I dream I am driving, and the accident with tomatoes mattered less because I was going to slam myself, my assemblage of metal and flesh, quite deliriously into the tree. He once teased he was good at slamming. Before there was yesterday, I had watched you with the beef variety in the centre of the plate; how you held the knife quite close so the skin would almost burst, I held my breath. Red would split upon red, the tremble. Is it even red, this colour they ascribe to the fruit we always said was vegetal? Breakfast, another cut between my legs. Breakfast, the people who queue outside for their messages. Two metres apart, we exist at the opposite stems of each other.
To think of it now, my mind flowering as though on modafinil, recovering a single pollen of thought. It is this: I would crumble to every yellow you asked of us, sweeping me from your sunsets as nobody would dare come online.
As the plot develops, you are pushing the knife, really pushing it into the fruit. You are going quite steady, through the seed. I feel a warmth from the skin of the keys. You can’t go through with it; you drop the handle and check my pulse. We loll around, considering things. We are two lopped halves of the edible. I felt like Whitman, licking tomato juice from the knife of the man who doesn’t exist. Who made you a man? You could just as easily have been a sunflower, boy. We loll around, considering things; we sway in the wind that doesn’t exist. I want to be as sure as the land. The land outside is an area, and the area is X, it doesn’t exist.
who / that / it pleases to live
There are millions of infected tomatoes living right now on this planet. I find it triggering when someone pretends to count them. I set my alarm clock to March, knowing we’d even get back if we tried, if we were silent as we are. I cycled hard up the hill to meet this, dreaming the fruit upon my return.
The clocks go forward, stupid clocks!
Fiction makes us go places. All the signs said, for circumstances beyond our control—
Move you between ex and why.
I dream of a quarantine beside the sea. My brother is ordering luxury coffee, the air is good, I feel it stir in my chest. The air is time, but we can’t buy it. I leave fat tips with coins I can’t use. Why is it for ‘me’ or ‘us’ that the world exists? You took the single when you wanted the double. No, it is not that at all. We thank the people who serve us duly. You have served me the last bad song of myself.
‘Of crushed red tomatoes, you turn it down to just an orange glow’ (Bernadette Mayer, ‘Very Strong February’).
In lieu of my thesis, I kept making playlists. Which argument is it that would strangle the days, leave them to simmer
Then strangle the days to a blazing teal.
‘Something is going to happen’, writes Sartre in Nausea, ‘I see myself advancing with a sense of fatality’. It is our curse to be so viscously stuck to ourselves. I don’t know what that’s about, what any of this means. Imagine a laptop on top of a laptop. I am helpless in the form of a sentence. Why are my keys so warm, from what tip did we insufflate?
‘The Nausea isn’t inside me: I can feel it over there on the wall, on the braces, everywhere around me. It is one with the café, it is I who am inside it’ (Sartre, Nausea). There is no island from the virus, no Nature to look back, sashaying her endless oceans of hair, like the restaurant manager portrayed in a surly review on TripAdvisor. I am nauseous with a virus inside me I can’t even see. Maybe we are close to a birth with it. A long, interminable pregnancy.
The twang in my chest was a causal relation between ventricle rivers.
I feel trapped in the body inside my body. It’s always looking back.
A friend messages with the apology, ‘Still need to reply to you but my days have been frustratingly full of speaking at videos of other people speaking at a video of me and so on forever and ever’.
Can you adjust to the nausea? I drove a car very hard, knowing I could not drive the car, knowing it would end so badly and the creosote bushes would sing to me. I drive us back to the virtual diner, where you leave all the olives and sip a red scare.
The nausea comes in the form of abyss. It is good to hear you speaking, the lemon trees growing, your hair losing tone because of the days.
If people were chalking ‘We will be okay :-)’ on the riverside walkway, I would do a Ben Lerner, via Whitman, and pour sympathy out in paint: ‘I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is’. Do we know how anything is? I have been texting my nurse friends with everything and nothing to say. I cross bridges for no reason than burning it backwards. Could you say this to a river? Can fire kill a virus?
I project us backwards into the current, knowing the absence of voice would sweep me, swallow a flower. If we forget how to speak, if we get through this.
Swallow a fruit.
On the other side, politics chokes.
One day, we will live post-email and lilac you sit on the sill of my window.
If I had a thing to say, it was not worth saying. If I had a thing to say, it was not worth saying.
Something is going to happen. You spear the tomato, eventually, and it is so trivial.
I want to live in the blood that makes us so trivial, harvest my red, be less of love and more inside it.
Somebody I don’t know on Zoom is called upon to define their practice.
If you were never already in reach. ‘Distance is here the expression of a certain loss […] which is “losable” only insofar as it is within my horizon’ (Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology). I watch other rituals on the feed, tomatoes conveying their life like sunsets, oozing Billie Holiday songs on a glitching sea.
Your former melancholy.
I want you to draw them.
I want you to draw them, very slowly
until every one is a baby.
And you make a baby of my tomato.
And you make it very strange.
And you give it as seed.
Sequined with topics.
These bundles of fatalist apples of love.
I sketch out the yellowest nets.
I should have sent no poems over the sea, I should have envisioned the breakfast of distance, I should have swam while I could.
I would like to arrive dishevelled / at the edge of things.
Smell of wild garlic in Pollok Park / you polish your shoes / I miss you.
So this is it that survives ‘you’:
‘The joyless, atrocious, sad “pleasure” is in the details of the suffering, in the suffering itself, in the taste you taste to the bottom where nothing forbids you to suffer, and each cruel dish, so relished, offers the heartbreaking pleasure of being able to feel.’ — Cixous, Dream I Tell You
When someone on twitter has already written, had lunch twice just to feel something.
‘In order to avoid saying “I,” the author eats incessantly’ (Ben Lerner, Angle of Yaw).
My heart freaks out at your avatar. It happened again and I’m sorry.
Adding these smiles of coriander, you discover dawn’s vanity in the mouth of a crow. It is adding its cries to the plate of tomatoes. Such seasoning loses the seasons. I would drown you in oil / before you could make / the cut of my life.
Remember gigs Remember green infinite days Remember growing backwards Remember gross affairs with inelegant consequence Remember green & finite money Remember glistening sheets Remember guessing who would be there Remember gestalt was a thing
And you make it very strange, this thing that will happen. Immensely belonging to no one. Her body a pyramid. Enter it.
Motionless, causing a solemn offence.
Outlook fails to open a page.
Something is waiting. Remember it green & infinite.
Easy for you to say of a fall. Feels spooky to have speed dial. No news is rhizome.
Catch you on zoom.
Hate us for saying it.
I adore us.
Sacred tomato, last supper,
cut me on cam. What do they look like?
You are yellow and red you are yellow and / red you are yellow and yellow and yellow.
As I was a permanent client of stars, awaiting that moment before contract to fold back, edge of the page that was prior to birth. The sky is that page where everything saucy happens. If I feel ‘switched on’ it’s in fear of the light, scraping cutlery together to start fires with little intention of correct extinguishing. This is just an indulgent way of saying ‘fuck you’ to the spinney where I dropped a whole packet of sour cherry sweets that day after school with the song in my head. ‘Fuck you’ to the trees, like they own me forever. As I was defined by the willow I cried by, circa 2009. You only say ‘fuck you’, truly, to these sorts of vicarious parents, dragging their entrails along the water. They come in plurals; they have to eat each other just to exist. Something Eileen Myles says of a person, they can’t fully flourish till the mother tree falls. What was the one I saw by the golf course, Maybole, spear of the monument? Granite is war is radiation.
Someone replaced their tongue with a leaf of mint. They spoke in sprigs.
Things written in lieu of a nature poem:
A letter to washing machines all over the world
The lyrics to ‘Florida Kilos’
A list of snoring faces
Imitations of archived Twitter
Requiem for a useless wedding
Things I once wanted from the Argos catalogue
An inventory of much-despised artificial flavours
Amnesia’s archive of MySpace bulletins
Impressions of Shoreditch
An amateur walkthrough to ‘Star Light Zone: Act 3’
Homage to retro screensavers
Flyers for drugs
Hieroglyphs of ring-collecting sound effects
Many novelisable addictions
Screeds of abrasive html
Reasons why X should get paid more
Moderate to good assortment of sexual confessions
___The night in the casino felt like gold was butter, gold bars of the house we were chipping apart from the ingot. We hadn’t spoken in a very long time, so it seemed, galaxies of the year had passed already. In a land where I only reserve soft lyrics, hoard Milky Ways, know nothing of your suffering in that time except what you showed.
Taxidermic language, wrapping up the undead for the accidental. Reels of my body, scented magnolia layers beneath. ‘As for love’, Clarice says, ‘they weren’t in love, of course’. This is ‘The Message’.
Off the train the air was clear, smelled manicured. Click of the tape deck. He scorns me at the checkout, 2:am, buying my lightbulb. I could not live through the night without light. Haggard in Tesco blue he called me a moth and bared his teeth; I smiled and stepped into temperate February. Just flick the switch before you leave, that’s all. I’ll be a while, it’s no use waiting. My 1:09 Transpennine got stuck at Bellshill for hours and hours. I drank with a woman who did not know my name, as I lacked hers; we laughed at the pensioner commentaries, ordered drinks. We learned so much about trains in that time. I arrived back in the grey and longed for LED, Cornish horizons, the shape of his jaw like the edge of a country I might not visit.
It seemed impossible that I would ever fall asleep again. Veers of the wrist[?]
My sick heart is a small blue swollen ball.
In the novel I read there were always these nocturnal women, pacing around in foreign cities. They stayed in hotel rooms but could not last the night, they would slip softly into Parisian spring and trail the streets. It was often Paris, which rose in the back of my mind like something unfinished. It needed rendering. All I remembered was the razoring cold, the leers of buildings, needing to piss for hours and hours. The taste of cow’s milk, morning ache. Sometimes fancying the accordion song, impossible to exorcise.
[ The wreck contained mustard and scarlet, teal and rose. We wriggled a little. Missed a bit. ]
John Hall: ‘Can’t you see why I couldn’t be doing anything else?’
Tracing such palimpsests of light, we ask of the week a question. Will you stay this mild forever? Little interlude, it’s okay to feel nice for a while. That’s what he said, this is nice. The daffodils are out. Kneading the dough of a belly, I over-sleep each day until the hollows of my eyes smooth into cream. Life is a cheeky rose. Perhaps no one is in love as James on his album. Picture him at the window, clipping the extraneous stems from various houseplants, watching the syrup drip onto the leaves. Think of this synthwise. Maybe that is a loneliness, so absolute in your feeling. Imagine him paring his Joycean fingernails, the man at the window whose name was Blake with a kytten for history. There was nothing so bright as that. You could not say, hailing it, kytten, kytten! It was extra literary. It was sooo much of everything before even alive, hey.
__The kytten was made of milk. It was bound to leak out someday.
We’ve not had a chance at everything yet. We’ve burned it all! At dawn we drank algorithms and the well-bronzed man still kissing away on the fire escape. As if all of this happened, expensive drams and learning the words for variable clouds. We enter the storage facility. Your da, your da, your da sells—That bit where Don Draper gets all misty-eyed over Hershey’s. At the end I’m crumbling a little white cookie, Karen is wailing the way she feels, the inward razoring, and it’s all I can do to remember the bees.
Dyeing my hair with fresh cherries, yayo yayo, yeah they say it’s excess to do this again. She runs the punnet under a cold tap, rubs them clean with her fingers then scrunches them, crushes them luxuriously over my scalp till it all runs down and I’m shining again. There’s a baby at the back of my eye that screams and screams, maybe I pretend I don’t know her. The cherry girl in the bar was trapped in a basket. Lana says nobody dies in Miami! I remember the harsh sunsets of your Playstation 2, smashing ourselves into several pixelated seas. Rank best to worst our beliefs, this night that got away again. We looked up the cheats and looked into the future, pressed x’s and triangles together. I mixed up my consoles, remembering it. A hook, a hook.
It took me six months to write and then I scrunched that mess back into a planet!
Notes from my diary:
Today I’m heading south to learn about trees I could easily sit in a spoons and weep.
Goddamn stars what am I supposed to owe you! Held sequins in palm to insufflate, insitu. There was so much oil in my salad it looked unethical. Walking through the park at night, say this is balmy, so warm for the season but I don’t want to say unseasonable, and so feel like the narrator of another bored and beautiful New York novel. Don’t like the tonic in gin. Pay without debit; display songs in nested form. There are so many themes up my sleeve! Leave your key at front desk, darling I’m trying to reach it; white lines on the road wherever the silkworms—
‘Radical tenderness’, Dani D’Emilia and Daniel B. Chávez write in their 2015 manifesto of the same title, ‘is to be critical and loving, at the same time’, it ‘is to not allow our existential demons to become permanent cynicism’. In the world we find ourselves in — call it the Trumpocene, the Anthropocene or simply late fucking capitalism — it’s difficult to resist this cynicism, to find productive ways of channelling the angst and frustrations that belong to us but also seem much more than us, that link our smallest actions to global feedback loops. How do we productively engage with events whose scales elude our usual modes of expression? Naming his latest album Western Culture, Kiran Leonard could be forgiven for falling short of doing justice to such a sweeping title, but that would be missing the point. As Leonard says:
as a phrase I think [Western Culture] is really funny, because when somebody says it it’s got these heavy grandiose connotations, like they’re drawing at the roots of something — but the phrase has no concrete meaning in itself. Any attribute you can apply to it, there are hundreds of examples throughout history where you can undermine it as a term. It’s not consistent.
