The Wedding Present and R.E.M. When I first started listening to Idlewild, 12 or more years ago in those tender, pre-adolescent times, I sort of filed them as the Scottish version of Ash: they had that punk sensibility coloured by stadium choruses and a cheeky pop strain that balanced the anxious lamenting aspects. All sincerity, sure, but the lyrics were sharp enough to lift them from the sentimental pitfalls of subsequent contemporaries—the end of alt. history that was ‘Hey There Delilah’. Here we move into screaming emo or post-hardcore as inherent hauntology of the fuzzy rock club: the bourbon and sweat, the greasy hair, the frank, shuffling indifference of stoner punters. There were words that smouldered, sparked, then extinguished in the wind; but Idlewild had something different, a primitive attunement to human sorrow that cut through the gum-snapping cool of postmodern irony games, even as its affect blew up in a drumbeat or solo, the loquacious, Michael Stipe angst of Roddy Woomble’s voice. Think sonorous violins and a solid rock chorus, all the energy and wit being typically Scottish. Like the Manics before them, Idlewild did punk and guitar pop, did the stylised mosh and generic fusion, did the political and personal. The millennial malaise in their songs was very much of the times even as it seemed already tired of them:

It’s a better way to feel
When you’re not real, you’re postmodern (It’s not that one
dimensional, it’s not the only thought)

Cut out all feeling, except wait. There’s more. We don’t have to languish in the paralysing grunge of the nineties. The drama of strings would grace each melody electric and maybe you’ll find historic truth in this plugged-in homage to folk turned  on its head. If postmodernism is a Mobius strip of self-referentiality, that recursive collapse of linear progress (figured as a Scalextric set in the video for Idlewild’s ‘These Wooden Ideas’), then how to find meaning again, to find sense at all? Stand in a doorway and find yourself blasted with void fill, flick grapes in a wastebasket, count up your demons for the old stoned longing. Shrivel like raisins. The turn of the century has already happened, but maybe if you surrender to the chorus you’ll feel less jaded. There’s a reassurance. The thing about choruses, after all, is that they repeat.

As it does with choruses, algorithms and perennial blooms, repetition happens a lot in Tender Buttons, Stein’s infamously cluttered collection of prose poetics. With repetition and modulation, a queering of standard grammar, everyday objects become less the tools which underpin human existence, and instead things in themselves—the wasteful artefacts in excess of definition. Paratactical, concatenating assemblages which entangle like vines or else accumulate. Grapes on the carpet, styrofoam littering the floor, a word or two oozing through the backdoor…Am I far too close to the things I mistrust? Maybe there is always a stammering, a stilted stilling. I buy roses for the restaurant in which I work and the very act drags me into heteronormative time: the time of expensive dates, birthdays, weddings, funerals, candlelit dinners. What preference for the deep, luxurious, elusive bloom? Must lovers cut their tongues on thorns? I wonder, do those erect stems contribute their strange teleology…to what, to what…are roses always in excess of themselves—showering petals, shedding, being ever so much just roses?

I stopped and waited for progress”. Back in the day (2005), the NME rated Idlewild ‘a stolid group of trad guitar manglers’, whose new single ‘Roseability’ served ‘both as a rabbit-punch to the head of agnostics and a celebratory three-and-a-half minutes of safe, predictable, wholly generic, utterly brilliant rock ‘n’ roll.’ It makes me dewy-eyed to remember the magazine’s honest, scathing days. That insouciant, throwaway cool. Music criticism was pretty brutal when I grew up, and you basically had to tick every indie rock’n’roll formula (hello Alex Turner: snake-hips, haircut etc) to get consistently decent reviews. Or you could nail the attention on some eccentricity (The Horrors), or perhaps mediocre throwback to rock’n’roll times gone by (need I name every white boy indie suspect circa 2007). ‘Roseability’ is how it feels to be in your twenties, surrounded by people looking backwards; not quite in anger, but in nostalgia. It’s been a long time since I’ve considered something new as ‘utterly brilliant rock ’n’ roll’ in the transcendent sort of way Idlewild pull off—hardcore guitars, thrashing drums, literary references and all. Sweetness and thorns. Uneasy noise secretion. Tip your hat at tradition and then blast through the chorus, scatter your petals to cover the seams. What words in ‘Sacred Emily’ follow the roses? ‘Loveliness extreme’. I miss the NME, I miss being young enough to get lost this easily.

To veer into Idlewild itself, let’s wallow in passages from Anne of Green Gables:

You know that little piece of land across the brook that runs up between our farm and Mr. Barry’s. It belongs to Mr. William Bell, and right in the corner there is a little ring of white birch trees–the most romantic spot, Marilla. Diana and I have our playhouse there. We call it Idlewild. Isn’t that a poetical name? I assure you it took me some time to think it out. I stayed awake nearly a whole night before I invented it. Then, just as I was dropping off to sleep, it came like an inspiration. Diana was enraptured when she heard it. We have got our house fixed up elegantly. You must come and see it, Marilla–won’t you? We have great big stones, all covered with moss, for seats, and boards from tree to tree for shelves. And we have all our dishes on them. Of course, they’re all broken but it’s the easiest thing in the world to imagine that they are whole.

That endearing, childish hyperbole, the absolute thrill of invention. The special grove in a ring of white birch trees, heart of the circle, the rose’s secret pistil. Place of germination. Fragments congeal as expansive imaginings, disappointment evaporates in hope.

Gertrude Stein said that’s enough”. I’m not quite sure how Roddy Woomble, Idlewild’s lead singer, intended the Stein namedrop, but I take it as a reference to her poems’ weird loops of recursion. In the video for ‘Roseability’, Stein’s portraits are hung up all over the room; her face is even on the front of the kick drum, looking all knowing and stately. The video’s aesthetic has the feel of a 90s television set, all pop art circles whose colour has faded, sharp swivelling camera angles and hair swishes. The pop iconography of teenagers flooding the room with their plastic bracelets, braided hair and awkward moshing. It would be totally American if not painfully, most Britishly sincere—I mean just look at how the guitarist crushes into his own instrument, how Woomble wipes sweat off his face, paces around with the mic so close it could feel his breath. Loveliness extreme. When this was released, I wasn’t even a teenager. When I finally see him live, it’s in a church hall in Maryhill 2k17 and it’s utterly beautiful: how generous the set-list, how gracious a frontman with his small-talk and nods to the band, his thank yous. Watching the kids in the ‘Roseability’ video recreates that weird oscillation between feeling old and seeing in their faces the bizarreness of MTV ennui: the ghost of what I would temporarily become at thirteen, fourteen; cladding myself in discount Tammy girl, then Topshop, dying my hair pink and donning studded collars. With the hormones, you lose that ecstatic childhood imaginary hope; desire is amorphous and endlessly droning. You close your eyes and it seems the world has already ended. Sometimes it comes back, sometimes not. Maybe roseability simply means innocence.

‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’ (Woolf). But customers rarely do. It’s up to me to ornament a room, to flourish a mood, to mark some milestone in another life that’s not mine, whose linearity’s not mine.

My mother bought rose-coloured roses for my eighteenth birthday, blush pink. Red when I turned twenty-one. I stopped acting sweet and rosy, dyed my hair red too. Fell through the whorls, the plush abyss.

‘Roseability’: the ability to be of roses, for roses to exist? Sensibility is, according to my laptop’s built-in dictionary, ‘the quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity’. Does roseability denote a similar sensitivity? When we think of roses we think often of Englishness: that angelic Laura Marling figure, a garlanded Bronte heroin, Paul Weller’s ‘English Rose’. We think tenderness, pastoral, a certain enclosure (marriage, gardens?) and guaranteed loveliness. She who coils golden hair round her porcelain finger, who knows how to talk to sheepdogs, who paints watercolours of the dawn. We think Shakespeare—‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’. But we also think north of the border, a little bit of the visceral made kitsch: Robert Burns’ ‘my love is like a red, red rose’, whose unfortunate fate is to garnish every dishtowel bought on your granny’s last visit to Alloway (Roddy Woomble, perhaps not incidentally, is also an Ayrshire lad). The faint rose scent in a golden cologne, mingled with tobacco; the glistering sweetness of a youthful, drugstore perfume. Roses are roses, but roses are so many things, are poised on the lips of also…

The rose is a complex flower, a perennial whose species number over 100. Roses are typically ornamental, grown by those who know what cultivation means and spend their Septembers clipping away the thorny remains. An old man round the corner from my flat is out in all weathers among soil and stem: grafting, trimming, tilling for his roses. Perhaps he loves them more than his children. In summer, walking home on warm evenings you can smell them in the pale ambrosial air, a delicate bounty. If properly cared for, roses can live a long time, perhaps over and over, perhaps forever…what exactly does perennial mean?

The appropriately named Bloom, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, stands on Cumberland Street and opens a letter from Martha Clifford—a woman who responded to his newspaper ad requesting a typist. The Dublin postal system facilitates a sort of illicit exchange between them. Half-rhyme, consonance: petal/letter. The delicate thrill of letterly infidelity. She wants to know ‘what kind of perfume does your wife use’; the animal possession of scent. She attaches to her letter a flower, slightly crushed:

He tore the flower gravely from its pinhold smelt its almost no smell and placed it in his heart pocket. […] walking slowly forward he read the letter again, murmuring here and there a word. Angry tulips with you darling manflower punish your cactus if you don’t please poor forgetmenot how I long violets to dear roses when we soon anemone meet all naughty nightstalk wife Martha’s perfume. […] Fingering still the letter in his pocket he drew the pin out of it. […] Out of her clothes somewhere: pinned together. Queer the number of pins they always have. No roses without thorns.

So many compound words, clustering in the mouth like so many attaché petals peeled off from a dress. He plucks them away, fingers the soft excitement of words: ‘naughty nightstalk wife’ with the luridly alliterative twist of fantasy. Libido vs. loss of life. What slips away with the pin? What does the pin pin together? Folds and creases, sleepless. Spike of cactus, nasty, phallic. Prick. Tulip. Coiled anemone: wild flower or tentacular sea creature? Connotations of slip. In her slip. Slippery. Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, waxing lyrical about female genitalia:

I thought of what seemed to me a venturesome explanation of the hidden meaning of the apparently quite asexual word violets by an unconscious relation to the French viol. But to my surprise the dreamer’s association was the English word violate. The accidental phonetic similarity of the two words violet and violate is utilised by the dream to express in ‘the language of flowers’ the idea of the violence of defloration (another word which makes use of flowersymbolism), and perhaps also to give expression to a masochistic tendency on the part of the girl. — An excellent example of the word bridges across which run the paths to the unconscious.

Dear roses dear romance; violets are pale taste of childhood’s sweet naivety. Violets are blue and so are you. Things you can take away. Lines of flight, tangled stems and botanical echoes. Semantics. Lingering taste. The burgeoning rhizomes of the greedy unconscious. Lana Del Rey: “there are roses in between my thighs / and a fire that surrounds you”. The Metro calls it a ‘shocking new track’, but I’ve never heard anything so languid and dreamy and in love. Hungry. Sugar is sweet and…

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Source: Pinterest

Angela Carter’s roses bite, don’t you? In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, the self-starving somnambulist—the ‘beautiful queen of the vampires’—is a figure for desire’s recursive, self-destructive appetite. Manifest as addiction, or withdrawal; the flesh-shedding lust of anorexia, its resistance to growth and fuel. ‘She herself is a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit’. Her dialogue billows round and round into absence. Like Stein’s rose, she is bound to the noun and the grammar of herself—the flickering inward structures of mind, matter. The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants. Clustering rootlets, trapped yearnings for impossible perfection. No rose can be the perfect rose; except perhaps Stein’s rose: the virtual rose at the end of the looping rainbow. Loopy, lupin, lupine, luminal. Devouring, emanating, alluring. The virtual rose, perfect by its very impossibility, like Mallarmé’s Book. So many leaves and words. The stain of ink and rain, imprinted teeth. Carter again: ‘I leave you as a souvenir the dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs, like a flower laid on a grave’. Those intoxicating roses, like Carter’s baroque, coruscating prose, cascade across the page, the white snow, the grave. La petit mort. In every petal the promise of a word, a breath.

Roseability. Faith in the unknowingness that is adulthood’s full blooming. Desire’s maturity bound in nostalgia, that noxious plague of your twenties; the ‘sense sublime’ of Wordsworth, five years later, experiencing ‘something far more deeply interfused’. Like the rose’s corolla, time rolls both round and onwards. It’s nauseating, an almost vortex. You’re always chasing that inward spirit, the thing that burns regardless: “They won’t teach you / what you don’t already know”—don’t Idlewild know it?

