I was turning all the lights off, trying to mute history. There were several moments in which it felt like things were changing, possibly blossoming for the better. The aftermath stung and went backwards again. There was a song about the M62 I followed briefly, thinking about motorways more generally and something expansive and grey, crossing the Pennines eventually. For a week, I wrote down descriptions of the sky. Mostly they read: the sky today is grey. I then started noting the patterns in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, which often begin with vignettes of the morning:
3rd February. A fine morning, the windows open at breakfast. 6th March. A pleasant morning, the sea white and bright. 26th May. A very fine morning. 31st May. A sweet mild rainy morning. 2nd June. A cold dry windy morning.
Mostly, she summarises the day. There is much letter-writing, Coleridge dining, William writing. Walking, cooking, taking guests. There is a rhythm and comfort to her entries, the circling of Ambleside, the sauntering in sun and air. Days condensed and hours expanded, cute little details in pastoral glimpses: ‘Pleasant to see the labourer on Sunday jump with the friskiness of a cow upon a sunny day’. She sees into the life of things. She inspires me to mark the simple, joyous moments of daily existence. Like walking home along Sauchiehall Street (the nice part towards Finnieston), close of midnight, seeing a couple in each other’s arms, sobbing, the man with a bunch of flowers held behind his back. They were not by any means striking flowers, probably bought cheap and last minute. I wonder what sort of gesture they were supposed to convey. At what point in the night did he decide to buy them; did he attain them from those wandering women who pray upon drunks with their floral wares? Did he cut himself, ever so slightly as he paid for those unlovely thorns? Is love always a form of apology for self? The self when it expands beyond too much of itself, hotly craving?
17th March. I do not remember this day.
It seems irrelevant to say, today is Easter Sunday. Jackdaws torment me in the expensive fruit of a wakeful morning. I imagine pomegranate seeds falling from a pale blue sky. These days unfold with wincing clarity, like the hypnotic drag of a Sharon Olds poem: ‘I could see you today as a small, impromptu / god of the partial’. There are things we are maybe not supposed to remember. As if survival were a constant act of lossy compression. Like a contract between two people, pinkie promise, except one of you has broken it. Has let out the glitches. Your dreams and daily reveries are full of the content you’re not meant to remember. You are clasping this thing as if it might live again, and indeed it might really. It is not easy to simply file away memory. Its particular phraseology of physical pain comes floating to the surface regardless. There are techniques of displacement. Letting yourself shimmer in the wind. It was one more step to be gone again. So every song I went to put on, clicking the laptop, he was like, stop, it’s too sad. When they ask what’s wrong and you’re smiling instead, worrying the edge of your lips into muscles you don’t recognise at all. The room was a singular bottle of beer and a breeziness to other people’s sweetness. They wear lots of glitter and laugh as we did once. They are singing. I feel like the oldest in a test of forever. But anyway this is all only temporary. Things break down but they do not go away.
30th March. Walked I know not where.
I watch a film about plastic in the ocean. They haul fish after fish, bird after bird, prise exorbitant quantities of bottle caps, ring pulls, microbeads and indiscernible fragments from stomachs and lungs. It is quite the display. Hopelessly choking. Seems obscene to describe that deep blue as ever pure again. There are patches of plastic in all its particles swirling. It makes not an island exactly, more like a moment in species collision. Whales absorb plastic in the blubber of their skins, digesting slowly the poisons that kill them. I wrote a story about a whale fall once. The protagonist trains in swimming, in underwater breathing, in order to enter other worlds: ‘This place is a deep black cacophony; you hear the noises, some noises, not all the noises, and you feel the pressure ripple pulling under you’. There have been bouts of sleeplessness this month that feel like dwelling inside a depleting carcass. If every thought dragged with subaquatic tempo. Blacking out at one’s desk into sleep. Forgetting in the glare of screen flickers. I meet people for coffee and feel briefly chirpy, stirring. There are pieces of colour, uncertain information, clinging to the shuddering form of my body. Do not brush my hands, for fear of the cold. I am so blue and when he squeezes my fingers my insides feel purple. The woman at the counter remarked on the cold of my hands. I am falling for the bluest shade of violet. How anyway in such situations I become the silent type as I never do elsewhere. So ever to cherish a bruise as violet or blue. I polish vast quantities of glassware, lingering over the rub and sheen. One song or another as 4.30am aesthetic.
Emily Berry: ‘All that year I visited a man in a room / I polished my feelings’.
The questions we ask ourselves at work form a sort of psychoanalysis, punctuated by kitchen bells and the demands of customers. What superpower would you have? The ability to live without fear of money. We laugh at ourselves as pathetic millennials. I have nothing to prove but my denial of snow, power-walking up Princes Street on the first bright day of the year. The sky is blue and the cold flushes red in my cheeks. But I am not a siren, by any means; I wish mostly for invisibility. The anthem for coming home the long way is ‘Coming in From The Cold’ by the Delgados, feeling the empathy in lost dreams and the slow descent into drunkenness that arrives as a beautiful warning. Like how he deliberately smashed his drink on the floor in the basement out of sheer frustration with everything. The ice was everywhere. As though saying it’s complicated was an explanation for that very same everything. The difficulty of cash machines. Emily Berry again: ‘I wanted to love the world’. In past tense we can lend shape to our feelings. Will I know in a week or more the perfect metaphor for this dread, this echo chamber of grey that longs to be called again? I punch in four numbers.
I covet my exhaustion in slow refrain. There are people whose presence is an instant comfort. There are people you’d like to kiss in the rain; there are people you’d kiss in the rain but never again. What of the gesture of that bouquet? Surprise or apology? The sky is catching the mood of our feelings. Is this a melancholic tone of regret, or maybe an assured and powerful one? I twist round the memory of a mood ring; its colours don’t fit. I photograph the rings beneath my eyes, finishing an eleven hour shift. She shoves rose-petal tea biscuits under my nose but I smell nothing. I watch the chefs at work, caressing their bundles of pastry and sorrow/sorrel and rocket. I climb many stairs and assemble the necessary detritus of another funeral. Sadness requires a great deal of caffeine.
I eat mushrooms on toast with Eileen Myles. I long for the lichens on the trees of Loch Lomond. I sleep for three hours in Glasgow airport, on and off, cricking my neck and drifting in and out of vicarious heartbreak. Lydia Davis is often perfect:
But now I hated this landscape. I needed to see thing that were ugly and sad. Anything beautiful seemed to be a thing I could not belong to. I wanted to the edges of everything to darken, turn brown, I wanted spots to appear on every surface, or a sort of thin film, so that it would be harder to see, the colours not as bright or distinct. […] I hated every place I had been with him.
