[I wrote this a while ago, back in April and long before Oberst’s recent gig at the ABC which frankly deserves an essay in itself. I wasn’t going to post it–it’s possibly super cringe-worthy–but hobbling along on the last leg of my dissertation it felt imperative to get something positive out into the world.]
It’s possible that I first discovered Conor Oberst and his (un)merry band Bright Eyes in that most prosaic of millennial ways: via a LimeWire download, a MySpace page, some cloud-space long since lost to the ether. I found myself burning the songs on my iPod, where they sat uneasily alongside my favourite embarrassing emo bands, with an excitement almost spiritual. If The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan was the first album I ever bought with my own money, then I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was the first album that took me truly someplace else. It seemed a statement, a declaration of pure being; its very title rattled my too-thin bones. I listened to it and suddenly I understood my mother’s love for country tunes.
I came to the record a tad late, two years after its release, but it felt like it had been around forever. I’d never heard anything like it. There’s the first song, ‘At The Bottom Of Everything’, with its initiating slurp of soda, its meandering narrative about a woman who finds herself talking to a stranger on a plane as they plunge to their deaths in ‘the largest ocean on planet Earth’; the way it kickstarts into a rollicking country tune, a song for the woman’s imaginary birthday. The way those chilling lyrics about capital punishment, guns, technology and death could be set to this upbeat, catchy melody; it gets me every time. I used to go on long walks and it was springtime, the lambs out in the fields around the Ayrshire town where I grew up. I remember feeling so damn sad my ribs ached with it, but there was still the daffodils and the chickens, the bright green grass too green for my eyes. Something about the song captured that tension of sorrow and sweetness so well. It’s almost a paean to the demise of everything; a reminder that we all must die, that we daily kill each other and ourselves just by being alive.
Believe it or not, this realisation can be liberating. Oberst ironically celebrates the ‘wonderful splash’; his father ‘loads his guns’ while his mother ‘waters plants’. The whole song has this duality of birth and death, regenerating. A search for the sublime, for the next realm: ‘we must run, we must run, we must run’. The song begins with this image of the plunge, but refuses an easy, explainable ending: ‘we must rip out all the epilogues in the books that we have read’. It’s how I felt about life. I wanted that transcendent pull into another realm, but I didn’t want it to be explained or over; I wanted to prolong the possibility of that ending as much as I wanted it altogether. The oceanic imagery extends to the very ‘city buses’ which are ‘swimming past’ as the singer wakes up: ‘I’m happy just because / I found out I am really no one’. Isn’t this the liberation? That we can be fragments of matter, anonymously lost in the waves, the churn, the world’s strange, all-consuming waters?
The thing about Bright Eyes is that often they’re slapped with the emo label, but emo doesn’t have to mean a fetishised stylisation of sadness and suicide, the old ‘cut my wrists and black my eyes’ favoured by bands with alliterative names (I’m looking at you, Hawthorne Heights). Here, mixed with the pastoral invigorations of country, emo is just a cleansing of pain. There’s something so spiritually pure about that image: ‘death will give us back to God / Just like this setting sun is returned to the lonesome ocean’, the way the bright tones of those chords lick joyfully around it. I would listen over and over again to this song, obsessed with the way Oberst tells the introductory narrative with his lightly pensive intonation, the way of a storyteller in a bar addressing ardent listeners. From then on, I was hooked. I needed Oberst’s lyrics to tell me the tale of my own soul; it was a kind of immersive, boozy, eye-opening religion.
It sounds cliché and dramatic but at fifteen, sometimes it takes music to encourage you to live. The songs on I’m Wide Awake are often wistful, world-weary, lilting in their tales of disconnection, war, lovelorn mourning. You can read them easily against the context of the Iraq War, of Oberst’s utter disillusionment with the Bush administration, the yearning for something more than the era’s obsessive consumerism, cheap culture, ersatz spectacle: ‘on the way home I held your camera like a bible / just wishing so bad that it held some kind of truth’. I was struck by so many images: ‘and just when I get so lonesome I can’t speak / I see some flowers on a hillside, like a wall of new TVs’. The way he captured a poet’s Romantic perception contaminated by the fresh plastic and metal of postmodern society. A disenchantment with the world of things. I started experiencing the world with this layered, visionary quality. Maybe everyone else got their earliest fix from Sylvia Plath or the great nostalgic sorrow of F. Scott Fitzgerald or gut-wrenching movies about the decay of dreams, but before all that I had Bright Eyes.
At the heart of the album is ‘Lua’, a plaintive story about the lonely connectivity of New York City, the revolving door of gluttonous nocturnal parties followed by listless and painful mornings. The minimalist strums of an acoustic guitar accompany Oberst’s warbling voice as he documents the little quotidian moments which keep him going: ‘when everything is lonely I can be my own best friend / I get a coffee and a paper have my own conversation’. It’s a ballad about everyday survival, though draped in the cold indifference of society, the freezing streets, the strange truth that ‘What was normal in the evening / By the morning seems insane’. On the worst days I used to walk around the back of my school listening to this, trying to work out the story it told. I wondered who the girl was, the one who looked ‘skinny like a model’, who kept ‘going to the bathroom’. Was she an addict? Did she make herself sick? Was she pregnant, deranged, confused? The song itself felt bulimic, rendering that rhythm between excess and bareness, the indulgence in oblivion that only really leads to the blank reality of the morning after, the moment after the binge and purge when yes you have to sit there and deal with yourself. I liked the easy way the singer relates to the girl, ‘Well it takes one to know one kid / I think you’ve got it bad’. I thought of old cowboy films, a sort of loose camaraderie amongst the lost and fallen. For a while, I lived in black and white. I wasn’t quite ready to see the sparkling hillside flowers, the ruby of wine, the yellow bird, the blue Atlantic Ocean. I wanted cigarettes, vodka, darkness and the strange clarity of water amidst starvation. This was a formula I knew and loved, though gradually it broke me.
