Playlist: December 2019

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There is this Anne Carson poem, ‘God’s Work’, which ends with the line ‘Put away your sadness, it is a mantle of work’. By chance, I was reminded of the poem via some post on Instagram that came up an hour ago. I want to think about this ‘it’, like how it is the sadness and also the work, and the pronoun of living, the abstract embodied. ‘Mantle’ is something that covers, envelops or conceals, it is a portion of the Earth, a sleeveless cloak or cape. Is it also the bevelled edge of a door? One can be mantled with a blush, the mark of a covering shame. Is it a mantle of work to hide your sadness, or does the ‘it is’ refer to some other thing whose outcome is that we must put away our sadness? We must close a passage of time behind us? Notice I am switching to a plural pronoun, because I have entered the poem, sharing the position of both addressee and speaker. I am the the person with this feeling; I am the person addressing this feeling. To speak at all, I am doing the mantle of work. There have been these tectonic shifts in my life of late, the underlying move or loss that is a portion of everything. ‘Put away your sadness’ asks you to imagine a physical form for the affect, a classic poetic move: my sadness is a bird, my sadness is a stone, my sadness is a rose, a scrunchie, a sea. These are things you can put away, tie back; or you can hide with a cloud, or you can dive in. Typing in ‘my sadness is a’, Google suggests: 

addiction
a smile
a father introduced
a souvenir
a smile
a text
a joyful dance
a science

It seems these things are all correct, at the present moment. For instance, I drink from this mug and I think about Prague, and how it looked in the rain of a flickering image. That is a souvenir, but it is somebody else’s rain. The internet offers ‘Healthy ways to deal with sadness’, ‘Why am I sad all the time?’ and the old adage, ‘It’s okay to feel sad’. I have been reading Heather Christle’s The Crying Book (2019) and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). Didion insists, ‘The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room’ where one could ‘touch a key and collapse the sequence of time’. In one of my favourite Laura Marling songs, ‘The Captain and the Hourglass’, she sings ‘Behind every tree is a cutting machine and a kite fallen from grace / Inside every man is a heart of sand you can see it in his face’. I love the pessimistic, teenage fatalism of this album, Alas I Cannot Swim (2008), its jump cuts of warning and love and familiar pain. Is the man the whole of humankind, or men in general? What if instead of words we had the bark of a tree, its abrasive shavings; a shaven novel or heart of sand in which to bear our suffering? Dissolve is imminent. There would be the rings of your life, the brief achievements of flight, but then the fallen linen, the tired old string, the particles blown. Didion wants it all at once: a simultaneous display of the frames, the scenes of a life. You would then choose what to cut, reassemble or stow away. What doesn’t matter to be dispersed. In the cutting room, a mantle of work is required. And what of the work that is to write who you are, when what that seems is only pencil shavings, sawdust and woodsmoke? 

I have not walked in the woods for so long, and the last time it was with you. But let that not be the last. I was cloaked in so many layers; I could not get rid of the cold. It was a damp and green, needling feeling. It was not so much inside as around me

Heather Christle puts it really well, this question of the cutting room and the cry: 

Maybe we cannot know about the real reason we are crying. Maybe we do not cry about, but rather near or around. Maybe all our explanations are stories constructed after the fact. Not just stories. I won’t say just.

It is a relief to write while crying. There is something comforting about the simultaneous flow, as though letting two substances at once run through you: one being language, the other chemical; each in a woven relation. Crying, then, is the anarrangement (ana being Greek for ‘up, in place or time, back, again, anew — OED), of a state of things that are happening in life, in the body, in the social, in various temporalities. There is the before and after of a break; there is the running on, running behind, the sense of feeling this from ‘above’ or ‘below’. Like when for ages I didn’t properly eat the world was a glassy thing I was seeing from underwater, poking the ripples, falling backwards. To cry is to indulge in both prolepsis and analepsis, to slip and collapse, to blur and feel into. A friend says, you have to work through and not around it. I try not to cry about, but recognise the ambience of sadness. I won’t know until later what is really happening, what narrative this can all be placed in, or slip from. 

Somebody nearby is playing a flute really badly. 

The chime of a text message. It’s okay to feel sad. 

In the office, friends and I exchange tales of election night. One of us is trying to fix a puzzle, the other drinks for sorrow; there is a mutual sensation of violence which can only ‘end’ in blackout, keying a car, throwing a punch, posting a rant or falling through sleep’s amnesia. For a while, I could only listen to songs that came out before this happened, and before the Tories were a bad new government, which felt forever ago. 

What if daylight itself became elective, and that was the bold democracy of what it was to enter a day. Do you choose the light, or does it summon you? I just make playlists.

The moon has been flagrant of late, or was it right before. I remember seeing rainbows around the moon for days at a time. I remember that seeming too much, like I’d overdosed on the dust of this planet, like there were molecules of colour in my nose I could not sneeze or shake out. Like there was a terrible high about to happen. 

I have not seen the moon at all this week. 

I write this raining. 

A thought of the before and after which remains unfixed and semi-colonic. It is to say and not say of what was said. 

There is a special release in crying by bodies of water. I believe in a clairvoyant sadness, one that predicts some upset to come. It is the body’s sincerity of knowing. So you cry by the sea, or lately, a river. All that I have. Cry your eyes out by the Clyde. When you arrived, I was reading about the horror of purple, that ‘which hurts both sides’, ‘the horror’ (Hannah Weiner, The Fast). I wear it around my sleepless eyes. It is a bruise colour, the muscular failure to move through the day; it is a pile of clothes, a burgeoning energy of the horror. So I turn to blue, which is a star, or a gas flame because someone is cooking. 

That line in Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’, from Blue, a lifesaver every Christmas, which goes, ‘Just before our love got lost you said / I am as constant as a northern star’. And it’s that ‘I am’ that I like, the moving throughness of it, the insistence that this is and not was. Because there is something of forever which is getting lost, or a wound that is hidden and cannot be healed. That is forever opening up. For we were so close, a year ago. And of course Joni flips, deliciously, to the mundane. She asks ‘Constantly in the darkness / Where’s that at / If you want me I’ll be in the bar’. As though to look down in your soupy negroni, you would find that hot abyss from which love is turned, over and over. And maybe you’d shed a few tears in it. And you’d struggle to say the location. 

I remember dressing as a wise man for a play at school, wearing a homemade crown and parading slowly towards a manger. Somebody was acting the part of the star, and we followed them. 

Somehow in a notebook I wrote, ‘I am going to be fine. I am going to shine at it’. To be shiny in this being fine, I wrote that in a café and I remember my hands were trembling, my earrings were not real gold. 

There is this dream from last night where I wear a blindfold made of a banana leaf, and you are helping me cross this road, this road that is river. 

In Goodbye, First Love, there is a hat that floats away in the river where Camille is swimming. This happens at the end. It is either too late or too soon, and she is crushed. This is the wiki summary. From the film I remember the widening shot of the river that flows on but closes, and the sunlight, and crying as I watched this at six in the morning, after reading about it on somebody’s blog, the link now lost. It was almost spring and I had not cried since winter. Back when I would add things to my weekly list like, ‘more on lattices’, ‘a setlist’, ‘a more explicit weave’, ‘reply’ and ‘pack’.

Writing this now, am I attempting to ‘put’ this ‘away’? 

When he tried to be practical, mentioned ‘In the long run…’ I could only think of that song by The Staves. It was a churlish note, curled at the edge and not mine or yours. That night, there was a cat called Olive, a taxi to Greenbank, sleeping in a friend’s sister’s bed, waking up face to face with Sophie Collins’ small white monkeys again. In the notebook I had written in a slurred hand, ‘I wish I would cry now but I feel afloat’. It was the elated tiredness, the denial. I had a freezing shower to cool my shame. 