(The End of the Story)
Must we coat the world in our feelings? What of the viscosity that catches and spreads on everything? There is an obscenity to beauty in the midst of defeat. Year after year, I find myself dragged into summertime sadness. There is so much hope in the months of June and May, soon to dwindle as July runs spent on its sticky rain. The lushness of a city in bloom, all fern and lime, is an excess beyond what dwells inside, the charred-out landscapes of endless numbness—or ever better, missing someone. We covet the world’s disease as externalisation of our hidden pain. Let things fragment and fall away; let there be a sign of change in motion. How hard it is to be happy around depleted friends; how hard it is to be sad among joyous friends. They pop ecstasy and go home for no reason. It is self-administered serotonin that mostly buoys up the souls of the lonely. There were songs from the mid-noughties that now sound like somebody shouting down a coal mine. I want to offer them a smile and a cup of coffee. It’s all I have, the wholesome concatenation of smooth flat-whites.
There is a song by Bright Eyes, ‘If Winter Ends’: ‘But I fell for the promise of a life with a purpose / But I know that that’s impossible now / And so I drink to stay warm / And to kill selected memories’. Winter’s demise in conditional form. Alcohol convinces us of a temporary rush into the future that blooms and is good, is better than before. The drinkers I know have muffled recollections, blotted out mostly by false nostalgia. We covet a swirling version of life in the present, its generous screen flickers, its spirals of affect. We pair off in the wrong. There are days when nothing will warm me up—not the dust-covered space heater, not the hot water bottle, not the star jumps that scratch heart-rates out of the hour. Was it the same sensation, hanging on for his vowels on a hazy afternoon, four o’clock stolen from whatever it was I was supposed to be doing?
Summer, however, is forever. It is supposed to be best. The clocks skip forward.
I learn to riso-print. To work with the uncertain blot and stealth of brighter inks. What results is a marvel in teal and burgundy, splashed with cyan. See it as past with glitters of future.
In a cramped, fourth floor hotel room in Amsterdam, I lay on my bed, leg-aching, listening to ‘Shades of Blue’. Yo La Tengo get it, the vaporous sprawl of the days upon days, days replacing days: ‘Painting my room to reflect my mood’. It is a kind of overlay, the new versions of blue which are deeper maybe than they ever were before. Which lend alter-visions to original blues, the ones you thought were bad before. I see my first IRL Yves Klein in the Stedalijk museum. Words elude this particular blue. It is deep and extravagant and more oceanic than the ocean would dream of. I have no idea what materials or dreams created this blue. Lazuli, sapphires, the pigmented stain of a rare amphibian? It is the steady, infinite eye of the Pacific. It is sorrow itself, the wound of the world. The Earth bleeds blue, not red. It is this kind of blue, a supranatural blue. After the first crisp cold of a new blue day, the rest of the week is brumous and mild. My feet get wet in a cemetery. I learn that Paradise Valley is an affluent town in Arizona, and not in fact merely a Grouper album. I drink mint tea all week to detox, then stay up all night when I get home. The gin sodas sparkle within me for days, but I’m feeling guilty.
The canals are parallel, the streets are winding. There are neon and fishnetted girls in windows, drolly sipping mysterious drinks. Their eyes are heavily lined. Nobody is looking. The air is warm and spicy at night. The tourists admire displays of various erotic paraphernalia; I take pictures of the lights splashed gold on the water. They say if you get to know the place, you can really settle into a meandering layout. A guy at work supplants my name for ‘Marijuana’. I wonder if ever I’ll be someone’s Mary Jane, and what that means in the long run. Feels like a Green Day song. Marijuana, they’ll say, Marijuana I miss you. There are pockets of Finnieston that waft forever between early summer and fullness of June; evenings hung by the scent of a stoned hour poised on forever. I stay sober. I think of the river, the people and dreams it steals. The world crystallises with ridges of cold, so I must sleep beneath sheets in my click&collect coat. Blue-fingered, shivering.
Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ has been lingering on my mind: ‘Consider that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us’. I keep writing out line after line, just for the sake of avoiding full stops. I’m not yet ready for that singular compression, even as it strikes in its simple beauty.
There was the massive, narcotic blue of the sky from the airplane. A blue you can cling to. A blue you descend through.
Lana Del Rey: ‘Blue is the colour of the planet from the view above’.
Pop singers these days are attuned to new scales. That Bright Eyes song opens with a whole lot of static and children shouting, rasping. It is like watching some black-and-white film in a museum, shudders of war or monsters in every low boom and flicker. There are ways we strum ourselves out of the mourning. It’s okay to be enraged and frustrated. Oh Conor, how I love you: ‘and I scream for the sunlight or car to take me anywhere’. So when things fall apart, fray at the edges, I’m thinking of myself as a place, a location elsewhere, ‘just take me there’, and the ridge of my spine is a highway that ends where the best palm glows afire by its imaginary desert. The curve of my neck and uncertain horizon, something of all this skimming around by the brink of etcetera. What else do I have to say but, ‘it’s gonna be alright’, not even realising when I am quoting something. It is hot here, adrift on this sofa, then cold again.
The walks grow ever more indulgent, Mark Kozalek humming in my ear. I think of all his familiars. I think of my younger self thinking of all his familiars. Is it cats or is it women. How many supplements do we make of lust?
The day afterwards, it’s best to drink again. Grapefruit is cleansing. You can order whole pitchers but I choose not to. A certain suffusion of gossip and horror, ice cubes crunched between teeth to ease up the gaps where I’m meant to speak. I see Hookworms play the Art School and they were incredible: they were a rush they were eons of dizzy vigour and sweetness, the music you want to surrender to. I stop giving customers straws with their orders. It snowed again. I wasn’t drinking; I was wearing green for Paddy’s Day. I was so tired my eyes felt bruised. I keep dreaming of islands, motorbikes, exes; broken tills and discos. The flavour of these dreams in surf noir; like even in the city it’s as if a tidal pull is directing everything. I don’t mind being sucked away into nothing; I don’t mind feeling the impulse of a pale blue dot. At least in my sleep. A good collapse. The order of pain is reducing.
29th June. It is an uncertain day, sunshine showers and wind.
This week I will find a hill for my vision. New forms of erasure. I see myself boarding a train.
The kind of cold that’s purifying, that fills your lungs like sea-water sloshing inside the mouth of a cave. So it’s hard to breathe, but cutting through the breath is a sweet feeling, preciously there in the swift struggle that settles on calm. I go out at night and the cold air is a shot of adrenaline; I walk ultra fast, making hard strides across asphalt that sparkles with salt in the fierce moonlight. This is a month of much stress and panic but also relief. Resolving to make new friends, even though each time I worry about who will leave next; the cyclical press of everyone coming and going, memory hanging on a thin noose I can’t quite tauten, snap and break. I fall through it as light falls through a halo. I feel feathery and weird, writing nonsense in the morning to delay the inevitable rise from bed—a snap of cold, of spine and mind. I love the old ones, look forward to new.