I’m Wide Awake taught me ways to feel whole again. To actually see these beautiful, ruinous, distant landscapes and the lives within them: the ‘New York skyline’, the promise of ‘explosion’; of howling weather, ‘sorrowful rain’, the ‘high rise’ from which glory can still be sung (and this is all from just one song). It was all about letting yourself go to the moment, realising you’re alive, wide awake, somehow open to the world. Feeling yourself caught between the media that consume you, ‘Looking for something / To open my eyes’. I prised myself from the shell of self-hate and had a good hard look at the world. It was hazy, it was a little blurred at the edges. I wanted to fall in love in the way that makes you realise that everything before was blindness; I wanted to drive ‘all night’ to meet someone in the morning. Maybe I didn’t, not then, not really. I guess I fell in love with something else. I fell into the voice, the images, the stories. It was like all the heartbreaking narratives of death and loss and regret that ever existed came together at once in one song. I thought about my friend who lost her dad quite suddenly to cancer and the girl I knew online, aged nineteen, who nearly died curled up with a heart attack from not eating; I thought about all the people I loved but could never quite get to.
‘The end of paralysis / I was a statuette / Now I’m drunk as hell / On a piano bench’. There’s this awesome catharsis to Oberst’s music, the way his voice breaks into a wail or a shout, how the rhythms come crashing down around him. It’s that sense of crumbling I could suddenly relate to. Crumbling into drunkenness. Feeling so liberated you could wrap your arms round someone who felt warm and strong or run across the abandoned racecourse at night or sit on the last train home crying freely because why not, why not? The only people around me were old men, alcoholics—just as lonely as I was.
This is an album haunted by a foreign war, by the tale of the midwesterner’s broken New York fairy tale, by figures of love and pain and despair. The raspy edge of Oberst’s voice is beautifully complimented by the lovely croons of Emmylou Harris and Maria Taylor, by sweet acoustic arpeggios and the occasional burst of raucous, full-band blues. There’s an impulse towards oblivion that leaves the singer feeling stranded on land, longing for the freedom represented by just leaving. The songs are self-aware, referencing the pains and tribulations of music itself, the travelling songs that document our basic human scream for change and connection, bound by a misplaced longing for love and home and belonging. Again and again I go back to it, sifting the songs for those threads of emotion that tease out the sorrows of past and present. I go back to it and each time am startled by some new image that catches my eye, some wisp of despair or moment of joy. Lines like ‘The sun came up with no conclusion’ are poetry, pure and simple. I find them invading my everyday life, drifting on by like advertising slogans, flakes of paint, little flares of pure colour that give sense and purpose to the world.
Oberst has gone solo now, riding on the back of some solid albums. I finally got to see him live back in February, at Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. The last song he played was ‘At The Bottom of Everything’, the only song that people got off their seats to dance to. I’m not sure what that says about the current state of the universe, but I think it’s something to do with that melancholy joy, the power of music to remake our sadness into something collective, rousing, powerful. Our need for that intuitive connection, the thing that transcends the text message, the inane commentary of social media, the ubiquitous trills of our smartphones. The thing that makes us want to screech our heads off at the absurdity of everything, the way Oberst does on the album’s closer, ‘Road to Joy’. Listening from the balcony, I pictured my teenage self, wandering those fields; as lost to history’s indifference as the girl that’s writing this, looking out at a city street. It’s a strangely liberating feeling, feeling the nowhere of now.
N A R C O P A S T O R A L
(written between 1-4am, in the mood of Gilded Dirt)
‘No shepherd, no pastoral’ — Leo Marx
Let us begin at the dawn of the internet. A story of packet networking, government departments, protocol suites and business decisions made in the cloaked, air-conditioned hum of boardrooms. No, this is boring. Let us fall three stories through the hyperlinked portals of a Tumblr archive, our minds caught in the dopamine rush; nothing comparable. These colours, the bronzed flesh of beautiful strangers (who aren’t even models!)! A doubling of exclamation, a doubling of desire. I have crushed many harmless cartons of Ribena while thinking of your sweetly dripping smile. Talk to me O Web, nobody else will; I see only a shrouded reality, the silken flickers of a screen-bleached veil. Who leads the flock of the blind and hungry teenagers? What possible elaboration of data could draw them to utopias lost like that early neutrality of the net? Innocence perhaps is always (already?) fallen.
Why haven’t you replied to my text?
Derrida says everything is text. There is no outside-text. Look around you.
You know what I fucking mean.
All interaction is destined for a meme. History is full of them. Literature is interaction; the inevitable touching of finger and ink, perception and paper. Barthes says: ‘Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.’ I wish I’d written it on a postcard, instead of an internet bulletin. My god as if they even still called it that. Nothing one has to say earns the vital status of ‘bulletin’. It is all just discourse, levelled out, dank reality. Everything feels intimate and yet completely odd, alien, pointless. What was it Barthes found so sexy about language? A literal ache that feels like love, drawn to some other’s inward beam, the first brush against them, the leaf-like trembling. I’m writing crazy amounts and what brings me back to that electric surface is perhaps realising that everything underneath, every word I type, is basically at the core just binary. Night and day, will he notice me? Night and day, the rhythm passing through me, oozing.
Hell, I’m a millennial with minimum job security; whatever a quotidian rhythm is I’ve long since lost it with the bleed of light that steals through my blinds as I make my way into sleep. Too much coffee. The room an indigo blue of burst-through dawn. The birds are all around me, a whole garden full of them. One last time, checking twitter…
The little voices clutter the fields. Nobody is there to guide them; we are bound instead by characters, algorithms. You can’t write about pastoral unless the text in question deals with shepherds. Who are the shepherds of the internet? Perhaps we are, perhaps it is the panoptic site where we all gather, Pagan-like, earnest embrace of all illusory interfaces. Are we blind, clad in white, always in the service of our sheep? Endlessly tempting…We play lyres and sing earnestly of our unrequited love; we do it in the hallowed gardens of YouTube, where Blake would write of our purest impulses. We used to play quite happily among the shallow folds, so sweet in our greenness, uploading silly videos; we used to play before everything was just fucking advertising: ‘binding with briars, my joys & desires’. An ad for perfume, a woman’s throat in a chain-link choker. Advert for absinthe. Poison ivy crawls all over us and language just feels like a virus; I guess it’s because I’m well-acquainted with the dark work of coding. Underneath every word is the binary bleep, and I can’t help but think of sheep lost out in the cold. Life/death; the trajectories of rebirth. White and black; white on black, little white bodies in the black of the night. She will have a lamb and call it Microsoft.
You know what I…mean. (?)