The term Western Culture is one of many problematic signifiers that Leonard unpicks across the ten songs of his new record. With deft combinations of subtlety and sweep, Western Culture explores the poetry and politics that are possible in the present moment, casting a nuanced, historical long-view over the conflicts many other indie practitioners seem ill-equipped to sing about, let alone talk about. But maybe the lyric mode is its own conversation.
After reviewing Western Culture for GoldFlakePaint, I sit down to chat to the Saddleworth songwriter ahead of his gig at Glasgow’s The Hug and Pint, with support from mesmerising Heir of the Cursed (based in Glasgow via Dumfries and Kenya) and the otherworldly Ubaldo, hailing from Spain. What’s striking about the support acts is the stark intensity of their work: Heir of the Cursed weaving stories with her crystalline voice and guitar, Ubaldo sending the bustling crowd into trance with his splintering, almost meteorological arrangements. Leonard’s own performance explodes that intensity with a full band, shaking the room up with an irresistible sense that this was something to see. I find myself jotting odd tuning commentary on my phone: ‘Tom from MySpace this goes out to you, to a happier internet’.
I ask Leonard what kinds of crowds he typically gets at his gigs, and aside from the reliable 6 Music Dad demographic, there’s definite interest from younger audiences who find themselves drawn to what seems different. He mentions going to see Norwich duo Let’s Eat Grandma in London and being delighted to find ‘an amazing cross section between queer teenagers and 6 Music Dads’. It’s nice to see the demographics of gig-going crowds evolving alongside supportive stalwarts. Aside from the general enthusiasm of youth, part of this, I suggest, is due to a bit of innovation in the kinds of gigs folk are putting on now. In March, Leonard had a break before uni exams and ran his own solo tour. I caught him playing Mono alongside local artist/poet Jessica Higgins and experimental guitarist Jon Collin, an event billed as ‘late start feel good sit down heavy listening/viewing after hours party’. He’s also done the rounds of pubs and arts collectives, as well as Manchester Central Library.
Although Leonard admits it can be tricky to get people to respond in-depth to his lyrics, there’s something of a latent DIY energy in his work that crowds definitely respond to. The care he takes with his lyrics (you can read them, lovingly presented, for free here) is basically akin to poetry; but with the energy of math-rock rhythms and tendencies towards epic or eccentric riffs, even the more intricate or ‘difficult’ lines deliver a universal punch. It’s important to highlight this word lyric, because what Leonard does is play with voice, and I don’t just mean those Jeff Buckley-esque leaps of octave: he inhabits the lives of other characters, marries marginalised experiences with structural forces, pulls us into the harmony of chorus, makes literary use of his academic background. There’s a sublime quality throughout Western Culture that is nevertheless controlled by a narrative arc, where clamour is followed by quiet reflection, walls of noise by careful intricacy, suspension by release. You can tell Leonard has thought long and hard about the challenges involved in singing about the morass of chaos and apathy that we are faced with as millennials, human beings, selves and others, innocents and actants all at once. He writes about the sad decline of a man who loses his job and struggles to ask for help (‘Working People’) with the same deftness used to tackle a lecture delivered by a human rights lawyer (‘Exactitude and Science’). There’s a timeliness and timelessness across the album, which makes it as rousing as it is reflective. It offers both the noise and stillness we need in a time of insidious, pervasive war, migrant crisis, media confusion and mass extinction. With so many people and species and values lost on this planet, sometimes it’s all you can do to cling to a single voice, bask awhile in its quiet wisdom, which rises sometimes to a shout.
For it’s the ‘Radical Tenderness Manifesto’ that Leonard points me to when I ask him about the role of empathy in his work. D’Emilia and Chávez, both transfeminist activists and performance artists, describe the ‘Radical Tenderness Manifesto’ as an ‘embodied poetic exercise of resistance’, and you might say the same about tonight’s cathartic performance at The Hug. I sense that tenderness, for Leonard, is not just affective choice, but an ethical position to take as a maker of culture, a way of being radically self-reflexive, conscious and careful of one’s positioning and power in a world that demands immediate expression and response, a crowded echochamber where we fight to be heard. Radical tenderness asks for space, consideration, which isn’t always easy for anyone who spends a lot of time online.
For Leonard, the song that most engages with this idea of radical tenderness is ‘Unreflective Life’:
‘Unreflective Life’ is the song on the record most to do with [radical tenderness], but a lot of that is to do with misconceptions around internet use. The internet not as this thing that magnifies the self but instead the thing that disintegrates it. The metaphor I came up with to describe it was: if we think of narcissus as a figure that looks into the lake and sees his reflection, the computer sees every particle in the water and loses a sense of themselves. So there are strands I try to follow in that song: the first is the individual anaesthetised by the weight of history, they can see and access everything so how can there be a capacity for activity; the second strand is fascism — if we want to make a neutral generalisation of what fascism is, it’s an extremist desire for things to make sense. […] What I wanted to get across is that there’s almost like a desire to find something beyond this complete exhaustion by violence.
And of course violence is there in that search for meaning, it’s the wrench that stings in lyric, it’s the painful awareness of one’s complicity, one’s own frustrations, one’s disintegrated identity. But there’s an ancient, philosophical beauty in that search for meaning, even when manifested in the fraught conditions of the contemporary. While many musicians respond with sheer anger or apathy, aggressive walls of sound that do little but mimic the frustrated commuter’s journey on the London Underground, Leonard is striving for something genuinely different. He’s writing from the heart, he’s writing from the history of literature, he’s writing sensitively from different languages and cultures (Leonard studied Spanish and Portuguese at university); I’d wager that he’s making genuine attempts to swerve the passage of the western indie canon. And he does it with a humbleness, eloquence and care that inspires me to try harder with my own writing.
We talk about the lyric ‘fiction in leverage’ from ‘Exactitude and Science’ and Leonard suggests that ultimately the song is about how much of the Israel and Palestine conflict is
a question of maps and lines: how do we redraw, who drew what. That supplants the very real murderers and human beings. That’s an aspect of the Borges story [from which the song takes its title] that I think is very true, especially if you think about the way representation now more than ever preempts everything, the way that things are framed becomes reality.
Going back to his previous thoughts on the internet’s disintegration of identity, I suggest this is what web 2.0 does: maybe social media is a sort of map that constantly remakes itself and the world through targeted ads and data dissemination, these endless feedback loops that we navigate in the map, rather than with it. So all questions of identity and conflict, from something as individual as cultural selfhood or ‘brand’ to geopolitical conflict, are all about framing, the tailoring of fictions.
When asked if he writes consciously within a cultural context, Leonard responds:
I feel like in terms of what I’m trying to do, maybe it’s not a question of communicating something but instead to assess what the value of that communication is. A lot of the songs on Western Culture are to do with this difficult paradox within art-making in the context of general communication and articulation. On the one hand, writing something in response to an event is — from most pragmatic points of view — a waste of time, and I think you see this in a lot of post-Trump art: a lot of it’s really bad, pointless and coming from an arrogant place. Being anti-Trump is the easiest thing in the world; organising against him is difficult but writing against him is a complete performance. One of the things ‘Exactitude in Science’ is about is that these kind of verbal responses are almost doomed to fail because they lack a physical activity in the world, yet at the same time it’s impossible to deny that the way these things are framed within language both changes the way that we interact within reality and also changes the way that that reality happens.
Art, then, has the power to structure reality. We can’t escape ideology, we can’t write from some ideal non-partisan position, we can’t deny that every little event in culture is contributing to the way politics, identity and such abstractions as space or time are framed. We can’t dismiss the complex identity politics of a pop song with ‘Oh it’s just a song, it doesn’t mean anything’. Even as this process becomes increasingly diffused with the internet, the album is a form that, like the lyric poem, bears a cultural weight. People still talk about albums on the radio; Leonard admits most of his gig-going audience is probably owed to coverage from BBC 6 Music. This isn’t an admission of hubris around the importance of music, but a humble statement about a cultural artifact and its wider dissemination. And hopefully a statement of hope. Albums express things, they are containers of multiple points of view, they provide escape from reality while changing the way we experience reality. They are points of contact, contrast, friction. Leonard elaborates:
The central thing in ‘Exactitude in Science’ is a talk I went to given by an international human rights lawyer, which leads him into work around Israel and Palestine. Inevitably when he’s invited to talk about these things, he’s saying he’s doing all these things but he’s mostly failing, admitting that we’re not getting further with this. If there are active attempts to amend oppressive activities, what’s the point of verbal responses? It shows an interesting juxtaposition between framing the world through language and how that impacts on the world, especially with that incredibly complex and sad issue, which is totally a question about how we verbalise what genocide is. And the difference between that has an impact on the extent to which that genocide is perpetuated. So yeah, especially if we’re dealing with any of the big-2016 nonsense — it’s about thinking through when I’m speaking in the world, speaking against a thing, what world am I looking at, what world am I creating when I say these things, and what worlds are other people creating.
It strikes me that this is more succinctly and eloquently put than many of the academic perspectives I’ve come into contact with during my five years of higher arts education. Stepping back from who might be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in a complex, entangled, deeply historical issue, we should ask ourselves what we are doing when we comment on something we might be involved in, or otherwise ‘simply observing’. What world do our opinions and comments contribute to? It resonates with so much about what we do when we make art of any kind, when we express anything in this cultural sphere or that. This admission of the gravitas of the speech act; awareness that what I am saying has impact, accumulates within a wider discourse, ripples across the water, does something.
I was curious to find out if Leonard had much experience with a sense of cultural commons within the music industry. While his first two LPs were recorded at his parents’ house (Leonard grew up in a ‘really old farm, so the neighbours were never really an issue’), after label Hand of Glory picked that work up he had the opportunity to participate more in the Manchester scene, on a somewhat tangential basis. Leonard is clearly comfortable with making music on his own, and while he admits most of his attempts to form bands ‘never really worked out’, it’s clear he gels well with the musicians that play with him on this tour. What’s more interesting, however, in his response to this question, is a point he makes about representation in arts communities:
Music is often less receptive than other art communities to think about the contextual importance of their scene and representation within their scene. In Manchester there was quite a big debate around a venue which had an all-dude bill on a night, and when someone called them out and started a boycott it was surprising how that concept developed — the gig was eventually pulled and replaced with an open panel discussion on the day. I often feel like in art communities, because it’s grounded in theory from the get-go, people get it.
It will be interesting to see how this progresses in the next few years, whether the music industry will continue to take representation seriously and how this plays out in terms of the politics of promotion and access around diverse identities. Does DIY and self-release culture present a formidable challenge to the mainstream, whose macho Gallagher avatars still haunt the walls of many a Manchester pub?
Aside from this nuanced, socially responsible approach to music and lyric expression, we also talk about bands who do provocation in more direct ways. Specifically, our shared love of Death Grips. Leonard mentions a quote from Mark Fisher’s K-Punk about how Kurt Cobain is a symbolic embodiment of ‘the person who’s completely exasperated by the thing in culture where the best thing to play on MTV is a thing that’s against MTV’. If consumer capitalism subsumes all postmodern attempts at irony and critique, maybe we need something that’s ‘reactionary in the right way’, rather than simply ‘hostile and alienating’, as Leonard puts it. As an all-male band making noise rock, it’s important, he admits, to be aware of what the ‘imperative’ is here. For Leonard, Death Grips seem to get this spot on. He refers to their work as ‘genuinely funny and provocative, the real deal’: ‘they manage to make something on paper that could be incredibly macho and annoying, but I kinda like the character of MC Ride – I like his words, he’s a vulnerable figure in his lyrics, incredibly intelligent’. Not to mention the fact of the band crossing the line of business, and deliberately getting dropped from their label.
Maybe what we need in a time of crisis and fragmentation is a turn to something maximalist or long-form, sensorially and intellectually challenging, or (with regards to mainstream culture) simply ‘imperfect’ in some sense. Leonard agrees that there’s probably
a hunger for people to see a process where you work stuff out. I think art’s very prone to answering, because a lot of artists are very arrogant and think they have the answers, to say it in a plateau kinda way. But I think that’s really important — going back to what we were saying at the beginning of this conversation — to be against atrocity and fascism in a verbal way is easy, but it’s often more helpful, especially with something like the Brexit vote, to properly engage with the reasons for that, to take in the history. The way we think about the European vote is riddled with amnesia; I find it funny that nobody talks about the miners’ strike around this issue.