We’re up late and I watch things unfold, messenger blue. At work, I run upstairs to watch Out Lines perform down below, an incredible light show glistering with swirls of lilac and white. It’s gorgeous and dramatic, genuinely breathtaking. I watch from the gallery as sonorous and sinuous beautiful voices mingle in a room full of awe. I feel sobered, grateful to just be, watching a few songs before inevitably I must return to work, to count the till and smell the coppery aura of tired old pennies. I see Julien Baker perform in LP Records, filling the tiny room with her massive voice; a voice that could start car alarms, make cracks in the concrete, tear up the numbness that governs the daily. It’s the voice of a heart too big for its ribs, a heart throbbing against the cruelties of existence, spreading hope on a room of friends and strangers. She covers Audioslave’s ‘Doesn’t Remind Me’ in honour of Chris Cornell, and for weeks after I hear that refrain, over and over, Cause it doesn’t remind me of anything. And I wonder what it means, and what sort of list I’d make in lieu of Cornell’s lyrics (‘gypsy moths’, ‘radio talk’, ‘driving backwards in the fog’, ‘canned applause’), planning a poetry exercise but then finding all the same that even the world’s waste is entangled for me. Maybe I will get older and find little daily voids to give my mind too. For now, even a tree is too heavy with everything. I can’t talk about Pokémon without getting misty-eyed over my youth.
Strange personal things make momentary ripples in reality. I fall asleep at work, heroin-heavy, in a hoard of recollected dreamscapes; I get up at 3:30am to attend a conference in St. Andrews, ‘Cultivating Perspectives on Landscape’. The sky above the River Eden is this dramatic topaz cutting into azure, argent wisps of cloud streaking the horizon. Without realising, I pass by a friend’s house. I watch from the train window in total awe; delirious on the earliness of it all, the quiet, the light on the soft waves rolling and rolling. I could be on this train forever, even though waiting at the station for changes makes my fingers seize up with the cold. I’m reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, gloved fingers clutching its paperback skin and pulling pages back with a hunger within. He describes the absolute cold of the mountains, the physical heft and sense of pure reward—not from summit but from sheer movement, the panoramas unfolding around you, the mountain that gets under your skin, the scale and sublime you practically inhale. Landscape glitters with detail; Macfarlane has a vocabulary that makes you feel as though in reading you were picking over some deluxe smorgasbord of words. Learning and learning in the lilt and fall of his complex rhythms. It is the right thing to read at these freezing stations, taking me elsewhere entirely, sharing my sense of embodied limit. I arrive at Leuchers around 8am, the sun just coming up over flat plains, a total burnished, scolding orange. Later, I find myself wandering a herb garden with lovely strangers, crushing rosemary between fingers and ruminating on narratives of scent. A very clever academic gives a lecture on classics and lively stones. On the train home, everyone is drunk and teenage boys crack cans and discuss girls with a coarseness I’d sort of forgotten existed. I sit opposite two guys in their late twenties who discuss their mutual careers as accountants, and I feel blessed to be outside such existence: paid-for parties, gym memberships, brutal team meetings, deadlines, spreadsheets, rapturous conversations about the latest tablet. I buy a bottle of Talisker Skye on the way up Sauchiehall Street, warm my cockles on the space-heater and do sun salutations to boost circulation. Already, several friends have left for Australia.
Frequently, there’s a brain fever, an ache in the body. I am ill for much of this month, but there is a day when I wake up better and clearer and it is like taking a drug. Health. Temporary sense of invincibility. Sad things happen, secrets reveal, sordid truths fill up the news. A man I knew died in a terrible accident. People have far harder lives than I.
The floor in the restaurant where I work starts coming up, splitting apart like something is rising from underneath. I carry food, traversing the crevice, Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk the Line’ playing over in my head. It’s so disorientating that sometimes I forget this is something I do every day, just carrying plate after plate, cups and mugs and cutlery. Tracing the usual trajectories. I come in two days later and somebody has smoothed out the crack. It feels like a violence that never happened.
When people are drunk, they tell too much. Sharing melancholy joy till six in the morning. It’s good, but how much of that are you allowed to revisit sober?
The exhibition/installation I’d been helping out with for months took place. The Absent Material Gateway. I think of it as a sort of portal to extra reality, a space where you can relish the intensity of elsewhere, let it split apart your senses for ten minutes—long enough to let sound and light rush through you, to conjure the ruptures that remain for weeks afterwards, never quite healing as even the quotidian fills them with usual slush. Nothing feels completely fabricated, but rather it’s a blurring of what we think of as real—how we encounter objects. Here, the weird things shimmer in dramatic strobe and seem to act upon you; these lively, alien pieces of matter. Scrap parts gleaming with mysterious power. The Lanark Artefax gig at the end of it blows my mind. I’m sipping straight vodka piled up with ice in a freezing dark room at The Glue Factory, but as soon as those first trademark stammering pulses start fracturing stars and synths and the melancholy strings with eerie samples hold back, suspend, then rush underneath…It’s a landscape elsewhere that is momentarily, totally immersive. I think of matter crackling at microscopic levels, or else grand panoramas of mountains bathed in alien starlight. Cities that smoulder with smoke, hovering drones and dramatic cracks in the side of cliffs whose insides fissure with poisoned earth. I think of ancient ruins through doctored photographs, angles of time dissolving with the phantasmic drift of a passing graphic, numbers running in algorithmic digits, pixels melting to colour smudge, then ether. Glitches. It is all of a shuddering. The audience are truly glued, despite being charged up on all the free Red Bull. All the sound cuts through so every normal thought is in shards, afloat. It’s one of the few genuinely sublime experiences of my life. I walk back in the cold rain, feeling emotional, drained, intense and electric. When I close my eyes to sleep I see nothing but strobe.
I have dreams of Styrofoam palaces, trains that keep leaving without me, layers of skin I could scour off my body.
There was a talk on Mark Fisher at Glasgow Autonomous Space called ‘Acid Communism’, and I got to dwell awhile in the comforting, baffling whorls of radical theory. I spent all month talking about Fisher to numerous people. Sent lots of excited emails and prepared my PhD application. Ideas started ravelling and overlapping and tightening. This whole sprawling project set out before me; I felt ambitious and still feel as though this is something that maybe I could actually achieve. Build this thing that I’ve set out in rough blueprint. I am energised, thoroughly, by the words of others.
We launched SPAM Presspamphlets (Dan Power’s Predictive Text Poems and Ryan Jarvis’ Tesseract Life) at Good Press and bought quantities of Lambrini for the occasion. Life is a whole lot of walking past Kelvingrove Art Gallery at one in the morning, sharing nightclub horror stories, gently reminiscing and falling asleep so the ink in the pen leaks over your duvet. I realise Greenock has a well lush Lidl, my cousin releases a single and it ramps up over 130,000 Spotify hits in a week. It’s funny, remembering her on our old sofa aged fourteen playing ‘Face for the Radio’ on my brother’s out-of-tune guitar, that lovely voice at its first nurturing. Now she’s on a billboard. We have the same nose.
I feel blessed by the blue days, the clear blue days, that come a couple times a month and even when I am too tired to leave before dark it is good just to know that out there things are bright and good. After graduation, we visit Luss and the sky is already at the brink of gloaming, this luminous lilac that blooms over the hills. I watch the nicoline light on the land across the water, over the heads of Japanese tourists unseasonably out snapping pics on the pier. Watch the city blossom back into shape across the motorway, an inverse meadow of delicious twinkles, listening to John Martyn in my father’s car. I feel calm, setting out to meet friends and discussing everything, sloshing a cheeky amaretto.