Climate breakdown is also a breakdown of the heart. We have to admit that. Something is always stinging, ‘I’ve been thinking’, a mug of hot water. I could not sleep, I was reading Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva in fits and starts, which is perhaps how it demands to be read:

I swallow a mouthful of blood that fills me entirely. I hear cymbals and trumpets and tambourines that fill the air with noise and uproar drowning out the silence of the disc of the sun and its marvel. I want a cloak woven from threads of solar gold. The sun is the magical tension of the silence.

A spoon of blood, not sugar, not jam. It is the hot lump in your throat when you cry and the blood that is anyway. About to. Remember I bled for thirteen days, or was it more. It was because of hot liquid, a rush, a pill. How you nourish yourself or not. A friend says, when I cry on buses and trains I listen to specific kinds of music and pretend I’m in a movie. Is it detachment we want from that? Would there be cymbals and trumpets and tambourines in this movie? I want you to put me in it, the noise. I want to stand at the front of the gig, be buffeted. I want to be bashed around like a note that won’t break from the instrument. I want to find a post-it note stuck to my back, but what should it say? Over time, I garner respect for the sun. It is not that my nocturnal years are ‘over’, but I am wondering what it would mean to truly love and rejoice in the sun. The giver of life, not Byronic darkness. To lie in a colourless sea. What would this clarity that Clarice writes of look like, the woven cloak of ‘solar gold’, its ripples? Is it the mantle one could wear to cloak a sadness? But what if the sadness was the clarity itself? I say, I think you are brilliant. It is a mantra. It is a giving away. When the van swerved and nearly hit me, I felt the sunlight so incredibly brightly. The east coast, the sense that this was someone else’s morning. The silence remains still, and I look for it in that ‘magical tension’ of the said and unsaid, and I am doing what Didion does with her grief, the magical thinking that is arranging all these scenes at once for something to emerge as possible. That is trying to sort a timeline or feeling yourself ‘invisible’, between things, the living and dead, an incomprehensible love. 

In Ariana Reines’ recent collection, A Sand Book (2019), the pages of the final section, ‘MOSAIC’, are black. She introduces the scene that prompted this section with italics, 

The sun’s warmth kept filling me, and what had begun as a slightly above-average warmth kept growing. It was starting to fill my body, and just before I totally surrendered to it, I had the inkling this might be something like the “bliss” I had heard about in old books. I had to sit down.

What is relayed as a religious experience, a spiritual experience, is then a series of transmissions (‘MOSAIC’ is in reference to Moses). But it is also fundamentally a solar experience. I think of Laura Marling’s heart of sand, something grazed by a coming warmth, the lap of a sunlight like the sea. A hot liquid thing that is coming inside me, causing the bleed, the bliss, the generous massage of some hormone. It is embarrassing writing, it demands a hot bright mantle. To feel it, feel through it, you have to sit down. You might go to the bar, as Joni does. In fact, I write this lying in bed, as is often the way. There is nothing to set out for or plan, so much as the needling of this ‘inkling’. 

I go to see Little Women, and focus on Jo’s ink-stained fingers.

I have not been ‘on holiday’ for so long but if I did I would make a solar panel of my opening chest and lay where the river and the light would take me. I think the black space on Ariana Reine’s pages is just as important as the whitely capitalised text, ‘EARTH IS SPECIAL […] THERE IS NO “BACK” TO GET TO’. We can’t get back to any bliss other than what is felt in the present. And there has to be so much energy. Put down your phone.

Dorothea Lasky says she tells her students ‘not to have a plan, but to collect things and poems and then put them together’, there is this ‘holy idea’ of ‘emergence’. I write mostly by assembling quotes I like, streaming things down (for to ‘jot’ implies a decisiveness, an almost violence) whenever they do or don’t make sense. Text myself so the thought is received as though in reply. I have all these poems from the month I don’t yet know how to assemble. They are as much of the rain as the rain. Someone comments on a fresh sense of ‘scarcity’. 

I wish I had a river so long’. And there is no snow here. The lines feel hard and overly sweet. 

Candy canes hang upon the tree.

On Christmas Day, we walk by the canal and stop by the locks. The trees seem anorexic, as in a Plath poem; as though they had chosen to strip this pure and gleam on the water. They too will see from below, but they know a different renewal. 

I can’t say a certain five letter word. 

I want to know what the seven words are in the Weyes Blood song. 

I wish I could swim in an ocean / As cold as’ a line I can’t finish, listening to Grace Cummings as though it were autumn all over again. But people on the internet are still going wild swimming. The world is not everywhere cold. The caption reads, literally all I want for xmas. 

Two photos on different accounts of a landscape blurred by the motional train. 

It’s funny, I even wrote, ‘it’s like The Topeka School and the failure of language’. 

To sob into the warm, soft fur of a cat. 

The want of a cigarette.

Astonishing winter light.

I couldn’t finish the wine. 

In The Fast, Hannah Weiner writes, ‘I didn’t know any golden light people, but I knew a couple of blues. I knew I had to be rescued (I thought of it that way) by a blue, or someone near it’. One of my closest friends and I both Instagram a snapshot of ‘River’ on Spotify at separate points across the festive period. It is this secret, not-so-secret gesture of the living-on, the warmth and possible. I think she is one of the golden light people, in loops, and I wonder what I am, if one of the blues. Who else is a blue? But I have always loved green eyes. And the Earth, which is a globe of something like green and blue, (de)pendant on/of the universe. Whose. And I have seen the garden in four seasons now, but just barely. The scene is still swinging and won’t stop to focus. 

What Reines writes of how there is no ‘back’ of the Earth to get to. I think of the back of a tapestry: a ragged collation of stems, snipped-off threads, criss-crossing lines. A simultaneity, a mess, a work in progress. When I am trying to write about the anthropocene, about what is happening, about the earth, is it this ‘back’ I am trying to write. It is not to get back to, but a back that is happening, the other side. I have been trying and failing to learn crochet; I think those who succeed are beautiful and perfect, I won’t turn over their lovely creations. In her song ‘Other Side’, Grace Cummings sings ‘The fall of a raindrop / Returns blue to the daylight / Your mind must return / To behind your eyes’. One drop of blue can restore the day. I think of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, living on Montague Street, in one or more stories. The worried thread. It is like putting on makeup to stop yourself crying, but doing it anyway, later in rivers of mascara and other clichés. When you are watching a movie and the crying is about to happen and you feel it as a sparkle, because it is not about the movie for which you are crying, but something around or near the happening, the space of it, being there in the other imaginary. And then what is going on ‘behind your eyes’. Crying happens in a space. It is all the prettiness we do while we can, which is a mutual hurt, a hot slide of a tear that catches your neck and means something small and inexplicable. 

The Bright Eyes song ‘Train Under Water’ begins, ‘You were born inside of a raindrop / I watched you falling to your death / And the sun, well she could not save you / She’d fallen down too, now the streets are wet’. I used to think that song was about miscarriage, now I know it could be about any kind of love and loss. Remember when Jeremy Corbyn said something offhand about getting the train to Orkney? I dream about the sub-thalassic train sometimes, northerly moving, passing by jellyfish and flashes of shapeless light. Where are you going, where have you been. The milky unborn thing that we bear yet. Feeling sick from relative motion. It is the glassy way we watch from behind falling water, all of our lives. What touch do we really share of each other?

The air is a key change.

At the reading, Gloria says something like, we have all been thinking of writing as a practice of moving through the days, a practice of living, of marking time. Here are the days I give you in words. In Utopia, her little red book, Bernadette Mayer writes, ‘Everything you or I or anybody says always seems 100% wrong sometimes, unless you keep forcing it to be closer to the truth’. There is a truth quality, say, to the way plants photosynthesise or a starling assembles her nest. The percentage quality in which I can or cannot get out of bed, and whether you are ‘Active Now’ or in fact just barely online. Again, it is a question of green. 