Our generation are all lost sheep. How many times have the fences broken in the fields of the internet? What we crave isn’t freedom exactly—O how passé the frontier motif!—but some sort of comfort, a shelter from the barbed experience of the IRL everyday. Unstable jobs, cackling media, unrealistic body image etc etc. I made a list but every time the words compressed into et al, like I no longer needed the details. I wanted to draw back into something simpler; the garden of Eden being this nostalgic collection of nineties net art and noughties graphics, the kind of vibrant geometries you might find plastered over somebody’s Geocities. I gave up thinking my shepherd was Julian Assange, or some other white-faced genius set to wreck the world with his erasable visions of freedom.
We are in need of soothing. Gosh, Laura Marling even wrote a song about it. My God is brooding. I have lost the God. He or she is in a sulk. I retreat into a rhombus, the equilateral remembrance of shadow. My identity was never clear but soon I let it divulge further the strange truths of illusory discourse; let it slip into the sinkholes of forums and chatrooms, all these virtual spaces whose presence filtered through my everyday life. The whole experience overwhelming, of course. The amounting of so many avatars, each one a horcrux scattered beyond the bounds of thought. Becoming monstrous, evolving from beyond consciousness.
We continue to smoke, in defiance of death. How we study with interest the gore that plasters each anonymous cigarette packet: the foetus made of fag ashes, the man curled in cancerous agony upon a hospital bed, the baby absorbing its secondhand pathogens. We campaign for action on climate change yet continue to smoke. We are in this oscillating space; a recognised irony, the metallic taste of hypocrisy stinging our tongues even as we try to move beyond it.
There is a willing naivety in our longing for certain environments. What lush oasis amid the din of our dull city living? What ancient standing stone circle, what temple or gorgeous cathedral? The Hollywood canyons, the plastic palms of a Lana Del Rey video?
There must be also a willing imbibing of the polluted dream. Recognition that this is the Anthropocene; that the world is ending already and we are playing out the last vestiges of our human, our species’ mortality. Living with a kind of negative capability, accepting the state of corrupted beauty. What about the atmospheric acids that streak the sky with alluring tints? How we immortalise, fetishise that pink and orange, even as it signals our climate’s destruction? The damage to the earth moves slow, sinks through the soil, evolves with distorted DNA coding. The trick is to slow down with it, to ease into so many starry, imitation futures.
We must deliver empathy for other beings. We are both shepherd and sheep, guiding the world but also being guided by it; thrown awry at every turn by some new storm or war, some side effect of our reckless living. Consumerism secretly blasts the binary of subject/object, self/environment; quite literally, we become what we eat. I am an ice lolly, melting cherryade on the concrete heat of this too-warm city; my sticky residue is the sexless blood of the starved teenager, the catwalk model, the fearsome and damned. And yet sometimes I stand and smoke and think it means nothing. Saint Jimmy, O endearing memory of Green Day. The photographs on the packet do not remind me of death, but some abstraction of the body at its limits; an art exhibit poised to lift daily habit into the realm of the transmundane. I have waited at so many bus stops, cash points, queued in supermarkets for this.
Every time you snort cocaine I watch the blood burst in tiny wires, the inward capillaries. Somewhere someone is spraying pesticides on a field of coca plants in Mexico. How many times have I helped you with your goddamn nosebleeds?
For I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour
of my foolish youth, face in the window without name
without name. What was it Wordsworth said
about humanity? That still sad music is the soundtrack
to each brittle burst in the star of my heart. God knows
even in forests and rivers I miss you. Not even wine
is what it once was. Every sunset the colour of salsa,
and each night my tongue burns on the memory of chilli
while you are out there, susurrations of grass
and all the smashed glass you shoved in your fists
was silver petals and the edges crushed with the sap
of my love and I wanted to stick them together again.
Instead, I think about the stomachs of young boys, knotted with wire–iron and barbed. There are too many hormones in the milk they drink. Nobody bothered to nourish the cows. They were too busy caught up in period cramps. Pointless cycles of (un)reproduction.
Narcotic. Narco. That which has a tranquillising effect. Lorde on her new album singing in that sugary octave leap: the rush at the beginning. None of us can sleep without pills, without sex, without ASMR videos. These soothing colours and shapes; the ambient drag of background music, distorting our sense of imploding foreground, dissipating those ugly memories of time and space. All is levelled, all is darkness. We crave oblivion. Sometimes stranger, sometimes easy. We flirt with the past, have this mild addiction to nostalgia. We’re just looking for things to transcend with.
There are times when what is to be said looks out of the past at you—looks out like someone at a window and you in the street as you walk along. Past hours, past acts, take on an uncanny isolation; between them and you who look back on them now there is no continuity.
So begins Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam (1954). Trocchi was a heroin-addict. He knew the all-consuming tranquility of drugs, knew how writing could perform that strange inner split of self. When we write in the mode of the narco pastoral we are being chased by some older version, the 1.0 to our 2.0 dreams. When these memories hover, the girl that floats is never quite yourself. There is the sudden realisation of distinction. How far you have come, how low you plummeted. I am guided by the soporific waltz of a nineties video game. With its labyrinthine pathways I reach for the future–
Here, there’s this new podcast. Follow me. What follows:
Recipe for vapourwave: add the reverb, the transparent semiotics of the checkerboard floor (I fall four stories just to join you in bed), the swaying gif of exotic indoor aloes, the unfinished loop. Resounding, distorting. Casino glitches. Skin-cleansing, refreshing. Try out your luck. Cooper could run for a hundred jackpots. Pick a colour and follow a moodboard of sounds and slowly flowering samples. Imagine the Black Lodge. Watch disembodied relics from the eighties melt on the vinyl floor, down the plexiglass walls, the long-drowning faces superimposed on posters of pop-punk club nights and every neon a symbol for rave’s revival. The first time I listened to Aphex Twin was a bourbon-soaked kiss and somebody had burst glowsticks and flicked the liquid all over my bedroom, so when the lights went out it looked like so many pink and green stars. O holy dibutyl phthlalate, flurophore with your brilliant emission. The clicks and bleeps lived on in the pale yellow stains and in the morning I was suffering.