I revisit A Perfect Circle, Sun Kil Moon and Sufjan Stevens as the nights draw in too close and there is barely six hours of workable daylight. Something stirs from the past, but I crush the feelings like crisp dead leaves underfoot. I drift around, inhaling woodsmoke and missing the countryside. People leave curious furniture out on the street. A maximalist dolls-house, scattered by the city’s ruthless refusal to deal with its waste. New systems spring up around old objects. Ecosystems are complex and recalcitrant, their musty materiality seductive. Something hits me, occasionally, and it’s implacable, otherworldly. Space in my head that could be anywhere, everywhere, either. Even the streets feel bruised. My brother leaves for Australia and I think of him flying over a bright bright blue. All these people will bronze as I fall farther white into china paleness, sipping peppermint tea and crunching almonds between teeth. These people that go travelling, they leave me lilac eyeshadow, mint-cream nail varnish, memories and jumpers they won’t need anymore. I feel the roots tug and shuffle, sprawl beneath me in new formations. Endless scroll of Instagram posts. The last leaves cling to more paranoid trees, lamp-lit in sodium glow on the long walks home. Shops fill up with fairy lights, glitter and sprigs of fir. I can’t tune to the lure. Christmas is still a word I’m trying to deal with, a lonely lonely tinsel litany.
Saint Sister – Blood Moon
ARK – Made for Us
Alela Diane – Hazel Street
S. Carey – Fool’s Gold
Tiny Ruins – Old as the Hills
Adrian Crowley – Long Distance Swimmer
Sufjan Stevens – The Hidden River of My Life
Sun Kil Moon – Sunshine in Chicago
Julien Baker – Doesn’t Remind Me (Audioslave cover)
Sylvia Plath wrote many of her Ariel poems in the wee hours before dawn, sucking in the cold and inverse crepuscular air, its colourations of sinister lilac and absent sleep. We have a cliché of the poet’s spontaneous overflow, but instead with Plath there’s a sharp intake, a suspension of air, of breath: ‘Stasis in darkness. / Then the substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances.’ We have to think through the impossibility of a substanceless blue, as everything must be a component of something; we are all of a sort as perilous hybrids, weak in some place with the viral code of our own demise, shimmering within and outside us like a beautiful aura. The speaker paralyses herself on the brink of sublime, of suicide. Tor: a hill or rocky peak. Vertiginous depths to erase the scale of the self on earth. Tor: a free software project which protects your privacy online. Where history bounces back, is the elaborate sarcophagus that traps the foul air of your history. Think of layering, onions, peeling stench of purple flesh. Indulgent recipes for regret; the cloying addresses of cheap pornography, of midnight Amazon deliveries. Inside the deep centre a secret, liquid sweet as Timothy Morton’s chilli-dark core of chocolate ecology. Chilli, chilly; a shiver in the air that is freeze or fiery. I have been googling your name in my sleep. A shivering, unsettled enmeshment. The encryption an insufficient addition to the substance of memory, its thick brain mulch of skin and image. Such protocol stacks are hypothetical only, nested as the heavenly day that will not die. Wordsworth singles his day from a tangle of others, the onion clot and rot of forgettable hours. To dwell forever in that substanceless blue! To wear innocence on the sleeve of freedom! Plath’s line breaks are harsh and sharp, they flake off the page in their skinly abscission of sound and sense; the body is imposed on grander scales, made to stretch then wither in variable ‘dead stringencies’. All of a space, the thin poem shivering down a spacious page. All of this is so much of air. Take me to the edge, go on, it’s a dare.
An understudy is someone who learns another’s role in order to act at short notice in the person’s absence. You lurk in the background, an absent presence of possible flourishing. The poem as understudy: recipes perhaps in the absence of breathing. What we read when there is no air left to breathe. Poems in reserve for a gradual apocalypse. What exists as core substance, what complements the element whose insouciance charms the lungs without thought. Derrida’s maddening supplement: neither presence or absence, something added and something in place of. An understudy for air, a rehearsal of air’s function. Anthropocenic, tarry air, stung with coal and thickly textured.
Robert Macfarlane asks that we find a ‘thick speech’ for articulating life in the time of climate crisis. Enter Daisy Lafarge’s Understudies for Air (Sad Press, 2017). This is not a collection, ostensibly, about ecology or even the end of the world. It is a phantasmic scaffolding of words and lines for living, breathing, being. Its epigraph takes the axiom of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximenes: ‘The source of all things is air.’ Air being then the ubiquitous neutral substance, something available for occasional roles in physical process. A reluctant but capable actant, developing itself or forced upon by other natural causes. Air’s principle shifts bring about the other main elements: flicker into fire through precious density, condense into wind or water, earth then stone. Anaximenes articulates this through a simple example: if you relax your mouth and blow on your hand, it’s hot; if you do so with pursed lips, the air is cold. So rarity correlates with heat, density with cold. A beautiful, quiet, material intimacy. Everyday action, for Anaximenes, here forms the source of a theory of matter, and yet ever with time this matter recedes. There’s a scarcity of air, something sparse and grasped for in the gelatinous enjambment of Lafarge’s lines.
Precision of form: shortness of breath. When we pause at caesura, pause to breathe, when we lilt our words over the ambiguous interval of a line-break, we are forced temporarily to think about air. I recall the little ticks my brass instructor would make on a sheet of music: remember to breathe. The ticks would supplement a conventional musical pause; I guess I just needed more time to breathe. Breathing is temporal, but also material. There’s a precision to Lafarge’s form, a negotiation of reflective lyric transposed through material effects and affects. In ‘sapling air’, a sense of childhood’s loss is articulated as nonhuman ailment, the ‘first outbreak’ which is a poisoning of the air or the bark of trees. At first I think ash dieback, but then we are taken somewhere more grandiose, planetary, magmatic. Lying in the liminal space between ‘child / and whatever came next’, the speaker is in the bath, ‘gazing up through the skylight / as a plane passed overhead’. This sense of temporary epic scale, its vanishing écriture of ‘vapour trail’, is a writing of fleeting sheen. I think of glassels: those stones which appear glossy beneath water (in river or sea) but when picked and brought home they revert to dispirited dullness. It is as if life has left them, where momentary they truly appeared as vibrant matter, appealing to the senses with electric connection. Is this the fate of the bath-varnished body? How beauty consists in the wounded part of a thing, a fragile glitch in the viral code—what makes death inevitable. Stones ground down by the sweat and chafe of salty water, the sky a landfill for carbon dreams, modernity streaked across substanceless blue.