There is no roseability.” Enduring, complicated, hungry and sweet, it’s no surprise that roses are symbols for romantic love. Oh hallowed, protected cliché. Expensive hotels strew red roses on white bedsheets, a look that is oddly funereal. Share the ephemeral with melting chocolates. Reminiscent of menses, the blot of a clot in time. He got shot. She bled freely. Blood is like iron, a sharp metallic taste. What do roses taste of? What kinds of symbolic immersion might get at the essence? A bathtub of roses, a bedspread, a bouquet exploding for wedding celebration. Petals of confetti; a blossoming, artificial effect. White roses can be purity, lightness and marriage; or maybe undying love in death, restoration of innocence. I love you as the snowfall that closes Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. Sitting on the languid banks of a river in June, desecrating a rose with your sorrow: one petal, he likes me, two petals, he likes me not. Enough petals to fill a river, all the world’s worth of unrequited love. Red upon red upon blue. Flowing, felt in the blood. But no river is ever twice the same, no rose identical, no inflorescence—despite the algorithmic genius of plants—symmetrical. The beauty of roses comprises their subtly unique detail. ‘Lesser’ flowers, mere ornaments to weeds, clutter up close in mutual similarity. Maybe’s Gatsby’s Daisy could be anybody—she just had to be sweet and blonde, smelling of the damp rich old world, ersatz fresh, ready to decorate. The colourful shirts were mere petals for the true dark rose of his longing. Did Gatsby have blue eyes? I can’t remember.

I did a hard-drive search for the phrase ‘blue rose’ and found an old flash fiction piece I wrote years ago, called ‘Watercolours’. An extract:

The garden fills with new light; conscious light, collecting a clarity not quite recognised. The roses have left their earthly bodies, and the worms burrow up through the untilled soil. The roses’ spirits lift the leaves from the trees and scatter them like sloughing flakes of a giant’s skin. A sigh escapes the sultry violets, the ones he captured once by mixing blue and red. The red poppy is a pretty thing, but she is unborn yet. A mulch of memory overturns as day decides to end.

Isn’t it strange, the seduction of fairy tale ecomimesis? Nature’s ekphrasis surrendering effortlessly to the same saccharine motifs; the kitsch aesthetic containing within its insistence a certain artifice, then the theatrical mists of deliberate illusion. I think of watercolours and I think of everything blurring. Colours decay in the rain, or do they saturate? And again, the roses and violets, whores and madonnas? What of the feminising of botany’s blushing ornaments, ‘captured’ by a (male) artistic vision? But time is ever more flowing, desire afloat, liquid and trembling as rain. What would it mean to anthropomorphise roses, to imbue them with certain abilities? Roseability. These would be the most precious roses, the memorialising and future-making symbols. The blue ones.

I also found a piece from 2013 titled ‘Blue Roses’ It’s about a botanical garden famous for its sky-coloured flowers. The narrator’s lover, Richard, laments the death of his mother and talks about what it would be like to be a carnivore plant. The narrator says: ‘“Those long, slow deaths would suck out your soul.”’ Was I reading Carter at the time? Nature (always capitalise to denaturalise) in this story is narcissistic, strange, devouring: stars are ‘aware of themselves’, the twilight forms deliberate ‘geometric patterns’, the rain ‘spilled out in oozing puddles that clogged the scum of the pavement’. Security patrol the blue roses in the glasshouses. It isn’t entirely clear what they mean in the story. Symbols for what? Eliding natural selection, these monstrous flowers blur into nothing but blueness—the exotic quantity, intangible mystery, possible infinitude. Despite the wholesomeness of the tale, I couldn’t help but think of the weird erotic undertones of its spooky botany. Blue rose, blue movie.

So yes, the very phrase ‘blue rose’ denotes something exceptional in Nature (in Twin Peaks, a ‘blue rose’ case is one which involves supernatural elements). In Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie, Laura (a character based on Williams’ mentally ill sister, the aptly named Rose) is nicknamed ‘Blue Roses’ on account of her fragility, her spiritual affinity with that which transcends the ordinary (and a childhoood attack of pleurosis). Laura dwells in a surreal version of reality; her very nickname harks back to André Breton’s ‘First Surrealist Manifesto’: ‘Cet été les roses sont bleues’ (this summer the roses are blue). Things have reversed and in their delirium remain quite beautiful. Roses, blue or not, are associated with a certain precious wavering between worlds both spiritual and physical; worlds crossed only by rare occurrences of romance, imagination, memory. He loves me, he loves me not…Laura is obsessed with a little glass unicorn, symbol of mythology, virginity. Preservations of the body for another world, or from another world? I go into the woods and find fairy rings made from small white flowers (I think of the inverse fable of extreme depression, the harp-sparkling Manics’ track, ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky’). While there is a lovely joy to the common daisy or meadow flower—an ethereal quality that recalls our initiating buttercup crushes—the deep lust of Romance must be associated with the scarlet plumage of the rose. Love is calculated on decadence, exception.

Is a rose as shatterable as glass, as a heart?

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I used to live in a house called ‘Daisybank’, but my friends always teased because there were roses painted onto the window, not daisies. What weird reverse supplement? The fat white dog daisies would spring up on the front lawn in summer, but they were always overlooked by those glassy roses. There’s a certain authority, majesty even, to the rose. You associate it with tragedy and great beauty: Lana Del Rey with her lips stuffed full with a rose, playing the calamitous heroine. Snow-White and Rose-Red. Shakespeare’s ‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’ is taken from Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet convinces Romeo that it matters not that his name, Montague, is her family’s rival house. A rose is a rose; regardless of name it will always come up smelling of roses. Having graduated from Daisybank, I now find myself living on Montague Street…

‘Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?’ This is W. B. Yeats, probably writing to a woman he loved, Maud Gonne. He seems to set up beauty as life’s eternal opposite; where human existence is fleeting, beauty remains archetypal, enduring. Think of Keats’ ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’. There’s a universality, a mythological underpinning to this beauty. In Yeats’ poem, the loved one embodies wistful figures of glory: Helen of Troy and Usna of ancient Irish history. Surely she slips between the shadows of comparison? Whether Yeats scorns the idea that beauty ‘passes like a dream’, or whether he ultimately reveals its truth, is unclear.

For Immanuel Kant (see, Critique of Judgement), the experience of beauty hinges on a paradox: since it seems that beauty is a property of the object—indeed, emanates from it—you’d think beauty itself was universal. Everyone should fall in love with that painting, that colour, that song. But not everyone does find the same things beautiful. It feels like a betrayal of reality when I play Radiohead’s ‘True Love Waits’ (where roses are swapped for “lollipops and crisps”) to a friend and their reaction is a casual ‘meh’ and a shrug, while all sorts of biochemical reactions of wonder and euphoria are swirling around inside me. Beauty, for Kant, is largely nonconceptual: that is, there’s an unspeakable quality to it, a thing you can’t put your finger on. In Realist Magic, Timothy Morton describes it as beauty’s ‘je ne sais quoi’. Being unable to pin down what it is that makes a thing beautiful is part of its beauty. You take a rose. You could describe its petals, its inward swirling whorls, its scarlet colour, the slenderness of its stem; but in doing so, you lose the rose itself. As ever in synecdochically applauding a woman you lose the woman. The love object. The love? Recall Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’? ‘Love is not love’; it’s what it is and it isn’t, and what’s left over as forever. 4Eva/4Real. Personally, I prefer Cate Le Bon’s take: “Love is not love / When it’s a coat hanger / A borrowed line or passenger”.  But isn’t everything stolen and temporary, in transit? How do you claw back the rose when the rose, maybe, is just this epic symbol for love? What moves in the static eternity?

I used to draw roses all the time; I’d always start in the centre, finding my way outwards with liquid ink. You see I had no conception of the rose’s shape, I was just following the shaky trajectories of layering lines. Important not to excise too sharply the arrangement of beauty, to impart onto nonhuman forms a reified taste. Eroticism preserved by ellipsis, meditation contained in the mysterious code of the senses. What was it Wordsworth said so long ago, in his famous tract against book knowledge: ‘Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; / Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— / We murder to dissect’. Wordsworth would prefer you to go out and encounter the objects themselves rather than try to ‘dissect’ them through rapturous, scrutinising poesy. Being one of the great Romantic poets, distracted by words even when in Nature, Wordsworth is of course a filthy, (forgivable) hypocrite—up to his knees in Kant’s paradoxical beauty as much as the rest of us.

Making words of roses involves cutting their heads off, losing the essence, letting the adjectival rose oil leak into language’s dripping pores. Binding the immortal to time. That seepage is ink, is tense’s durational flow, is poetry’s cruelty. This is perhaps what Mallarmé means when he says: ‘Je dis un fleur, et le fleur est parti’—‘I say a flower, and the flower is cut/split/gone’ (translation: Tom McCarthy). To break the object of beauty down in writing is to incur a violence; as McCarthy glosses, ‘Things must disappear as things in order to appear symbolically’. What is perhaps most seductive is the remaining qualities, the deconstructionist’s milk and honey, the semiotic residue that clings between things. Spiderwebs, woven by first light, acquire a serene and gossamer gleam; but what is most seductive perhaps is the spaces between the lines, the way up close the lacing makes new frames for the real, the scenery behind and through.

Then we have Derrida’s ‘maddening’ supplement. For all roses refer to other roses, to every iteration of the word ‘rose’ throughout literary history. What a rose means can only lie in the space between these occurrences, and even then the meaning is temporary, contextual—there is no outside text, no place in which to hurl your roses to semantic abyss. We might hope for Love as some manifestation of the Lacanial Real, a pre-symbolic realm of pure emotion; but love too (as Roland Barthes reminds us) is discourse, perennial and yet bound to the fluctuations within language. ‘Rose’ is a noun, but it is also qualia: the subjective quality of something that cannot be objectively measured. Her cheeks were rosy, the rose-coloured sand (of the dream sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, Red Desert), a rosiness to the air that spoke of July. By scaling tone, we might get a general sense of what ‘rose’ is (a quality defined by difference rather than identity), but we’d never get to see rose through someone else’s experience. What is ‘rose’ to one poet might be ‘pale and bloody’ to another. Rimbaud writes, ‘The star has wept rose-colour in the heart of your ears’. Abstraction meets the concrete which itself is a spill through synecdoche. What music seeps, weeping, into the beloved’s ‘ears’? ‘Rose-colour’ becomes that synaesthetic property, the oozing, effulgent thing that cannot be pinned. For colour, like music, is perceptively subjective. What prompts a sudden spasm of imagining in you might send me to sleep; could we call both actions reactions to beauty?

‘It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world’. So goes the line in American Beauty, Sam Mendes’ 1999 suburban modern classic—a film about midlife crisis, inappropriate lust, neurotic materialism and the nuclear family under late capitalism. Where Ricky, the visionary, weed-smoking teenager, sees a sort of sublimity in waste, videoing a plastic bag’s leaf-like billows in the wind, Lester falls for his daughter’s cheerleader friend, Angela. The particular Gen X fatigue over cultural trash and consumer excess is recycled as a pared-back appreciation for symbolic indications of the world’s decay—little quotidian details which offer momentary redemption as beauty in tragedy. The old Kantian adage of beauty’s je ne sais quoi. Lester’s misplaced infatuation for Angela is represented by motifs of lurid red roses, flowering outwards like bloody snowstorms of feminine intensity. The chase falls cold when they kiss IRL, and he realises she is just an insecure teenage girl. Tell me I’m beautiful. Interpreting the film is as tricky as trying to clasp onto any one of those whirling petals, to kiss a single tear on an eyelash, a dew-drop clung to the flesh of a rose. Joni Mitchell, in ‘Roses Blue’: “I think of tears, I think of rain on shingles / I think of rain, I think of roses blue”. A lyricist’s ability to make pearls of emotion. Superhydrophonic. Is this another symbol, listless, transient, glistening?

The Symbolists were mostly French poets of the fin-de-siècle, the likes of Rimbaud and Baudelaire (whose flowers were assuredly evil), who probably drank quantities of absinthe and wrote symbols that emblematised reality itself, rather than merely inward feeling. All that absinthe had to come out somewhere, idly wilding in the streets of Paris (pronounce it the French way). Where abstraction reigns often in the world of emotion, meaning accumulates through the repetition, modulation and pattering of these symbols. While Mallarmé’s poetry indulged in dreams and visions, it’s a certain patterning of associative power that provides the stitching behind his fashion for aleatory. The poetics of chance may still have a structure of sorts, something you can trace like the veiny trellises within a leaf. W. B. Yeats, the Irish Symbolist, loved a good rose: just see ‘The Rose of the World’ and ‘The Rose of Battle’. In his essay, ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’, Yeats makes frequent comparisons between symbols and music, describing the ‘musical relation’ of sound, colour and form as constitutive of symbol.