We’re almost out of time, and there’s still so much to unpack here. Kiran Leonard is someone you could share many a pint with and learn a lot from, but I’m also content listening to him as we sip water in the venue basement, the ethereal sounds of Ubaldo’s soundcheck leaking from upstairs. I ask him what’s next, now that he’s got his degree and some solid album reviews under his belt. I’m especially interested in whether he’s considered working with poetry or translation. Leonard tells me he’s ‘hoping to put a pamphlet out next which year which is a load of very short essays which are tangentially relevant to songs on this last record’ and also an exciting new double-CD release, which promises one side of ‘long abstract’, ‘kinda My Bloody Valentine but more through-composed’ songs and the other ‘more sparse acoustic songs’. ‘Something that’s got more space in it’. It’s only been about forty minutes and already I feel a lot of my worldly cynicism dissipate. There is still so much to be said for the world, and I want to hear it.
Like: then I began making portraits, not just portraits in colours in designs in styles, in blue, in patterns, in abstraction, but this, & I’m trying to describe to you what it was that I was doing. Portraits of the right thickness or thinness, portraits I could retrieve in a moment from my mind, portraits with false bottoms & receding backdrops, false perspectives, like memory, with layers & layers in different shades, in different states of decay, & a whole picture of all of it, first strung out in sections, as though it were on the floor, then pieced together, with some rearranging, and recorded, or put in a place, whatever you like, but in such a way that I then had to again cover & review each part, and handled, taken from place to place, until the right situation was found, as this is the only way to remember where you put something, as you already know, and then, and this is all so obvious, waiting to find out what I had done, so I could begin again. And each portrait, if I can now still describe them that way, each one had some elements which seemed to feed back into the next one. And that this for a while was becoming the most important part of the process. And these portraits, as I’ve tried to describe them, were what was going on in my mind, as far as I can say.
— Bernadette Mayer, Studying Hunger (1975)
In Studying Hunger, Bernadette Mayer writes of the feedback loops of writing that also comprise a sort of feeding. Reciprocity of materials, bodies that give and are giving, that expel and consume. How different our words might look in hunger. The month brimmed over. Designing these words you could eat, with breath of sweet pastilles, marijuana — scents arise at specific districts. Is this the green haze of Finnieston. I tried portraits too, crazed lines of abstraction, tangles that tugged me into sleep as though sleep were a kindness, a simple feeling. The month brimmed over, it was so much. I lost my appetite, fell into stasis. It was the first December in five years where I had not worked my exhausted ass off, serving tables, sick. I was sick but I wrote instead, through the guilt. I opened your letter.
Most vital when the ink bleeds through the page and the drawings stick together. We drove through the dark with Amnesiac blaring, there was a hot red halo on the night that tasted of whisky, and was empty elsewhere, the emptying streets, the plasma tv.
In Ruchill lies a store called Bammy Beverages, beneath whose armoured shutters lie many dusted bottles of tonic wine, and a key to unlock the sullen underwater future.
‘Pyramid Song’, and the field dark green, last summer’s stoned apparitions of light. A girl beside me just vomiting, vomiting. We stand tall as we can in the glare of it all, watching his hair flicks, the shuddering riffs. I dream of a train ride south and we walk home sick. July is a month impossible now.
(It seems that what I am trying to do with these playlist pieces is akin to Mayer’s portraits. How to depict the month, eking around it, associative entrails. Sketch into negative space the purple lines, the lime green silence. Salad of flavoured sentences, turn over leaf, blogging duration. December with all its aporia, were you good to me?)
I dream of a cooling desert at night, crisp prose like the fronds of a palm tree.
December fills the streets with Christmas, which had come early as early does, November fat on lights already. I write bad things about neoliberalites. I drift around looking at lights in other people’s houses, the extravagance of Park Circus; the way of the Kelvingrove trees, such eerie silhouettes at dusk in the park. An old man stops to tell me where I can find superior trees, more interesting trees. He mansplains arboreal aesthetics to me. I take pictures regardless and slip on my headphones with Spiritualized blaring. He is still muttering about the spirit tree, the one by the Kelvin. I will photograph this tree also, later.
They are selling fir trees in the street, carpets of sweet-smelling needles that haunt the air even after the vendors and their wares are gone. I think of Kyle MacLachlan saying with relish, Douglas firs! down the telephone.
What if a phone call is just millioning ellipses into the night?
So much frustrated reading in annexes, waiting for my little head to just bob into sleep. Avoiding coffee and feeling high on a similar, delirious prose that was not mine. Seek a settling. The stylish oblique mode of writing around your feelings with theory. It is like candy, it won’t dissolve; it is so much about the rush and texture. Bevel my paragraphs, curve all messages.
What cusp of the year is this, or this?
He said he’d flown through the night of a trafficless Amsterdam, four in the morning, eyes like saucers. I could not think of a more perfect event; I need to start cycling again. He said it shaves years off your life, by which he meant it drives you to youth. Sleep does it other ways.
Everything written in the month of August, so vicious. Rejections all round. Flashback to 1998, a date on a chalkboard, the scratch of the white and crumb of time. The playground was a wind-trap and we’d go flying, bearing our jackets as sails. The short day comes, folds itself into the smallest, most elusive square of white. It is a tab I can’t take, so I stay inside; languish in dark, think vodka.
Everyone is on their myriad trajectories, which the lines might fail to capture. Flicker online, line of online over. Try to see y’all before y’all go away. The elsewhere families, unfamiliar.
I felt blessed to have that sliver of access to his mind awhile. After the meeting. It is nice to see the trees like this, enviable spindles of branchware. Sip eucalyptus tea of an evening.
These unheated attics, silicone coffee.
The weather is powder and pretty today, it is so rare I must get outside. Experimental series.
As far as I can say, I want to set tables forever and ever. The people keep coming, it is astounding how many of them exist. As though I could not remember, but then the stamp of each one returned like a flurry of letters, bills, demands of me. They want our stories, bloodthirsty they open their mouths for politeness, performance. They want drinks, pepper grinders, napkins, salt. I take cetirizine because of the dust. I set foot into the building thrice this month. I make cards with pens that ooze gold glitter, smear with black ink my thoughts.
When Christmas lights are blurred in the rain and make me sad, of course I think of ‘Cody’.
A carousel of shoppers and a chance encounter, and we hide upstairs with cups of tea and you teach me how to buy shares on your phone. I watch the little lines zigzag up and down, a portrait of financial temporality. There is this stupid line from a 1975 song I can’t get out of my head: ‘Collapse my veins wearing beautiful shoes / It’s not living if it’s not with you’. Boy whose veins are green not blue. You never require a polish; you are shine. There is heroin in the world again.
Björk’s Vespertine is probably the only festive record we need. It glisters and cocoons me. A friend says it is the Christmas hit for cancers everywhere. I love the harp, the frailest cry, the video with pearls that lace her skin. I want to be lain in a field of dewdrop clover.
It did not snow as promised but it rained a lot. We sat in the cafe for hours and bought little pins with animals on them. There were these gifts. I ate something because it had the word ‘acai’ in it.
Quite a horror to see office workers unleashed in the streets, the drunken invitation to tables, lying about my name to strangers.
That hot needle feeling when you go inside and the heat rushes back to the tips of your fingers. When you wake up late and cough and cough your way through a spinal landscape.
Losing my taste buds. Mustard is recovery flavour.
I am handling the place I miss most. Something about these emails helps me think like a child again. The place where the floor just fell away, exposing that sloshing, hot springs water. And we say one thing, we feel creaturely, we made a wish to capture. It was Ash’s wish to be a trainer forever. Someone says I look like an anime character, the high-waisted jeans thing, luminous t-shirt. Read old notes and the only good line I wrote last year: ‘a breath rent asunder by mystic cat Pokemon’. So much still to recapture.
I think about Carrie & Lowell I think about William’s Last Words I think about A Silkworm of One’s Own. There is a funeral, an offer for coffee, a small admission, a kiss on the cheek.
Excruciation at personal mannerism, listening back to the interview.
We sat by the fire and talked awhile. We sat by the fire with wine. We sat by the fire and it rained outside.
She didn’t even buy me flowers, she didn’t even think twice.
My mother swears so much better these days.
An expansive hamper arrives in the post.
When you leave, and the air hits your face.
The city is emptying. True nocturnalism is listening to Jason Molina in grim mist of rain, on your way to Maryhill Tesco at 2am. The workers sit smoking in the carpark, scrolling on phones. It was funny to leave with bagfuls of vegetables, ache in my chest, ironically playing ‘Perfect Day’. When he said we looked stunning and suddenly it was Christmas again.
The air just smelled of fish and chips. Comfort of a town I used to call home.
I awoke to my alarm clock, which wasn’t a pop song and it wasn’t that loud. We walk along the river, catching the fog. It was so nice to see you! Victorian bridges house numberless ghosts, and we pass between. I leave my green scarf in a bar and rush to retrieve it the following morning. It is never loud enough, warm enough. I write this essay about lines and Derrida and the work of crying. Nobody drinks Sangria round here.
If I live to your age and in what situation.
Listen to the Morvern Callar soundtrack on Christmas Day, paint my toenails blood red like a call. We trade solstice poems online. Full moon energy of weekends, and how we sat in Category Is on Saturday reading from Midwinter Day, this quiet ritual of voice and warmth. Homemade treats and spiced orange tea. Passing the book around. Catching myself on the science vocabulary, lush words of reaction, wishing I could roll my r’s like him. You should just write, just write everything.
It is so nice to see you all. Candid photograph, conversation.
One hand Loves the other So much on me
Try to write to make myself hungry. I learn this word petrichor, which feels like a word I already knew — I can taste it. Softest, resonant earth elsewhere. Takes shape in your message. Remember teenage wanders, unruly longing, misdirection. Sweetness.
I walk north, west, home. I walk through the rain and my brain is sparkling. The year does not simply ‘close’. It is a recurring dream. The city just shimmers as temporary portrait, and I add the blue to accentuate insomnia — a little violet around the eyes, significance of the Clyde as a river. How to write about those I miss? What a year it’s been, we say each year. Christmas, so we’ll stop, surely. The way the BBC lights looked, pregnant in fog in the picture. The river drags through us, the ones it swallowed. Everything just streaming and streaming, the way winter goes.
The 1975 — It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)
Let’s Eat Grandma — Falling Into Me
Perko — Rounded
Sharon Van Etten — Jupiter 4
Deerhunter — Element
Stereolab — Blue Milk
Björk — Heirloom
Oneohtrix Point Never — Last Known Image Of A Song (Ryuichi Sakamoto rework)
aYia — Ruins
Mogwai — Mogwai Fear Satan
Swans — Oxygen
Peter Broderick — Carried
Kathryn Joseph — Cold
Conor Oberst — The Rockaways
Frightened Rabbit — It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop
Sufjan Stevens — Lonely Man of Winter
Angel Olsen — If It’s Alive, It Will
Damien Jurado — Over Rainbows and Rainier
Penguin Cafe Orchestra – Thorn Tree Wind
William Tyler — Call Me When I’m Breathing Again
Phoebe Bridgers — Friday I’m In Love (the Cure cover)
Telling a story is not like weaving a tapestry to cover up the world, it is rather a way of guiding the attention of listeners or readers into it.
— Tim Ingold, ‘The Temporality of the Landscape’
It seems I am happiest now when out in the country. Brought coachwards through Maryhill, Bearsden and north to the Trossachs, warmly we arrive where the air is clear and there are plenty of lichens to prove it. Something relaxes within my chest, the familiar twangs are settled.
On the road, we talk of stories and allusions. There is a cipher in the heart of Scotland and a myth that says more than etcetera. I jokingly call it Rob Roy of the Anthropocene and something makes sense.
October tells a story of all that has happened in summer. The leaves fall like words but never ask for discernment. One of us asks, What is the intention of the wind? It is easy to grasp what the people and the pollen and the tractors are doing. But what of the wind, most aleatoric of weatherly elements?
We arrive here to think through a specific term: Tim Ingold’s notion of ‘taskscape’. This notion brings temporality to an otherwise static conception of landscape: it factors in the performance of all entities involved in a landscape’s conjuring and perpetuation. Birds singing, workmen whistling, the whir of traffic, groan of thunder, sigh of trees. I stir up a whole anthropomorphic cauldron; its ingredients activating each other, bubbling and working. Ingold would prefer a more symphonic metaphor. Everything is performing some task or another, enmeshed in a complex, living system — what Ingold calls an ‘ensemble’ of ‘mutual interlocking’. The ‘taskscape is to labour what the landscape is to land’. To dwell in the taskscape is to enact a form of noticing that is multisensory, a way of attuning that picks up the subtleties of crackle and static within the picture, and in doing so reminds us of (multi-species) sociality, time and life: ‘the landscape is the congealed form of the taskscape […] the landscape seems to be what we see around us, whereas the landscape is what we hear’. Our guide for today’s trip, Dr David Borthwick of the University of Glasgow, presents us with paper ‘frames’ to remind us of this difference between landscape and taskscape, active and passive.