Marianne Morris has this beautiful poem, the last in her collection Word / World (2018), that a friend and I once read aloud together on a patio in summer at the XR climate café, the first I’d attended. Everything seemed shimmer then. The poem, ‘Lion’s Gate’, is a prose poem of some intensity. It is about what it means to love and to hate, and what is worth keeping. I really want to quote the whole thing but I can’t, so I’ll make do: 

We do not want to go back with more questions pertaining to life on this Earth. We must learn them before we leave, loving every possible second upon this beautiful Earth, because we will not come back. We will move on elsewhere. It is like a heart breaking feeling suddenly, I see it all so clearly and I want this moment to stay. This feeling of certainty that the only thing that matters in this life is that you enjoy your time here and keep thirsting and seeking and do not resist the lessons, rush towards them and learn them all, so that you can die to yourself, die into light. 

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~

 

Green Day – 2000 Light Years Away

Caribou – You and I

Market – Told

Angel Olsen – Lark

Fleetwood Mac – Dreams

Pinegrove – Skylight

Rob St. John – Your Phantom Limb

Laura Marling – Tap At My Window

Karen Dalton – God Bless the Child

Joni Mitchell – River

Grace Cumming – Other Side 

wished bone – Pink Room 

Nirvana – Something In The Way

Wilco – An Empty Corner

Belle and Sebastian – We Rule the School

Vashti Bunyan – Winter is Blue

Connie Converse – I Have Considered the Lilies

Bright Eyes – Train Under Water 

Big Thief – Dandelion

The National – Guilty Party 

Organ Tapes – Simple Halo 

Björk – Sun In My Mouth

Eartheater, LEYA – Angel Path

Mitski – Last Words of a Shooting Star

Playlist: November 2019

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The hall is full of noises, sounds of torrid airs and sigh. It is a steel hall, non-place, serving lusciousness in plastic cups. The animals sing on a loop. The choir just lifts. ‘The science is clear’ (Greta Thunberg). I stayed up waiting until the cries came, curled on my little sofa. It isn’t years that slip when she starts, when the young ones start, when the colour is like a radical hydro seminar. What do you have to contribute, I give you my silks just once, clutching a ticket. Can’t stop worrying the skin of my cuticles into a bleed, scrape the hard bit sore against my thumb. She just swirls. Something has shifted between us since. She moves she. Moveable she. I can’t start up.

Two of us drift in dresses, crushed of scarlet velvet.

It has been a long time since this was honeyed. I felt sultry like an Everly Brother, his actions speak louder. On the line standing and learning, the lines, I think it hurts.

In the poem I am clipping my nails again. Words, words, words; a snip.

How is it that we sat up late, same sofa, in the skeins of this year? Have you even come down yet?

His actions speak louder than shimmer_

Bliss not this, Christmas cactus at the corner of_. Is it better to cry in the sun or the rain. The rain is so obvious. I confected a dialogue to spite the blues and the cherries, rinsing packaging in the sink. It was supposed to be red. You said it fell flat. There was a half-moon curve between us and I sat there hugging my knees. The others. I like when you say you like a riff. Let’s be as I was in the hall, champagne later, tiniest bubbling; don’t say rise, let’s hold it cute. A sippable glitch in the music. Walking home in the rain, I murmured it: wtf wtf wtf. I made this punctuation; be here now, missing the body. She does this thing with her lips; teensy bubbles taste dust of gold & angel.

Watching your arms like a symphony, fucking—

Perhaps it is not about being at all, yet I am at the table and the hydrangeas are just too much. I wish there were Silk Cuts. Deathly attendant, where writing to you at the specific moment was standing in the flashbulb of a passing car and trying to look up at the stars. Just as the stars in the valley, we visit the shire. The stars you say are most particular, yet they are anyone’s; the stars are in the garden now, a proximate shrubbery and I put on my makeup. Deep bled fuchsia into sage and clary; yet we are violets, smelling the sea. And a dram before class, something citrine to start us, blendable night. I try it again; the word ‘frenetic’ peals from me.

If history was different, wouldn’t I be singing this.

Merry season helichrysum. There is a headpiece of corals worn by the sea. A quartet of angels play the flute-hoop and daylight twists, and Greta says it more than clearly. So hot this hurts. At current emissions. Someone in the back shouts FUCK THE TORIES and I put on my shoes. I wake up to my nails not coral-red, my eyes not pressed with cornflower blue. ‘if the word / does not arise it will fall back, the thing itself, it will fall again / into that ocean where it is not biodegradable’ (Beverly Dahlen, A Reading: 11-17). The thing of the word fell back into water, lots of it deep and luxury water. I wanted to say, the word has been waiting in shallow poetics. Floats of white. Water is a memory of the water before it. That feels like love but is that a falling. Into it, into it. That ocean speaks its chords again, thingly and falling. Dear degradable, non-bio daylight; sentiments of infrared, blip of foam.

I wanted to ask, are you striking, striking. The blood clots around the skin of our thumbs. Got lost in the rhythm I leave at the door / you painted helium blue. I knew it would bring me home to you. I was immediate, here, I knew what to do. This electric hand, hello.

What did you have to almost wake up for?

There is so much to grasp, at any one point. ‘We’ll clear a trail through the forest’, Hélène Cixous says, but ‘We can’t go via the city, nor at will, nor by bus’ (Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing). All those doors in the underpass, surely one was a portal? I thought it was only that you wanted me back in the leaf-trails of language. What is it that carries you now? The cold air whipped your chest and I pissed in the bushes. How much neon is the news.

Time collapsed so soft, we were in thrall of the science tiara.

We sat in this anonymous hotel lobby while the rain piled on and the beats got wet. Tresses of soaking beats. You say the only music that gets you now is pop. Continuum of sweetness in the formula lifts: the trick is melodic. So hot, you’re a burning peach. Embarrassed, I look at such childhood photos, the soft plash of it: language out of language it folds me again. Brush your hair. Softer your face, I come back to that star that is it. Approach, he holds out a finger to say, hello hello, hello you green. Is there something like a sour glissando? The bass was flat, my wilted leaves; the Styrofoam kept your guitar too warm. There are so many strings, collecting the sea. Only one you know

I was at the edge of a rainbow, sipping echinacea tea. ‘Farewell, Angelina, the sky is on fire and I must go…’ (Joan Baez, ‘Farewell, Angelina’). Do you think maybe it’s like, those emails were part of the plenum of summer, when I passed so south on the train with sugar-licked cakes of rice and a readerly silence? The sky was burnt and strange. And you could have boarded at the requisite moment, or maybe you were in the glass also, the glassery crying for the sound of drowning Amy from the game. When she did this impression of the lamb, I could not help but cry out. The aw, the aww, the missing ‘e’ in awe, a ewe. It was you. http://www.findyourfood/. Zombie tunes, sonic aporia. Mum said she nearly called me Amy, and I would have pink hair and sheaves of lyrical gestures, like this. Someone I loved had a house.

The sky is untitled.

Branding me narcopastoral, shepherdess at stringent dawn. We drag a high—

Break into it, careful at first then with clear intention. The wrapper falls back and away by clouds.

Upside down, we approach the softest waves. I’ll not harp on about the light, how it caught the crease of our plastic. You take us to the boat, so lovely and blue like sky. In the dream she unfurls her fist, a lot of blue dust comes out and her voice is thick and quick as an auctioneer’s. She has swallowed the age of the water. But we are rowing on, cordoned from time by the ripples of unforgivable sea. I want you to never forget this. Dream again—

We wandered a garden of samphire and crystal, met some friends at the edge of the blue. The grasses were singing a grassy melisma. Suffering cramps by the burning sea, the glass of the elsewhere orange, trembling sky. Scrolling my phone, I was reading an essay on birth control where the author, a man, argued that taken daily two spoons of honey would regulate your cycle. She got him by accident, a cherub handed down by the gold-dripping moon. I polished his soapstone limbs and drank from the chalice a lateral condition. Let’s go at this sideways, say every droplet of rain was a baby. Honey.