Early soundtrack of our forebears: Eels – Novacaine for the Soul. Oh my darling / Will you be here? Presentness is in deferral. We wait for each other, always aroused as the constant shivering upsets our nervous system. We crave things that ease the switched on quality, things that split apart the binary, leave us to the oblivion of off, if only temporarily. At least half of us are insomniac, up late waiting for the object of desire to make itself present. When red goes green.
Always online and yet never replies. Everything is text. I read his stream of thought in the run of my bath tap, calculating the relative water wastage in comparison to a daily shower. I wash my hair less and less. Mysterious pains pulse and twist in my ovaries like radio signals struggling to push out to the ether. There will be no fertility here. No flesh or grease. You gave me a pear wrapped in brown paper; but it soured on the window, grew a layer of fairy fur and I offered it to the shrine in my father’s garden—which already I have forgotten. I miss you, it’s clear. Not the grass, not the fine rich taste of its loam. Once I wore daisies in my hair, a long ago dream of a girl from something written by Laurie Lee. The girls then, they were clean and apple-sweet.
Solastalgia: ‘the pain or sickness caused by the loss of, or inability to derive, solace connected to the present state of one’s home environment’ (Glenn Albrecht). I am home, I am centred. My mother’s chair, or whatever. Yet nothing makes sense. I feel this network already filled up with death; I know every moment to be painfully imminent, displaced, the always-already. Even the mice in the piano, the jackdaws cawing in the chimney. Why can I not experience the present? My own soul feels washed up from the future; sometimes I glimpse a world underwater. I glaze over the orbital space of Google Maps, zoom up my street, see a light sabre left in the front garden. Someone flew over before me. The tree is gone; there are brambles sprawled in the driveway, the squashed pampas grass. I know this to be home.
We will move through twelve states to get there again. Hence, 12th World. This was concocted at the age of seven, under the influence of various toxic E numbers and a book of amateur spells. If you press the white keys of my keyboard, your fingers will burn a bright acid green. This isn’t my beautiful house, my beautiful room, my beautiful toys. Man, how I’ve missed you. The last time I cried in the garden it was May and so sunny, under the lilac tree I wept for my childhood clutching a miniature bottle of whisky.
How can one have pastoral when even home—even one’s roots—feel displaced, already lost, slipping away beneath one’s feet? Pastoral was never present. Pastoral was always the idealised space, the green and gold of a romanticised past or a future vision. To reach it you had to call on the Muses.
In the Anthropocene: corrupted pastoral. A druggy, chemical haze of the paradise garden. Everything spoiled, but the spoiling starting to manifest its long-term effect. Rocks made of plastic, all that washed-up sea glass replacing the ocean’s organic silt. Sand turned to glass and back to sand again, smoother wash of eternal form. For Terry Gifford, the pastoral is ‘an ancient cultural tool’; a form of ‘textual mediation’ which transmits something of our relationship to the world. Quite grandiosely he claims: ‘Today the very survival of our species depends upon, not just this debate itself, but our ability to find the right images to represent our way of living with, and within, what we variously characterise as “nature,” “earth,” “land,” “place,” “our global environment”’. Yes, it’s quite possible the pH levels of our souls are out of whack. But it isn’t as if we’ve lost the primal ability to connect with the nonhuman. Throw me out into the Lake District and I’ll melt quicker than my teenage self listening to her first Fionn Regan song; throw me in the Hollywood canyons and I’ll be that sparkle on a dust track highway to dreamland. Oh, is that Lana, tossing back her hair? I close my eyes (hello, Arthur Russell, I’m listening) and I see little dolphins leap through those huge silver hoops.
Somebody once said dub is spiritual music. Somewhere the Nirvana-drenched dreamlands of the fin de siecle found themselves washed up, an acid-tinged pastel they called seapunk. Parma Violets, the lilac flesh. A yin yang is sucked into a whirlpool; this an accurate portrayal of my heart’s trajectory when I think of you on a summer evening and the smell of garlic and violets and rollup cigarettes…Sun crisping the deep horizon. You can’t, I mean. There are chemicals in the water, poisoned sushi. Hormones. Her blue lips don’t signify illness, but something alien. There are pyramids on all the cassette tape covers, each one symbolising the ancient. Deep time, deep horizons, deep hot lust. Nobody has a deck on which to play them. This is all very beautiful, very visual; but we lack the machinery. The correct array of objects, severed from context on the transparent grid. The slow, elusive pulse of electronic beats. Tropocalypse, barnacle-studded skin. Lilac flesh, lilac rhinestones. Follow the arrows to the tender disco, smash out your tastebuds on packets of clean white chalk.
It’s Missingno, somewhere afloat on a stillborn ocean. I kept every one of those 99 Rare Candies. I thought maybe I’d see you one day, have the chance to catch you.
Hologram memory: swooooooon.
It was all fun until someone famous put our iconography in their music video. That’s the problem with narco pastoral; it’s pretty damn close to pop. There’s already enough sugar in the diet. Stuff you can’t just flush out with salt. It’s always on the radio.
Someone had a face cream made out of mussels. The inward silk cream, lightly scented with brine. It was nice, it kept everything smooth; it made the person smell very much like a wet sea rock. But none of this is much to do with shepherds. What is the dream? What keeps it pastoral?
Temptation of animals. Lana in her garden of Tropico, writhing around in repurposed imagery of Eden. Ginsberg richly lisping sin on her lips. I saw the best minds of my generation. Well pal I saw the best minds of my generation serving tables to rich octogenarians with straight faces and genuine kindness in their eyes. They drank and they tried to describe the ontological shift that characterised their seaborne being. The misty look. Here, have some Talisker whisky. As if something was always missing, the way they would look across the room, straight through every single one of those tables. Slight shaft of light, golden beam. Sundown. Everything always setting. Someone messing with their settings. I made every element turn black.
The sheep crossed my path and each one spotted the rubies that studded the rings of my eyes. Had I been crying, purging? For what were they searching, with their dead dark stares? Some expelling of matter on a vacuous Sunday morning. The summer wind bristled the broken pores of my skin. I was all that insignificant, even the farmer laughed at me. Pale-clothed, a red bracelet slipped from my wrist. I thought of myself as pure metonymy, this endless series of objects and how I hated the need to consume them. Every act of consuming was like eating an ending except there was never a divinity to the outside, the afterward. Just that sick lump in the stomach, the recalcitrance of matter unfortunate in its obstinate return. Why am I always reminded of what I have eaten? What is this rubbish that haunts me? The nastiness, the chewing and mulching? The burning?