We shoot pictures of frames within frames, we flatten. I try to capture with my phone the green and the gold and the red and the light, but I cannot capture the fullness of surround sound, of medial sense, that makes a taskscape. And even with field recording, where would the motion of the water be? With video, how could the heat of the sun be felt? The smell of carbon coming off the road, and mingling with the forest’s brackish aroma? The burr and clunk of a passing lorry, laden with logs, which was more of a ribcage rumble than anything heard? Is writing able to capture some of that sensory dynamism?
Archaeology, for Ingold, is the study of ‘the temporality of the landscape’. The beat of its rhythms and actants, their play and tasks. Sometimes a taskscape eludes measurable time. The ease of synchrony. It could be time split into multiplicity. The time of the myriad ants trailing over pine needles in infinite fractals, the time of composting, the endurable time of the woman who works in the wool mill, the waitress who serves us coffee. Labour as glitch and repetition. The gift shop has summoned Christmas early with excessive trinkets, each one a throwback to a prior nation, the act of (re)imagining, Scotland the Brave contained on a keyring.
When we linger too long in one moment, Dave warns us we are burning daylight.
But we linger awhile by a grave. ‘Because I could not stop for Death – / He kindly stopped for me –’. Maybe we are mesmerised in churchyards because a slumbering looms beneath us, compelling. What is the work and the sound of death? Is it perhaps Emily Dickinson’s famous ellipsis, the almost-just-so of each fat dash? Is this the punctuated work of dwelling?
The grave belongs to one Robert Kirk, ‘The Fairy Minister’ best known for his book The Secret Commonwealth: a book about fairy folklore, witchcraft, ghosts and second sight. People have placed silver coins on the symbols adorning his grave. There is a currency to this kind of mourning, that blurs into well-wishing. Maybe it is more of a summoning. We learn that Kirk’s fairies were human-sized, tricksy and prone to following us, often as doppelganger creatures with their own mortality. Kirk had set out this alternative ontology, not entirely incompatible with his Christianity. These fairies live off of light, their flesh is comprised of air congealed. Idly I browse Wikipedia for further anatomy: ‘somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen in twilight’, their bodies are made ‘pliable through the subtlety of Spirits that agitate them’. The internet weaves stories around the things I am seeing. I click off my phone and instead breathe information in through my lungs, closing my eyes when the light is too bright and catching soft rainbows inside my lashes. These speckles of rainbow are my fleeting sprites, made of air and light and shining.
We ascend Doon Hill through burnished woods to find a shrine. There is a tree in the middle of a clearing where people have tied bright rags or ‘clooties’, along with loom bands, glitter, ribbons and a stray satsuma. Lichenous twigs are piled as offering, pennies and sweeties and conkers collect. We talk about whether these human trinkets make us feel closer to the tree, question our role as observers, the slide between intimacy and distance. The key word here is ‘kitsch’: these are mass-produced items, cheap commodities, remnants of sentiment and transient tourism. I am reminded again of the objects on sale in the Aberfoyle gift shop. Looking upon this kitschy monument, are we compelled or disgusted? Are such human-made objects utterly incongruous with the rustic landscape, or does their presence remind us of how land exists in time, is formed in continuums, assemblages, ensembles of affect and process and change. Dave tells us the last time he visited the tree, it was surrounded by mass quantities of plastic — presumably toys, wrappers of sweets, litter made sacred by fact of arboreal proximity. A sign down the hill says biodegradable clooties can be purchased in town. A problem was identified and the ecosystem of the land and the shrine shifts in tandem. There is perhaps a new aesthetic. Nothing is static, not even a monument. Lichen and moss spawn on a grave, a fly lays eggs inside a lost silk bow.
We admit the brightly coloured things, pastel and garish among the autumn hues, kind of gross us out. But we can’t stop looking. In Ecology Without Nature (2007), Timothy Morton says kitsch
exerts a fascinating, idiotic pull. It is often synesthetic, and it has no power except for the love we invest in it. Kitsch is the nearest thing in modern culture to the shamanic ritual object. Kitsch is immersive. It is a labour of love: you have to “get into it”. It poses the problem of how the subject relates to the object in a striking manner.
The more we look at the tree, the more we feel the pull of millioning time zones: the midges at night that might glow around it, the people who came and went, who took and stayed and left. It is only after we’ve been staring and puzzling the shrine for a while that Dave tells us the story behind it: ‘What if I told you…’. It’s important that this story exists in the conditional; for it too is a part of the taskscape, a melody played among the rest. The shrine began after the Dunblane school shooting, when a local primary school teacher brought her pupils up the hill to this tree, where she encouraged them to lay something of themselves in its roots. There was the hope of some kind of catharsis: a gesture towards memorialisation, to make a hurt world wholesome again. Dave suggests the term, ‘a secular spiritual’. The tree becomes a collage of innocence, of selves in time. When the pressure of being a ‘subject’ is too much, we call to the ‘object’. We want of the tree a longevity denied to others. There is some kind of empathy between species. Does the tree speak back? Here I am in this realm of kitsch and already yearning for a sort of panpsychism, a promise of communion, of relief and immersion.
Dave offers an answer, ‘To bear witness to landscape is to undertake an act of remembrance’.
The shrine began as a response to a deeply human calamity, but I wonder how this would function in the case of ecological destruction. Do people visit flood-sites, ruined forests, the ravaged remains of wildfires, with a similar sense of necessary ‘return’: the elegiac act of imparting one’s sorrow, sympathy and regret? Tying a ribbon to a tree, perhaps with the string of a message — is this part of ‘a new culture of eco-confessionalism’, which Stefan Skrimshire summons in his recent article ‘Confessing Anthropocene’ (2018)? Riffing on Jacques Derrida’s thoughts on witnessing and confession, Skrimshire suggests that: ‘the essence of the ethics of confession is that I never confess for my “self” in that modernist sense, but I always confess the other in me’; when we confess, we realise ‘the other’s desire for forgiveness operating in me’. My urge to lay down a flower, a toadstool, or some other jewel of the wood, is an act of remembrance and witnessing that also admits how such other species speak through me. I recognise the impossibility of asking for forgiveness for ecological crimes that exceed my limited comprehension; I gesture towards the small worlds of these things and how their hurt, their life and precarity, resonates inside me.
Perhaps what we need, in addition to confessions, are spells. I think of Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ recent book of acrostic spell-poems for children, The Lost Words: A Spell-Book (2017), which seeks to encourage children to recognise biodiversity, to perform little charms that ask us to notice the beauty of species before they disappear. While Macfarlane and Morris’ work gestures more towards the flora and fauna of the past and present, we might also think of enchantment as an attunement to the kinds of deep time inaccessible within ordinary human comprehension. Cautiously, Ginn et al. (2018) advocate Jane Bennett’s mode of ‘enchantment’ as ‘an uncanny and unsettling reminder of vast forces beyond one’s control. We might try to channel these forces in more or less enchanted ways, but success [in terms of progressive politics] will remain elusive’. Enchantment means noticing material vibrancy, the activeness and collaborative potential of everything in and around us, even while aware of the limits. It means thinking with, and wondering.
So we are still, so we listen. A little chill creeps in. I am grateful for shelter within these trees, the steps of their roots built into the hill. The wool in my fleece, which makes me look slightly sheep, but keeps me warm.
‘Enchantment is not a choice (although receptivity to enchanting experience can be cultivated); it is usually something that arises unbidden’ (Ginn et al.). I suppose we are doing our own work of enchantment, listening to Dave’s tales as we break fresh ground on the Highlands, trying not to think of ourselves as mere tourists — trying properly to see and hear and temporarily dwell.
Is folklore a form of environmental seduction? I listen to the trees, the way the wind speaks through them. I note all my instances of anthropomorphism. Okay, so Rob Roy was blatantly used to sell Scotland to American tourists, and, as a ‘thoroughly mythical character’ in Walter Scott’s fictional depictions, ‘the embodiment in life of all that the Romantic writer seeks in art’ (Leslie Fiedler). I wonder who our heroes are in the anthropocene, and whether they are human, and how we might queer them. If Roy is ‘the very spirit of risk and of the wilderness which he inhabits’ (Fiedler), then who might embody the spirit of global risk society (a la Ulrich Beck), who renders a wilderness once rich now spent and depleted by the actions of anthropos?
I miss when I was little and the woods were full of magical creatures, where now I often just see Buckfast bottles, fire pits, broken glass and other evidence of human activity. Of course the latter was there all along, it is a question of noticing. Does enchantment really have a summoning, interventionist function, stirring political desire, or is it more about consolation?
Maybe the anthropocene demands a kind of imaginary vigilantism? Letting rainbow smoke off into the taskscape, performing poetic intervention. Explode the light of all that action, demand appreciative feedback loops of refraction. This is nature hyperreal and this is it inside me and in you; this is it just as it is, this is why it matters. This is ‘the matter / of all of us mattering’ (Elizabeth-Jane Burnett).
The sound of a distant wood saw does its work. We fold back and descend to Aberfoyle.
Somebody spots this bird or that. Their branchly flitters an interruption, a quaver in the staves of the day, one talk flowing after another. As if to say, we are not gone yet; we are here and we still make sense.
The sun squints into my eyes, makes rainbows. The air is crisp and I crave orange juice, a supply of this light I could bottle, smell of mornings and woodsmoke.
We cruise along Duke’s Pass and make it to Loch Katrine. When I drink Tennents in Glasgow, sipping my yellow tin, I am drinking the water of this loch. Whenever it might taste bittersweet, or clear or cold or good, a remnant of that originary gold is present. To advertise your freshwater source is perhaps itself an act of ecological kitsch, a gesture of synecdoche that craves its place-name, its blue security. But I love it as I love the gold of these mornings. Drinking the landscape to drunk immersion.
There is of course also the light on the water, its scintillations just there, rippling, like someone spilled mercury. Silver and gold, but nothing of Christmas yet. There is a rhythm, just as Wordsworth and Nico both said, there was a pleasure there or then. To push such beauty into past tense. Miranda tells me about wild swimming and I’m already relishing a sort of burn and shudder within my extremities, the plunge of cold which is doing its work, shocking my body.
Murmuring burns Clumps of moss, soft & bottle-green hills in miniature
Pale teal lichen Intimations of meadowsweet The wires black-taped to rocks (origin & purpose indeterminate) A fine specimen of birchwood polypore clamped to its tree Tiny waterfalls A fluffy pig sleeping in the sun
What is the intention of the wind?
Wanting to preserve my tired light feeling, I decide against coffee. Calm as I am, sleep-deprived and attuned to things as though they were already wisps of memory. To make of a landscape only medial presence, and thus richer than if it were grand and static. We can’t look at the gorgeous sweep of the hills for too long, but we stare at the mushroom and the grave and the tree and the pig.
These harvested fields of depleted green, this sense of the real-time seasons.
Dave tells us the legend of Sir Walter Scott visiting the Wordsworths, and being so disgruntled by their continual serving of porridge that he jumped out the window and ran for the pub. I think of Jazzer in the Archers and this archetype of the Scotsman with his fondness for pints, company and hearty dinners. I think of these men as a weird continuum, the overlapping currents of cultural narrative.
Like porridge, the Trossachs are truly nourishing — as in, all your carbs and protein at once. I come back softened yet inclined to wildness. Home to Glasgow, I want to go back and walk and walk. Is this what David Lynch meant by The Return with the new Twin Peaks; as in, this odyssey towards belonging, the wind in the douglas firs, the cherry pie taste of a former present, always already slid into retro?
Rob Roy was also known as Big Red. Before he was co-opted as a folk hero, tartan-filtered & highly masculine, Rob Roy was a shapeshifter, a problematic noble savage. I remember a childhood trip to visit his grave, wandering the moors with my mother and father, unable to find it. Now I can just see it on the internet, but as jpeg the image is spectral, flat and distant, overgrown with ferns and pixels. By necessity, compressed. But in fact it wasn’t his grave we were looking for, but his cave, somewhere along the banks of Loch Lomond.Memory acts in slippage of language. I have invented the moors for my own ecological ambience, adding the wind and the mist, a childhood hunger for the warmth of a car and a packet of crisps. How do we carry our own taskscapes, or is it more that they haunt us, making their overlays of locality, literary story and myth? I don’t think we ever found that cave, and thus how could I confirm that it even exists?
Imaginary outlaws of ecological rupture. Where might we forge a folklore for the anthropocene, in its always unfolding, its gesture towards archival pasts and residue futures?
Ingold: ‘For the landscape is a plenum, there are no holes in it that remain to be filled in, so that every infill is in reality a reworking’.
A porous landscape is the illusion I want, pouring in dreams of milk and honey, preserving Romantic patches of mystery. Is this why people wedge pennies in trees? What are they trying to keep out or in; whose time are they buying?