The additive birth of water, over.

Most palatial things are isles or sets.

They bring treacle scones for the picketers.

Bottles of wine for your glistening birthday. The sky is a film; it goes click, click. The season you say is looming, a moment agogic and I let you tender the rain of me down. I was all strings when the image appeared and you pulled on a tensile thread, a tease and we fell into the same whole notes…

Ion square, perspex swings / I breathe out, you breathe in / Permanent midnight’ (Bloc Party, ‘Ion Square’). It’s this song that feels like fucking, live in happiness, breakable day you free in a hold, before this sleep and the night bus home. I walk along the motorway. A breath between us feels like math, the ruination of the norm. I had nothing to bring you; I was reaching the end of the film where they find her dead, but only in photos. End of the lilting road. Quadratic Lily, Lily, say this is Lily. It’s just somewhere in London, and I want to love my mind. And I want to love my mind again. Did I love yours and yours too much. The fog rolls out of the square the same. When you drew me, it was like I didn’t have a face. The birches gifted their silver and I felt like sleep, so heavily berried. The sky is a film, you take it.

Trapped in acid, the hotel air is seething. I wanted breakfast to feel the same, and I wanted to love my mind; to love my mind for the sake of you in it. When the lyrics appeared it felt like the end-of-the-world digested, yes, it was a crème de menthe apocalypse — by which we mean, you can just hop in the grass of the future. Björk’s utopia. Juuuuuussssst that kiiiiiisssssssss. Perpex swings in helix of flute, could you insinuate a sleep, these spirals of harp. I’m not where I want exactly; look out the window. Sugar-rim. They pay less, pay less, pay less. A shot.

By the time I got back, the leaves were all gone. The stars, as if they were plural.

In the belly of the gnarliest graphics / I felt impaled on a former capital. There is luxury in the curriculum, but we live off our clearest cakes of rice. Break this as crumbs, don’t say word / The consoles cast their dust again. Press replay. I wanted to lie in a field, but that was you. A salty fist. I wanted the lie. Little curled hairs in the sink. Your name is doing well / Look where it got you.

The university a corpus ate the rat.

I was tired, you were tired, my mum was tired. This makes a rainstorm a screensaver.

Has anyone notified the trapeze artists about our sea?

Most things don’t occur as they do in this space. It flexes and folds in lucite, yet against the glint, less of your mobius eye. Roll it up, like a wave. We wait for the bus and it rolls in smoke / I press my faceless against the glass.

 

~

Bloc Party — Ion Square

Björk, Arca — The Gate

FKA twigs — home with you

Double Discone — Sam’s Kinky Hat

Clearance — Chances Are

Bradford Cox — Natural Harp Monitor

Princess Nokia — Balenciaga

DJ Heroin — My Veil

Grace Cummings — Paisley

Alice Coltrane — Lovely Sky Boat

Malibu — Nana (Like A Star Made For Me)

Hiro Kone — A Desire, Nameless

Hannah Peel ft. Hayden Thorpe — Cars In The Garden

The Brian Jonestown Massacre — Food for Clouds

Maija Sofia — The Glitter

Tomberlin — Seventeen

Weyes Blood — Seven Words

Soko — Sweet Sound of Ignorance

RF Shannon — Snake Oil

Caroline Polachek — So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings

The Everly Brothers — Love Hurts

The Cure — Charlotte Sometimes

Princess Chelsea — Come As You Are

Astrud Gilberto — Look To The Rainbow

Playlist: July 2019

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Ariana Reines has this poem called ‘Glasgow’ that features the lines: ‘We wanted life now / But not “real” life / We wanted the exact science / Fiction / We were living in / We didn’t want it’. I keep thinking that just living is so often this contradiction, or Eileen Myles declaring ‘a poem says I want’ and knowing how right they are, Ariana and Eileen, and where are we when we come to this knowing. I mean, why does such philosophising happen in a poem called ‘Glasgow’. It’s clearly set in Finnieston, I mean there’s ‘Berkeley Street’ and ‘the Sandyford / Hotel’. I wonder if Ariana knows the pawn shop is not really a pawn shop, or if she ever bought poppers or condoms or candy from the 24hr place near the Hidden Lane. Here I am with americanisms again. I mean I wonder if my idea of Ariana would bother nipping from her hotel room to replenish the tobacco she ran out of. Would she bauk at UK prices? Does she even smoke? My idea is always a she here and she likes to go into contingent nightclubs more than the store. It’s what we give away. Finnieston used to be not-expensive. I once wrote a poem called ‘Finnieston’, I was younger, it was kind of bad. It was about this release you get from finishing something, crossing a bridge. I used to go through the park to get to my friend’s house or the 78 and every other time the shops and bars along the strip would be different. A kind of fantasy district, reinventing itself coolly around me. Someone in the world is having the gentrification blues and listening to Courtney Barnett’s ‘Depreston’. Like sometimes I just sit and think, oh how about that whimsy! It’s hers, but you can borrow it with a jangle tone. Bottle it like Tango. And we shriek the world percolator into the dark, fizzing stars of etcetera. In the morning order lattes. Goodness sake is this what it is to write now, I love it.

Slowly, slowly. I measure out my life in Scotrail tickets. Walking around cities and trying to carve them into a poem, I mean that’s not what any of us are doing but it happens. Just comes, like orange. This month I spent a lot of time outside of my usual quadratic existence; I didn’t have to count the change in the leaves, there was already so much that was different. Things sped up. Once we live in it, do we not want it? Orange curls at the edge. That feels like a worded conundrum of someone who’s spent awhile on the streets, in some capacity. Not necessarily without home. I was counting the crisp packets from my perch on Uni Avenue, overlooking the construction works. Is it that nothing online is real as well, if you can have as real a nothing as the something of life? We don’t want this and yet it’s what we built, what we live in; we crave the ‘outside’ still, as though it were possible. It’s all in process. The station goes on a real bright tangent. 

I like to just say, Ariana Reines wrote a poem about Glasgow. I feel honoured on behalf of my adopted city. It ends ‘Way out’. This consideration of exits, secret passages under the Clyde, riding bridge-wise towards the April I had to trudge hungover from tea-room to tea-room, listening. Hey. I saw Ariana read last summer at the Poetry Club (thanks Colin!), I think she was wearing a white dress and she said she might menstruate at any minute, she said something beautiful about the sun and the moon, synchronicity, and it was exactly what we needed. I mean her sultry voice filling the room, release. I mean I felt validated in my cramps and misery.

Tiny red spots appear like a migraine painting my belly. 

There’s the rain now. The rain broke the heatwave. Is it Cetirizine causing my headache, this marathon pain like a marble rolling between my temples? When I go see Iceage play Broadcast, the room is sweltering. There’s a general jostling and adoration of bodies, like this guy is Scandinavian divine and just one lick of his sweat would cure your ills. The ills of a lack of a life. When we are living between. Catch It. I like to use the phrase ‘out west’ as a general euphemism for escape. Like sorry I gotta go, there’s a meeting out west, something happening out west, I’m owed time back west like the sky’s owed snow. A Sand Book (Reines, 2019). If you close it too fast the grains fall out. As though I could make of Kelvingrove the savanna that takes us out of my dreams. In the novella I wrote last year, there’s a whole childhood set there. It’s somewhere in America that you’d find in a song, but it crackles with violence and the fat-spitting fry ups of diners. Or does it at all. Who did she wait for.

Cherubic sleeping face.
Sketches of rooms.
Seafoam teal & mustard yellow.