Narco pastoral is friendly with trash. What is the wasted hour after the morphine hits? What smoulder…Forgotten hour destined to be unremembered, to lie suspended in the space between two moments. Consciousness as stream, severed or diverted. Lonesome tributaries. How this sunset will look purer because I’m certain to forget it. Sheep cannot cross water, not properly. There’s a tendency to sink. We linger in the shallows, swap vague cuds of data. Italo Calvino deems it ‘our dark cornucopia’, these leftovers we throw out, that vital gesture of abjection that allows me to divide one day from the next. But everything has already collapsed into one, become mulch. Will you lift me? I fear I have lost my name to a certain ceremony.
Narco pastoral: craving that soothing, that tranquillising return to what brightens the mood in the manner of childhood. If I roll over, mull around in the canyons of junk. They call this awe, they call this an uplift of personality. I think about the cactuses photographed for episodes of Breaking Bad and it makes me thirsty, all that aloe vera. The luxuriant dust of the desert, rising slowly at dawn when the wind lifts and something hangs in the air, about to happen. When I played SimCity2, my neighbourhoods got hit with brutal whirlpools. I guess that was Gaia. Gorgeous or vengeful, vixen of the frenzied, hurting Earth. I guess I’m always cheating and eventually the universe finds out. Decadence of the Edenic is irrevocably alien. You see I have spent so much time lying on my bedroom floor it has started to feel like a hay bale or a barn or a hillside or something. Needles hidden. I can almost smell the breeze, hear the unimpressed mews of sheep. I’m heartsick for farmer land, for a world I do not quite understand. You begged me to watch Glue because there was a murder and a slightly attractive character. I longed to plunge in a pool of grains and be sucked so slowly away. You are, you are…
When Lana trills I sing the body electric and somewhere in time Whitman is loafing under a willow tree. There’s Ben in Lerner’s 10:04, ‘already falling out of time’, reading an ‘American edition of Whitman, its paper so thin you could use it to roll cigarettes’. Trace textuality, turn to ashes. When Isobella Rossellini is beaten to an inch of her life and still looks beautiful and that’s the tragedy. All my moods hued in blue. When the rasping sounds come from beyond the door, when all my lust for you feels useless and primitive, remnants of text message severed by missed connections. I move down the hill, steadfast as any rare sheep. The dawn is my shepherd. It’s 4am, past that even, and still I’m up writing. I’m winding my way through the hours already. This is summer and the very melding of day and night is a process narcotic. I wouldn’t be all that sad if you pressed me from bed and made every patch of me bright as your favourite rubbish. It isn’t all that. It isn’t. You could have a future. I’ll melt for you; I’ll shed for you. There’s something you just follow. The shepherd’s trajectories. He drips glitter and sings Grimes songs and knows the value of decent female production. It’s that easy. Soft qualities.
He cut his tongue on the teeth of a selkie and calls it seapunk; there’s a gap where the whistle would be. The blue aroma, the blue chord, the melancholy blue of my body. When someone smashes a car in Vice City a frown forms on the underbelly of the sun. This is an old polaroid, the light leak very alien indeed. This is my collage of all that has been and will be. Blue skies, green grass, white sheep. I suppose it’s a good enough time now as any to reveal that I’m rainbow. I look like something a kid would vomit at a sleepover; this disgusting array of E numbers. Upshot: no stranger to the internet. The starry pixellation which on second thought could perhaps be freckles. How I loved him more for that, the warm skin feels soft on the back of the neck (net). Narco pastoral is soft porn, Hegelian dialectics, a fistful of dreams, a bump of mandy. You just want that ecodelic happiness, pure joy in the spin of your dusty shoes. If you drop all the drugs, consider me clean in the light I will love you. I’ve never been certain of anything. I just follow.
:: : the toxic lush pastoral
:: : the physiognomic, urban transcendental
:: : the stop-dust of carbon
:: : the fluid quotidian
:: : the endless chain of what once was (N)ature
/ World of Awe, A Stopped Ontography. / 🗑
It is important, according to Timothy Morton (2007), to harness the powers of kitsch.
I am with you, I am plastic-wrapped
and still just breathing…
O rain you are too long you are
slender droplets there in the
weird blackness of sun, Theresa
running in wheat fields I guess
she has stolen Lawrence’s golden
pastoral have I longed for God
have I prayed in dark chapels
for golden thoughts, the boughs
of yews over graveyards in all
their berries of blood. Nobody
remembered my name in the room
but they smiled when I spoke
or spat my madness. He was a
Kantian explanation, the rain
brought fear to the sockets; I
nourished my milk, I felt the
amoeba glow of imminent illness.
In the surgery, in the white room
peeling the scabs from his skin
I could feel that whisky that silt
on his tongue and I wanted the
whole of him dark within me;
one brood of the shadowy hour
we’d be, just that nicked with
millions of cuts. To be wild
is to shed that plastic, that film;
like a wine-dark pool I was always
absorbed, marble glass that
shone from without, within.
He wrote a tune that shivered
and the real rain in my head
retreated, the cool of it slow
beneath my heart where the
malady slicked and parted.
I voted and drank in the bar
where everything bristled;
here, what austerity of the
fruit machine, what horn
of Tennents, of peanut plenty.
I gave birth to a
hundred wilted roses.
of love for the sickness
quickens then sings it.
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.
American Lyric playlist:
My body was braille
for the creeping influences:
Seamus Heaney, ‘The Bog Queen’ (1975)
In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film Red Desert, loosely inspired by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking ecological text, Silent Spring (1962), one of the characters complains that he was at a restaurant and the ‘eel tasted of petroleum’. This is a film landscaped by oil rigs, the persistent murmur of a dull grey dying sea, industrial structures whirring with eerie electricity. While there is a distinct sense of disconnection between characters, between humans and their environment, one connection that persists is between excess, waste and the body. While nowadays fish change genders due to oestrogen from the Pill being excreted and pumped from sewage into rivers, in Antonioni’s film, haunted by the apocalyptic backdrop of the Cold War, the characters worry about their food getting cloaked in some essence of what gets dumped and yet is also extracted from the sea. A perverse cycle of waste, energy, wasted energy.