I used to always be unnerved by the viewpoint symbol on a map: half a sun, half a symbol for buffering. As though the landscape’s vista were beaming out from the person, or beaming back into. Subject and object, difference and deferral. Was each line one of sunlight or current or spirit? What is it really that we’re supposed to be seeing?
So I get home and I take out my phone and skip through the roll of images. So I scroll through my notes. I close my eyes and there are imprints of sound and sense, the warmth and chill, the wind ripping raw my ungloved fingers, the flash of my hair flaring fire in light. There is so much to parse in place-names, these histories in miniature I can hardly manage. Dan Hicks (2016) revisits Ingold’s concept of the task-scape and concludes that archaeology is actually ‘the study of the temporality of the landscape revisited’.
Back in Glasgow, I hold the word ‘Aberfoyle’ in my mouth like a toffee. I’m trying to make it last a long time, hoping it won’t melt.
In Gathering (2018), Alec Finlay writes: ‘sometimes people say and repeat place-names simply because they like to hear them’. I am so ignorant of the complexities occurring within the Trossachs, within this taskscape or that. The delicate filigree of history, literature, tourism and labour. But I hope by merely feeling pleasure, learning the names and lay of the land, listening for its shimmers, I am doing something of the work of dwelling, appreciating, gesturing towards a sense of care, mixing myself with the wind and all of its unknown intentions.
We could make a list of all the places we’ve been, the things we’ve noticed:
‘may these place-names be, once again, useful in the world; may we be inspired by them to remediate the landscapes they describe’ (Finlay).
I fold out a map and think of the future, dotting at random. There is so much I don’t understand. Space is a palimpsest of half-remembered places; sometimes you can’t traverse it clearly. Maybe there are holes, or pores, or fissures. So anyway, you tell a story.
The air is full of spells, and names, and fairies.
Burnett, Elizabeth-Jane, 2017. Swims (London: Penned in the Margins).
Fiedler, L., 1997. Love and Death in the American Novel (Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press).
The word odyssey, like journey, is of course a literal and figurative force. We might have many journeys in our lives, real or imagined, actual or wished for, but how many attain the status of odyssey? What memories, eras and changes must pass for a thread of narrative to thicken as odyssey? Joyce, in Ulysses, showed us we can have an odyssey of everyday life. If you scale things close enough, the simple act of going out to buy a bar of soap is rich with the complexities and diversions and conflictions of odyssey. Wandering the city streets, akin to being lost at sea. Perhaps odyssey itself is more about a sustained act of noticing, looking backwards while intently in the present. Dwelling in memory’s rich oscillations; when we are aware of our lives having epic proportions, imbuing our actions with this freight of consequence. Maybe the more aware we are of our fragile world, or our fragile existence on this world — how proximate we are to a world without us! — even the simple life, so-called, seems massive, significant, difficult.
But I am not here to talk about the Anthropocene, which we are already passing through, wearing within our skin. Finding the label as though a sticker on an apple, formerly known as, familiar variety almost forgotten through ubiquity — well pressed on various surfaces, deferred. It was a Thursday, the day after Storm Ali wreaked havoc on Glasgow, tearing down trees and scattering leaves, stealing what green of summer was left of leaf and letting it blow forth upon roads of concrete — you might say free, if leaves have an internal stammer for separation, a need for self-definition. I’m not sure the beautiful, connected things do. A foliate thought unfinished. I guess I needed to be free as well, there was a lot of text, swimming around me all morning I couldn’t quite fathom. A thicket of text. Dwell upon ellipsis and offline symbols. So I slathered oil on my creaking bike chain, cycled along the Clyde and found myself at South Block studios for a new exhibition, An Orkney Odyssey, by the CAIM Collective.An Orkney Odyssey features the multi-disciplinary works of Ingrid Budge (photographer), Alastair Jackson (haiku), Moira Buchanan (handmade booklets) and John Cavanagh (sound installation). I recently returned from my first trip to Orkney and was eager to immerse myself in something of those islands again.
South Block studios is a white room, part café, a place smelling pleasantly of coffee. The rest stop between things, east of town. I’ve been here before with a friend, when we were discussing the early days of a new publication. It feels clean, airy, a place of potential. The exhibition consists mostly of Budge’s photographs, presented along the wall with Jackson’s poetic snippets beneath. I say snippets, because one gets the sense that all these impressions and snapshots are fragments of a broader story, a grander drama. My own time on the Orkney islands was limited to the mainland, but as the ferry curved round past Hoy, I sensed that to really experience life here, you have to think in archipelagos, rather than discriminate, bounded islands. A multiplicity of coastlines connected, reflected, glimpsed across these strips of tide. I experience each piece as both separate and connected: they resemble a sort of Instagram post, the supplementary clue to a world elsewhere, a stop beyond. The possible scroll, the anticipatory mirage of other places, beckoning like hyperlinks.
Looking at these images, I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Susan Sontag’s On Photography: ‘to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’. Many of these photographs capture landscapes from a skewed perspective, a step away from anthropo-familiarity. We may be unsure where to place our gaze, looking for a horizon or coastline. Sometimes there is a blur, a smudge of cloud and beam of light; a looming mass of weather. An almost unnatural colouring. We are forced to think in terms of diurnal shifts, glitches in time, moments of elemental transition. They are nothing like the picturesque of the brightly saturated tourism brochure, the pamphlets I flicked through idly as I waited for the ferry to Stromness. These images are ghostly, strange, a little ‘off colour’. They challenge my own memories of the unique, misty and windswept atmospheres of Orkney. Budge experimented with different cameras — digital film, iPhone, pinhole — and various chemical processes to capture a sensuous, personal perspective on her native island. She exploited the apparitional potentials of lumen printing, in which objects are positioned on light-sensitive paper and exposed for hours, never quite fully developed. Rather than ‘capturing’ or stilling, rendering her subjects, Budge allows them to unfold in their own way, symbiotically in tune with their luminous environment: stealing its shadows, imprinting a smudge, a glow of time in process. It is almost as though, in taking those photos, she performs a material empathy with climatic change on the island: the shifts in light, all external markings of geologic time and the time of seasons. I am allowed to read into this, because the images abstract from subject, they ask us to find psychic states amid landscape, they do not fetishise the specifics of locality. They do not simply state: here is a field of sheep as we, as humans, see it. They challenge us to rethink perspective, authority, subject and photographic temporality.
Jackson’s poems, which each accompany one of Budge’s images, really draw out this elemental drama of perspective, time and abstraction. Instances of familiar infrastructure become the tuning posts or sounding board for the dead, ‘Ghosts of past talking’ through telegraph poles. Attuned to the nuance of island soundscapes and landscapes, Jackson deftly parses the aesthetic reactions of one object to another, using anthropomorphism in the strategic way suggested by Jane Bennett in her book Vibrant Matter: ‘We need to cultivate,’ she argues, ‘a bit of anthropomorphism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature – to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world’. Anthropomorphism can draw out the multiplicities of sensory experience, crossing the phenomenological ‘worlds’ or ‘zones’ of various enmeshed beings and species.
The haiku might be an appropriate form for ‘capturing’ the Anthropocene because it flickers into being like a sound-bite, it contains a certain authorial anonymity, less of the singular lyric ‘I’ than the lyric I’s environed chorus. Not to mention its traditional association with ‘nature’ as such. Presented like a sort of Instagram caption beneath these images, each haiku seems a transmission from elsewhere, sparking into presence. There are several kinds of aesthetic overlay, a synaesthetic experience of scenes: ‘Glissades and rolls of eighth notes / On a summer breeze’. The smooth legato of wind stuttering up into quavers, could this be birds or the stammering tide where it sloshes in breakwater, interrupts all smoothness of lunar rhythm? I’m reminded of Kathy Hinde’s 2008 work Bird Sequencer, where she worked with Ivan Franco to scan videos of birds resting on telegraph lines into music, after noticing how much the positioning of the birds on the lines resembled a musical score. Each bird would trigger a note or audio sample from a music box and prepared piano, in the manner of a modern step-sequencer: Hinde was literalising a form of nonhuman aesthetic attunement, surrendering compositional control to the whims of the birds themselves, their arts of arrangement. That Jackson’s poetic vision parses the elemental landscape through musical metaphors says something of our ecological inclinations towards attunement. As Timothy Morton puts it:
Since a thing can’t be known directly or totally, one can only attune to it, with greater or lesser degrees of intimacy. Nor is this attunement a “merely” aesthetic approach to a basically blank extensional substance. Since appearance can’t be peeled decisively from the reality of a thing, attunement is a living, dynamic relation with another being.
Since music is our strongest metaphoric apparatus for noticing strategies of ‘attunement’, its poetic invocation allows us to access those processes of intimacy, coexistence and agency at an aesthetic level. The aesthetic level where, as Morton puts it, causality happens: an operatic voice shatters a wine glass, a match smoulders and eats up a piece of paper, the BPA in plastic seeps into the water, alters its chemical makeup, affects the food chain.
This is a fairly minimalist exhibition, despite its multisensory components. It opens space. I can take almost whatever time I want in front of the plainly mounted images and text, the white card a sort of beach I can linger on, skirting the image. These are dark and striking scenes, mostly of nonhuman subjects. I get to share in ‘time’s relentless melt’ as it happens at the pliant, archipelagic scales of an island, stripped away from the carnivalesque rhythms of urban leisure, or capitalist imperative.
Crucial to all this, of course, is Cavanagh’s sound piece. Keen to avoid the bland oceanic ambience of New Age relaxation CDs, Cavanagh makes things weirder. This is the sea but not quite the sea, nature more than nature. Composing or rendering ecological soundscapes requires more imagination these days, a keen ear towards plurality: as every ocean is inflected with both danger and precarity, a poetics of toxicity thanks to our dumping of marine plastics, there has to be an affective current underneath, a mixing of human and nonhuman rhythms, forces, pleasures and tragedies. A force of both presence and loss. Place is no longer one thing, but stamped with the stains of elsewhere. ‘Here’, as Morton puts it, ‘is shot through with there’. Living in a time of hyperobjects means that we can’t think of, say, the seas around Orkney without thinking about the pollution that comes from mainland cities, the energy generated in these waters subject to political decision-making further south, the marine populations around these coastlines affected by agricultural, infrastructural and consumption processes going on elsewhere.
It would be easy to respond to this collision of times, spaces and places with a sort of abrasive, dystopian mix of disorder. Cavanagh, however, responds to the sonic challenge with degrees of beauty, humour and playfulness. His soundscapes swirl around the spoken words of Jackson’s poems, anchoring us vaguely to a sense of present as we pass round the room, viewing the images and poems. Sure, I can hear the waves, the howl of the wind, but these are mixed with a certain distortion akin to kitsch, electronic warp and reverie that glistens with past times, feels retro. This operative aesthetic is achieved with the piece’s main component, an EMS VCS3 synthesiser from 1973: a model familiar to fans of Pink Floyd, Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. Cavanagh’s music literally ‘translates’ Jackson’s poems and Budge’s images, themselves translations of Orkney scenery, by plugging the syllabic layout of Jackson’s haiku and the locational map data accorded to Budge’s photographs into a patchbay which generates from number sequences a variety of different rhythms, instruments and delay effects. Cavanagh’s ‘authentic’ or ‘raw’ field recordings from Orkney’s landscapes are thus programmed around the audiovisual, semantic stimuli of Budge’s and Jackson’s work. The act of remixing nature in this way exposes nature’s very artifice, a cultural construction dependent upon our aesthetic representations. I think of a very beautiful line quoted in a recent Quietus review of Hiro Kone’s new album, ‘“Nature sounds without nature sounds”’. As a challenge to passive eco-nostalgia, there is an active pleasure in this exposure, in realising the multiplicity and material vibrancy of a term we once took for background and static, mere sonic wallpaper for mindfulness meditations.
Faced with something as ineffable as the Anthropocene, we often respond, ironically, with lyric excess. The Anthropocene, it gets in edgeways, it knows we are porous. Whose odyssey is this anyway? Exhibitions like this are important because collaboration and innovation are vital means of tapping into the processes by which we, as human observers, might access nonhuman processes, glimpse the scales of time and place in a world where our significance dwindles into material trace. The fossils of future capital, always already fossils. What might a sonic fossil look like, sound like, a ghost trace of retroactive reverie, a broken sonogram, an elegiac bleep of machine or sea? An Orkney Odyssey, for all its portent towards the epic, is actually a rather humble exhibition. It offers the human perspective of memory and affect, holding wonder for these geographies and scenes, but there’s nothing too showy or sublime about it. And the micro focus is important too. Moira Buchanan’s handmade booklets draw us back to the beautiful details of wildlife around us, the simple pleasures in the act of binding and stitching the evidence of our everyday ecologies. She names in her booklets various species and places, prints poems and photos, mingles materials. There’s a real material enchantment here. Rather cutely, I wrote of these booklets before in a post on Buchanan’s 2016 exhibition, All Washed Up:
I think in today’s world, where global warming feels like something vast, incomprehensible, beyond our understanding, it’s so important to focus on the little things. The material details that remind us that we are part of this environment, that the ocean gives back what we put into it. There’s a feeling of salvage to the pieces, whose composition seems to perfectly balance the artful openness to chance at the same time as reflecting a careful attention to arrangement and applied form and texture.