There was a whole Monday morning in London I filled alone. It was strange to come close to a cacophony of accents you only usually heard on the telly, the city accenting its vowels to deliver things quickly. And yet we’d roll like beads in jelly, very slowly towards ourselves. I walked along Regent’s Canal with the flowers spilling out around me, cyclists slipping past and women smoking fags from canal boats, smiling their air of propriety. ‘Way out’ I could not go here. I knew if I stuck to the water it would all be fine, follow the line that was not the Tube. In London Field Park, someone had chalked XR slogans everywhere. ‘Rise Up’ was the order of the day in green and sorbet yellow. I tried to recount what had happened in a slim black notebook; I sat there on a bench for an hour and a half, just writing. A man asked me if he’d seen ‘a gaggle of unruly school kids’ come past. I answered in negative. There was only the other man on his phone, securing deals, pacing. Hot desking now meant you’d conduct interviews with iPads in parks, squinting against the light. I saw that also. I was at a gig where the band had a song about hot-desking. The drummer was also a vocalist, equalling my dilemma in the park: how to co-ordinate melody and rhythm. The runners ran past. Rucksack cutting into my shoulders. The air thickened black soot in my lungs but the buildings were lovely. I nearly left my orange socks behind. They weren’t even mine, originally. 

When the sun sets on Finnieston, you see it spill syrupy gold and pinks, dramatic skies up Argyll Street. 

Rise Up.   [?]

That tree was an ash, the other a sycamore. I found myself in St Pancras Old Churchyard, staring. Supposedly Mary and Percy Shelley would cavort here.

I could drink coffee and be utterly happy, in a New York poet kinda way. Better to be the one who’d been to New York. Just to say this happened, that happened, I like it or not. We live this. There is something we want to get out of. Taking the subway in endless circles. Glassware exotica rimmed with sugar-salt.

All the aloe vera on stage was infinite juice. 

Why the lack of seagulls here. Isn’t the Thames a tidal river?

People come to the gardens to make phone calls in London. Everyone exists in the cellular orbit of this extra life, the telephonic aura that follows them. Can you call my extension. She sits there with sushi on her lap. “Elaine’s not having IVF anymore.” I live off M&S egg and cress sandwiches for days, it’s good. Soon I would watch the land sweep back the sea from the train, heading north, east-coast. There was all this chewed-up rhubarb, but I sat there regardless. The birds were so tiny and tame, with their injured wings, polluted fashions. 

Casual nymph mode: Fairy Pools of Skye and a swim. The car ride singing Joni while the hills just spread their green; we are so deliciously far from Paris. I lie awake with the skylight, listening.

In Dumfries I eat vegan blueberry pie at the start of the month, we talk about American politics. I’d been watching that Years and Years programme and freaking out on a casual basis. When it’s the eve of 2029 and the grandmother makes a speech about the utopianism of thirty years prior, 1999, how we thought we’d sussed it. That got to me, because for the first time so clearly I saw my own lifespan as part of this history. I remember the millennium new year also, of course I do: my hair was crimped for the occasion, I ate pringles and kept my bunny close. Blonde self red-eyed pre-digital. I played Game Boy in lieu of karaoke; it was the latest I’d stayed up in my life. I had nothing to sing; soon I’d be seven. The exact science fiction of this scenario, Years and Years playing out the extension of what was already in motion, terrified because it was imminent, believable, situated here in front of us, the domestic reality of interconnection. But in a way, it felt very English and I realised that was different. Glasgow has its own science fiction and maybe it’s just this or better politics or something more solid that doesn’t result to a haze. I think of everyone jostling at the hothouse gigs. Something we can’t hold still, glass bottle of cider from your bag that might burst. I’m happy. That blueberry pie was so good. I didn’t even care about radiation.

In Sam Riviere’s poem ‘american heaven’ (Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, 2015), ‘the level of heaven we develop within us / is the level it was possible to imagine / of the assorted early 80s, on earth’. Keep reading these articles about local bands sporting eighties outfits, drinking in the same old man pub as the previous feature. A general vacuity coming on like a front, but what can we do, lacking the ‘facsimile architecture’ (Riviere) of a more american heaven? The pie was served without ice cream of course, that was the point. No dairy. I keep five different diaries this month, split across documents, notebooks, assortments of train tickets. Creamy excess of this prose. My purse empties a cascade of rectangular orange. I throw around terms like ‘post-vaporwave poetics’ and mean them sincerely. What if we had to incubate our own heaven first? Lana Del Rey: ‘You’re my religion / You’re how I’m living’ (Honeymoon, 2015). 2015 was a good year for heaven. We hadn’t had 2016 yet; we were almost teenage of a nation. Riot, right?

London is all facsimile architecture. There’s this slime in the canal that’s thicker than lawn turf, extra real. I can’t stop thinking about that. Algaeic esplanade trapping the fishes. Can’t stop listening to that King Gizzard song, the refrain that’s like ‘I’ve let them swum’ and maybe that’s minimal ethics for the anthropocene. You just perform a minor twist in grammar, you make that the way you live: 

Our human responsibility can therefore be described as a form of experiential, corporeal and affective “worlding” in which we produce (knowledge about) the world, seen as a set of relations and tasks. This may involve relating responsibly to other humans, but also to nonhuman beings and processes, including some extremely tiny and extremely complex or even abstract ones (microbes, clouds, climate, global warming). Taking responsibility for something we cannot see is not easy.

(Zylinska, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene, p. 97)

You could say the hypothetical fishies. We can fish for other things! Sentiment, care! Wholesome lyrics leading towards charismatic solos. Some kind of upbeat. Magikarp! so nothing happened. Things beneath the orange-green we cannot see. How are we supposed to care for slime? That song is a world, makes over the world. I think of powder and glow, contour, blend, gloss — a process of ‘make up’ or making up that structures Kim Kardashian’s Marriage (from ‘Primer’ to ‘Gloss’), that fashions a map of the face, the frontal location for ethical relations. In the library, the girl beside me writes about South Korean politics while listening to ASMR makeup videos. We all have our imminent fictions; not ‘real’ life, but it’s not always science.

Sometimes I want algaeic to fall into angelic, both pertaining to light. 

We didn’t want to live in the life we made to live in where we might want. 

To walk down the Royal Mile in the rain, bumping tourists, slowly crunching into an apple and letting your hair down into noise, a sort of soundcloud rap of near-distant, muted present. The apple was green and particularly sweet, low volume, like something discovered in the pockets of a pair of jeans you borrowed.

I’m awake at four am again. It doesn’t seem to matter so much. The gulls are morning/mocking. Later I’ll be at the kitchen table, chewing oatcakes with the window open. Reading Peter Sloterdijk’s Foams: Spheres Volume III. Is extinction one kind of what he calls ‘semantic antibodies’? Who is trying to excise that from the conversation? 

Mostly I dwell in vicarious haircuts.
There’s a thought after the thought.
Drink whisky in the park, read fiction.
Your pinstripes lack a fly but still.

We fall asleep five times watching this Will Smith documentary about the planet. We never finish an episode. It seemed to stage the incoherence of a Hollywood sublime set to reverie’s overdose, but only the scene where he’s playing with his dogs in the garden remains. Sepia, sleep better. I slept deeper than a rock at the bottom of everything. June still feels like a dream. 

I only want to get home to write the day. Every entry begins, another sweltering

That’s what…good is?