This early expression of ecological disaster as embedded in a fear of contamination, of sliminess mixing with toxic sliminess, has its roots even further back, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). After shooting the albatross and overcoming a terrible, supernatural (super as in extra nature, nature made unnatural by being its full strong self) storm, the mariner finds himself suspended in the aftermath, ‘as idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’ (Coleridge 2015). This sense of time frozen, of the environment refusing to yield to human command, is uncanny, a reminder that the land isn’t just something we can divide and conquer. The image of idleness and a ‘painted ocean’ recalls the experience of a crashed computer screen, hung or ‘frozen’ as the mariner is in the sheets of ice ‘green as emerald’ (Coleridge 2015). Think of a typical glitch, that which overlaps colour, blends unrelated materials together in a random, patchwork image. The ice is the colour of grass, yet still we are in the ocean. This is an environment without location, an ‘anywhere’ of strange displacement. This is the place of the ecological glitch.
Rosa Menkman describes a glitch as ‘a (actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems that results in a perceived accident’ (2011: 9). While we are dealing in poems like Coleridge’s with a ‘natural’ system as opposed to a digital one, the strange effect of ‘accident’ persists. ‘Nature’ is never as it seems, never ‘natural’ but always unexpected, strange. Systems follow patterns which glitch; the patterns themselves, like evolution, proceed often by a logic of chance, randomness. The weather in The Ancient Mariner is not just climate, a conventional flow of data to be charted and forecasted; but it is positively weird. Weird in the etymological sense identified by Timothy Morton as ‘a turn or twist or loop, a turn of events’, the ‘flickers [of] a dark pathway between causality and the aesthetic dimension, between doing and appearing’ (2016: 5). We question whether the crime of shooting the albatross instigates this ecological horror, which culminates in the monstrous appearance of ‘a million million slimy things’ which the mariner sees surrounding the ship. Like Antonioni’s petroleum eels, these slimy things are stuck with the human character, they have by proximity or digestion become enmeshed, to borrow another term from Morton, the idea that ‘nothing exists by itself, and so nothing is fully “itself”’ (2010: 15). The mariner realises his own surprising mortality, just as the slimy things ‘liv’d on – so did I’. His attempt to lump the slimy things as one gelatinous mass of gross matter leaves him realising that he can’t distance himself from the ugly parts of nature, because he himself is part of the mass, that mesh of beings.
We might now describe Coleridge’s flirtation with the supernatural as a kind of magical realism, and the trend of using such weird elements to render ecological themes continues in a short story written by Karen Russell and published in the New Yorker in 2016. ‘The Bog Girl’ tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy, Cillian, who works as a turf-cutter in the peatlands of some ambiguous ‘green island off the coast of northern Europe’, inflected with hints of Heaney’s hardy Irish pastoralism. Cillian falls in love with a young girl pulled from the bog; she is ‘whole and intact, cocooned in peat, curled like a sleeping child’ with ‘lustrous hair’ dyed ‘wild red-orange’ by the ‘bog acids’ (Russell 2016a). Crucially, there is a noose round her neck. She is young in appearance but probably 2000 years old; her flame-haired and gaunt appearance recalls Celtic/Pictish origins as well as a ragged Pre-Raphaelitism, which hints at Cillian’s weird fetishisation of her beauty. The story that unfolds can be read as a love story, a tale of caution against projecting your ideal fantasies onto ‘the mask of another person’s face’ (Russell 2016b); but here I will read it as a tale of ecological horror that warns of the dangers of industry and celebrates the sensuous mysteries of the peatlands as something that deserves preserving.
Our current era, the Anthropocene, is one of distorted scale, where constantly we deposit chemicals into the atmosphere and earth whose afterlife beyond our own we can barely even gauge as mortal humans. Russell’s story explores this (im)possible meeting of temporalities through an encounter with strangeness which allows us to mull upon our relationship with the earth, to realise our absolute enmeshment with the environment. No matter the narratives we construct through history and science, all human theory is at best the ‘most speculative fiction’; while improvements in science (‘radiocarbon dating, DNA testing’) allow us to trace the ‘material fragments’ as ‘clues’ about our ancestors’ experience, ‘their inner lives remain true blanks’ (Russell 2016b). At one point, Cillian decides it’s time he met the Bog Girl’s family, so he takes a ferry from the island to a museum. He scans the museum’s labels, which attempt to give context to the ‘pickled bodies from the Iron Age’, but is unsatisfied by these attempts to ‘surmise’ details about the ancestors’ lives based on material detail alone (Russell 2016:a). Their bodies are ‘fetally scrolled’ (Russell 2016a), suggesting that screeds more of history are inscribed on their skin like ink upon scrolls, a literal blending of flesh and text. The inadequacy of the museum labels allows Cillian to continue his fantasy that the Bog Girl appeared for him alone, that she ‘was an alien from a planet that nobody alive could visit—the planet Earth, in the first century A.D.’ (Russell 2016a); none of the other ancestors stir the same emotion as the Bog Girl. Love becomes a token, a talisman of magical power: ‘He told no one his theory but polished it inside his mind like an amulet: it was his love that was protecting her’ (Russell 2016a).
Russell’s narrative sustains this fantasy, resisting the natural outcome which would be the Bog Girl’s rapid decomposition upon exposure to air. This commitment to a magical realist effect allows her to explore problems of intimacy and otherness, which relate deeply to ecological issues. Take the bog itself. Russell describes it as a primitive hole, the ‘watery mires where the earth yawns open’, a place where time is suspended by a ‘spell of chemical protection’ which prevents the decomposition of matter: ‘Growth is impossible, and death cannot complete her lean work’ (2016a). Her rendering of the bog is crucial to the story for its associations with the suspended temporality embodied in the Bog Girl. We are told that much of the peat is cut away to turf, a key energy source still used by the islanders, and ‘nobody gives much thought to the fuel’s mortuary origins’ (Russell 2016a). Death, a haunting presence seemingly without telos, lingers in the earth, in the home; the Bog Girl weirdly embodies our paradoxical relationship to natural fuel sources: we consume them to produce energy, but our consuming instigates the loop of destruction—de-energising the earth—pumping poisons and coagulating into new forms of deadly matter. The peat bogs are a kind of charnel ground, already containing the detritus of bodies and time in a ‘disturbing intimacy […] that exists beyond being and non-being’ (Morton 2009: 76). The bogs are both ‘shit’ and ‘fuel’ (Russell 2016a), embodying the waste we must expel to maintain presence and order; but also refusing this separation, stickily gluing us through interdependence (the islanders need it for fuel) just like those slimy things reminding the mariner of mortality.