At a workshop I’ve been running with homeless people, a girl who shares her name with Stein’s favourite flower reads out a piece she’s written in ten minutes flat. It’s a typically tragic tale of abuse, of a family torn apart by pain, drugs, death and violence—written from the perspective of a ten-year-old girl, perhaps her daughter. She reads it with a stilted west coast accent that picks up its confidence and lilt as the sentences run on. Somehow in those sad and wilting lines, strewn with the accidental detritus of truth, there’s hope. It blooms so unexpectedly in all the despair. A ten-year-old girl sees the world very clearly and pure. I can only paraphrase, of course. I’m sad that I don’t get to see my mother, but she says that it’s okay because if I look at the moon I know that she’s looking at it too. This part struck me harder than any other—it seemed an echo from elsewhere. The whole piece became suddenly a buildup to that single, simple, irresistible image. When Yeats presents Burns’ ‘perfectly symbolical’ song of the moon and time, he misquotes him. Translation falters to glitch, like with lossy compression. The moon as a symbol, as something to be shared, a white chocolate button broken in two. Except you can’t split the moon. You can only imagine what the other person is seeing. I wonder what they were looking up to.

Where metaphors ‘are not profound enough to be moving’, symbols move in both senses of the word: they act through motion, the accumulative or associative arrangement of sound and meaning (as opposed to metaphor, which acquires meaning through more static, straightforward comparison), and they prompt affect in the reader. Such affect is not just the temporary indulgence of an artwork’s emotional value, but can indeed alter how the world is discursively understood. The rosy words thrown upon some poetic zephyr recalibrate reality as we know it. As Yeats puts it:

Because an emotion does not exist, or does not become perceptible and active among us, till it has found its expression, in colour or in sound or in form, or in all of these, and because no two modulations or arrangements of these evoke the same emotion, poets and painters and musicians, and in a less degree because their effects are momentary, day and night and cloud and shadow, are continually making and unmaking mankind.

The construction of feeling through symbols, then, institutes the substance and gaps that structure how we relate to ourselves, others and nonhuman objects. A very delicate, precise, imagist poem like William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ has effectively changed how we relate to both the colour red and wheelbarrows more generally (never mind the ‘white / chickens’). Symbols can charge our perception with fresh emotional channels. Music relates a bit differently, of course, but only because it literalises Yeats’ musical relation metaphor—there’s a more physical intensity, maybe. Like a river (you can never dip your finger twice in the same river), a piece of music cannot be played the exact same way again—a truism owing to the arbitrary dynamics of individual players, environments, acoustics or subtle interruptions of duration. A breath or a sneeze, a chance sigh in the background, a trumpeter who can never quite pace her crescendo. You experience the opera differently from me, even though we watch the same one (I have never been to the opera). My hearing is slightly muted, along with my interest in self-congratulatory coloratura; while you have perfect pitch, ears that ring with pleasure as the high notes hit. Though the same in one sense, comprising a shared duration, our encounters are completely different. Music’s durational function is made explicit with the likes of John Cage’s music concrète, composed of sounds rather than notes and thus retaining elements of chance within a certain duration. The process becomes more about selection, sampling and curation, rather than composition according to tones, melody, chords.

If anyone idled wildly, it was the notoriously languorous aesthete, Oscar Wilde. The decadence of roses is also associated with a certain concretisation of language, a making material of words, a honing of time and world. Consider the opening line of The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses’. The way assonance works, subtly wafting its chiming vowels through ‘filled’/‘rich’ and ‘odour’/‘roses’, creates that musical relation that Yeats so fetishised. Poetic techniques such as alliteration and assonance abound in Wilde’s novel, where prose becomes musical, lilting, exactly honed upon sensory detail, the vivid relation of objects. Roses that fill a studio, that pungently glow with lavish scent. There is a heady, ambient quality to much of Wilde’s descriptions, giving off the impression that we are perhaps perceiving how objects seem to one another, filtered through the opium vapours that so penetrated Dorian’s accelerating decadence: ‘In the slanting beams that streamed through the open doorway the dust danced and was golden. The heavy scent of the roses seemed to brood over everything.’ Objects are at once anthropomorphised and ornamental; that play between movement and stasis, however, cuts across binaries between human and nonhuman. The world of Dorian Gray is sprawling, random, a chase through meshes of entangled desire. A straightforward death drive is diverted by all sorts of sensory encounters, plastic morality, visionary beauty. And words? Words in Wilde are the petals that swell and unfurl into Yeatsian symbols:

Music had stirred him like that. Music had troubled him many times. But music was not articulate. It was not a new world, but rather another chaos, that it created in us. Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?

Words have (re)active potential. Each one shivers with the weight of its every use, alive with subtle magic. Be careful what you write.

Gertrude Stein said that’s enough (I know that that’s not enough now)”. Gertrude Stein said a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. She said it first in ‘Sacred Emily’ (1913), and later wrote, in ‘Poetry and Grammar’:

When I said.
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
And then later made that into a ring I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.

What do we swap for tautologies? Love is tautological; love justifies itself. It means everything and nothing. There’s isn’t any escaping the reifying loop, the ring with its symbolism of marriage. That which encapsulates and closes. The hermeneutic circle. Stein makes us linger, ponder the grammar of each rose. Ring-a-ring-‘o-roses. What does it mean to ‘caress’ a noun? To render the erotic potential of language by gesture of touch, extend into physical… Idlewild: a word whose internal rhymes fold together, whose l sounds caress the roof of the mouth.

Gertrude Stein said that’s enough.

Lana Del Rey: “You always buy me roses like a creep.
Also Lana Del Rey: “And then you buy me roses and it’s fine.

There’s a surfeit of petals and sex, a gluttonous economy of symbols which Stein stamps out with the simple carousel of her musical roses. Sing it slowly. Tell me what you mean.

Luce Irigaray, from This Sex Which Is Not One:

Your body expresses yesterday in what it wants today. If you think: yesterday I was, tomorrow I shall be, you are thinking: I have died a little. Be what you are becoming, without clinging to what you might have been, what you might yet be. Never settle. Leave definitiveness to the undecided; we don’t need it.

Lana Del Rey, reading from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

I pass between worlds and names and symbols. Every lipstick stain is another iteration, each kiss the palimpsest of the first, and even photographs fade in the sun, faces dissolving like planes behind clouds. Of ‘cappuccino pink ranunculus’—not roses—Colin Herd writes: ‘They’re at their most ravishing and / ethereal the day before they expire’. I imagine a white corridor imprinted with all your flickering dreams. Between realms, the soft wilt allures more even than it does in bloom. Images become sentences: long thorny stems of sentences, stretching and snarling a confusion of brambles and briars. The more you write, the more you grow your beautiful garden. I tear my wrists and fingers, trying to get to it: ‘There is a forcible affect of language which courses like blood through its speakers. Language is impersonal; its working through and across us is indifferent to us, yet in the same blow it constitutes the fibre of the personal’ (Denise Riley). This garden I make is not really mine and daily it grows stranger. The roses offer their pretty heads, then droop in winter. I hear their beautiful words in arterial melodies, sprawling among shadow, platitude, the skeins of a letter letting loose through my pores.

Roseability: the quality of forever chasing roseability. File under qualia, noun/rock, the poetics of etcetera.

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gif. credit: : : Douglas Pattison

Lost Water: Towards a Phenomenology of the Kyle Centre

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A crumpled local newspaper, ink bleeding in the rain, a tattoo of useless words on the Styrofoam takeaway. A case of stacked metaphors, every sentence weighted with the freight of muscle, plunge, pressing ahead. Snowflakes of unbreakable material make their way across bladderwrack pavements. Words like eateries and retail melt through the cracks and what’s left is the skeletal possibility of what could be, mulched in quicksand, the mall revamped with luscious funds and pumped to the brim with glass, tiles of parquet impression, leisure. The Kyle Centre mall, as understood in American English (O to cue Idlewild forever in the longing for that sensitive, Irvine drawl), once boasted a fountain where you tossed in your lucky pennies. There was a genuine, operating foodcourt. In the summer, tents would be erected upstairs for sale; a bouncy castle provided cheap joy for children and teenagers bored by another washout July. Many of us stole first kisses in the warm, polyester glow of those tents. We’d take caffeinated beverages and go browsing, the way you do now with the ease of a thumb and the screen, the virtual checkout. The semiology of colour in familiar high street stores, from Next to Topshop, functioned as landmarks in the crisscross abyss of ersatz environs, scaled to micro.

What comes next, next, next—a panoply of signage directs the flow of bodies. There were four entrances and exits, but only locals mastered the correct orientations. Kids drifted aimlessly up and down the escalators, shouting to friends who clustered on the floor below, sharing meal deals purloined from Superdrug, dropping fake grated cheese on the sallow floor. Medievals feeding their daily, carpeted fodder; a spin-cycle draining the pockets of millennials. All was amalgamation, consumerism in miniature. There was the looping belt of process that brought each person’s return on a Saturday afternoon. You might say bustling, even, if you were a journalist running out of words. You felt the bloat, the awkward accrual of bags, the jostle towards actual sunlight fizzled in the imminent night. Evening came quicker by the sea, shaded by islands and cloudy bars. Making impulse decisions, drawing back to the thing that comes without thinking.

To return ten years on is to witness the boom and bust cycle’s distilled effect. Scrunched out remnants of culture, expendable income bleached to regret. Towns throughout Britain, of course, lay waste to the whims of the market; but few as strong as this one. A smattering of bookies, charity shops, pawnbrokers and dingy discount stores spring up where cafés and clothes shops used to be. The supermarkets teem with the deranged ennui of the drifters. Old folks carry their bags to and fro, not gathering—not even picking the fruit of occasional Watt Brothers lipsticks. Their gums sink with cheap mints, the quality of the buskers slackens to fraught renditions of ‘All of Me’. As if the comprehensive self were still a myth to be chased. Pill poppers make the rounds quite openly, TKMaxx installs vein-resistant violet lighting in its bathrooms to stave off addicts. The establishment dwindles. Woolworths closed an age ago; they are slowly getting used to it.

As operational concept, the town brings out its humming despair. Gulls swoop in circles, waiting to descend on their carrion, the fag butts flicked into new oblivions. When dropped from a four-storey carpark, nutmeg stoned, you practise the art of temporal refusal—stepping literally into the upswept dust of the times. Trying out the bone-shattering acrobatics. Something glimpsed on telly. Creating a whirl of delusion which staves off the fear, if only for three hours with side effect headaches. You sit in the sticky dark of the Odeon, chewing peanuts, waiting for the arrival of those who won’t come. A shower runs on in the back of your mind; numeric paranoias flourish like dog daisies in June-green meadows. All of a sweetness, lingering aspartame. River Island being that literalised metaphor for outdoor fashion, something exotic in the lurid schemes. New tribes stranded on the traffic islands of their adolescent years, calling for help but only serving to prompt more crashes. The roadsides fill up with scrap metal, coke cans, broken dreams. Only the criminals pick litter and weeds. Somebody stops you on the street to ask about your pension, your PPI. In trackies you concoct some lie of an income. It feels better to exist beyond form, chewing a pack of mucilaginous candy, taming the jaw towards process. I run, I run, I run.

Practitioners of parkour and skaters clatter up the common walkways, alleys–backflipping normality. In that violent clack or fall of trainers, they emit fresh wavelengths on the general orbit. They are trying to avoid, like all of us, the inevitable, hullabaloo pull of the Kyle Centre, its middling void drawing us back to terrible origins. Returning after years, I found the mall to be almost utterly empty. The floor tiles coated with a fine layer of dust. I could almost hear the tinny echoes of Macintosh Plus resonate in the brain as I glided around, glancing into the charnel grounds of abandoned shop windows. Was this the mall of yesterday, snagged in its vividly bland, retro-futurity? Tacky goods, novelty toys and festive decorations were stacked up without sale, all in a jumble, asynchronic. There was an elegiac quality to the silence, the desolation, the click of my heels on the tiles. Usually, a curated selection of galling chart bangers would blast from some unseen stereo, but this has been replaced by a low-level, Lynchian electrical hum. There’s almost a sense that the whole setup could explode; something of J. G. Ballard’s comment that ‘reality itself’ feels like some kind of elaborate ‘stage set’, one that ‘could be dismantled at any moment’. Who would do the dismantling–and how violently? An irritated, private developer, snuffling the truffles of riches buried beneath crumbling plaster? When I touch shop signs, the tarnish comes apart in my fingers, along with all youthful glitz of faith. Consumerism comes here to evade its afterlife. I consider the rent rates of a gamble.