The speaker glimpses the oscillating scales of panorama and miniature: the passing plane and the ‘passengers’ eyes’. She sees through the eyes of others; a vertiginous, fleeting sublime in which she is the one looking down and the one looked down upon. Humans become binary nodes in this networked communion of sound and sense: ‘the passengers’ eyes flickered on and off / with signal’. Air carries, air travels. Air miles, as both temporal noun and verb. I find myself tangled in the space between transitive/intransitive. Air signifies the dialectic flickers of presence/absence. Accumulates, billows. What the speaker notices is a peculiar distortion, a toxicity overlaid with her own poisoned body: ‘I looked down. the bath water / was the colour of porphyry and I could no longer breathe’.The excess of the skin flakes away as feldspar, silicate rich and igneous, carrying traces of radial or volcanic exposure, imperial purple or deposited copper. Containing within it divergent scales: wee matrix crystals and larger phenocrysts. The speaker experiences her body as this suddenly alien thing; the sight of the bathwater steals her breath. Is it the first glimpse of what the outside does to the inside, the staining within us we leave on the world in a permanent toxic chiasmus? But I can’t help think also of period blood, given the speaker’s interlude adolescence: something tricky to articulate that nonetheless clots in the mind as childhood’s instated loss of innocence, a condensation of excitement that clings then turns readily and stickily to red, to blood. That moves in turns, cycles as the waxing mist of the moon. What is this substance, this iron-rich bodily flood? Where matter confuses, we turn back to air.
She tries to express to her father a bewildered grief, ‘there’s something wrong with the air’, but her ‘words went through to dial tone’. There’s a delay, language meeting its buffer at difference: through what? Gender, generation, divergent points of vision? Her special melancholy is something that lingers down the line, seeps inside the passage of time. The poem closes: ‘I still wonder, how many months, years from now / he will listen to the message’. Throughout Understudies for Air, Lafarge uses this technique of unfurling: instead of saying simply, ‘how many years from now’, she adds in the months, practices a sort of delay or lag. I think of smoke billows, slowly dissipating. Of what it means to say, there was chemistry between us, an atmosphere in the room. The way voiced words vibrate momentarily in meaning then once again settle to silence, stasis. An almost electricity, crackling then out. Compare this to the written word’s more permanent, inevitable viscosity. Language sticks: you can tease it over and over, read the same thing till centuries down the line the ink wears off from the page. You can replicate. Speech is quite a bit more fleeting, unless you set it down on wax or tape, find new ways to materialise language’s spit, crackle, lilt. The forcing of sign and shape from sound.
Air in Lafarge’s collection is a sort of pharmakon, in Jacques Derrida’s sense of an undecidable fluctuation between poison and cure. It is a substance acted upon with the medical impetus of invasion: in ‘desecration air’, ‘brittle waves of grit’ are ‘growing, syringe-like / into the air, and in so doing suckle / and cleave the dunes around them’. There’s a sense of maternal genesis and geologic violence, an injection of force into air’s spaciousness. For air at once signifies space and density of matter at the brink of scattering, sparking, forging. I start typing what is air into my search bar and it suggests, where can it be found? I am suddenly struck by air’s mystery, the possibility of everyday deception as to its ‘nature’. What is taken for granted has elusive substance; after all, can we view air in the object-oriented sense of ‘object’, or even, at transcendently nonhuman scale, ‘hyperobject’? For air blends and bleeds, both substance and accident. The painting or glass had an airy quality, we talk of a room as light and airy. Does this mean more air, or air less dense, more receptive to breath and space and quiet? Air is rich with the silt of existence: dust being its materialised twin, these myriad phantasms of hair, fibre, textiles, minerals, meteorites, mostly skin. Air is nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide flavoured with traces of neon, methane, helium. We breathe air but also pass constantly through it, as our molecules swim in the vast bombardment of other molecules swirling. Ambient air is safe, we pass through it daily; but air can also spark, as fire’s immanent ingredient, awaiting some flagrant chance to burn. We talk of dry air, damp air, air that feels ‘close’. Air signifies both absence (space) and presence (elemental matter, tangible substance). Air is always potentially transformative.
There is a poem called ‘calque air’. Calque means loan translation: a word-for-word exchange of meaning across languages (examples include ‘fleamarket’ and ‘skyscraper’). In French it means literally ‘copy’, derived from calquer: to copy, base on, trace; derived again from Latin calcāre, to tread, press down. Thus in the abstracted xerox of translinguistic exchange, we meet a sense of material rubbing, the friction that exacts its inscription between two substances: stone on stone, wood on wood, paper on paper etched with lead. It’s a physicality that chills the spine. Yet tracing somehow also connotes residue, the excess material produced by this rubbing, the patterning stains set down by a tread, like footprints sunk deep in the sand and preserved semi-permanent by glitters of frost. Lafarge writes: ‘people / were finding messages / in their bodies they hadn’t / written’. Again this sense of material semaphore, whose translation is a phenomenological act of physical reality, a sudden otherness within us that requires an empathy, an excess, a confusion of words rubbing wrongly against one another: ‘it was decided the system was malapropic’. Language spiralling as if in the hands of the nonhuman, the air or machine or book.
Anthropomorphism reaches its textual extreme: ‘the book grew hair, organs, toes’, and so even ‘accurate translations’ become disputed, subjective, active and physical. What is it about air that somehow substantiates the symbiosis of language and matter, its aching and perilous leak? Here we are, tipped in the gaslit eve of twilight, where ‘the sky throbbed / sideways like a haemorrhage’. Matter acts upon us, causing a gulping or gaping as we churn through it, our bodies mucilaginous mulched into altered form, new affect. We can try to discern the nature of air, but in some way its inner essence remains recalcitrant, resistant to the interpretive instruments of other forms, including humans. Lafarge plays on the semiotic plurality of ‘forms’, poking fun at science’s ‘consent and feedback forms’, ethical necessities which prove useless upon the elusive air. This raises the question of how to extend a nonhuman ethics, what forms of consent are required when probing and monitoring their patterns of agency or behaviour? In ‘attempted diagnosis air’, Lafarge concludes: ‘in the end, / you left the forms in the airing cupboard / to let the air fill out itself; it acquiesced / in many hands of mould, dust and heat, / none of which you could hope to translate’. The air transmogrifies into purely itself, is available only as sensation in the perceptive ‘hands’ of other substances. It’s worth quoting Jane Bennett at length here:
Thing-power materialism figures materiality as a protean flow of matter-energy and figures the thing as a relatively composed form of that flow. It hazards an account of materiality even though materiality is both too alien and too close for humans to see clearly. It seeks to promote acknowledgment, respect, and sometimes fear of the materiality of the thing and to articulate ways in which human being and thinghood overlap. It emphasises those occasions in ordinary life when the us and the it slipslide into each other, for one moral of this materialist tale is that we are also nonhuman and that things too are vital players in the world.
Air is surely the channel for thinking through this vibrant materiality. Lafarge’s poetics, shifting through sparsity and density, perform this slippage between human and nonhuman at variable scales. Rooted in ordinary life, in personal memory, the poems of Understudies for Air root out these collected knots of ontological ‘torsion’, the ‘bunioned’ meanings that wash up like offerings then shut down all visible meaning—‘they closed in my hand / like eyes’. The lack of capitalised titles renders the poems’ drift into one another, in free-flow without the arche conventions of literary closure, of textual finality. A sense of fractured or wounded text, poems chipped out of a grander object, left now to change and drift. In ‘driftwood air’, driftwood makes a temporary semiology of the shore. Driftwood being perhaps the airiest form of wood, a text well-chewed by aquatic bacteria, lightened and smoothed by the tide; erosion performing its nonhuman act of calque: a copying of wave upon wood, the tiny treads of millioning microscopic appetites, like the imperfect press of a nonhuman telegram. With her spells of air, Lafarge conjures a vibrant ecology of non-anthropocentric process; evocative still as such effects take place through the decomposition of the lyric ‘I’, whose voice drifts out in nonhuman confusions, signals and distance. Human affect returns in glimpses like delicious flotsam, jetsam, moments of reflection gleaned from material debris.