 

~

 

Slowdive – Sugar for the Pill (Avalon Emerson’s Gilded Escalation remix)

The 1975 — The 1975 feat. Greta Thunberg

Mark Hollis — The Daily Planet 

Grouper — Invisible

Laurel Halo — Out

Joni Mitchell — Rainy Night House

Devendra Banhart — Kantori Ongaku 

Joanna Sternberg — For You

RF Shannon — Angeline

Fionn Regan — Collar of Fur 

Thee Oh Sees — Moon Bog

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard — Fishing for Fishies

(Sandy) Alex G — Hope

Slow Hollows — Selling Flowers 

Frog — Bones

DIIV — Skin Game

Ibeyi — River 

Blood Orange, Tori y Moi — Dark & Handsome

Aisha Devi — The Favor of Fire 

How to Dress Well — Nonkilling 6 | Hunger

Organ Tapes — Springfield 

black midi — Western

Bon Iver — Faith

TOPS — Sleeptalker

Let’s Eat Grandma — Salt Lakes

Carla dal Forno — Took a Long Time

 

 

 

 

 

8/6/17

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O rain you are too long you are
slender droplets there in the
weird blackness of sun, Theresa
running in wheat fields I guess
she has stolen Lawrence’s golden
pastoral have I longed for God
have I prayed in dark chapels
for golden thoughts, the boughs
of yews over graveyards in all
their berries of blood. Nobody
remembered my name in the room
but they smiled when I spoke
or spat my madness. He was a
Kantian explanation, the rain
brought fear to the sockets; I
nourished my milk, I felt the
amoeba glow of imminent illness.

In the surgery, in the white room
peeling the scabs from his skin
I could feel that whisky that silt
on his tongue and I wanted the
whole of him dark within me;
one brood of the shadowy hour
we’d be, just that nicked with
millions of cuts. To be wild
is to shed that plastic, that film;
like a wine-dark pool I was always
absorbed, marble glass that
shone from without, within.

He wrote a tune that shivered
and the real rain in my head
retreated, the cool of it slow
beneath my heart where the
malady slicked and parted.

I voted and drank in the bar
where everything bristled;
here, what austerity of the
fruit machine, what horn
of Tennents, of peanut plenty.

Lonely,
I gave birth to a
hundred wilted roses.

My labour
of love for the sickness
quickens then sings it.

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

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Source: BBC

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

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

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

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Bob Dylan / / Source: Rolling Stone

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

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

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

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Source: lettere-persiane.blogspot.com

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

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

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Gillian Welch / / Source: Born to Listen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Source: pinterest

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

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

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Source: crystalinks

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

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

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

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Source: pinterest

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

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Source: YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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American Lyric playlist:

A Voicemail for Some Scots Poet

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A Voicemail for Some Scots Poet
(scrawled in bed on the morning of Burns Night)

Your thatched roof I hid under with a jar
of rhubarb & custards, birthday gift for a friend
of the old-fashioned sort. Hiding my anxiety
with the pishing rain and roses for eyes,
I tried not to cry with the waiting.

Alloway was never the place for me,
though tourists once snapped my photo
sitting at the bus stop in my pinafore; maybe because
the bus never came as before and I seemed to them
an exhibit of the idle, plaited poet, crouched
and concrete with schoolbag and notebook.

I tried then to draw out my longing
but the salt water was sore and washed
each sketch away. At fourteen I took blackouts in the park
with the help of old Glens and Bell’s whisky.

Now they keep putting pictures of your face
under the hair of Che Guevara but my wi-fi
is shite as I look farther for the secrets
of some revolutionary conspiracy
known only to Twitter.

You were the smell of burnt haggis
in primary school kitchens, the passion
of incompetent, childish longing;
every January blackened for lack of snow
or a coffee topped with Irish cream
and dreams of home.

I’m trying to make you more of a meme
but the birds sing merrily of some Scots
that got tangled in my mouth, made a scandal
of the girls slinging glittery hooks
against the Ayrshire weather, dreich and pitiful
in the stench of manure and nicotine.

You made poetry from head-lice and folktales
while I’m starting out on madness and palm trees
and the single best beat to snatch, ecstatic
from a still calm sea. Dylan loved you
and god knows I share your fetish for roses,
though mine are long-glitched out of semantics
or flourishing poesy. The inevitable middle name;
the rose is a dead rose, a broken cable.

Every time they sing Auld Lang Syne
the spell snaps tight like the cutting of tartan
on a slut’s dress as she readies herself legendarily
for bewitching auld Ayr’s errant men. I love her
with the crimson candled extravagance
of the urban occultist, dull and lonely. She’s got legs
enough to kick them in the Doon when she’s finished,
chortling like a slot machine.

A match, perhaps, for the farmers of the toon
who tossed my friend in a hedge when he tried to join them at school
in talk of fags and cattle and the internet equivalent
of cutty sarks. It’s a fell swoon for the rest of us,
with ardent cries for freedom
from the trendy alt-truths of southern politicians
and the armies of bagpipes swarming the park
to practice for every month of fucking summer.

That hot breath steaming the January air,
some promise for Scots blood running cold in the veins
of my milky Englishness. I’d swap it all
to be back there, sugar-tongued and sweeter
in teenage confusion, rain spilling off
the thatched roof, every drop fused
with a purer kind of truth     like the shape of your words (Romantic).

Can you call me dear Rabbie,
if you’re able? I’m waiting, but the rose
is a dead rose, a broken cable.

The Subversive Spatiality of Pokémon Go

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Zubat on Hope Street. Image Source: Glasgow Live

I scroll down my Facebook timeline, and there is a photograph of a pavement – on a real street which I recognise – and on that pavement is a Pidgey. You know, the wee brownish flying thing from first generation Pokémon? I scroll down a bit more and folk have been out and about all over the place: there’s a Weedle on the gingham tablecloth in a cafe, a wee purple-grey Nidoran on a hay bale, a Magikarp bouncing around by the Kelvin. This is, if you haven’t guessed already, people sharing their spoils from Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game which allows you to catch Pokémon in the wild, a.k.a real life. There was a glorious month in the summer when you could go for a walk and see clusters of people milling around with their phones in the air, as if trying to channel some ethereal spirit that was wafting in the atmosphere. They were out catching Pokémon. All of a sudden, people were going for walks again, leaving the house and the cosy glow of the television to catch invisible beasties who lived in trees and parks, museums and street corners.

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Safari Zone Map from Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire. Image Source: PsyPoke

As a kid, I was an avid Pokémon fan. I missed the boat for Red and Blue but had Yellow, Ruby, Sapphire, Leaf Green for my Game Boy Colour and Advance and played them all to death. What I loved more than the battles was the wandering part. So much of your time is taken up pushing your way through long grass, cycling along seaside promenades, bobbing along the ocean, taking shortcuts through forests, crossing through dungeons, traversing the plains of mountains and deserts. You’re constantly interrupted by Pokémon encounters; so much so that often you double back in confusion, any instrumental pathway you’re trying to take disrupted by the screen switch to a battle. The towns often had such picturesque names as ‘Petalburg City’, ‘Sootopolis City’, ‘Lilycove City’ and ‘Mossdeep City’. Then there’s Meteor Falls, the Sunken Ship and Sky Pillar – these are just from Ruby/Sapphire alone. Yes, the game has a final purpose: you’re supposed to beat the gym leaders of every town and follow some convoluted let’s beat Team Rocket narrative, but often its trajectory is beautifully non-linear. You can explore, catch Pokémon in your own time, find side quests to achieve, people who need help. Acquire potions, level up your Pokémon, learn intriguing stories from local mythology.

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Screen Cap from Ruby/Sapphire. Image Source: WikiHow

There is an obsessiveness to Pokémon, a desire to always repeat. As much as possible, you find yourself returning to previous towns and locations, either to seek out more Pokémon known to appear in the area or simply to explore, to see what you’ve missed. Invariably, you do nothing new, and manage to enjoy that process of wandering again. You fight the same Pokémon, hoping they will flee but secretly enjoying taking them down in one shot with your level 40 team, where once you’d have to fight tooth and nail with a goddamn Zubat. To some extent, Pokémon is a rhizomatic game: once you get to a certain stage, the world is yours to explore and you can map out your own routes and lines of flight as you see fit, flying and sailing and seeking locations of your choosing. However, you are still governed with the impulse of narrative, which spurs you onto particular places: sometimes you can’t move on till you’ve beaten the gym leader of that town, for example. You can regress, but not progress. There’s that sort of macho narrative of levelling up which you’re impelled to follow. It’s only when you’ve completed the game that you can reap the rewards of complete exploring.