Moreover, the introduction to the bog includes the narrator’s address to the reader, the only such address in the story. The narrator remarks of the island, ‘it’s unlikely that you’ve ever visited. It’s not really on the circuit’. This seemingly throwaway comment interpellates (in Althusser’s sense of the word as a ‘hailing’ of subjectivity within ideology) the reader as a global consumer, whose ‘circuit’ references a sort of capitalist freeway (the places we drift through for pleasure) as much as it slyly hints at the cycles of life/death which are interrupted in the text. From the start, we are made to feel as outsiders in this community, which is self-consciously established as a wasteland of sorts, off the circuit, the beaten track; a charnel ground for exploring the mystical possibilities of strangeness and ecological intimacy.
What’s more, her association with primitivism and death links the Bog Girl to the past in a way that is queer, that disrupts the reproductive logic of heteronormative capitalism, a disruption that Cillian welcomes. Cillian ‘imagined, with a strange joy, the narrow life’ he and the Bog Girl ‘would lead. No children, no sex, no messy nights vomiting outside bars, no unintended pregnancies […] no promises’ (Russell 2016a). Note again that word, ‘strange’. The Bog Girl’s body is bounded; she will never consume nor produce waste, will never reproduce to bring more consumers upon the earth; with her, Cillian shrugs off the lusty masculinity of the ‘mouth-breathers’ (Russell 2016a) who help dig up the Bog Girl, he deviates from the established gender norms. Indeed, Cillian’s docility, his placid detachment from the rugged rural manliness of those who surround him (personified most perfectly in his uncle, who refers to the Bog Girl as a ‘cougar’ and has ‘a thousand beers’ laid out for himself at dinner) renders Cillian a queer figure, ‘so kind, so intelligent, so unusual, so sensitive—such an outlier in the Eddowis family that his aunts had paid him the modern compliment of assuming that he was gay’ (Russell 2016a).
Yet while the Bog Girl embodies a queer backwardness, more specifically she offers an openness of temporality, a strange oscillation between past and future rather than an obsessional projection towards the future. Derrida (1994) explains the promise as bound up in the logic of messianism, the guarantee of the future to-come of some saving force that would sweep up history. Remember the religious breathlessness which narrates Cillian’s discovery of the Bog Girl: ‘The bog had confessed her’ (Russell 2016a), as if she were a message passed on from a Neolithic age. Yet Cillian is oblivious to the fact that his love is itself the promise of an (unspeakable) secret, a promise of a present without future, a seamless overlapping of present and a past that can never again be as time demands its rupture, the Event of her eventual, unexpected awakening. The silence between them, the Bog Girl’s inability to speak, indicates his sense that love can be their pre-linguistic communication, an avowal without trace; but this originary language is impossible:
Invented for the genealogy of what has not happened and the event of which will have been absent, leaving only negative traces of itself in what makes history, such a pre-originary language does not exist. It is not even a preface, a foreword, a lost language of origin. It can only be a language of arrival or rather of the future (une langue d’arrivée ou plutôt d’avenir), a promised sentence, a language of the other, again, but entirely other than the language of the other as language of master or coloniser [and now I emphasise], although the two of them can sometimes announce between them, keeping them in secret or holding them in reserve, so many troubling resemblances.
(Derrida 1998: 61)
This ‘language of the other’ breaks down the classically patriarchal imposition of telos and closure upon the Bog Girl: she will be his forever faithful silent Angel in the House; that is, until she starts speaking. Cillian’s aphasia, ‘a stutter that had been corrected at the state’s expense’ (Russell 2016a), hints at his own problematised presence in the text, since commonly we associate speech with presence. He lacks the authoritative Word, is himself described as a queerish glitch in (human) nature, a ‘thin, strange boy’, ‘once a bug-eyed toddler’, whose grownup, ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a) bely an inherent connection to both land and water—there’s a suggestion of his slightness, his precarious and translucent appearance in the world. The mutuality of recognised love he comprehends with the Bog Girl is this ‘secret’ which excludes his mother and friends, which makes others jealous; and yet it is also a source of troubling disruption, the threat that emerges in the master/servant dynamic symbolised by the noose round the Bog Girl’s neck, which Cillian tightens as his ‘fantasy life’ grows deeper (Russell 2016a). And what is ‘the language of arrival’? It is the Bog Girl’s coming-to-life, her messianic resurrection into present existence.
The irony of the story is that Cillian and indeed all the human characters in the story failed to predict this resurrection. The Bog Girl is adored or feared precisely because she skims with death; the body-conscious girls at Cillian’s school are ‘jealous of how little she ate’, the vice-principal sees her as shedding ‘an exciting new perspective on our modern life’ through her contrasting connection to the past (at this moment, the Bog Girl ‘had slumped into his aloe planter’), the fear among Cillian’s mother and aunts is that she will drag him away from the safety net of respectable surveillance: ‘“I’m afraid,”’ Gillian, the mother, confesses, ‘“if I put her out of the house, he’ll leave with her”’ (Russell 2016a). There is no suggestion of the Bog Girl’s autonomy here; rather, she is seen as embodying a terrifying strangeness that might contaminate ‘innocent’ Cillian. But then she wakes up. Her ‘radish-red’ lashes are vegetable (in the sense of passivity and organic matter) companions to Cillian’s ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a); she too is an earthling, bound to the bog in an inexplicably deep, mournful way. Her awakening is erotic, marked by ‘a blush of primal satisfaction’; it is only at this point that their relationship emerges fully into what Donna Haraway calls that of companion species, whose interdependence is based on mutuality, in ‘forbidden conversation’ (Haraway 2008: 16). Haraway says of her relationship to her canine friend:
I’m sure our genomes are more alike than they should be. Some molecular record of our touch in the codes of living will surely leave traces in the world, no matter that we are each reproductively silenced females, one by age and choice, one by surgery without consultation. […] We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story on story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is a historical aberration and a naturalcultural legacy
(Haraway 2008: 16).