April 2017, a fresh visit. The only shop that appeared to be open—beyond a curious popup tent with a sunglass stand of neon hairbands—sold vapes in all sorts of flavours. Oddly appropriate that the vaporisation business flourished under recession. Ye olde Marx strikes again: ‘All that is solid melts into air’. The material basis of capital, of physical living–structures defined and hardened over years of labour relations–is eventually dissipated under the strain of its own regime. Our cloying desires rent free and exhaled as vapour, the flavours of youth recreated with chemical enhancements. Cookies and cream, strawberry sundae, cherry cola; all the treats once devoured in these hallowed walls provide now the scented mists of our caustic lungs. We choke on the smallness of the shrinking world, distracted by flickering images.

Quite satisfying, really, to find oneself wandering around in the new vacuity. Less sincerity than simple dwelling in abstraction, a reminder that such clear plexiglass canvases once held the false cheer of advertisements. Stalking the old trajectories, attempting to align memories of space, place, movement. By posing at the broken fruit machine, sticking post-its upon the locked bathroom doors, peering into grime-smeared windows, are we enacting a form of détournement, constructing a new milieu, hijacking a bland, capitalist reality? EAT ME/DISCOUNTS/SALES/NEW DEALS (Tony Blair’s Cheshire cat grin suspended in symptomatic darkness). The devouring logic of the overdraft reigns, gasps, struggles for land. We snap for Instagram, slathering everything with inevitable millennial humour, a soft irony tinged with longing. These washed-out, fluorine filters; do they augment the dreaminess or merely expose the inherently bland, detached, trifling logic of the fetish? For all love for material is only immaterial. What you trade on a wage, the price of petrol; a burnout dependence, the chalky velocity.

I once saw my friend play guitar here, his voice resonating with surprising boom in the faux-brick cavern. It was a Sunday, no-one around but other hoodies, pensioners, lovers on their way between worlds. More than ever, the c e n t r e becomes transit zone, the overlap of other non-places. Time exists perpetually at four o’clock, the imminent closing of the shops, the light spilling in so grey and serene from tiny windows. It could be any time, in dreichest summer or dimmest winter. With sloganeered t-shirts, devoid of irony (“I Love to Shop Til I Drop”), we depart from resistance and give ourselves freely to the tide of tabloid iconography. It sweeps us inside its beige dripping media, sickly vanilla, till we are left like baby in the corner, picking dirt from beneath our milky nails. Waiting. People stop buying us ice-creams, frappuccinos, smoothies. All sugar departs by the lore of the body’s exhaustion. The inner world of the subject meets its flux in the antique plasticity of a once blazing commercialism. The streets shriek with bird-shit, pollutant buses, football hooligans and irate teenagers. Always there is the sharp, iodine smell of the sea. Someone stuck their disposable fork in an apple, set rotten upon a statue, as if waiting to be struck by lightning, lottery, something. A bottle of vodka is thrown from the luminous heights of White City, the same old hood in its twilight sleep.

The new silver screen dream was deemed a ‘multiplex’, a grand unveiling with the rich promise of quick progress, an ambitious proposal; a snip off the cash boost economy, a successful investment. Two years on and the ghosts still roam the walls, the bleak clichés of everything must go. Go where? Capitalism, in the age of waste, strips us of former ideals for nowhere, elsewhere. We know all the junk floats back somehow; we’ve seen the debris, the bottles, the latex remains washed up on the shore. You can just about hear the dull roar of an old hairdryer, blasting away the years in what once was a trendy hair salon. Temporary beauty, a pencil full of noxious lead. Nobody leaves Yelp reviews for the dead. The eighties decor, the depression of spirit. We circle back round, take the westerly entrance out towards honey-drip sunsets. Nobody weeps for the high street store, nor sheds a penny for the sake of nostalgia. Soon all will be gone, sodium dissolved; as sure as your new emporium, the vapours coming in through the walls, coating each residue thing with virulent mists. For reminiscence, for seconds caught static in the gleam of the fountain, an imaginary power sweeps us northward, drawn to other versions of lost dreams, lost treats, the endless catacomb concrete.

The Record that Changed My Life: Bright Eyes, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2005)

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[I wrote this a while ago, back in April and long before Oberst’s recent gig at the ABC which frankly deserves an essay in itself. I wasn’t going to post it–it’s possibly super cringe-worthy–but hobbling along on the last leg of my dissertation it felt imperative to get something positive out into the world.]

It’s possible that I first discovered Conor Oberst and his (un)merry band Bright Eyes in that most prosaic of millennial ways: via a LimeWire download, a MySpace page, some cloud-space long since lost to the ether. I found myself burning the songs on my iPod, where they sat uneasily alongside my favourite embarrassing emo bands, with an excitement almost spiritual. If The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan was the first album I ever bought with my own money, then I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was the first album that took me truly someplace else. It seemed a statement, a declaration of pure being; its very title rattled my too-thin bones. I listened to it and suddenly I understood my mother’s love for country tunes.

I came to the record a tad late, two years after its release, but it felt like it had been around forever. I’d never heard anything like it. There’s the first song, ‘At The Bottom Of Everything’, with its initiating slurp of soda, its meandering narrative about a woman who finds herself talking to a stranger on a plane as they plunge to their deaths in ‘the largest ocean on planet Earth’; the way it kickstarts into a rollicking country tune, a song for the woman’s imaginary birthday. The way those chilling lyrics about capital punishment, guns, technology and death could be set to this upbeat, catchy melody; it gets me every time. I used to go on long walks and it was springtime, the lambs out in the fields around the Ayrshire town where I grew up. I remember feeling so damn sad my ribs ached with it, but there was still the daffodils and the chickens, the bright green grass too green for my eyes. Something about the song captured that tension of sorrow and sweetness so well. It’s almost a paean to the demise of everything; a reminder that we all must die, that we daily kill each other and ourselves just by being alive.

Believe it or not, this realisation can be liberating. Oberst ironically celebrates the ‘wonderful splash’; his father ‘loads his guns’ while his mother ‘waters plants’. The whole song has this duality of birth and death, regenerating. A search for the sublime, for the next realm: ‘we must run, we must run, we must run’. The song begins with this image of the plunge, but refuses an easy, explainable ending: ‘we must rip out all the epilogues in the books that we have read’. It’s how I felt about life. I wanted that transcendent pull into another realm, but I didn’t want it to be explained or over; I wanted to prolong the possibility of that ending as much as I wanted it altogether. The oceanic imagery extends to the very ‘city buses’ which are ‘swimming past’ as the singer wakes up: ‘I’m happy just because / I found out I am really no one’. Isn’t this the liberation? That we can be fragments of matter, anonymously lost in the waves, the churn, the world’s strange, all-consuming waters?

The thing about Bright Eyes is that often they’re slapped with the emo label, but emo doesn’t have to mean a fetishised stylisation of sadness and suicide, the old ‘cut my wrists and black my eyes’ favoured by bands with alliterative names (I’m looking at you, Hawthorne Heights). Here, mixed with the pastoral invigorations of country, emo is just a cleansing of pain. There’s something so spiritually pure about that image: ‘death will give us back to God / Just like this setting sun is returned to the lonesome ocean’, the way the bright tones of those chords lick joyfully around it. I would listen over and over again to this song, obsessed with the way Oberst tells the introductory narrative with his lightly pensive intonation, the way of a storyteller in a bar addressing ardent listeners. From then on, I was hooked. I needed Oberst’s lyrics to tell me the tale of my own soul; it was a kind of immersive, boozy, eye-opening religion.

It sounds cliché and dramatic but at fifteen, sometimes it takes music to encourage you to live. The songs on I’m Wide Awake are often wistful, world-weary, lilting in their tales of disconnection, war, lovelorn mourning. You can read them easily against the context of the Iraq War, of Oberst’s utter disillusionment with the Bush administration, the yearning for something more than the era’s obsessive consumerism, cheap culture, ersatz spectacle: ‘on the way home I held your camera like a bible / just wishing so bad that it held some kind of truth’. I was struck by so many images: ‘and just when I get so lonesome I can’t speak / I see some flowers on a hillside, like a wall of new TVs’. The way he captured a poet’s Romantic perception contaminated by the fresh plastic and metal of postmodern society. A disenchantment with the world of things. I started experiencing the world with this layered, visionary quality. Maybe everyone else got their earliest fix from Sylvia Plath or the great nostalgic sorrow of F. Scott Fitzgerald or gut-wrenching movies about the decay of dreams, but before all that I had Bright Eyes.

At the heart of the album is ‘Lua’, a plaintive story about the lonely connectivity of New York City, the revolving door of gluttonous nocturnal parties followed by listless and painful mornings. The minimalist strums of an acoustic guitar accompany Oberst’s warbling voice as he documents the little quotidian moments which keep him going: ‘when everything is lonely I can be my own best friend / I get a coffee and a paper have my own conversation’. It’s a ballad about everyday survival, though draped in the cold indifference of society, the freezing streets, the strange truth that ‘What was normal in the evening / By the morning seems insane’. On the worst days I used to walk around the back of my school listening to this, trying to work out the story it told. I wondered who the girl was, the one who looked ‘skinny like a model’, who kept ‘going to the bathroom’. Was she an addict? Did she make herself sick? Was she pregnant, deranged, confused? The song itself felt bulimic, rendering that rhythm between excess and bareness, the indulgence in oblivion that only really leads to the blank reality of the morning after, the moment after the binge and purge when yes you have to sit there and deal with yourself. I liked the easy way the singer relates to the girl, ‘Well it takes one to know one kid / I think you’ve got it bad’. I thought of old cowboy films, a sort of loose camaraderie amongst the lost and fallen. For a while, I lived in black and white. I wasn’t quite ready to see the sparkling hillside flowers, the ruby of wine, the yellow bird, the blue Atlantic Ocean. I wanted cigarettes, vodka, darkness and the strange clarity of water amidst starvation. This was a formula I knew and loved, though gradually it broke me.

I’m Wide Awake taught me ways to feel whole again. To actually see these beautiful, ruinous, distant landscapes and the lives within them: the ‘New York skyline’, the promise of ‘explosion’; of howling weather, ‘sorrowful rain’, the ‘high rise’ from which glory can still be sung (and this is all from just one song). It was all about letting yourself go to the moment, realising you’re alive, wide awake, somehow open to the world. Feeling yourself caught between the media that consume you, ‘Looking for something / To open my eyes’. I prised myself from the shell of self-hate and had a good hard look at the world. It was hazy, it was a little blurred at the edges. I wanted to fall in love in the way that makes you realise that everything before was blindness; I wanted to drive ‘all night’ to meet someone in the morning. Maybe I didn’t, not then, not really. I guess I fell in love with something else. I fell into the voice, the images, the stories. It was like all the heartbreaking narratives of death and loss and regret that ever existed came together at once in one song. I thought about my friend who lost her dad quite suddenly to cancer and the girl I knew online, aged nineteen, who nearly died curled up with a heart attack from not eating; I thought about all the people I loved but could never quite get to.

The end of paralysis / I was a statuette / Now I’m drunk as hell / On a piano bench’. There’s this awesome catharsis to Oberst’s music, the way his voice breaks into a wail or a shout, how the rhythms come crashing down around him. It’s that sense of crumbling I could suddenly relate to. Crumbling into drunkenness. Feeling so liberated you could wrap your arms round someone who felt warm and strong or run across the abandoned racecourse at night or sit on the last train home crying freely because why not, why not? The only people around me were old men, alcoholics—just as lonely as I was.

This is an album haunted by a foreign war, by the tale of the midwesterner’s broken New York fairy tale, by figures of love and pain and despair. The raspy edge of Oberst’s voice is beautifully complimented by the lovely croons of Emmylou Harris and Maria Taylor, by sweet acoustic arpeggios and the occasional burst of raucous, full-band blues.  There’s an impulse towards oblivion that leaves the singer feeling stranded on land, longing for the freedom represented by just leaving. The songs are self-aware, referencing the pains and tribulations of music itself, the travelling songs that document our basic human scream for change and connection, bound by a misplaced longing for love and home and belonging. Again and again I go back to it, sifting the songs for those threads of emotion that tease out the sorrows of past and present. I go back to it and each time am startled by some new image that catches my eye, some wisp of despair or moment of joy. Lines like ‘The sun came up with no conclusion’ are poetry, pure and simple. I find them invading my everyday life, drifting on by like advertising slogans, flakes of paint, little flares of pure colour that give sense and purpose to the world.