Pokémon Go changes that. By transferring Pokémon to real life, you are as free to explore its terrain as you are to wander the streets of your local town or city, or indeed the plains of the countryside. Real life is transformed by augmented reality, the imposition of Pokémon on material space. Creatures that only the player, holding up her phone, can see. This is already getting very Black Mirror, but wait. It’s a competitive game, yes, but there aren’t the drastic consequences of social exclusion and alienation experienced by many of Black Mirror’s tech addicts. There is a lovely playfulness to Pokémon Go which somehow has generally avoided becoming cutthroat competition. For a while, everyone was playing it. It was a form of camaraderie (folk would go out in packs to hunt for Pokémon, or indeed organise mass hunting expeditions via Facebook). More time was being spent on the Pokémon Go app than on Snapchat, Twitter and Whatsapp. I’d go into the kitchen at work and the chefs would gleefully show off their Pokédex; which was glorious, seeing all those familiar creatures again in this new and surprising context. And since chefs have hardly a moment’s time when they’re not in the same place, working 14 hour shifts at a time, I can only imagine the extent to which people in other walks of life played it.

Pokémon Go is a strange way of making people notice their surroundings, particularly in the sense of urban space. Sure, most of the time their faces are glued to the maps on their phone screens, but in placing themselves in the world, they are forced to confront physical structures, obstacles, windows, private property and so on. It becomes even more of a game when you have to work out how to attain Pokémon in  elusive locations. I’ve heard stories about folk knocking on your door asking if they could come in because they’ve noticed you’ve got a rare Pokémon in your house. It sounds pretty sinister, but it shows the level of commitment the game inspires.

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Animal Crossing Town Map. Image Source: Neoseeker Forums

Think of it this way: why is it so addictive? Like Tinder, it’s a form of locative media which uses your GPS to determine who or what will appear in your surroundings. Pokémon Go also uses your phone clock, as different types of Pokémon appear at different times of day. I’m reminded here of one of my favourite games, Animal Crossing, where you could go fishing and bug-catching but what was out there was determined by the ‘real time’ of your Game Boy’s internal clock. It followed the real time of a 24 hour day, of the seasons and so on, so that in December there’d be snow and falling leaves in autumn. It was very beautiful and the real time aspect has an addictive quality. I think it’s because the game becomes less a form of escapism and more a parallel to reality, to everyday life. You know it’s reached that status when The Mirror runs a how-to guide, eh?

What’s so cool about Pokémon Go is how it adds meaning to real space. A school, town hall, park or pub becomes a Pokémon Gym and everyone wants to visit. I swear business at my work improved for a month as we quickly realised we were a Pokémon Gym and groups of sullen young adults would gather silently at bar tables, trying to battle other trainers at the gym and hoping to win Pokécoins. A guy I work with would heavily protest when he saw someone playing the game because he was currently gym champion and got surly at the prospect of newcomers taking his title. If I was late bringing someone a coffee, nervous they’d be grumpy with me, often they were so distracted by the game that they’d not even noticed the time. In a sense then, Pokémon Go transforms both time and space. Everything is flattened into a map, where flashing nodes indicating Pokémon are the symbols of desire, the objects of pursuit.

In a compelling, complex and challenging article on Facebook as a ‘desire-network’, Maria-Daniella Dick and Robbie McLaughlin argue that ‘Facebook effects a mutation in desire and thus in capitalism’, and in tandem with this, a ‘historical shift inn the relationship between psychoanalysis and capitalism’ (Dick and McLaughlin 2013). With Facebook, ‘desire remains impossible to satiate, but it is now without object’ (Dick and McLaughlin 2013). They suggest that Facebook is situated within the Lacanian Imaginary order (which constitutes the intrinsic narcissism through which the human subject constructs fantasy images of both herself and her object of desire). According to Lacan, desire (unlike need) is always unfulfilled; we are always moving towards a lack, the anxiety prompted by something lost (as in the child’s original sense of wholeness before discovering the fragmentation of her parts, the split between her body and world and mother, in the mirror). The Imaginary is that which we create to attempt to fill that fundamental gap, the fantasies of the ‘ideal ego’ which compensate for an originary loss. Facebook is basically the ultimate web of the Imaginary: all our time is spent scrawling through pictures and statuses and shared media which all in various ways represent fragments of the ideal selves we project online. Yet our browsing is ultimately without end, it is ceaselessly rhizomatic, decentralised; we end up on one place, a restaurant page or old friend’s profile, without really knowing how we got there. Our passage through the network is governed by algorithms which attempt to map our desires; algorithms which are self-sustained by users’ input data, the patterns of usage recorded with every click. While this may seem revolutionary, a democratic decentering of the system, Dick and McLaughlin are highly sceptical of Facebook’s subversive potential at the scale of the political.

While the likes of Facebook were integral in the organising of such glocalised (global/local) revolutionary events as the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement, ultimately ‘[s]ocial networking completely embodies and facilitates these phenomena in which the masses are now able to organise efficiently but without being unified by a radical ideological alternative’ (Dick and McLaughlin 2013). The fragmentary pathways of Facebook map out the lines of insidious liberal democracy, and as engrained as they are in corporate culture (the corporation itself becoming the medium for mass communication) offer little opportunity for imagining visionary alternatives to liberal capitalism. Crucially, Facebook (with all its user-directed interfaces based on algorithms of taste and so on) perpetuates the myth of the liberal individual, who curates her profile, her tastes, conducts a life of many choices. As Dick and McLaughlin (2013) put it: ‘[t]he so-called 99% are already conditioned by a liberal democracy in which they have the self-identical sovereignty of an individualistic ideology that places the subject at the centre of the world’. To really offer a vision for an alternative future, we have to actually come up with a plan. Recognise that we are always-already networked individuals, whose subjectivities are hardly unique and instead constituted through structures of discourse and power, and use this in a positive way, to undermine the liberal justifications for free-market capitalism.

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Pokémon in Edinburgh. Image Source: Google

What does all this have to do with Pokémon Go? The thing is, Pokémon Go seems like innocent child’s play, but it’s bound up in the politics of space. It’s fundamentally structured by GPS software and urban space, and let’s face it, urban space is always ideological. Whether it’s homeless spikes, shiny new glass-fronted apartments built where Brutalist high-rises used to be, gated communities, the psychotic disarray of London’s property market, the genuine promotion of American Psycho-style yuppie-targeting ads or simply the denigration of social housing as ‘slum housing’, space and architecture is always somehow political. In a recent talk given at the University of Glasgow titled ‘Remembering the Future: The Politics of Space and Architecture’, Darran Anderson argued that the current failure of the Left is a failure to put forward a vision of the future that is compelling and actually positive; if we don’t act soon then someone else (i.e. Donald Trump and his cronies) will determine the future for us. One way Anderson proposes we can intervene in the social order is through architecture, by building sustainable forms of urban space, housing and energy production that take into account the fact that we are living in the Anthropocene. We need to accept the imminence of ecological disasters, which are indeed already happening. Oh how Trump hates those windfarms. We need to rethink our fantasy imagery of the city; it needs to become a network of playful imagination, of empowerment, rather than just passive defeat, or the kind of share-lite politics, browsing, blasé escapism and distraction offered by Facebook.