I was still grappling with the Anthropocene with a sort of innocence then. I mean, I was still calling it global warming. The booklets in South Block catch the light of a late September afternoon, luminous in the window. Taking pictures of them, I can’t get the angle or the light right. I can’t quite translate, my iPhone proximate to its physical extinction, stubbornly refusing photographic clarity. During my trip to Munich this year, I was given a five-leaf clover picked from a lovely Bavarian meadow. I pressed it between the pages of Lisa Robertson’s The Weather. That, I suppose, was an act of salvage also. Symbolic recycling. A little token of some unspoken odyssey.
Unsure of the rest of the night, what to do, awaiting replies, I cycle through rush hour, heading south with only vague destination. Peddling hard, I cross the water as though crossing the sea. Later I will fall asleep with electronic sounds rasping my headphones, mixing with the wind outside which batters the window, until sleep becomes its own causality…
Venue: South Block, 60-64 Osborne Street, Glasgow, G1 5QH
Exhibition Continues: 14th September – 5th October 2018 (Mon Fri 9-5).
I always have this sensation, descending the steps at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, of narratives colliding. It’s a kind of acute deja vu, where several selves are pelting it down for the last train, or gliding idly at the end point of an evening, not quite ready for the journey home. The version that is me glows inwardly translucent, lets in the early morning light, as though she might photosynthesise. I remember this Roddy Woomble song, from his first album, the one that was sorrow, and was Scotland, through and through as a bowl of salted porridge, of sickly sugared Irn Bru. ‘Waverley Steps’, with its opening line, ‘If there’s no geography / in the things that we say’. Every word, I realise, is a situation. Alighting, departing; deferring or arriving. It’s 08:28 and I’m sitting at Waverley Station, having made my way down its steps, hugging my bag while a stranger beside me eats slices of apple from a plastic packet. I’ve just read Derek Jarman’s journal, the bit about regretting how easily we can now get any fruit we want at any time of year. He laments that soon enough we’ll be able to pick up bundles of daffodils in time for Christmas. The apples this girl eats smell of plastic, of fake perfume, not fruit. I’m about to board a train that will take me, eventually, to Thurso and then on via ferry to Orkney. I wonder if they will have apples on Orkney; it’s rumoured that they don’t have trees. Can we eat without regard to the seasons on islands also?
I needn’t have worried. Kirkwall has massive supermarkets. I check my own assumptions upon arrival, expecting inflated prices and corner shops. I anticipated the sort of wind that would buffet me sideways, but the air is fairly calm. I swill a half pint of Tennents on the ferry, watching the sun go down, golden-orange, the Old Man of Hoy looming close enough to get the fear from. Something about ancient structures of stone always gives me vertigo. Trying to reconcile all those temporal scales at once, finding yourself plunged. A panpsychic sense that the spirit of the past ekes itself eerily from pores of rock. Can be read in a primitive braille of marks and striations. We pick our way through Kirkwall to the SYHA hostel, along winding residential streets. I comment on how quiet it is, how deliciously dark. We don’t see stars but the dark is real, lovely and thick. Black treacle skies keep silent the island. I am so intent in the night I feel dragged from reality.
Waking on my first day, I write in my notebook: ‘the sky is a greyish egg-white background gleaming remnant dawn’. In the lounge of the hostel, someone has the telly on—news from Westminster. Later, I’m in a bookshop in Stromness, browsing books about the island while the Radio 2 Drivetime traffic reports of holdups on motorways circling London. Standing there, clasping Ebban an Flowan, I feel between two times. A slim poetry volume by Alec Finlay and Laura Watt, with photographs by Alastair Peebles, Ebban an Flowan is Orkney’s present and future: a primer on marine renewable energy. Poetry as cultural sculpting, as speculation and continuity: ‘there’s no need to worry / that any wave is wasted / when there’s all this motion’. New ideas of sustainability and energy churn on the page before me, while thousands down south are burning up oil on the London orbital.
When we take a bus tour of Mainland Orkney’s energy sources, we play a game of spotting every electric car we see. Someone on the bus, an academic who lives here, knows exactly how many electric cars there are on the island. There’s a solidarity in that, a pride in folk knowledge, the act of knowing. On the train up to Thurso, I started a game of infrastructure bingo, murmuring the word whenever I spotted a pylon, a station or a turbine. Say it, just say it: infrastructure. Something satisfying in its soft susurration, infra as potential to be both within and between, a shifting. Osmosis, almost. The kinesis of moving your lips for fra, feeling a brief schism between skin and teeth. A generative word. Say it enough times and you will summon something: an ambient awareness of those gatherings around you, sources of fuel, object, energy.
The supermarkets in Kirkwall seem like misplaced temples. This was me idealising the remoteness of islands, wanting to live by an insular, scarcer logic. The more we go north, the more scarcity we crave—a sort of existential whittling. Before visiting, I envisioned the temperature dropping by halves. On the first night, warm in my bed, I write: ‘To feel on the brink of something, then ever equi-distant’. The WiFi picks up messages from home. Scrolling the algorithmic rolls of Instagram, I feel extra-simultaneous with these random images, snapshots of happenings around the world. Being on an island intensifies my present. In Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (2016), a memoir of recovery and return on Orkney, Liptrot writes of ‘waiting for the next gale to receive my text messages’. On the whims of billowing signal, we wait for news of the south to arrive. Maybe I was an island and I wanted my life elsewhere to vanish, disappear in a wall of wind; I wanted to exist just here, in a hullabaloo of nowness.
I say an island, but of course Orkney is more an archipelago. And I’m on the Mainland, home to the burghs of Stromness and Kirkwall. Here for the ASLE-UKI conference, there wasn’t time to visit the harbour at Scapa, or the neolithic village of Skara Brae or the stone circle Ring of Brodgar. I spend most of my time in the town hall opposite Kirkwall’s impressive, sandstone cathedral, aglow by night with fairy lights strung in surrounding trees. Yes, trees. Orkney has trees. They are often gnarled-looking and strange, stripped by wind or held up inside by steel plinths. Anthropocene arboreal hybrids. But still they are trees. Using my plant identification app, I find hazels and birches. Autumn is traceable in the swirls of thin leaves that skirt the pavement, tousling our sense of a general transition.
At one point in the trip, we visit the Burgar Hill Energy Project in Evie, alighting from the bus to stand underneath several massive turbines. The sound is wonderful, a deep churning whirr that feels like the air pressed charge on repeat. Under the chug chug chug of those great white wings we gathered, listened, moved and dispersed. I watch as our tight knit group begins to fragment; we need time apart to absorb this properly, little cells bouncing off and away from each other, quietly charged, loosening dots of pollen. Some of us finding the outer reach of the hill, looking for a view or panorama, leaning back to snap a photograph. I film the shadows windmilling dark the rough green grass. Capturing the turbines themselves seemed almost obscene. I don’t know why I was making them into idols, afraid to reduce them to pictures. It was easier to glimpse them in pieces, a flash of white, synecdoche. My friend Katy and I agreed the best photos were the ones out of focus, a bird-like blur against the blue.
Places I have been hit by wind:
The cloisters at the University of Glasgow, a wind-tunnel roar to blast out your thoughts post-exam.
The hills of Aviemore, my first and last time attempt to ski.
Ayrshire beaches in winter, icy particles of hail cast into my eyes and ears.
The last day of the Wickerman Festival, wrestling with tents that needed drying and folding, the wind blasting against my cliff of a hangover.
On the deck of a ferry, mascara stinging the black black veil of my lashes.
I am an air sign, Gemini, and there is something about losing your breath to elemental forces. I think I once finished a poem with a phrase like, ‘lashing the planetary way of all this’. We used to stand in the playground at school, brandishing our jackets like polyester wings, letting the wind move us forward, staggering in our lightweight bodies, our childish intuition of the way of the world. The pleasure in surrendering. Making of your body a buffeted object. Returning to Glasgow, I soon find myself hit with a cold, preemptive fresher’s flu; a weight on my chest, a diaphragm lag. A sense of my body heaving against itself.
On Orkney, I can smell the salt from the sea. Earlier in the summer, I was struck with wisdom tooth pain, the kind that requires salt-water rinses every half hour, not to mention agonised gargles of whisky. Wasting my precious bottle of Talisker. Amid the haze of those painkiller days, I felt closer to an elemental heat. Metonymically, I was inhaling islands. The taste of self-preservation, of necessary self-sustenance, is never as strong and unwanted as when you want a part of yourself to be wrenched out of you. Pulling teeth is an easy metaphor for lost love, or other forms of psychic distress. Breaking apart, making of the self an archipelago. There’s that song by The National, ‘I Should Live in Salt’, which always sticks in my head in granular form, occasional line. Refrain of refrains, ‘I should live in salt for leaving you behind’. I never knew whether Matt Berninger was singing about preservation or pain, but I saw myself lying down in a kelp bed, child-size, letting the waves lap over my body, salt suffusing the pores of my skin. Begin again, softer.
The rain here is more a tangential shimmer. I wake up to it, dreaming that my window was broken and no-one would bother to fix it. Fear of boundaries loosened, the outside in. The future as a sheet of glass, a shelf you could place your self on and drink. Salt water rinse and heat of whisky. We leave the hostel early and wander beyond the Kirkwall harbour, to the hydrogen plant bordering an industrial estate. Katy and I discussed our fondness for industrial estates as homely reminders. She would go running, and wherever she ran the industrial zones were inevitable. As if in any city you would reach that realm, it called you in with its corrugated fronts and abrasive loneliness. My love for the canal, biking up through Maryhill where the warehouses watch serenely over you, loom behind trees, barely a machinic rumble disturbing the birds. We traced the edge of a man-made waterfront, a crescent curving lip of land. The way it curled was elliptical, it didn’t finish its inward whorls of land upon water, but still I thought of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or the cinnamon buns I bought from the Kirkwall Tesco. Finding a bench, we ate bananas for breakfast, looking out at the grey-blue sea, our fingers purpling with the cold. I like to think of the banana, Katy said, as a solid unit of energy. Here we were, already recalibrating reality by the logic of pulse and burn and calories. Feeling infra.
I love the words ‘gigawatt’, ‘kilocal’, ‘megabyte’. I like the easeful parcelling up of numbers and storage and energy. I am unable to grasp these scales and sizes visually or temporally, but it helps to find them in words.
We learn about differences between national and local grids, how wind is surveyed, how wave power gets extracted from the littoral zone. My mind oscillates between a sonar attentiveness and deep exhaustion, the restfulness gleaned from island air and waking with sunrise. I slip in and out of sleep on the bus as it swerves round corners. I am pleasantly jostled with knowledge and time, the precious duration of being here. Here. Here, exactly. This intuition vanishes when I try to write it. A note: ‘I know what the gaps between trees must feel like’. Listening to experienced academics, scientists and creatives talk about planes, axes, loops and striations, ages of ages, I find myself in the auratic realm of save as…, dwelling in the constant recording of motion, depth and time. Taking pictures, scribbling words, drawing maps and lines and symbols. We talk of Orkney as a model for the world. Everything has its overlay, the way we parse our experience with apps and books and wireless signals. Someone takes a phone call, posts a tweet. I scroll through the conference hashtag with the hostel WiFi, tracing the day through these crumbs of perspective, memories silently losing their fizz in the night.
I grew up by the sea, in Maybole, Ayrshire (with its ‘blue moors’, as W. S. Graham puts it), but a lot of my thalassic time was spent virtually. I loved video games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, where the narrative happened between islands, where much of the gameplay involved conducting voyages across the sea. The interstitial thrill of a journey. There were whirlpools, tornados, monsters rising from the deep. On Maidens Harbour, I could hardly reach that volcanic plug of sparkling granite, the Ailsa Craig, or swim out to Arran; virtually, however, I could traverse whatever limits the game had designed. The freedom in that, of exploring a world already set and scaled. Movement produced within constraint. In real life, mostly our bodies and minds constrain. What excites me now is what I took for granted then: the salt spray stinging my lips, the wind in my hair, the glint of shells bleached clean by the sea; a beautiful cascade of cliches that make us.