Oberst has gone solo now, riding on the back of some solid albums. I finally got to see him live back in February, at Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. The last song he played was ‘At The Bottom of Everything’, the only song that people got off their seats to dance to. I’m not sure what that says about the current state of the universe, but I think it’s something to do with that melancholy joy, the power of music to remake our sadness into something collective, rousing, powerful. Our need for that intuitive connection, the thing that transcends the text message, the inane commentary of social media, the ubiquitous trills of our smartphones. The thing that makes us want to screech our heads off at the absurdity of everything, the way Oberst does on the album’s closer, ‘Road to Joy’. Listening from the balcony, I pictured my teenage self, wandering those fields; as lost to history’s indifference as the girl that’s writing this, looking out at a city street. It’s a strangely liberating feeling, feeling the nowhere of now.

n a r c o / / p a s t o r a l

N A R C O     P A S T O R A L
(written between 1-4am, in the mood of Gilded Dirt)

‘No shepherd, no pastoral’ — Leo Marx

Let us begin at the dawn of the internet. A story of packet networking, government departments, protocol suites and business decisions made in the cloaked, air-conditioned hum of boardrooms. No, this is boring. Let us fall three stories through the hyperlinked portals of a Tumblr archive, our minds caught in the dopamine rush; nothing comparable. These colours, the bronzed flesh of beautiful strangers (who aren’t even models!)! A doubling of exclamation, a doubling of desire. I have crushed many harmless cartons of Ribena while thinking of your sweetly dripping smile. Talk to me O Web, nobody else will; I see only a shrouded reality, the silken flickers of a screen-bleached veil. Who leads the flock of the blind and hungry teenagers? What possible elaboration of data could draw them to utopias lost like that early neutrality of the net? Innocence perhaps is always (already?) fallen.

Why haven’t you replied to my text?
Derrida says everything is text. There is no outside-text. Look around you.
You know what I fucking mean.

All interaction is destined for a meme. History is full of them. Literature is interaction; the inevitable touching of finger and ink, perception and paper. Barthes says: ‘Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.’ I wish I’d written it on a postcard, instead of an internet bulletin. My god as if they even still called it that. Nothing one has to say earns the vital status of ‘bulletin’. It is all just discourse, levelled out, dank reality. Everything feels intimate and yet completely odd, alien, pointless. What was it Barthes found so sexy about language? A literal ache that feels like love, drawn to some other’s inward beam, the first brush against them, the leaf-like trembling. I’m writing crazy amounts and what brings me back to that electric surface is perhaps realising that everything underneath, every word I type, is basically at the core just binary. Night and day, will he notice me? Night and day, the rhythm passing through me, oozing.

🕊

Hell, I’m a millennial with minimum job security; whatever a quotidian rhythm is I’ve long since lost it with the bleed of light that steals through my blinds as I make my way into sleep. Too much coffee. The room an indigo blue of burst-through dawn. The birds are all around me, a whole garden full of them. One last time, checking twitter…

The little voices clutter the fields. Nobody is there to guide them; we are bound instead by characters, algorithms. You can’t write about pastoral unless the text in question deals with shepherds. Who are the shepherds of the internet? Perhaps we are, perhaps it is the panoptic site where we all gather, Pagan-like, earnest embrace of all illusory interfaces. Are we blind, clad in white, always in the service of our sheep? Endlessly tempting…We play lyres and sing earnestly of our unrequited love; we do it in the hallowed gardens of YouTube, where Blake would write of our purest impulses. We used to play quite happily among the shallow folds, so sweet in our greenness, uploading silly videos; we used to play before everything was just fucking advertising: ‘binding with briars, my joys & desires’. An ad for perfume, a woman’s throat in a chain-link choker. Advert for absinthe. Poison ivy crawls all over us and language just feels like a virus; I guess it’s because I’m well-acquainted with the dark work of coding. Underneath every word is the binary bleep, and I can’t help but think of sheep lost out in the cold. Life/death; the trajectories of rebirth. White and black; white on black, little white bodies in the black of the night. She will have a lamb and call it Microsoft.

What?
You know what I…mean. (?)
🌒

Our generation are all lost sheep. How many times have the fences broken in the fields of the internet? What we crave isn’t freedom exactly—O how passé the frontier motif!—but some sort of comfort, a shelter from the barbed experience of the IRL everyday. Unstable jobs, cackling media, unrealistic body image etc etc. I made a list but every time the words compressed into et al, like I no longer needed the details. I wanted to draw back into something simpler; the garden of Eden being this nostalgic collection of nineties net art and noughties graphics, the kind of vibrant geometries you might find plastered over somebody’s Geocities. I gave up thinking my shepherd was Julian Assange, or some other white-faced genius set to wreck the world with his erasable visions of freedom.

We are in need of soothing. Gosh, Laura Marling even wrote a song about it. My God is brooding. I have lost the God. He or she is in a sulk. I retreat into a rhombus, the equilateral remembrance of shadow. My identity was never clear but soon I let it divulge further the strange truths of illusory discourse; let it slip into the sinkholes of forums and chatrooms, all these virtual spaces whose presence filtered through my everyday life. The whole experience overwhelming, of course. The amounting of so many avatars, each one a horcrux scattered beyond the bounds of thought. Becoming monstrous, evolving from beyond consciousness.

We continue to smoke, in defiance of death. How we study with interest the gore that plasters each anonymous cigarette packet: the foetus made of fag ashes, the man curled in cancerous agony upon a hospital bed, the baby absorbing its secondhand pathogens. We campaign for action on climate change yet continue to smoke. We are in this oscillating space; a recognised irony, the metallic taste of hypocrisy stinging our tongues even as we try to move beyond it.

There is a willing naivety in our longing for certain environments. What lush oasis amid the din of our dull city living? What ancient standing stone circle, what temple or gorgeous cathedral? The Hollywood canyons, the plastic palms of a Lana Del Rey video?

There must be also a willing imbibing of the polluted dream. Recognition that this is the Anthropocene; that the world is ending already and we are playing out the last vestiges of our human, our species’ mortality. Living with a kind of negative capability, accepting the state of corrupted beauty. What about the atmospheric acids that streak the sky with alluring tints? How we immortalise, fetishise that pink and orange, even as it signals our climate’s destruction? The damage to the earth moves slow, sinks through the soil, evolves with distorted DNA coding. The trick is to slow down with it, to ease into so many starry, imitation futures.

We must deliver empathy for other beings. We are both shepherd and sheep, guiding the world but also being guided by it; thrown awry at every turn by some new storm or war, some side effect of our reckless living. Consumerism secretly blasts the binary of subject/object, self/environment; quite literally, we become what we eat. I am an ice lolly, melting cherryade on the concrete heat of this too-warm city; my sticky residue is the sexless blood of the starved teenager, the catwalk model, the fearsome and damned. And yet sometimes I stand and smoke and think it means nothing. Saint Jimmy, O endearing memory of Green Day. The photographs on the packet do not remind me of death, but some abstraction of the body at its limits; an art exhibit poised to lift daily habit into the realm of the transmundane. I have waited at so many bus stops, cash points, queued in supermarkets for this.

Every time you snort cocaine I watch the blood burst in tiny wires, the inward capillaries. Somewhere someone is spraying pesticides on a field of coca plants in Mexico. How many times have I helped you with your goddamn nosebleeds?

For I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour
of my foolish youth, face in the window without name
without name. What was it Wordsworth said
about humanity? That still sad music is the soundtrack
to each brittle burst in the star of my heart. God knows
even in forests and rivers I miss you. Not even wine
is what it once was. Every sunset the colour of salsa,
and each night my tongue burns on the memory of chilli
while you are out there, susurrations of grass
and all the smashed glass you shoved in your fists
was silver petals and the edges crushed with the sap
of my love and I wanted to stick them together again.

Instead, I think about the stomachs of young boys, knotted with wire–iron and barbed. There are too many hormones in the milk they drink. Nobody bothered to nourish the cows. They were too busy caught up in period cramps. Pointless cycles of (un)reproduction.

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Narcotic. Narco. That which has a tranquillising effect. Lorde on her new album singing in that sugary octave leap: the rush at the beginning. None of us can sleep without pills, without sex, without ASMR videos. These soothing colours and shapes; the ambient drag of background music, distorting our sense of imploding foreground, dissipating those ugly memories of time and space. All is levelled, all is darkness. We crave oblivion. Sometimes stranger, sometimes easy. We flirt with the past, have this mild addiction to nostalgia. We’re just looking for things to transcend with.

There are times when what is to be said looks out of the past at you—looks out like someone at a window and you in the street as you walk along. Past hours, past acts, take on an uncanny isolation; between them and you who look back on them now there is no continuity.

So begins Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam (1954). Trocchi was a heroin-addict. He knew the all-consuming tranquility of drugs, knew how writing could perform that strange inner split of self. When we write in the mode of the narco pastoral we are being chased by some older version, the 1.0 to our 2.0 dreams. When these memories hover, the girl that floats is never quite yourself. There is the sudden realisation of distinction. How far you have come, how low you plummeted. I am guided by the soporific waltz of a nineties video game. With its labyrinthine pathways I reach for the future–

 😈

Here, there’s this new podcast. Follow me. What follows:

Recipe for vapourwave: add the reverb, the transparent semiotics of the checkerboard floor (I fall four stories just to join you in bed), the swaying gif of exotic indoor aloes, the unfinished loop. Resounding, distorting. Casino glitches. Skin-cleansing, refreshing. Try out your luck. Cooper could run for a hundred jackpots. Pick a colour and follow a moodboard of sounds and slowly flowering samples. Imagine the Black Lodge. Watch disembodied relics from the eighties melt on the vinyl floor, down the plexiglass walls, the long-drowning faces superimposed on posters of pop-punk club nights and every neon a symbol for rave’s revival. The first time I listened to Aphex Twin was a bourbon-soaked kiss and somebody had burst glowsticks and flicked the liquid all over my bedroom, so when the lights went out it looked like so many pink and green stars. O holy dibutyl phthlalate, flurophore with your brilliant emission. The clicks and bleeps lived on in the pale yellow stains and in the morning I was suffering.

Early soundtrack of our forebears: Eels – Novacaine for the Soul. Oh my darling / Will you be here? Presentness is in deferral. We wait for each other, always aroused as the constant shivering upsets our nervous system. We crave things that ease the switched on quality, things that split apart the binary, leave us to the oblivion of off, if only temporarily. At least half of us are insomniac, up late waiting for the object of desire to make itself present. When red goes green.

Always online and yet never replies. Everything is text. I read his stream of thought in the run of my bath tap, calculating the relative water wastage in comparison to a daily shower. I wash my hair less and less. Mysterious pains pulse and twist in my ovaries like radio signals struggling to push out to the ether. There will be no fertility here. No flesh or grease. You gave me a pear wrapped in brown paper; but it soured on the window, grew a layer of fairy fur and I offered it to the shrine in my father’s garden—which already I have forgotten. I miss you, it’s clear. Not the grass, not the fine rich taste of its loam. Once I wore daisies in my hair, a long ago dream of a girl from something written by Laurie Lee. The girls then, they were clean and apple-sweet.

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Solastalgia: ‘the pain or sickness caused by the loss of, or inability to derive, solace connected to the present state of one’s home environment’ (Glenn Albrecht). I am home, I am centred. My mother’s chair, or whatever. Yet nothing makes sense. I feel this network already filled up with death; I know every moment to be painfully imminent, displaced, the always-already. Even the mice in the piano, the jackdaws cawing in the chimney. Why can I not experience the present? My own soul feels washed up from the future; sometimes I glimpse a world underwater. I glaze over the orbital space of Google Maps, zoom up my street, see a light sabre left in the front garden. Someone flew over before me. The tree is gone; there are brambles sprawled in the driveway, the squashed pampas grass. I know this to be home.

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We will move through twelve states to get there again. Hence, 12th World. This was concocted at the age of seven, under the influence of various toxic E numbers and a book of amateur spells. If you press the white keys of my keyboard, your fingers will burn a bright acid green. This isn’t my beautiful house, my beautiful room, my beautiful toys. Man, how I’ve missed you. The last time I cried in the garden it was May and so sunny, under the lilac tree I wept for my childhood clutching a miniature bottle of whisky.
How can one have pastoral when even home—even one’s roots—feel displaced, already lost, slipping away beneath one’s feet? Pastoral was never present. Pastoral was always the idealised space, the green and gold of a romanticised past or a future vision. To reach it you had to call on the Muses.

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In the Anthropocene: corrupted pastoral. A druggy, chemical haze of the paradise garden. Everything spoiled, but the spoiling starting to manifest its long-term effect. Rocks made of plastic, all that washed-up sea glass replacing the ocean’s organic silt. Sand turned to glass and back to sand again, smoother wash of eternal form. For Terry Gifford, the pastoral is ‘an ancient cultural tool’; a form of ‘textual mediation’ which transmits something of our relationship to the world. Quite grandiosely he claims: ‘Today the very survival of our species depends upon, not just this debate itself, but our ability to find the right images to represent our way of living with, and within, what we variously characterise as “nature,” “earth,” “land,” “place,” “our global environment”’. Yes, it’s quite possible the pH levels of our souls are out of whack. But it isn’t as if we’ve lost the primal ability to connect with the nonhuman. Throw me out into the Lake District and I’ll melt quicker than my teenage self listening to her first Fionn Regan song; throw me in the Hollywood canyons and I’ll be that sparkle on a dust track highway to dreamland. Oh, is that Lana, tossing back her hair? I close my eyes (hello, Arthur Russell, I’m listening) and I see little dolphins leap through those huge silver hoops.