What is interesting about Pokémon Go is that it restores to some extent the object of desire, which Facebook, in its endless networks of people, places, photos and check-ins, displaces. ‘With Facebook’, Dick and McLaughlin (2013) argue, ‘people no longer live the present as present; it exists only insofar as it is exists to be recorded and later uploaded to Facebook’. This temporal displacement shifts with Pokemon Go, which insists on the present as present. Pokémon only appear for a limited amount of time so the imperative is to catch them in the game space of the now. The impulse of shopping or clubbing to buy buy buy or drink drink drink is gleefully interrupted by the appearance of Pokémon, who are quickly snapped up and snapped, shared online. The allure of ‘cool’ or the aura of dreamlike consumption attached to consumption-based social places is disrupted by the childlike logic of the game. And there’s nothing the companies can really do about it, since technically Pokémon isn’t intruding on reality, it’s only intruding on maps of reality. Now I’m thinking of that Jorge Luis Borges story, ‘On Exactitude in Science’ (1946), and getting very confused about reality itself. In the story, Borges imagines an empire where cartography has become so exact that its map of the empire must match in size and detail the empire itself—after which, what’s the difference between the map and the original? Do you need the map anymore, or can you use real space to map out real (map?) space?

There is almost something a tad Situationist about Pokémon Go. It offers no restrictions on movement, the way the Game Boy games do, according to a linear narrative. If you want that elusive Vulpix or Meowth, perhaps you will have to explore territories previously uncharted in your running app or Instagram places map. You might end up in the strange end of town. And what will you find when you get there? Traversing space this way leads to opportunities of surprise and discovery. The fact that so many people are posting photos of their Pokémon Go encounters online adds a new palimpsest of meaning to our understanding of place. The appearance of Pokémon disrupts the order of cities; it adds new points of desire to the map.  Sure, most gyms are in tourist hotspots, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to explore the more unseemly areas of town to catch ‘em all. In wandering out your comfort zone, you’re enacting a sort of De Certeauian ‘tactic’, resisting the signage and flows of capital which generally direct your movement in urban space (i.e. according to the circuit-like lure of the shops, the home or workplace). Ironically, you’re doing this at the inspiration of a global corporation (the folks who own the Pokémon Go app), but in this case, it doesn’t necessarily mean your actions and movements aren’t subversive. Nevertheless, the transgression of space according to augmented reality is unfortunately still bound by societal racism, highlighting the fact that we experience space differently according to who we are—despite its best intentions and possibilities, a game like Pokémon Go can hardly overthrow the prejudices of the Repressive State Apparatus…

Since Pokémon Go is based mostly on algorithms of mapped information, there is an element of chance which escapes the systems of data (could we call this glitch a Lacanian intrusion of the Real?). Pokémon crop up in controversial places. Since ghost Pokémon are attracted to graveyards and places of mourning (think: the original Lavender Town), they have been appearing in places like the Holocaust Memorial or Ground Zero. The incongruity of the playful critters in these places of silence and solemnity is startling and forces us to rethink our expectations of memorialising space. In a sense then, for better and worse, Pokémon Go has a reterritorialising impulse. Sure, you can report inappropriate places and instigate a process for removing them from the Pokémon Go map, but that initial appearance, based on some kind of algorithmic randomness, has already violated the implicit expectations of such places in terms of silent respect and mourning. There is in a sense an overflow of the gaming impulse, where the augmented reality becomes more distracting than reality itself (even when you are in such a compelling and startling location as the Holocaust Memorial…).

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Houses that crumble…Screen cap from Omer Fast’s 2015 adaptation of Remainder, starring Tom Sturridge. Source: Belfast Film Festival

Perhaps this is the danger then, of supplanting a fictional reality (the map) for the territory itself. I’m thinking of the protagonist in Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder (2005), whose response to trauma is to assemble a detailed map of a very specific retrieved memory, based in a house where there was a very specific synaesthetic symphony of liver-frying, cats on roofs, piano playing and motorbike clanging. Eventually this map is transferred to the ‘real’ as the protagonist recreates mimetically the details of this spatial memory. Yet pursuit of the real is addictive; the protagonist soon begins recreating more extreme and harrowing memories he’s encountered: traffic accidents, bank robberies. What intrudes, eventually, is the remainder: the real itself which spills out of the recreated event. As McKenzie Wark writes in the preface to McCarthy’s novel, ‘[t]he simulation is never perfect, always in excess of the thing itself. It always leaves a remainder. The most troubling remainder is himself [the protagonist]. He is a leftover God, a God as debris of creation’ (Wark 2015: xi).

In a way, Pokémon Go represents a God-like desire to reconfigure reality, to impose the Imaginary space of the simulated game upon the ‘game’ of ordinary existence. Is this a postmodern statement of irony, a pastiche of 1990s nostalgia in the age of the smartphone? Yes, and no. There’s something kind of modernist and sincere about it too, a sense of genuine interest in creating the Big Project, a utopian potential for gaming to bring people together. While Pokémon Go is partly about earning currency (Pokécoins) to buy more materials which help level up Pokémon or revive them during battle, its general impulse is towards exploration. Conquering, yes, to an extent; but mostly exploration. What happens when you’ve captured every Pidgey in your neighbourhood? You travel farther, maybe even beyond your hometown or city. Of course there comes a point where most of us get bored and stop playing, but there was a moment when the game genuinely seemed to interrupt reality in a way that felt genuinely liberating. The fact that so many people deemed it silly, a waste of time and completely illogical only highlights the ways in which the game resists the general instrumentalism of capitalism (i.e. every minute should be spent doing something useful, like finding ways of accumulating money and furthering one’s career). The time wasting aspect, the fact that so many people love its paean to repetition (you can walk the same route every day and still get different Pokémon appearing), is a queer sort of logic; it goes against capitalism’s futurity, the linear progression of temporality, in favour of a kind of maddening impulse of looping, overlapping desire. We accumulate the same Pokémon several times and this is part of the internal logic of the game, compelling us to traverse the various spaces again and again. It represents at once the immateriality of twenty-first capitalism (as based on flows of ‘invisible’ capital and immaterial goods, symbols of status) and the potential for subverting the logic of accumulation to one that is both bizarre and based on the ethics of play rather than success.

Sure, a great deal of the game might be about levelling up and being the best, but you can also play it with general disregard to those impulses. Collecting, in a sense, transforms the use-value of goods by placing them in a new circuit of information, taking them from the marketplace to the geeky world of the collector, whose interest in based on details and aesthetics, often more than financial worth. Just look at what happens when someone tries to make money off becoming a hire-out Pokémon Go trainer: they are threatened with being banned from the game, since it violates their code of ethics/terms of service. Play, rather than capital, is at the heart of the game’s map of trajectories. It brings people together – even adults – in a space of play. I’m not saying it’s changed the world by any means, and indeed it has its slightly absurd but very real dangers, as people blithely ignore the potential perils of the real landscape in pursuit of the desired (simulated) object, like Icarus flying too close to the sun…However, there’s something genuinely refreshing about how Pokémon Go forces us to reconfigure our sense of reality, space and the routing of our desires and movement. While world-views are shrinking and narrowing in post-Brexit times, Pokémon Go reminds us of the value of expanding our horizons and getting up to just go and wander, maybe aimlessly.

There will always be moral panics over deaths from selfie-taking, planking and cavorting in dangerous places, but will there be anything quite like Pokémon Go?

Bibliography
(other references are hyperlinked in the text)

Anderson, Darran, 2016. ‘Remembering the Future: The Politics of Space and Architecture’, Lilybank House Seminar Room, University of Glasgow, 15th November 2016.

De Certeau, Michel, 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Dick, Maria-Daniella, and Robbie McLaughlin, 2013. ‘The Desire Network’, Theory Beyond the Codes, [Available at: http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=727] Accessed 21/11/16.

Wark, McKenzie, 2015. ‘Preface’, in Remainder by Tom McCarthy, (Richmond: Alma Books), pp. vii-xii.