‘To wake up and really see things…passages from a neverland.’ Back in Glasgow, fallen upon familiar nocturnal rhythms, I find myself craving the diurnal synchrony I achieved in Orkney. Sleepy afternoons so rich in milky light. The vibrational warmth of the ferry’s engine, activating that primitive desire for oil, the petrol smell at stations as my mother filled up the car for journeys to England. My life has often been defined by these journeys between north and south, born in Hertfordshire but finding an early home in Ayrshire. Swapping that heart for air, and all porosity of potential identity. Laura Watt talked of her work as an ethnographer, interviewing the people of Orkney to find out more about their experiences of energy, the way infrastructural change impacts their daily lives, their health, their business. Within that collaboration, she tells us, there’s also a sense of responsibility: stories carry a personal heft, something that begs immunity from diffusion. Some stories, she says, you can’t tell again. The ethics of care there. I wonder if this goes the same for stone, the stories impregnated within the neolithic rocks we glimpse on Orkney. Narrative formations lost to history’s indifferent abstraction, badly parsed by present-day humans along striated lines, evidence of fissure and collision. All that plastic the ocean spits back, co-evolutions of geology and humans. Plastiglomerates along the shore. But Orkney feels pure and relatively litter-free, so goes my illusions, my sense of island exceptionalism. I become more aware of the waste elsewhere. The only person I see smoking, in my whole time there, is a man who speeds his car up Kirkwall’s high street. Smoke and oil, the infinite partners; extraction and exhaustion, the smouldering of all our physical addictions. Nicotine gives the body a rhythm, a spike and recede and a need.
We learn of a Microsoft server sunk under the sea, adjacent to Orkney. There’s enough room in those computers, according to a BBC report, to store ‘five million movies’. And so the cloud contains these myriad worlds, whirring warm within the deep. Minerals, wires and plastics crystallise the code of all our text and images. Apparently the cooler environment will reduce corrosion. I remember the shipyard on Cumbrae, another island; its charnel ground of rusted boats and iron shavings. The lurid brilliance of all that orange, temporal evidence of the sea’s harsh moods, the constant prickle of salt in the air. The way it seems like fire against all those cool flakes of cerulean paint. I wrote a blog post about that shipyard once, so eager to mythologise: ‘Billowing storms, sails failing amidst inevitable shipwreck. It’s difficult to imagine such disasters on this pretty island, yet there is an uncanny sense to this space, as if we have entered a secret porthole, discovered what was supposed to be invisible to outsiders…The quietness recalls an abandoned film set’. Does tourism lend an eerie voyeurism to the beauty we see, conscious of these objects, landscapes and events being photographed many times over? Perhaps the mirage of other islands and hills glimpsed over the blue or green is more the aura of our human conceptions, archival obsession—the camera lights left buzzing in the air, traced for eternity.
I come to Orkney during a time of transition, treading water before a great turn in my life. Time at sea as existential suspension. There have been some departures, severings, personal hurts, burgeoning projects and new beginnings. A great tiredness and fog over everything. ‘Cells of fuel are fuelling cells’. At the conference, my brain teems with this rich, mechanical vocabulary: copper wires and plates and words for wattage, transmission, the reveries of innovation. There is a turning over, leaf after leaf; I fill up my book with radials, coal and rain. My mind attains a different altitude. I think mostly about the impressions that are happening around me: the constant flow of conversation, brought in again as we move between halls and rooms, bars and timelines in our little human estuaries. We visit Stromness Academy, to see Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’: a seven-metre rendition of lunar sublimity, something to stand beneath, touch, lie under. I learn the word for the moon’s basaltic seas is ‘Maria’, feel eerily sparked, spread identity into ether. We listen, quietly, in the ambient dark, taking in composer Dan Jones’ textures of sound, the Moonlight Sonata, the cresting noise of radio reports—landings from a future-past, a lost utopia.
On Friday night, Katy and I catch the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. Sleep on my cinema seat has a special intensity, a falling through dreams so vivid they smudge themselves on every minute caught between reading and waking. Jarman’s gardens enrich my fantasy impressions, and I slip inside the micro print, the inky paragraphs. I dream of oil and violets and sharp desire, a pearlescent ghost ship glimmer on a raging, Romantic sea. Tides unrealised, tides I can’t parse with my eyes alone; felt more as a rhythm within me. Later, on land I will miss that oceanic shudder, the sense of being wavy. I have found myself like this before, chemically enhanced or drunk, starving and stumbling towards bathrooms. We share drinking tales which remind me of drowning, finding in the midst of the city a seaborne viscosity of matter and memory, of being swept elsewhere. Why is it I always reach for marinal metaphor? Flood doors slam hard the worlds behind me. There are points in the night I wake up and check my phone for the time, noticing the lack of GPRS, or otherwise signal. I feel totally unmoored in those moments, deliciously given to the motioning whims of the ferry. Here I am, a passenger without place. We could be anywhere, on anyone’s ocean. I realise my privilege at being able to extract pleasure from this geographic anonymity, with a home to return to, a mainland I know as my own. The ocean is hardly this windswept playground for everyone; many lose their lives to its terminal desert. Sorrow for people lost to water. Denise Riley’s call to ‘look unrelentingly’. I sip from my bottle, water gleaned from a tap in Orkney. I am never sure whether to say on or in. How to differentiate between immersion and inhabitation, what to make of the whirlwinds of temporary dwelling. How to transcend the selfish and surface bonds of a tourist.
The little islands of our minds reach out across waves, draw closer. I dream of messages sent from people I love, borne along subaquatic signals, a Drexciya techno pulsing in my chest, down through my headphones. My CNS becomes a set of currents, blips and tidal replies. A week later, deliriously tired, I nearly faint at a Wooden Shijps gig, watching the psychedelic visuals resolve into luminous, oceanic fractals. It’s like I’m being born again and every sensation hurts, those solos carried off into endless nowhere.
Time passes and signal returns. We wake at six and head out on deck to watch the sunrise, laughing at the circling gulls and the funny way they tuck in their legs when they fly. These seabirds have a sort of grace, unlike the squawking, chip-loving gulls of our hometowns, stalking the streets at takeaway hour. The light is peachy, a frail soft acid, impressionist pools reflecting electric lamps. I think of the last lecture of the conference, Rachel Dowse’s meditations on starlings as trash animals, possessing a biological criticality as creatures in transition. I make of the sky a potential plain of ornithomancy, looking for significant murmurations, evidence of darkness to come. But there is nothing but gulls, a whey-coloured streak of connected cumulus. The wake rolls out behind us, a luxurious carpet of rippling blue. We are going south again. The gulls recede. Aberdeen harbour is a cornucopia of infrastructure, coloured crates against the grey, with gothic architecture looming through morning mist behind.
Later I alight at the Waverley Steps again. Roddy in my ear, ‘Let the light be mined away’. My time on the island has been one of excavation and skimming, doing the work of an academic, a tourist, a maker at once. Dredging up materials of my own unconscious, or dragging them back again, making of them something new. Cold, shiny knowledge. The lay of the heath and bend of bay. I did not get into the sea to swim, I didn’t feel the cold North rattle right through my bones. But my nails turned blue in the freezing wind, my cheeks felt the mist of ocean rain. I looked at maps and counted the boats. I thought about what it must be like to cut out a life for yourself on these islands.
Home now, I find myself watching badly-dubbed documentaries about Orkney on YouTube, less for the picturesque imagery than the sensation of someone saying those names: Papay, Scapa, Eday, Hoy. Strong names cut from rock, so comforting to say. I read over the poems of Scotland’s contemporary island poets, Jen Hadfield for Shetland, Niall Campbell for Uist. Look for the textures of the weather in each one, the way they catch a certain kind of light; I read with a sort of aggression for the code, the manifest ‘truth’ of experience— it’s like cracking open a geode. I don’t normally read like this, leaving my modernist cynicism behind. I long for outposts among rough wind and mind, Campbell’s ‘The House by the Sea, Eriskay’: ‘This is where the drowned climb to land’. I read about J. H. Prynne’s huts, learn the word ‘sheiling’. Remember the bothies we explored on long walks as children. There’s a need for enchantment when city life churns a turbulent drone, so I curl into these poems, looking for clues: ‘In a fairy-tale, / a boy squeezed a pebble / until it ran milk’ (Hadfield, ‘The Porcelain Cliff’). Poetry becomes a way of building a shelter. I’m struck with the sense of these poets making: time and matter are kneaded with weight and precision, handled by pauses, the shape-making slump of syntax. Energy and erosion, elemental communion. Motion and rest. My fragile body becomes a fleshwork of blood and bone and artery, hardly an island, inclined to allergy and outline, a certain porosity; an island only in vain tributary. I write it in stanzas, excoriate my thoughts, reach for someone in the night. I think about how we provide islands for others, ports in a storm. Let others into our lives for temporary warmth, then cast ourselves out to sea, sometimes sinking.
Why live on an island? In Orkney we were asked to think with the sea, not against it. To see it not as a barrier but an agential force, teeming with potential energy. Our worries about lifestyle and problematic infrastructure, transport and connection were playfully derided by a local scholar as ‘tarmac thinking’. Back in a city, I’ve carried this with me. The first time I read The Outrun was in the depths of winter, 2016, hiding in some empty, elevated garrett of the university library. I’d made my own form of remoteness; that winter, more than a stairwell blocked me off from the rest of existence. Now, I read in quick passages, lively bursts; I cycle along the Clyde at night and wonder the ways in which this connects us, its cola-dark waters swirling northwards, dragged by eventual tides. I circle back to a concept introduced by anthropologists at Rice University, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, ‘sister cities of the Anthropocene’: the idea that our cities are linked, globally, by direct or vicarious physical flows of waste, energy and ecological disaster. This hydrological globalisation envisions the cities of the world as a sort of archipelago, no metropolis safe from the feedback loops of environmental causality, our agency as both individuals and collectives. On Orkney, we were taught to think community as process, rather than something given. I guess sometimes you have to descend from your intellectual tower to find it: see yourself in symbiosis; your body, as a tumbled, possible object: ‘All arriving seas drift me, at each heartbreak, home’ (Graham, ‘Three Poems of Drowning’).
The kind of cold that’s purifying, that fills your lungs like sea-water sloshing inside the mouth of a cave. So it’s hard to breathe, but cutting through the breath is a sweet feeling, preciously there in the swift struggle that settles on calm. I go out at night and the cold air is a shot of adrenaline; I walk ultra fast, making hard strides across asphalt that sparkles with salt in the fierce moonlight. This is a month of much stress and panic but also relief. Resolving to make new friends, even though each time I worry about who will leave next; the cyclical press of everyone coming and going, memory hanging on a thin noose I can’t quite tauten, snap and break. I fall through it as light falls through a halo. I feel feathery and weird, writing nonsense in the morning to delay the inevitable rise from bed—a snap of cold, of spine and mind. I love the old ones, look forward to new.
We’re up late and I watch things unfold, messenger blue. At work, I run upstairs to watch Out Lines perform down below, an incredible light show glistering with swirls of lilac and white. It’s gorgeous and dramatic, genuinely breathtaking. I watch from the gallery as sonorous and sinuous beautiful voices mingle in a room full of awe. I feel sobered, grateful to just be, watching a few songs before inevitably I must return to work, to count the till and smell the coppery aura of tired old pennies. I see Julien Baker perform in LP Records, filling the tiny room with her massive voice; a voice that could start car alarms, make cracks in the concrete, tear up the numbness that governs the daily. It’s the voice of a heart too big for its ribs, a heart throbbing against the cruelties of existence, spreading hope on a room of friends and strangers. She covers Audioslave’s ‘Doesn’t Remind Me’ in honour of Chris Cornell, and for weeks after I hear that refrain, over and over, Cause it doesn’t remind me of anything. And I wonder what it means, and what sort of list I’d make in lieu of Cornell’s lyrics (‘gypsy moths’, ‘radio talk’, ‘driving backwards in the fog’, ‘canned applause’), planning a poetry exercise but then finding all the same that even the world’s waste is entangled for me. Maybe I will get older and find little daily voids to give my mind too. For now, even a tree is too heavy with everything. I can’t talk about Pokémon without getting misty-eyed over my youth.
Strange personal things make momentary ripples in reality. I fall asleep at work, heroin-heavy, in a hoard of recollected dreamscapes; I get up at 3:30am to attend a conference in St. Andrews, ‘Cultivating Perspectives on Landscape’. The sky above the River Eden is this dramatic topaz cutting into azure, argent wisps of cloud streaking the horizon. Without realising, I pass by a friend’s house. I watch from the train window in total awe; delirious on the earliness of it all, the quiet, the light on the soft waves rolling and rolling. I could be on this train forever, even though waiting at the station for changes makes my fingers seize up with the cold. I’m reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, gloved fingers clutching its paperback skin and pulling pages back with a hunger within. He describes the absolute cold of the mountains, the physical heft and sense of pure reward—not from summit but from sheer movement, the panoramas unfolding around you, the mountain that gets under your skin, the scale and sublime you practically inhale. Landscape glitters with detail; Macfarlane has a vocabulary that makes you feel as though in reading you were picking over some deluxe smorgasbord of words. Learning and learning in the lilt and fall of his complex rhythms. It is the right thing to read at these freezing stations, taking me elsewhere entirely, sharing my sense of embodied limit. I arrive at Leuchers around 8am, the sun just coming up over flat plains, a total burnished, scolding orange. Later, I find myself wandering a herb garden with lovely strangers, crushing rosemary between fingers and ruminating on narratives of scent. A very clever academic gives a lecture on classics and lively stones. On the train home, everyone is drunk and teenage boys crack cans and discuss girls with a coarseness I’d sort of forgotten existed. I sit opposite two guys in their late twenties who discuss their mutual careers as accountants, and I feel blessed to be outside such existence: paid-for parties, gym memberships, brutal team meetings, deadlines, spreadsheets, rapturous conversations about the latest tablet. I buy a bottle of Talisker Skye on the way up Sauchiehall Street, warm my cockles on the space-heater and do sun salutations to boost circulation. Already, several friends have left for Australia.