Somebody once said dub is spiritual music. Somewhere the Nirvana-drenched dreamlands of the fin de siecle found themselves washed up, an acid-tinged pastel they called seapunk. Parma Violets, the lilac flesh. A yin yang is sucked into a whirlpool; this an accurate portrayal of my heart’s trajectory when I think of you on a summer evening and the smell of garlic and violets and rollup cigarettes…Sun crisping the deep horizon. You can’t, I mean. There are chemicals in the water, poisoned sushi. Hormones. Her blue lips don’t signify illness, but something alien. There are pyramids on all the cassette tape covers, each one symbolising the ancient. Deep time, deep horizons, deep hot lust. Nobody has a deck on which to play them. This is all very beautiful, very visual; but we lack the machinery. The correct array of objects, severed from context on the transparent grid. The slow, elusive pulse of electronic beats. Tropocalypse, barnacle-studded skin. Lilac flesh, lilac rhinestones. Follow the arrows to the tender disco, smash out your tastebuds on packets of clean white chalk.

🌅

It’s Missingno, somewhere afloat on a stillborn ocean. I kept every one of those 99 Rare Candies. I thought maybe I’d see you one day, have the chance to catch you.

Hologram memory: swooooooon.

It was all fun until someone famous put our iconography in their music video. That’s the problem with narco pastoral; it’s pretty damn close to pop. There’s already enough sugar in the diet. Stuff you can’t just flush out with salt. It’s always on the radio.

Someone had a face cream made out of mussels. The inward silk cream, lightly scented with brine. It was nice, it kept everything smooth; it made the person smell very much like a wet sea rock. But none of this is much to do with shepherds. What is the dream? What keeps it pastoral?

Temptation of animals. Lana in her garden of Tropico, writhing around in repurposed imagery of Eden. Ginsberg richly lisping sin on her lips. I saw the best minds of my generation. Well pal I saw the best minds of my generation serving tables to rich octogenarians with straight faces and genuine kindness in their eyes. They drank and they tried to describe the ontological shift that characterised their seaborne being. The misty look. Here, have some Talisker whisky. As if something was always missing, the way they would look across the room, straight through every single one of those tables. Slight shaft of light, golden beam. Sundown. Everything always setting. Someone messing with their settings. I made every element turn black.

🐑

The sheep crossed my path and each one spotted the rubies that studded the rings of my eyes. Had I been crying, purging? For what were they searching, with their dead dark stares? Some expelling of matter on a vacuous Sunday morning. The summer wind bristled the broken pores of my skin. I was all that insignificant, even the farmer laughed at me. Pale-clothed, a red bracelet slipped from my wrist. I thought of myself as pure metonymy, this endless series of objects and how I hated the need to consume them. Every act of consuming was like eating an ending except there was never a divinity to the outside, the afterward. Just that sick lump in the stomach, the recalcitrance of matter unfortunate in its obstinate return. Why am I always reminded of what I have eaten? What is this rubbish that haunts me? The nastiness, the chewing and mulching? The burning?

Narco pastoral is friendly with trash. What is the wasted hour after the morphine hits? What smoulder…Forgotten hour destined to be unremembered, to lie suspended in the space between two moments. Consciousness as stream, severed or diverted. Lonesome tributaries. How this sunset will look purer because I’m certain to forget it. Sheep cannot cross water, not properly. There’s a tendency to sink. We linger in the shallows, swap vague cuds of data. Italo Calvino deems it ‘our dark cornucopia’, these leftovers we throw out, that vital gesture of abjection that allows me to divide one day from the next. But everything has already collapsed into one, become mulch. Will you lift me? I fear I have lost my name to a certain ceremony.

🌵

Narco pastoral: craving that soothing, that tranquillising return to what brightens the mood in the manner of childhood. If I roll over, mull around in the canyons of junk. They call this awe, they call this an uplift of personality. I think about the cactuses photographed for episodes of Breaking Bad and it makes me thirsty, all that aloe vera. The luxuriant dust of the desert, rising slowly at dawn when the wind lifts and something hangs in the air, about to happen. When I played SimCity2, my neighbourhoods got hit with brutal whirlpools. I guess that was Gaia. Gorgeous or vengeful, vixen of the frenzied, hurting Earth. I guess I’m always cheating and eventually the universe finds out. Decadence of the Edenic is irrevocably alien. You see I have spent so much time lying on my bedroom floor it has started to feel like a hay bale or a barn or a hillside or something. Needles hidden. I can almost smell the breeze, hear the unimpressed mews of sheep. I’m heartsick for farmer land, for a world I do not quite understand. You begged me to watch Glue because there was a murder and a slightly attractive character. I longed to plunge in a pool of grains and be sucked so slowly away. You are, you are…

When Lana trills I sing the body electric and somewhere in time Whitman is loafing under a willow tree. There’s Ben in Lerner’s 10:04, ‘already falling out of time’, reading an ‘American edition of Whitman, its paper so thin you could use it to roll cigarettes’. Trace textuality, turn to ashes. When Isobella Rossellini is beaten to an inch of her life and still looks beautiful and that’s the tragedy. All my moods hued in blue. When the rasping sounds come from beyond the door, when all my lust for you feels useless and primitive, remnants of text message severed by missed connections. I move down the hill, steadfast as any rare sheep. The dawn is my shepherd. It’s 4am, past that even, and still I’m up writing. I’m winding my way through the hours already. This is summer and the very melding of day and night is a process narcotic. I wouldn’t be all that sad if you pressed me from bed and made every patch of me bright as your favourite rubbish. It isn’t all that. It isn’t. You could have a future. I’ll melt for you; I’ll shed for you. There’s something you just follow. The shepherd’s trajectories. He drips glitter and sings Grimes songs and knows the value of decent female production. It’s that easy. Soft qualities.

💧

He cut his tongue on the teeth of a selkie and calls it seapunk; there’s a gap where the whistle would be. The blue aroma, the blue chord, the melancholy blue of my body. When someone smashes a car in Vice City a frown forms on the underbelly of the sun. This is an old polaroid, the light leak very alien indeed. This is my collage of all that has been and will be. Blue skies, green grass, white sheep. I suppose it’s a good enough time now as any to reveal that I’m rainbow. I look like something a kid would vomit at a sleepover; this disgusting array of E numbers. Upshot: no stranger to the internet. The starry pixellation which on second thought could perhaps be freckles. How I loved him more for that, the warm skin feels soft on the back of the neck (net). Narco pastoral is soft porn, Hegelian dialectics, a fistful of dreams, a bump of mandy. You just want that ecodelic happiness, pure joy in the spin of your dusty shoes. If you drop all the drugs, consider me clean in the light I will love you. I’ve never been certain of anything. I just follow.

:: : the toxic lush pastoral
:: : the physiognomic, urban transcendental
:: : the stop-dust of carbon
:: : the fluid quotidian
:: : the endless chain of what once was (N)ature

/ World of Awe, A Stopped Ontography. / 🗑

It is important, according to Timothy Morton (2007), to harness the powers of kitsch.

I am with you, I am plastic-wrapped
and still just breathing…

..
.

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LDR in the short film, Tropico (2013). 

 

Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric

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Source: BBC

Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric 

What a treat to listen to a lecture sprinkled with songs and stories, especially among the beautiful acoustics of Glasgow University’s chapel. After a rather spectacular introduction from Professor Simon Newman, singer-songwriter Roddy Hart gave the 17th Annual Gordon Lecture, organised by university’s Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies. Having collaborated with Kris Kristofferson, released an EP of Dylan covers and found success in the States with a stint on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show—not to mention running his own radio show for BBC Scotland and hosting Celtic Connections, the BBC Quay Sessions and the Roaming Roots Revue—Hart was well qualified to talk on this subject from a musician’s point of view.

Hart’s talk was a tribute to the great American lyric; to what makes it, in Hart’s words, particularly alluring, otherworldly and cool, especially to those who grew up outside of the United States. Admitting that he lacks an academic education in the history of American culture and music (actually, Hart has a law degree gleaned from within these very walls), Hart made up for this by sheer enthusiasm, celebrating the musical merits of songs from Woody Guthrie to Father John Misty and covering such topics as the journey motif, humour, darkness, nostalgia, politics and death. The talk took the form of a powerpoint, with Roddy speaking, singing snippets of songs and then commenting on their significance in a lucid, passionate way that kept everyone hooked for an hour and a half.

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Bob Dylan / / Source: Rolling Stone

Hart began with the assertion that lyrics are not poetry, or indeed literature of any kind. Lyrics, he claimed, involve respect for structure, rhyme, metre and field (all definitions you could apply to poetry…), a certain knack for a hook, a streak of ingenuity and originality. Like poetry, a great lyric can reshape how we view the world we live in, send ripples through the fabric of reality and inspire us to take action, critically reflect or wallow in grief. The distinction Hart draws between poetry and the lyric prompted a desire to find out what exactly his thoughts are on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. My own thoughts on this issue have never rested on a single position, and I don’t really know enough about the prize’s history to comment on Dylan’s suitability.  However, there have always been strong connections between lyricists and poets, from the likes of Langston Hughes writing jazz poems during the Harlem Renaissance to Kate Tempest releasing rap albums as well as a novel and poetry collections published by the likes of Picador and Bloomsbury, no less. Hell, what about Leonard Cohen? At the end of the day, all writing is a performance of sorts, regardless of how it’s delivered. I could talk about Roland Barthes here, mention ‘The Death of the Author’, how the reader ‘performs’ the text like a score of music etc etc, but I won’t digress. Basically: sometimes a poem seems built for performance; other times it rests more easily on the page, where the eye follows an intriguing visual form or dance of letters arranged on white space. While poetry can be a two-way street, I’m not sure how well Dylan’s verse works on the page. Admittedly, most of his songs tell interesting stories, but that deceptive simplicity often needs the nuance and expression of Dylan’s voice to draw out the subtler levels of irony, humour, derision or sorrow from straightforward-seeming lyrics. Just my two cents on the matter, though I still like to wallow in ambiguity when it comes to these distinctions.

Hart gives the proviso that his talk is meant to be a working definition of the American lyric, not a comprehensive history. He does, however, mention a few characteristic features. The prominent one, of course, is name-checking: all the best American lyrics will draw on the wealth of states, street names, famous bars and hotels. In doing so, they draw on a tradition, they write themselves into a history of locations, urban legends and folk tales. Hart illustrated this by starting with Paul Simon’s ‘America’, pointing out how the song documents a search for America itself; this idea that America will always be this endless signifier, sliding along the great highway of desire that stretches across desert, country and city, drawing across generations. On the way, the lovers in Simon’s song make the best of their adventure, cooking up stories from the characters on the Greyhound, honing in on material details. It’s this sense of taking the listener on a journey that’s one of the American lyric’s greatest seductions. As Simon sings, “it took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw” the chords soar and there’s that sense of being lifted to somewhere radically elsewhere, an open field, road, desert. The sweet spot between freedom and sorrow, of missing something deep and mysterious, the impossible pursuit.

Hart traces such material details in songs by Kris Kristofferson and Dylan, this sense of a ‘quintessential American aesthetic’ which he quite eloquently describes as a ‘Moby Dick-esque hunt across America’. The whale, ironically, is America itself. The road narrative is central to the American lyric. It’s a romanticised, extravagant sprawl into the dust of the past and glitter of the future, marked by place names which glow with familiar warmth and legendary spirit. Hart argues that this is something specific to the American lyric; that a Scottish equivalent wouldn’t quite have that same epic effect. He even sings a made-up local spin on ‘America’ to prove it; a journey between Edinburgh and Dunoon falls pretty flat in comparison. Of course there’s something special about the land of the free, in all its bright mythology and promise, but it’s not as if Scottish bands haven’t tried it. There’s that famous line from The Proclaimers’ ‘500 Miles’ which immortalises an array of parochial towns ravished by Thatcher, deindustrialisation and eighties recession: “Bathgate no more. Linwood no more. Methil no more. Irvine no more”. Of course there isn’t the same expansive magic, but there is something epic about lyrically connecting the local to broader political discontent. Still, you can’t really compare the Proclaimers to Simon & Garfunkel…or can you?