The ‘I’ often shrinks or recedes, but sometimes floats over the ambient scene with declarative assertion: ‘the twin lines of naming and being / run parallel but never touch’. Such philosophic pronouncements then melt away in exploratory thought, lines closely attuned to trans-species process: the swell and lurch and pleat of water, plant, lichen or toxin. Once again we come to air as pharmakon, and so its process arises as a sort of pleasing monstrosity. The odd thing about plants is they just grow, often without purpose, foregoing teleology for an impersonal, gorgeous flourishing. In ‘asbestos air’, the speaker marvels:
lichen and moss
grooming your body;
it is a relief to watch
things grow without
End-stopped punctuation is often foregone for free-flowing, morphological enjambment throughout Understudies for Air, so the inclusion of semicolon here is its own kind of force. I think of imagism’s stop-motion visual equivalencies: Pound’s apparitional faces in the metro and wet black petals. The ‘body’ in question could be human or nonhuman. There is a plain admiration of process and flow, the ease of growth that feels significant against the endless stuttering, knotted bolts of human maturity. And what about ‘asbestos’? More silicate minerals invading the air, released by abrasion and enacting a slow-release of symptoms, as deadly fibres clot in the lungs. Asbestos makes its own mark upon air. The speaker clearly craves that insulation, a felting of absence with ‘lichen and moss’ that comes as a ‘grooming’. Grooming being the softening and smoothing of matter, but also tinged with danger: to be groomed is to be seduced towards some form of invasive peril. Twin signals, twin materials; a chiasmus of death and sleep’s electricity. Sucking in air, we sleep towards death; slowly we rove over lines that enamour with deceptive simplicity. We can’t help but breathe in sleep; it’s just evolution. What’s more, nature isn’t mere positive growth, but might be compounded poison, cancerous swells. Tumours accumulating almost mycologically, darkly twisting and rising in the shadowy mulch of the organs, the undergrowth. Behind a benign appearance is the spectre of asbestos; for of course mosses and lichens are indicator species, material harbingers of polluted air. Air is the cure, the restorative; but air can also kill. It is both oxygen and carbon monoxide, its healthiness hinges on a delicate balance.
Air’s undecidability, perhaps, is a deconstructive motion of question and answer, a maddening circuitry of frazzled nerves and linguistic synapses. In Lafarge’s attempt to materialise air, to verbalise its form as supplementary poetics, writing does the work of metaphysics. Enter Maria-Daniella Dick and Julian Wolfreys in The Derrida Wordbook, glossing Derrida’s term undecidability:
If metaphysics teaches us how to read, and reading teaches us metaphysics, birthing each other in a twin maiuetics, then deconstruction also calls us to a reading. To read undecidability is to resist that other resistance which would efface it.
Air’s invisible toxins make themselves known with prickling, painful insistence at the miniature level of surface pollutants, scum left on water or stains on metal. A poet’s Keatsian eye would draw out this material tread of Anthropocene effect, illumine its slow evolution with the linguistic wit of a chemist. The irony of deep-time causation at the hands of humans, those obfuscations of cause and effect that place humankind as geologic agents. Reality, matter, climate change become undecidable. We are being taught, in these poems, the call to the earth that is really a subtle conversation within our own bodies—palimpsests of dangerous nature we tried to fashion but grew otherwise, anyway. Despite melting icecaps, the air grows colder in winter, it thickens.
Lafarge develops this viscous, hyperobjective symbiosis through her descriptions of air’s sticky contaminations. There are ornaments of scattered matter: bitumen, seed heads, the wildfire possibilities of ‘drying leaves’. There is a constant overlay of the biological, spatial and arboreal: ‘we soiled our mouths to mimic / the good fettle of root and seed’; those ‘dark thickets of lung’. I think of the word forest, then ‘for rest’. Places we go to shelter, to cleanse ourselves scented on pinewood air. We can’t see the woods for the trees, or was it the trees for the woods? Morton’s idea that we need a return to parts over wholes, this notion of subscendence: the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. A tree more important than a forest. Lafarge strains her ear to every little activity, the expressions of suffering that come from sources beyond the human: ‘on every corner a tree / articulates its script’. Tree language is material too, it is sound in the air unique, and seedlings glistering on rustling rhythms. It is the flail and droop of branches diseased, stung acid by rain or ravaged by leaking methane.
To put words in air implies a sense of declaring, but this is less the enlightened ejaculations of a singular genius and more a sensual symbiosis: ‘the words / identified me as carrier / and now along I go / sowing their imprint in air’. To sow, to plant seed, to let meaning take root and feed upon air and soil, sound and shape. By tuning to nonhuman forms of inscription, Lafarge attempts to answer the call of the absolute other. This is ecological poetry’s luminous tool, its potential ethics.
This is also, to a degree, Michael Marder’s ‘plant-thinking’: a thinking about plants, a thinking through plants, a symbiosis of human and vegetal thought at the level of form and content. Not discursive domination of subject but a perceptive, non-anthropocentric and multisensory modality of what Marder calls ‘transfigured thinking’. I cannot help think of a shadowy, cooperative alchemy in which the baroque foliage of language ravels round the utterances of the absolute other, those bladed shivers and flashes of light, that speak of time felt close in the skin of a cell. It is a metaphysical elixir that deconstructs its own postulated recipe. Metaphysics, for Marder, is unable to think coextensively ‘with the variegated acts of living’ that exist in plants; it seems to ‘affirm the quasi-divine life of the mind’, but actually ‘wields the power of negativity and death’. It risks becoming ‘a cancerous growth’, smothering the plants it attempts to draw ‘vitality’ from in knowledge and energy. I think of the chemical kill that Keats in Lamia implies is the effect of philosophy, which ‘will clip an angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line / Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine’. Writing poetically, we must be tender, channel the lurid sounds that fill the sparkling air, nevertheless deathly polluted as a charnel ground. Embrace inexplicable oscillations between the living and dead; challenge binary conceptions of stasis and liveliness, animals and matter. Retrieve a kindred sense of mutual mystery, preserve the lingering aura of species-being. Plant-thinking must instead be ‘receptive’ to the ‘pole of darkness’ within botanical existence. There is a Keatsian sense of negative capability here, a chameleon dwelling in the infinite and multiple, the rhizomatic offshoots of unknown effects, undecidability. There’s a Deleuzo-Guattarian intermezzo too, as Marder puts it: ‘To live and to think in and from the middle, like a plant partaking of light and darkness, is not to be confined to the dialectical twilight […]. It is, rather, to refashion oneself […] into a bridge between divergent elements’, to allow that darkness to shine as much as the light of visible knowledge. Remain discursively flexible, morph through variant perspectives.