Frequently, there’s a brain fever, an ache in the body. I am ill for much of this month, but there is a day when I wake up better and clearer and it is like taking a drug. Health. Temporary sense of invincibility. Sad things happen, secrets reveal, sordid truths fill up the news. A man I knew died in a terrible accident. People have far harder lives than I.
The floor in the restaurant where I work starts coming up, splitting apart like something is rising from underneath. I carry food, traversing the crevice, Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk the Line’ playing over in my head. It’s so disorientating that sometimes I forget this is something I do every day, just carrying plate after plate, cups and mugs and cutlery. Tracing the usual trajectories. I come in two days later and somebody has smoothed out the crack. It feels like a violence that never happened.
When people are drunk, they tell too much. Sharing melancholy joy till six in the morning. It’s good, but how much of that are you allowed to revisit sober?
The exhibition/installation I’d been helping out with for months took place. The Absent Material Gateway. I think of it as a sort of portal to extra reality, a space where you can relish the intensity of elsewhere, let it split apart your senses for ten minutes—long enough to let sound and light rush through you, to conjure the ruptures that remain for weeks afterwards, never quite healing as even the quotidian fills them with usual slush. Nothing feels completely fabricated, but rather it’s a blurring of what we think of as real—how we encounter objects. Here, the weird things shimmer in dramatic strobe and seem to act upon you; these lively, alien pieces of matter. Scrap parts gleaming with mysterious power. The Lanark Artefax gig at the end of it blows my mind. I’m sipping straight vodka piled up with ice in a freezing dark room at The Glue Factory, but as soon as those first trademark stammering pulses start fracturing stars and synths and the melancholy strings with eerie samples hold back, suspend, then rush underneath…It’s a landscape elsewhere that is momentarily, totally immersive. I think of matter crackling at microscopic levels, or else grand panoramas of mountains bathed in alien starlight. Cities that smoulder with smoke, hovering drones and dramatic cracks in the side of cliffs whose insides fissure with poisoned earth. I think of ancient ruins through doctored photographs, angles of time dissolving with the phantasmic drift of a passing graphic, numbers running in algorithmic digits, pixels melting to colour smudge, then ether. Glitches. It is all of a shuddering. The audience are truly glued, despite being charged up on all the free Red Bull. All the sound cuts through so every normal thought is in shards, afloat. It’s one of the few genuinely sublime experiences of my life. I walk back in the cold rain, feeling emotional, drained, intense and electric. When I close my eyes to sleep I see nothing but strobe.
I have dreams of Styrofoam palaces, trains that keep leaving without me, layers of skin I could scour off my body.
There was a talk on Mark Fisher at Glasgow Autonomous Space called ‘Acid Communism’, and I got to dwell awhile in the comforting, baffling whorls of radical theory. I spent all month talking about Fisher to numerous people. Sent lots of excited emails and prepared my PhD application. Ideas started ravelling and overlapping and tightening. This whole sprawling project set out before me; I felt ambitious and still feel as though this is something that maybe I could actually achieve. Build this thing that I’ve set out in rough blueprint. I am energised, thoroughly, by the words of others.
We launched SPAM Presspamphlets (Dan Power’s Predictive Text Poems and Ryan Jarvis’ Tesseract Life) at Good Press and bought quantities of Lambrini for the occasion. Life is a whole lot of walking past Kelvingrove Art Gallery at one in the morning, sharing nightclub horror stories, gently reminiscing and falling asleep so the ink in the pen leaks over your duvet. I realise Greenock has a well lush Lidl, my cousin releases a single and it ramps up over 130,000 Spotify hits in a week. It’s funny, remembering her on our old sofa aged fourteen playing ‘Face for the Radio’ on my brother’s out-of-tune guitar, that lovely voice at its first nurturing. Now she’s on a billboard. We have the same nose.
I feel blessed by the blue days, the clear blue days, that come a couple times a month and even when I am too tired to leave before dark it is good just to know that out there things are bright and good. After graduation, we visit Luss and the sky is already at the brink of gloaming, this luminous lilac that blooms over the hills. I watch the nicoline light on the land across the water, over the heads of Japanese tourists unseasonably out snapping pics on the pier. Watch the city blossom back into shape across the motorway, an inverse meadow of delicious twinkles, listening to John Martyn in my father’s car. I feel calm, setting out to meet friends and discussing everything, sloshing a cheeky amaretto.
I revisit A Perfect Circle, Sun Kil Moon and Sufjan Stevens as the nights draw in too close and there is barely six hours of workable daylight. Something stirs from the past, but I crush the feelings like crisp dead leaves underfoot. I drift around, inhaling woodsmoke and missing the countryside. People leave curious furniture out on the street. A maximalist dolls-house, scattered by the city’s ruthless refusal to deal with its waste. New systems spring up around old objects. Ecosystems are complex and recalcitrant, their musty materiality seductive. Something hits me, occasionally, and it’s implacable, otherworldly. Space in my head that could be anywhere, everywhere, either. Even the streets feel bruised. My brother leaves for Australia and I think of him flying over a bright bright blue. All these people will bronze as I fall farther white into china paleness, sipping peppermint tea and crunching almonds between teeth. These people that go travelling, they leave me lilac eyeshadow, mint-cream nail varnish, memories and jumpers they won’t need anymore. I feel the roots tug and shuffle, sprawl beneath me in new formations. Endless scroll of Instagram posts. The last leaves cling to more paranoid trees, lamp-lit in sodium glow on the long walks home. Shops fill up with fairy lights, glitter and sprigs of fir. I can’t tune to the lure. Christmas is still a word I’m trying to deal with, a lonely lonely tinsel litany.
Saint Sister – Blood Moon
ARK – Made for Us
Alela Diane – Hazel Street
S. Carey – Fool’s Gold
Tiny Ruins – Old as the Hills
Adrian Crowley – Long Distance Swimmer
Sufjan Stevens – The Hidden River of My Life
Sun Kil Moon – Sunshine in Chicago
Julien Baker – Doesn’t Remind Me (Audioslave cover)
Time is a stopped drumbeat tonight; it is the remnant of old Halloween feeling. Singular childhood memories: salt-crisp toasts in the shape of witch hats, chocolate spiders, fireworks; a plastic bag snagged on a tree, resembling the gossamer trace of someone’s soul. Pumpkin seeds sprinkled paprika, oven-roasted. Surrender to central heating. I close my eyes to desolate parking lots where the wind buffers round and round in the thick-whorled conch of my ears, which have not heard enough in their time; filled with white noise and melodies honeying the sore parts to moan or depart. We talked about feeling passionate or just not at all and long communications across channels across waters and distances of spacetime unfathomable to the little things beating in our chest that were tender of fibre and sinew, blood and bone. Heart attack, absence. A craving for airports, places of arrival and departure. Erase all communion. At the very least, some ferry terminal where the rain lashes my face and it’s like being born again and over and over–the way a shell is each time the tide unfurls some granules of sand in ribboning form, sweeping layers of time back over the nacreous skin. A white shape looming chltulu from darkness, from blue. Suddenly nostalgic for everything; days where less pressed upon the brain, where a deep abyss still made its outward ripples around me. The wake of a ferry, see the whitening arabesques of that line. Days sloshed out with delicious, ice-deprived, inexpensive whisky. The blurriness of alcohol a delay, an appeal. Repeat. Too many nights lost in flats without sense of an ending, every corridor a wind tunnel. Cycling home the abstraction. Best to present this as fact or fiction?
Bursts of prose, aches and pains behind the ears, deep in the muscle and bones. Getting harder to cling to routine. The nights draw in malevolently, extravagant in their darkness. Things to look forward to seem less and less. Sometime you come home; you come home and there’s a version of home I swim through, salt stung and sober but nonetheless longing for home. Less lost tracing same old routes, longing for the everywhere nowhere of hill mist and sea fog, rivers you step in forever for each time is another, another. Moss between cracks in the patio driveway. Keep mesmerising beats still close to sleep. Fabricate reality.
Spent inordinate quantities of time this month listening to Elliott Smith. Sad pale lullabies from a lonely Los Angeles. I pace these streets, pretending they’re boulevards. The only palms here are ugly, reedy, hardy. Stop wearing liner because regardless the irises stream. The wet leaves gather and stick and are swept into gutters. Gelid, compact. Packed into bags. I don’t know where they go, where the end is.
We put the radiators on for the first time since spring.
Autumn requires more indulgence in pleasure. Thickening of the flesh. I buy spice and wait for sweet potatoes to warm on the stove, thinking of how music creates space and it’s space that I need—so much space and space. Space is space is space. Where strings elasticate the littler twinges of pain, I’m counting the falling beats of a piano far from my room, far steadier than the twitches of dreamcatcher feathers above my bed. Tidal sighs. Voice grows frailer with audience, chance Saturdays off work recounting old lines in the sea pace of rain that steadies the brain in concrete roads. The opening chords, like coming home. Dusk slowly loses its dramatic autumnal sense of transition. Winter steals ruthlessly, magpie glitches of silver light. My hair dulls against the cognac gold of the leaves, their magical lambent light. My skin gathers sapphires, latticed and laced with violet blue, violent hues. Bumping my legs on things in my room because it is all too small, dollhouse small & ever shrinking; the arrangement of objects and clutter and books that spill over and spaghetti tangles of words I can’t follow because sleep might steal me. Words, words. Lurid in sentence through sentence. Sleep is a sort of ache you have to embrace for the sake of refreshing, a scab you can’t pick off the physical. I might dream of tomorrow then fold back on the future. Sentences come in again, re-calibrate time. I wake up frozen or burning; or I stay up late, stay up beyond human time, missing summer’s songbirds in the garden. It is all too cloudy, shivery, silent. What time is it wherever you are? The maps provide little flavour; I cannot orientate myself on those pastel colours. Still, there is a durational beauty to everything we speak of, itching towards light with crisp new lines. A photograph, then words. White upon deep, messenger blue. What doesn’t feel borrowed, what feels mystically distinct and uncertain. It’s lovely. Confessionals kept abstract as always. So many meetings with those who inspire. Except there’s the dread. How can you hold so many words in your head?
I make notes on the moods in work the way you would weather. There is often a pattern, a miasmatic misery catching. A cold front coming. Hysterics and dashboard laughter. Smashed glass. Not even a full moon and still the weirdos flock in with awful demands: this wouldn’t happen in St. Andrews! I picture myself between two places; oscillations of identity with a flareup of possible rupture. Between two needs. She says there is something deeply wrong, a pang out of sync with the rest of her body. Is it possible to be this body without organs? For you are all fingers and bruises, lashing trellis of glitter and breath. There was a hurricane that buffeted our ill-equipped figures, our red raw fingers. You could hear the wind flapping in the scaffolding like the masts of a ship. I walked west alone, the cold so hot in my throat. Strangers asking me where to dance. Plug up the volume. When the trippier synths came in, eloquent cross rhythms coasting, the serenity would cure this feverish dreams. Too many tenses tangled. Stifling coughs in working clubs, watching a friend make music on telly. Fairy lights blinking out of sync. A sudden swelling pride over the fact that such beautiful things can exist. His reticence, his crazed expression. What was it she said? We can’t have nice things, that’s why we lose them. It’s true, they slip away from you; or else we’ll drop them like keys down the drain. Maybe that’s okay, maybe that’s the best part, the losing and leaving and dwelling in pain. O sweet naivety. Everyone is leaving. I would hurl my keys in the sea for you.
Far away on a rooftop smarting my brain on the stars and learning to drink again.
I walk home in the lost hour and screaming teenagers costume the streets with vague and avid despair or else carnivalesque they paint dawn with hilarious shadow.
=> Switching the radio on at six in the morning haven’t slept yet & what comes on just another crap Motown no. recalling fresh restaurant hell… <=
UNIT. UNIT. UNIT. // these misdirectives I will follow forever not knowing, not knowing. She sounds a bit like Bjork when you turn the sound right up to a shrill; a brittleness threatening to shatter all that is cool and sound and sound. She is pure sound. She is bitterer, sweeter.
I wonder how long to lose a day to a train? Somehow the north beckons: the sense of my smallness; a need to be swaddled in brisk wind, sea smell, true Scottish frost…may we bury our feelings in negative hypothermal versions of now…but for now I can only look forward to seeing Com Truise on Thursday & drown out & drown out…
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.
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?
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.