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Source: lettere-persiane.blogspot.com

Back to America. Hart describes Dylan as the nation’s great scene-setter, effortlessly drawing a sense of the times from the wisping drift of personal narrative, of stories about people and their lives. Details shuffled together like cards and strung along a line of verse. While some singers make their politics clear in the didactic manner of protest, Dylan sets these more intimate tales against the backdrop of cities and an impressionistically vivid sense of history. Hart plays possibly my favourite Dylan song, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ from the 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, spending time going over the lyrics to point out the singer’s knack for detail, the narrative journey which documents a succession of relationships, places and jobs. That famous philosophy: you’ve got to keep on keeping on. There’s something more raw here than the cosy, apple-pie fuelled comforts of Kerouac’s road narratives, which always depend on money from back home. You can hear it in the howl of Dylan’s voice, which becomes more a sultry croon in Hart’s version. What does he mean by blue? There’s the blues, there’s the blue of the sky and the ocean—symbols of infinitude. It’s a signifier that shifts as easily as Dylan’s character, from fisherman to cook, as he crosses over the West, learning to see things “from a different point / of view”. Surely this is one the basis for democracy, the meritocratic ideal of fairness upon which the USA was founded: empathy? The ability to openly shift your perspective, to never stay too long in your own shoes. That existential restlessness, set against the backdrop of a shaky political atmosphere, the dustbowl sense of losing one’s bearings in a maelstrom of uncertainty, characterises many of Dylan’s songs and indeed many road narratives throughout literature and American lyric.

You can’t talk about the American lyric without mentioning politics and Hart documents the history of the protest song, from Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talking About a Revolution’: songs that pose an equality of belonging, that document the quiet desperation and struggle that takes place beneath the surface of everyday life. Rather than tangling himself in the barbed reality of contemporary politics, Hart opts to situate his chosen songs in the context of more general themes: the failings of the American dream, social inequality and the oppression of working people, all set against the turning tides of the economic landscape. It’s notable that most of these singers are men, singing about working men, often with reference to some vulnerable lost girl who needs saved. But then you have the likes of Anaïs Mitchell, writing visceral songs of longing and misplaced identity. ‘Young Man in America’ opens with this mythological, sort of monstrous story of birth: “My mother gave a mighty shout / Opened her legs and let me out / Hungry as a prairie dog”. Images of industrial decline, capitalist opulence and landscapes both mythical and pastoral are woven by a voice whose identity is a mercurial slide between human, animal and disembodied call. Skin is shed, belonging is only a shifting possibility. It’s a complex song, with native percussion, brass; moments of towering climax and soft withdrawal. The music mirrors the strange undulations of the American journey from cradle to grave, its dark pitfalls and glittering peaks, the cyclical narratives of the lost and forgotten; the “bright money” and the “shadow on the mountaintop”, the fame of the “young man in America”, a universal identity disseminated across a range of experiences. For this is the myth of the American Everyman, and Mitchell deconstructs it beautifully.

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Gillian Welch / / Source: Born to Listen

On the subject of female songwriters, I was very pleased that Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams got a mention in Hart’s talk. The self-destructive sentiment of Welch’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ reminds us that the experience of being ground down by the relentless demands of a marketised society isn’t confined to men alone. Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’, not mentioned in the talk though highly relevant, makes this clear. It’s a song about artists will go on making their art even if they won’t get paid, and the tale of how capitalism discovered this and cashed in on its fact: “Someone hit the big score, they figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”. Like Dylan, Welch finds herself winding up on the road, working in bars, working hard and regretting being enslaved to, well, The Man. ‘Everything is Free’ is a message of both despondency and hope, crafting this sense of the beauty of song itself as protest and freedom even as the structure closes in: “Every day I wake up, hummin’ a song / But I don’t need to run around, I just stay at home”.

Hart mentions how the American lyric provides an escape to those who find themselves trapped in the smallness of their lives. You might live in a nondescript town slap-bang in the middle of Scotland, where the musical climate favours chart music blasted from bus-stop ringtones, but then aged fourteen you discover Dylan or Springsteen and suddenly America opens up its vast, sparkly vista, from East Coast to West. This seems to be Hart’s trajectory, as his career—from the first tour with Kristofferson to his continued promotion of transatlantic connections—closely follows an American strain of songwriting. My mum used to listen to Welch’s Time (The Revelator) album over and over again on long car journeys, so the lyrics to all those road songs are burned in my brain like tracks in vinyl, superimposed with endless visions of the M8 stretching out before me… It was only a couple of years ago that I found out Time (The Revelator) was released in 2001; I’d always assumed this stuff was ancient, the seventies at least. Maybe because Welch just has this knack for writing timeless songs; songs about heartbreak, loneliness and restless desire that reach back into the comforts of the past even as the journey itself is long and hollow, the destination vague as the blurred sign on the front of a train.

I guess this raises a broader question which Hart’s talk touched upon: the politics and poetics of nostalgia. There weren’t opportunities for questions afterwards, but if there were I might have asked Hart whether nostalgia is a necessary condition for American self-reinvention. It’s a pretty relevant  question right now, with much of Trump’s whole appeal based on the nostalgic vision of a vaguely industrial golden age of capitalism—a vision which is obviously the smokescreen for whatever chaotic ideologies are at work beneath the surface. The American lyric can set up this romanticised vision, only to break it apart; reveal its seedy underbelly, its failings, the disastrous gap between identified goals and actual means of attainment. Yet throughout the cynicism, there’s always that restless desire to continue, to keep on keeping on. Hart compares it to the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), a novel significantly indebted to music (jazz, of course). The final line of that novel captures that past/present lyrical impulse so well: ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’.

Which leads to the question: what about genre? Is the American lyric necessarily the domain of indie folk rockers? What about commercial music and pop? Can a pop artist deconstruct the American dream and earn a play in the lyrical family tree if they make money off their record and earn fame from MTV? Hart engages with Father John Misty as an example of how the American lyric can use humour to deconstruct the nation’s ideologies of progress and meritocracy, at the same time as retaining a post-postmodern self-awareness of identity politics, a meta-awareness of his own dabbling in ironic coolness. His very name evokes a sort of New Age gospel figure, a preacher for the times, whose stage is the television set or Twitter feed instead of the old-fashioned soapbox. Hart describes songs such as ‘I’m Writing a Novel’ and ‘Bored in the USA’ (obviously a riff on Springsteen’s classic) as depicting the ‘American dream for the millennials’. I’ve written about Misty extensively already on this blog (specifically, on his metamodernist tendencies), so I won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say I agree that FJM represents something special about contemporary cultural critique. It’s that blend of irony and sincerity, an exaggerated interrogation of the romanticism and the Gen X postmodernism of yore; the oscillation between raw subjective experience, political critique and the cool facade of self-deprecating wit. A constant juggling of ‘candour and self-mockery’, as Dorian Lynskey puts it. FJM notoriously got into a tiff during an interview with Radio 6 Music veterans, Radcliffe and Maconie. Aside from all the awkward sarcasm, what strikes me about this interview is the mentioning of kitsch merchandise objects: oven-gloves, jeggings. Hart explores a bit of kitsch lyric in the likes of Randy Newman, but I think FJM blends especially well that jaded sense of millennial despondence alongside tracks that can feel like rollicking simple narratives or epics of history on a 13-minute scale that gives Springsteen’s marathon tunes a run for their money. He pushes his stuff to the edge of the cheesy and cringe-worthy, exposing how all conviction has that shadow side of kitsch, even the most authentic lyrics—kitsch is somehow the cheap taste of someone else’s experience, the trick is to make it meaningful, and not just another imitation, a plastic model of the Empire State Building.

But Misty isn’t the only singer-songwriter deconstructing the American dream, exploring how both its poetic promise and jingoistic glory play out on a personal level. What about Ryan Adams, whose songs have that alt-country appeal of the restless bard? ‘New York, New York’, from his 2001 album Gold, opens with a Dylanesque lyric about shuffling “through the city on the 4th of July”, brandishing a “firecracker” that’ll break “like a rocket who was makin’ its way / To the cities of Mexico. The clean rhymes and ballad-like lilt of guitar are also very Dylanesque. But at some point I’ve got to stop making comparisons to Dylan, because ultimately this is reductive; it’s cheap and lazy music journalism. I do think, however, the ease with which we make these comparisons reveals something interesting about our generic assumptions. Guy has a guitar, sings melancholy songs about America and his place within it, a smart knack for a lyrical twist, occasionally picks up a harmonica? Instant Dylan; their careers overshadowed by a giant. (Note: I guess a similar thing happens with very talented female folk singers—the likes of Laura Marling—being compared to Joni Mitchell). But even Dylan doesn’t monopolise the American lyric. He might have a Nobel Prize, but this doesn’t crown him King of the Lyric Alone (or maybe it does?); we’ve got to tease out what exactly we mean by this term and how relevant it is in the fragmentary scene of contemporary music. Think with Dylan, but beyond Dylan.

Conor Oberst, formerly of the band Bright Eyes, is an artist who’s been branded with Dylan comparisons throughout his career (an extensive career at that; the precocious Nebraskan recorded his first album, Water, aged just 13). Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker condenses many of my own feelings on the Oberst/Dylan comparisons: ‘Dylan is armour-plated, even when singing about love; Oberst is permanently open to pain, wonder, and confusion.’ Oberst is in many ways a liminal figure: cutting it out on the folk and country circuit  (Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch appear on previous records) while hanging and collaborating with indie rock bands (The Felice Brothers, First Aid Kit, Dawes), flirting with punk (The Desaparecidos) and fitting with some comfort within the elastic nineties/noughties stratosphere of emo. Frere-Jones describes Oberst as a ‘poet-prince’, again opening debate on that binary between poetry and lyric that Hart sets up but that nonetheless remains slippery and problematic. Where Dylan espouse the solid wisdom of a sage or wandering bard, Oberst has a reticent, warbling quality that rises to epiphany but admits failure and the graceless fall into existential aporia. He wails like Dylan wails, but many of his songs have a fragility and surrealism that doesn’t quite match up with Dylan’s more assured narrative balladry. So in that sense, he’s a lyric poet in the more subdued, Keatsian manner, exploring the self in all its fragmentary, perplexing existence.

But he’s also very much an American lyricist. In his ‘mature’ career, Oberst hasn’t shied away from more directly tackling political themes alongside more personal songs. 2005’s ‘When the President Talks to God’ rips to shreds George W. Bush’s policies. Comprising a series of questions addressed to an audience, it more closely follows the form of a traditional protest song, laced with bitter satire: “When the president talks to God / Do they drink near beer and go play golf / While they pick which countries to invade / Which Muslim souls still can be saved?”. This is definitely a song to be performed, on a wide open stage or indeed to the even wider audience accessing broadcasts of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he performed the song in 2005. Then there’s the angry, crunchy southern kick of ‘Roosevelt Room’, off Oberst’s solo record, Outer South (2009). Oberst’s later work isn’t as playfully weird and surreal as his early bedroom stuff, sure, but increasingly he masters the power of allusion that characterises American lyric, in Hart’s sense of the term: “Go ask Hunter Thompson / Go ask Hemingway’s ghost”. He’s addressing someone to be critiqued, wrenching them off their political pedestal: “Hope you haven’t got too lazy / I know you like your apple pie / Cause the working poor you’ve been pissing on / Are doing double shifts tonight”. There’s that apple pie again, symbol of steadfast Americana, fuel of the nation, the well-lighted place of a diner—a place of domesticity, stability and, let’s face it, commercial comfort. Oberst cynically dismisses the well-nourished white middle class politician, recalling a generalised story of poverty from material details: “And I’d like to write my congressman / But I can’t afford a stamp”.

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Then there’s the frontier motif, the sense of America as a place of deep mystery as well as self-created landscape. Experiments with Eastern and Navajo cultures. Bright Eyes’ 2007 album, Cassadaga, with its album art requiring a spectral decoder to be fully appreciated, its envisioning of the singer as mystic or medium, channelling psychic forces through song. Cassadaga is very much a journey. The opening track, ‘Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)’ involves an extended spoken word sample of some kind of very American mystic who begins by setting us in the ‘centre of energy’, Cassadaga’s ‘wonderful grounds that have vortexes’, moving us through astral projections of a ‘new era and life’ that is changing, a message of hope, doubling back on the uncanny sense that ‘Cassadaga might be just a premonition of a place you’re going to visit’. Cassadaga is a real place, a spiritualist camp set somewhere between Daytona and Orlando, known as the ‘Psychic Capital of the World’. By naming his album Cassadaga, Oberst isn’t just name-dropping in typical hipster fashion, honouring local identity nor casting back nostalgically to a familiar place; he’s attempting to channel the energy of this location, interrogate its spirit, draw out its various psychic possibilities for the present. He sings of attempts to detoxify his life, of former affairs, of lost soul singers and the pursuit of a sense of belonging.