It is only when the Bog Girl awakens that the relationship becomes properly ‘in the flesh’; she has learned the communion of erotic love, is ‘tugging at his boxers’, but at this point Cillian is tipped into the abyss of signifying rupture: ‘something truly terrifying had happened: she loved him back’ (Russell 2016a). The nasty developmental infection called love’ rips apart his perfect communion of static silence. The Bog Girl’s language ‘was no longer spoken anywhere on earth’, it is a primitive cry from the depths of the peatlands, which Cillian cannot answer because he is indifferent to the Other as anything more than his own anthropocentric projection: ‘The past, with its monstrous depth and span, reached toward him, demanding an understanding that he simply could not give’ (Russell 2016a). We might think of the title from Jonathan Bate’s crucial ecological polemic, The Song of the Earth (2000), or a strange, aberrant passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), where a vagrant woman whose ‘rude’ mouth is a ‘rusty pump’ (signifying, perhaps, the decay of industry, its material crudeness) singing a song of ‘love which has lasted a million years’ (Woolf 2004: 70-71). The idea of song suggests an ambient music that stretches onwards without climax and fall, echoing past and future in its rasping cry. The eerie, anthropomorphic crackles, growls, roars and howls that come from the ice in The Ancient Mariner. What would the earth sound like, speaking back? Surely it would be our own cry, endlessly deferred; the echolalia of life forms caught in this experience together, entangled in the rendering of a dark and dying world.
In many ways, the Bog Girl is animal, Other; she is not quite human. Better then to think of her as someone who embodies the terrifying intimacy of all life-forms, which brush up against one another, bearing their various sensations and temporalities. While the mariner comes to admire those gross ‘slimy things’, noting their ‘rich attire’ and blessing them with a whiff of Romantic kitsch as ‘happy living things!’ (Coleridge 2015), Cillian finds himself caught between the Bog Girl’s world and his own, ‘struggling to pay attention to his droning contemporaries in the cramped classroom’ (Russell 2016a). Referring to his classmates as ‘contemporaries’ reinforces their association with the present; juxtaposing with Cillian’s mournful retracing of steps, back ‘to the lip of the bog’ (Russell 2016a), the word ‘lip’ suggesting both spatial liminality and the erotic possibility of the temporal and primordial lacuna that lies within. We can think of the Bog Girl as what Morton (2010: 41) calls the ‘strange stranger’, a word for all life-forms which encapsulates the way that even those closest to us are inherently weird, because they remind us that we are not wholly ourselves, that we too are composites of life-forms, viral code, enmeshments of DNA.
Although the Bog Girl always seems close—we get vivid details of her ‘rhinestone barettes’, her ‘face which was void of all judgement’ (Russell 2016a))—indeed she becomes a vital component of Cillian’s life, ultimately he is forced to realise her absolute strangeness. Unlike the mariner he is unable to overcome that gap of Otherness and make peace with the uncanny experience of the ecological mesh. He goes down, enticed by the ‘lip’ of the bog, listening for the ‘primitive eloquence’ of ‘the air-galloping insects continu[ing] to speak the million syllables of [the Bog Girl’s] name’ (Russell 2016a). At the end, the narrative becomes ambient, with a distortion of inside/outside, self/other:
“Ma! Ma! Ma!” That night, Cillian came roaring out of the dark, pistoning his knees as he ran for the light, for his home at the edge of the boglands. “Who was that?”
My immediate assumption here is that Cillian is calling “Ma!” for his mother, a riff on the Irish references of the piece which are probably a nod to Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems (1975). However, it’s not clear; elsewhere she is usually referred to with the Americanism, “Mom”. Cillian himself has adopted a primitive roar, which rips through the resonant chorus of insects as if refusing their incantations of the Bog Girl’s presence. The call for the mother seems vaguely directed, a generalised cry for help rising from pure terror as he runs for the light. ‘“Who was that?”’, embedded in the same line, seems to come from Cillian, but equally it could come from his mother back home, or even the boglands themselves, watching this skinny boy run off from the darkness. A mutual sharing of strangeness. This is an affective, fleshly and sensuous experience of horror that the written texts, the museum labels, cannot document. There is always a possible slippage, which Russell literalises in the Bog Girls’ figure. Nature has betrayed its accident, the glitched intrusion of the prehistoric past upon a modern present. While Red Desert more overtly projects the ecological breakdown of the external world through the increasingly disordered mind of its female protagonist, ‘The Bog Girl’ leaves us with an unsettling vision of lingering presence: the insects singing the elegy of her name, a name which tremors, sends nightmares to Cillian, which resonates with the bog, itself a microcosm of a wasting, gurgling, plundered world. Is this a haunted logic for future coexistence? We’ll have to take the plunge to find out…it’s going to be dark, sticky and maybe dangerous…
Bennington, Geoffrey, 2004. Other Analyses: Reading Philosophy (Bennington Books).
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 2015. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Available at: <http://www.bartleby.com/101/549.html> [Accessed 1/3/17].
Derrida, Jacques, 1994. Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, trans. by Peggy Kamuf, (London: Routledge).
Derrida, Jacques, 1996. Le monolinguisme de l’autre ou le prothèse d’origine (Paris: Galilée). [The translations I use from this text are Geoffrey Bennington, cited in Bennington, 2004.
Haraway, Donna J., 2008. When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
Menkman, Rosa, 2011. The Glitch Moment(um) (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures).
Morton, Timothy, 2010. The Ecological Thought (London: Harvard University Press).
Morton, Timothy, 2013. ‘Thinking the Charnel Ground (The Charnel Ground Thinking): Auto-Commentary and Death in Esoteric Buddhism’, Glossator, Vol. 7, pp. 73-94.
Morton, Timothy, 2016. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press).
Red Desert, 1963. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni [Film] (Milan: Rizzoli).
Russell, Karen, 2016a. ‘The Bog Girl, The New Yorker. Available at: <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/20/bog-girl-by-karen-russell> [Accessed 1/3/17].
Russell, Karen, 2016b. ‘This Week in Fiction: Karen Russell on Balancing Humour and Horror’, Interview by Willing Davidson in The New Yorker. Available at: <http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-this-week-karen-russell-2016-06-20> [Accessed 1/3/17].
Woolf, Virginia, 2004. Mrs Dalloway (London: Vintage).