We have here an immersive rhizomatics, hinting also towards Graham Harman’s assertion of the object’s metaphysical withdrawal. Lafarge’s speaker certainly stands in this middle, exploring ‘a vernacular for pipelines, / circuitry, the fetid grids and systems’. She doesn’t penetrate essences. Stinking like soil mulch, our carbon economy is overlain with what we traditionally take to be ‘nature’: those lichens, mosses, leaves. We are reminded that cancerous growths, chemicals and shameful asbestos are as earthly as the daffodil or ash tree; each to each, irrevocably and intimately enmeshed, from the clinging of air to shared DNA. The speaker lets nonhuman forms speak through her: the shape of those gusts and shudders, those incremental growths and sudden ruptures, take effect in the passage of language. She brings us quietly, unassumingly, to aporetic conclusions, refusing to clasp meaning’s assertion from the lateral sprawl, preferring the precarious, seductive dissolve towards undecidability: ‘I still think of them, their clod eyes / roiled with fever, churning the peat / of a stagnant loop’. Clod: insensitive fool or chunk of mass. A clod of stone, an ignorant clod. An estrangement of nature, a closure of humanity to uncanny matter, churned in the loop of signature tautology—a metaphysics of presence that is ever an ‘argument’, a stagnant pool. How we must dwell, thickly, in these poems, these fleshy pools of blood and sap and dripping air. The declarative trochee like a stone thrown in a pond, ‘roiled with fever’; these shivers on the petrified skin with its fur of moss, toxin, mould. Conveyers of nonhuman temporality. The speaker licks such substances with lapidary language; the effects are circling, strange, recursive as a maddening philosophical problem. She dwells quite certain in uncertainty. Perhaps this makes her the perfect understudy, questioning but never at the point of egotistical revolt.
If all that is solid melts into air, then we know this now to entail less evaporation than transmutation. Solid objects arise elsewhere. What daily we flush, cough and excoriate from our bodies floats out in the hothouse biosphere, only to be reborn as fragrant waste, the fettered matter that is fetid at the point of being/becoming other. In the pamphlet’s final poem, the speaker passes a ‘high-rise’ and in the shrill of its alarm encounters an ‘elderly lady’, naked in her white towel like a terrible angel wrenched from the heavens to corrode on earth. The white signifies a kind of surrender to time and matter; the woman addresses the speaker thus: ‘one day I will know how it feels / to haul around a body of rotten flowers, to let memory / chew holes in my mind like maggots’. I’m reminded of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, where Peter Walsh witnesses a vagrant woman, ‘opposite Regent’s Park Tube station’, her gurgling vowels speaking in a tongue he cannot understand. Is this a primitive ecofeminist figure from the future-past, her voice ‘bubbling up without direction, vigour, beginning or end, running weakly and shrilly and with an absence of all human meaning’? She speaks with ‘the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth’, channels somehow that geologic core, its rupturing pain. There’s Jonathan Bate’s insistence on poetry as ecological dwelling, in The Song of the Earth (2000). Woolf’s eerie, primeval wanderer stirs up the dead leaves from their settled grave, recalls an ancient song that aligns feminine suffering with planetary pain. I think again of Lafarge’s speaker, lying in the bath with a sense of her own body eking out a substance unfamiliar, the water stained a curious, feldspar colour. Poetry as monstrous giving-birth, poetry as vegetal thinking; poetry as lichenous growth or ambient eddy and flow.
There isn’t much pastoral about Understudies for Air, where things are scorched or ‘unspeakable’, full of porous holes and an inexplicable, surveilling gaze, those eyes which absorb and emit reality with cytoplasmic osmosis. There’s a dwelling in-between; a refusal of pastoral’s smoothed surface, its crudely soldered contradictions. Lafarge’s material history is thick, polluted, complex: irrevocably enmeshed with the speaker’s autobiography, a slow enclosure of tainted expiration; the result of some unreachable, originary trauma—the first infected inhalation. As the first poem opens: ‘difficult to pin the beginning / of the bad air’. In the Anthropocene, as with shame and trauma, it’s tricky to find causes, to trace singular beginnings. We have to face the impossibility of the transcendental signified, keep crossing over the same old tracks, tuning to peculiar scale effects in the dust and dirt, shaking the rain from our wilting manes, blades, branches, names. We can hack at the data, break the trees. In the end it is all just mutual suffering, the poem as supplement for what we can’t say, the horror of thought that is personal guilt and environmental blame. Yet somehow, Lafarge stirs sweetness from the wastelands of contamination, a little bit of the old Eliotic ‘breeding / lilacs out of the dead land’, or Morton’s molten, dark ecological chocolate. We move from depression to mystery to empathetic, mouth-melting sweetness. What you bury might come up lavender later; death still tainting, beautifully, the fullness of life. There is a shivering ethical suspension between the one and the other, cheating human text with the infiltrating voice of the strange stranger, where even the poet doubles back on herself, shrinks and fades, becomes alien against her own voice and song. Amidst all these ‘unspeakable things’, Lafarge reflects the coruscating absence, the flicker-to-effect of the dust in the air; motes of melancholy love, life and death, that cluster temporarily in poems and feel like a homecoming, yet always on the brink of becoming unsettled. Forever this ‘speech / impaired through contact / with the air’, the wrenching of justice from staunch aporia.
All this is so much of air. The words clot and float, they are pushed elsewhere as stacks of data, the coded reverie of software forgotten. Dwell in the dark web, a gossamer poetics that drips with the fringe-work of hackers, pirates, spiders. Once again: ‘homes / for unspeakable things’. Protection of privacy, pelt of fur, air that gluts on the temporary flesh of speech. A child’s ‘moonmilk / crusted round its mouth’. Language for future generations, raised on the logic of ‘selenography’; all human attempt to make sense of time beyond the body. There is a rhythm and a dwelling, a child’s bright cry in mica-flecked darkness. We all find overlays for our love or trauma—‘perhaps it was an early leak of the air / that conjured the image of his mother’—but instead of burial there is only entanglement, the sentencing ever excess of ‘a bad root / growing in every direction’. Trouble is, we can’t find it exactly; it grows and grows regardless. It shrouds us, auroral, auratic. Lafarge picks at flakes of flesh and star and paint, travels arterial between filament, taproot, wire, synapse and galaxy. Understudies for Air feels performative, a traversal of myriad sorts that folds back on itself, reflectively prone to spiralling dialogue, a postured void. For, as Steven Connor reminds us, the thing about air is ‘it encompasses its own negation […]. Take away the air, and the empty space you have left still seems to retain most of the qualities of air’. It’s in this multivariant, phenomenological pulse that Lafarge’s speaker dwells, sparked against the air’s vibrant matter as much as its ever conditional abyss. I read her words over and over, fragments of collected matter; conjuring in the cold winter light some other possible, nonhuman chorus. I’ll vapourise now, leave you trailing in the ‘fuzzy, fizzy logic of volumes rather than outlines’ (Connor), for it’s the sheer glut of language, coming in and out of phase with human perception and nonhuman form, that really matters. Matters. Connor again: ‘We earthlings, we one-foot-in-the-grave air-traffic-controllers, may have much to learn from the clamorous cooccupancies the air affords.’
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.
The glow of the oil lamp
melts through the misting dust
that coats the light in the kitchen,
all airy, greyish, mossy and ochre
as the painted walls
(…In the evenings and mornings there are the same
slants of sun or moon, geometries of the cosmic
playing games upon the carpet).
Two weeks ago, the gloom was cut
with a bunch of sunflowers, hacked clean with a knife;
their extravagant heads all smiles and brightness.
They lifted the mood when you entered the room,
skin acquiring that olivine hue
from the plants and the shadows;
reflection of the radio, whose channels
remain static, always, in lieu
of music, or a television crackling,
or a body that would clutch
you so tight in its sadness
as to suck away your own.
Crumbs from the dead hours
grow a fur of mould; the pages curl
on a stack of magazines,
whose gloss lacks immunity to dust,
which scuttles and settles
between the pages, closely closing
leaf after leaf, an army of tiny hermit creatures—
Frankenstein splices of insect shells, fragments of lashes,
fibre and skin.
To sweep it would be merely
to cast a new dance of twirling particles.
It is exhausting, keeping things clean;
to warm the stove, to watch the hours
through the clock on the wall.
The sunflowers fade now; it is properly autumn,
bronze and darkening green.
Their time has been
and I collect the topaz petals, shrivelled slightly
as they catch on the carpet, the stacks of magazines.
September spreads its beautiful disease through the streets
as the leaves begin to fall, oozing soft fire,
the sweep sap of decay.
In the window, the sunflowers have lost their vigour.
They drop; their heads slump down,
defeated, as if shy at their deaths.
Their filaments wither, every yellow floret
sinks, crisp; a victim of gravity.
Every entrance to the room augments their sorrow.
We have forgotten the day we bought them,
or even where they were from.
There is just the slant of light, the green and ochre
smell of cooking, the smoke across the road,
and the knowing that probably
I will throw those flowers away tomorrow.
It’s in this track that you finally slip under the surface, that you actually look back at the world through the gauze of this mysterious, ethereal substance that has formed in the wake of all this…music. A Moon Shaped Pool. Ripple of piano riffs flower out around you, the steady yet slightly quivering polyrhythms that shimmer around a fragile croon. Sadness in silver, the wisps of cloud that lick the moon; as the long hair of a girl, floating alone on her boat in the ocean, flicks her face in the wind. The pool is gelatinous, oozing its tendrils and trickles of this sonic sweetness; the listener is stuck, drifting, as paralysed inside this song as the love itself which frames it. How old is this tune? Somehow it feels ageless, plucked out of time as if nobody wrote it – as if it materialised in the ether, adrift on some westward, melancholy breeze. The child plucked from a fairytale, waiting for her saviour, frailly nourished on lollipops and crisps. The way Thom Yorke’s voice licks the soft consonants, the lilting drag over the vowels…that simple, subdued beauty. I’m not living / I’m just killing time. How easily captured is that sorrow, that shrinking of the world as you long for the lost object, the presence so elusive whose existence, you truly believe, is the single thing that will save you. There is always that waiting, that painful, half-lived interlude. Will it happen? When will it happen? Here, that place where the fingers slip effortlessly over ivory keys; where notes swirl around one another, like the rings on the surface of water, pale-hazed and iridescent. A mercurial thirst for the things that kill and sustain you. Tiny tattoos that etch the moon. There, the promise of sacrificing all, of baring oneself to the other: the exchange of absolute translucency. Not quite transparent: the mystery still glazes, if only thinly. I’d drown my beliefs / to have your babies. Maybe gender, maybe identity itself, become futile in this feeling. The body is just a possibility. In memory, it is always the detail that remains: Your tiny hands / Your crazy-kitten smile. Desire is the endless chain of such details, their sense of ephemerality – you cannot pin down the tiny hands or crazy-kitten smile, which inexorably close or blink or fade, a little like the grin of the Cheshire cat. We can only collect the images, those photos which clot the haunted attics: love too is an archive of sorts. But the liquid metaphors prevail: you can drown in the archive, you can drown in your love. Don’t leave, don’t leave – it’s the imperative of one who is starved of oxygen, breathless and maybe a little desperate, reaching out for that lovely soul who would save it. And could all this strange passion, this warbling sadness, really be contained in what Wikipedia calls ‘a minimal piano ballad’? Written over twenty years ago and finally that melody is pressed onto vinyl, into the modernist glint of a compact disc, spread like smoke around the internet. Yet somehow it still eludes us. It is that moment of clarity – epiphany, even – amidst the futurist nightmares of much of the band’s back catalogue. Love, love, love: what is it good for? The song doesn’t answer the question, rather draws us into the aching feeling, again and again with that refrain – don’t leave – highlighting the desire that draws us through life, even if it stings us, bramble-like, with pain. We try to make it tangible, pin it to myriad images; but like the soft fading closure of the version on A Moon Shaped Pool, love itself offers no solid, defining life-raft. Maybe it’s the idea, the trembling imagination, that sustains us. After all, ‘True Love Waits’ falls in and out of arrangements with the ease of osmosis. Guitar or piano, brighter or sadder, it stays protean somehow; its capacity to plasmolyse with such simple, touching lyrics leaves you feeling weak – as fragmented, perhaps, as all those sweetly delivered images. So easy it would be, at the close of the album, to float forever in the orbit of that pool and its silvery spirits – the pieces that I loved, the pieces that were you.
You used to worry about the palms: there was something wrong,
if the palms weren’t sighing.
You relished the soft peel of the wind through those palms,
the ones by the hotel garden.
We’ve been here every year
since Dad died.
The white beach sand is a mouthful of moonlight.
We sit up late drinking crushed fruit
and you say strange things, as you always do—
have you ever eaten a mango in the bath?
You would live your life like that,
all the time you said, eating mangoes in the bath.
All that pulp and mess, all that flesh.
Dad died in the spring, when blossoms
of soft pink cherry gathered on my lawn.
The baby lolled around in it like April snow
and we watched her giggle, ribbon
flying out from her hair. He would’ve loved that,
seeing her there.
The cancer took the green out his eyes,
ate the skin of his face.
Even when they pumped him full of fat and creamy vitamins,
the bones kept poking, pointing.
His face was a mask of something;
I couldn’t let the baby near it.
I imagine you prefer it here
to back home. You like the ooze
of the days, the way the maids make the beds;
the emerald green of the parakeet,
early mornings where the tide sparkles. Still,
you saw signs in everything.
Dad used to come visit during monsoon season.
He wrote reams of prose,
lapping up slushfuls of rain. He wrote
in the small hours, when he wasn’t working.
We lost the notes.
We’ve only the stuff on his business trips,
lost code on his laptop.
We haven’t a sense
of what to him was sharp or clear, what it was
that brought him over.
Just the whispering palms, the sleepy tense—
one day I’ll take the baby here.