‘Lime Tree’ is one of the most beautiful songs Oberst has written. It’s a composite tracing of impressions drawn from various experiences, both personal or secondhand. While much of Cassadaga follows an upbeat, distinctly country sound in the manner of 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, ‘Lime Tree’ closes the record with a dreamy, wistful serenity that recalls the likes of ‘Lua’, ‘Something Vague’ and ‘Easy/Lucky/Free’. Accompanied by angelic female vocals, ‘Lime Tree’ is ethereal, the guitar strumming minimal though following a certain continuous loop. Pale and lush strings contribute to the sense of being pulled downstream, giving yourself up to the languorous current. Ostensibly, it’s a song about abortion, about a struggling relationship: “Since the operation I heard you’re breathing just for one / Now everything’s imaginary, especially what you love”. But as in all good poetry, the beauty of the lyrics on ‘Lime Tree’ is their movement from specific experience to a vaguely spiritual voyage that gestures towards ending but instead finds the open plains of abyss, always suspended in paradox and ambiguity, the fault-lines between life/death, hope/despair, dream/reality: “So pleased with a daydream that now living is no good / I took off my shoes and walked into the woods / I felt lost and found with every step I took”. Home is a tidal wave, a churning wind, a shifting sand, a fragment.

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Source: crystalinks

America’s great confessional poet, Sylvia Plath, also explored mysticism, and her writing is rich with strange imagery, not to mention all those Tarot allusions in Ariel. In The Bell Jar (1963), the fig tree is the novel’s dark and mysterious heart, this vivid image that sprawls its symbolism through the text, a figure for existential paralysis: ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose’. We might think of the connection between the term ‘roots’ and ‘roots rock’, its rhizomatic sprawl of influence never quite settling on a home even as a sense of home and locality is supposedly the music’s grounding purpose. Roots, of course, are always growing. The lime tree is an image plucked from a dream, but its significance is less clear in Oberst’s song than the fig tree in Plath’s narrative. Perhaps more than most contemporary songwriters working within a lyric tradition, Oberst is content to write from a position of uncertainty, in gaps and pieces of affect and narrative. The sound of his voice suspended over those gentle strings and strums is enough to make tremors in your chest, as if the slow vortex of another world were opening its mouth like the parting of the sea in someone else’s biblical or drug-enhanced dream: “I can’t sleep next to a stranger when I’m coming down.” The way of the lyric; so often the way of the lonely. Even as ‘Lime Tree’ might be a love song, it opens itself towards ending, loss, death: “don’t be so amazing or I’ll miss you too much”; there can never be plenitude in the journey: “everything gets smaller now the further that I go”. Bittersweet doesn’t quite cut it. It’s too subtle for that, a softly shimmering lullaby goodbye to the world, a retreat and a return, just like Nick Carraway’s vision of beating on but back into the past. The passage of an everyday spiritual pilgrim, the way we all are in life, our faces fading in the ink-blot of photographs. We turn back to look at ourselves through others, through words, just as Dylan notes how the girl in the “topless bar” “studied the lines on my face”.

A voyage through nostalgia, a quest for identity, belonging, an escape from something and a return, a desiring pursuit without end, a lust for life and ease into death; a twist of humour, a narrative of hope, aspiration and the failures that draw us back into the dustbowl. The American lyric is all of these things and more; its boundaries perhaps are pliable as the nylon strings on somebody’s battered acoustic guitar. Maybe it all culminates in madness and absurdity. For every One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you’ve got The Felice Brothers’ ‘Jack at the Asylum’, a rollicking satire on the madness of contemporary American life which trades in richly surreal and absurd imagery to render the accelerated pace of this madness, crossing history in the blink of a screen flicker: “And I’ve seen your pastures of green / The crack whores, the wars on the silver screen”. Pastoral America is always already contaminated by an originary violence. Maybe the best American lyric depicts such realisations through personal stories, the relationships and encounters set against and embedded within wider structural phenomena, the recessions and closures and urbanisations. The Felice Brothers remind us, however, that all of this is secondhand, aspirational narratives passed down to us through screen culture, advertising: “You give me dreams to dream / Popcorn memories and love”. Once again, there’s that fluctuation between an earnest love of country to an embittered sense of its very elusiveness, the distant static shimmer of success whose failed pursuit we watch ourselves experience through the mediating comforts of daily life—the popcorn pharmakon poisons and cures for (post)modern existence, as calorific as they are nutritionally empty.

But once again, genre. String off a handful of names from Hart’s Americana playlist and you’ll be pressed to find anything that falls outside the folk-rock camp, even as its boundaries remain pretty permeable. Yet what of hiphop? Isn’t hiphop, in a sense, the great alternative American folk lyric? Rap is it’s own kind of poetry, after all. You might think of someone like Kendrick Lamar as an American lyric writer, working from a different generic background from Hart’s examples, but nonetheless telling the story of contemporary USA from the streets to the level of the visionary, just like Dylan did. Lamar even has a track called ‘Good Morning America’: “we dusted off pulled the bullet out our heads / Left a permanent scar, for the whole world to recognise / California, economics, pay your taxes bitch”. Once again, that originary violence, the scar of identity. Lamar works back from the wounding.

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My knowledge of hiphop is far too limited to discuss it in any detail, but thinking it through  the idea of American lyric prompted me onto the figure of Lana Del Rey, who often uses hiphop production techniques, from trap beats to muted, stadium echoes. I hate to bang on about oor Lana again (see articles here & here), but irresistibly she’s a shining example of a mercurial musician, drawn to the sweet dark chocolate centre of American melancholy. LDR performs a kaleidoscopic array of identities, just as Dylan often wore a mask that veiled itself in the confessional sincerity of the beaten-down worker, drinker, lover, escaping to the Mid-West alone. Yet while America’s great bard more or less got away with it, Lana has been constantly lambasted for her artifice and supposed inauthenticity. Which begs the question: what do we even mean by authenticity? Is only the white male—your Princes, Bowies and Eminems—allowed to strut in the performative identity parade? Both LDR and Lady Gaga have been lambasted for their supposed fakeness. There are obviously complex questions of racial, class and gender identity which I don’t have time to cover here. Sometimes, a musician is lauded for their alter ego (and doesn’t alter ego itself imply a certain surrender to the patriarchal ideology of masculinity?)—take Beyoncé’s hugely successful Sasha Fierce—and other times, it takes the invisible tide of the internet to swell in support for those critiqued by other forms of media.

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My friend Louise is always comparing LDR’s work to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novelistic visions of 1920s America, and while this might seem a bit extravagant, there’s something to be said for the way Lana seamlessly evokes the spirit of the jazz age, the consumer paradise of the 1950s and the hipsterdom of millennial Brooklyn in the through the poetry of song. Is this just retroculture, in the sense of recycled kitsch and the twenty-first century urge towards nostalgia explored in Simon Reynolds’ excellent Retromania (2011)? Is there something pathological in Lana’s obsession with the past, a symptom of a broken psyche or worse, a broken generation? Perhaps. But there is something transformative and subversive about LDR’s retrovision, even as it may be critiqued for indulging in vintage gender roles as much as vintage styles (framing yourself as a sort of white-trash ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ is always gonna invite a certain feminist controversy, let’s face it).

One of Hart’s recent examples of the American lyric came from The National (even the band name evokes questions of what it means to be American), with their song ‘Sorrow’ from 2010’s dark and trembling High Violet. I’m interested in how this song apostrophises sorrow in the manner of a great Romantic lyric. We might think of Keats’ ‘Ode to Melancholy’ or Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility remade for jaded and alienated millennials. Sorrow once again invokes that Platonic idea of the pharmakon as both poison and cure. We can wallow passively in sorrow, as The National sing: “I live in a city sorrow built / It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk”: it’s a trapped landscape, a petrified terrain in which the self can only slip deeper into isolation; but it’s also milk and honey, a kind of temporary nourishment to a darker psychic scar. As Smith so eloquently puts it in the final lines of 1785’s ‘Sonnet Xxxii: To Melancholy’: O Melancholy!–such thy magic power, / That to the soul these dreams are often sweet, / And soothe the pensive visionary mind!’. Sorrow provides a toxic tonic for the soul, a lubricant for paralysis that eventually leads us back towards the existential road. Life goes on.

Lana Del Rey is fixated on sorrow. Blue, she admits, is her favourite colour, her favourite “tone of song”. Her songs are always hyper aware of the transient beauty of life, even as they lust after death. On the soundtrack song she did for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, she worries “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” ‘Video Games’ is a melancholy ballad for the contemporary relationship, a lush, brooding expression of love in the time of Call of Duty. Roddy Hart even did a cover of it. Her songs have titles like ‘The Blackest Day’, ‘Cruel World’, Sad Girl’, ‘West Coast’, ‘Old Money’, ‘American’, ‘Gods & Monsters’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’. All these titles evoke the Daisy Buchanan sad girl trope at the same time as gesturing towards the broader existential melancholy of America itself in the manner of Springsteen; with sometimes the detached urban cool of Lou Reed, other times the genuine, trembling passion of Billie Holiday. The video for ‘National Anthem’ restyles Lana as a Jackie O type married to a young, good-looking black president, with 1950s iconography spliced among pastel-hazed footage of the pair lolling around in love, sniffing roses, smiling, looking good as a Vanity Fair shoot. The video begins with her character singing Marilyn Monroe’s famous ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ routine. She re-envisions JFK’s assassination, with a spoken word piece on top. She’s imagining alternative political futures even as she casts back to the past. There’s that lyric sense of wonder and ambiguity, of being lost in time.

It’s this layering of styles, scenes and cultural iconography that makes Lana’s work way more complex than most of what else fills the charts. Sure, it’s great that a positive message of bodily empowerment (Beyoncé feminism) is doing the rounds just now, but that shouldn’t mean that those who fall outside this category are anti-feminist or ignorant to gender identity politics. When all the R&B pop stars are prancing around proclaiming their sexual freedom, dominating men in various flavours of BDSM allusion, getting all the looks in the club or whatever, LDR is crying diamond dust tears into her Pepsi cola, draped naked in an American flag. Her videos, songs and artwork engage with cinematic discourse, high fashion photography and cultural history in a manner that’s intellectual interesting as much as it is affective and aesthetically satisfying. In a sense, she’s meaningfully evoking the past in order to say something timeless about the American dream and the objectified position of the ‘white trash’ woman under its mast of starry glory. In another sense, she’s indulging in a postmodern recycling of historical styles: constantly name-dropping, from James Dean to Springsteen, Lolita—perhaps the great American road novel not written by an American—and David Lynch’s lush, dark suburban epic, Blue Velvet. Despite the performance and ventriloquy of figures and archetypes from twentieth-century cultural history, she retains a sincere expression of melancholy, heartbreak and longing that’s personal but also strives towards rendering the more universal experiences of womanhood in certain communities. All the controversy surrounding Lana in relation to racial politics, class politics and sexual politics exists because her work is provocative, problematic and complex, like any good American lyric.

One reason that Roddy Hart was such a good choice to deliver this lecture is that he’s had experience writing new melodies for Robert Burns poems for Homecoming Scotland. Why is this relevant to the American lyric? So much of the lyric tradition, in all its forms, is based on that sense of romanticism, visionary wonder, self-exploration; the rendering of universal experience through personal narratives, the subjective telling of a story, the trade in imagery and sound and careful arrangement. Burns was a sort of rock star poet of his times, and not just because he was a bit of a cheeky philanderer. He toured around, worked as a labourer and farmer; he talked to many people, opened himself to influence. It’s this diversity that continues to mark the American lyric in the twenty-first century; the way that Father John Misty can sing a very ironic and playful song on late-show tv, about a man checking social media on his death bed, with the conviction of a crooning Leonard Cohen; accompanied by a gospel choir whose voice raises Misty’s ballad to a level of epic, overly extravagant grandeur that still somehow works, remains genuinely compelling beyond the initial sarcasm. The way Detroit’s angelic avant-indie hero, Sufjan Stevens, can ambitiously and patriotically plan to write an album for every state in America, then turn on the project, calling it “such a joke“. The way that Suzanne Vega, in ‘Tom’s Diner’, sings about a familiar American institution, the fabled diner—or Well-Lighted Place, as Hemingway put it—with the simple verse structure of an Imagist poem made narrative, sketching brief impressions of the myriad people she encounters in a public space. It feels cinematic, with deep eighties bass, bursts of brass and string-like synths, but also has that emergent sense of a postmodern folk, looking at the world from the bottom-up, catching everyday lives and stories in song. Even when irony remains the chief aesthetic order of the day, the lyric doesn’t have to be sucked into self-referential abyss. The best singer-songwriters continue to channel the American lineage through a romantic strain as much as a humorous one, inflecting songs with sorrow, joy and vitally that lust for something more—sometimes beyond life itself, sometimes just the restless possibilities of the road. Singing alone in the Glasgow Uni chapel on a Thursday evening, Roddy Hart rekindled some love for all that.

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American Lyric playlist: