For a person who’s fashioned a life out of fashioning words (mine and those of my students), it’s tough to admit that it’s always the music first, not the lyrics that infect me. Without the hook, or the melody, why bother? Combine the song with the quality lyric, though, and you’ve got something. The Replacements’ “Valentine” affected me immediately—the song part. But the opening lines are not bad either:
“Well you wish upon a star that turns into a plane / And I guess that’s right on par / Who’s left to blame?”
That’s the great Paul Westerberg. His lyrics offer something else on close examination—like the best poetry. Not all lyrics are like this. Not all poems are like this. I do not get into the music part of the music here. I stick to the lyrics. Suffice it to say, these are three albums I would take to the island for their music alone. Here’s a braid of song and poetry for whenever. As you will note, the writers’ words are the focal points. I tried to concentrate on recent poems and songs that are worth more than a glance. A glance gives you a star. A star gives you a plane, or more succinctly, the truth.
[Editor’s note: listen along with the Spotify playlist below.]
Yona Harvey Hemming the Water (2013). What I want is a poet in charge of the thing they are trying to convey. “Turquoise” states:
& then the woman who wants
to sleep with my husband sends him a card
with Frida Kahlo’s sepia
face peering through it & he
begins reading the note aloud to me, as if
the words might bring the woman back
across the line she crossed that summer
he mentioned her name for the first time.
She has the woman, her husband, even Frida Kahlo dead to rights. No one is getting away with anything. Harvey’s language compels me to look over my shoulder. She knows the secrets. She also reveals secrets. The poem that first drew me to Yona Harvey is “To Describe My Body Walking,” a sensuous poem in every sense. And yet, there is no doubt Harvey is at the helm of her femininity: “To describe my body walking I must go back / to my mother’s body walking with an aimless switch / in this moment of baptismal snow or abysmal flurry.” And it ends, “Not spring. / Or summer. Just her advancing, multiplying— / —falling through branches / —there’s a flurry of her.” Harvey’s poems surprise line by line.
Songs: Ohia Magnolia Electric Co. (2003). The first cut, “Farewell Transmission,” off of Jason Molina’s brilliant Magnolia Electric Co. begins with this simple observation: “The whole place is dark.” That’s the perfect scene setter for the album to follow. The song ends on one of the album’s best images: “Mama here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws / Must be the big star about to fall.” Without argument, that’s poetry in the way music lyrics most always come up short. These are lyrics of struggle held tenuously in the music they need. Molina, in effort to change course, sings in “Just be Simple,” “And try and try and try / To be simple again.” We all occasionally want to pull back from responsibility, but his is a plea that ultimately failed. And that adds to the power of this music and these lyrics. The songs are heartbreaking in the odd, uplifting way that purest sorrow allows. “Hold on Magnolia” brings the album to its prescient, majestic end: “To the lightning that has just signed my name to the bottom line / Hold on Magnolia, I hear that lonesome whistle whine / Hold on Magnolia / I think it’s almost time.”
Terrance Hayes How to be Drawn (2015). Each of us hears differently. Most of us have no clue exactly what it is we want to hear. But, we know it when we get there. The moment I read Terrance Hayes, I knew his poems were something I wanted to hear. He writes from a compelling level of intelligence (not all writers do this). He starts “The Deer”: “Outside Pataskala I saw the deer with a soft white belly, / the deer with two eyes as blind as holes, I saw it leap / from a bush beside the highway as if a moment before / it leapt it had been a bush beside the highway.” The turn of the deer at the end of that last line, that turn we are all capable of… becoming something other… drew me right in. Hayes also writes on unexpected topics. “What It Look Like” announces: “Dear Ol’ Dirty Bastard: I too like it raw, / I don’t especially care for Duke Ellington / at a birthday party.” I appreciate the ODB reference, and this from a poet who’s won the National Book Award. Hayes writes (best) from his experience as a middle-aged African American male. For obvious reasons, Hayes approaches history from a different angle than I do; therefore, I listen and learn. Here is his call to a deep past and Walt Whitman, a poet, it was once described to me, that all American poets must one day come to terms with.
“Black Confederate Ghost Story”
Attention African-American apparitions hung,
burned or drowned before anyone alive was born:
please make a mortifying midnight appearance
before the handyman standing on my porch
this morning with a beard as wild as Walt Whitman’s.
This is a collection of poetry that demonstrates a commitment to craft and the study of an eye that’s always looking for the different approach. Above all, it teaches.
Phosphorescent Muchacho (2013). Matthew Houck, another indie songwriter that’s stepped behind an odd band name, sings songs that are tequila soaked desert—his voice their equal—a voice, much like Jason Molina’s, that breaks with anguish line by revealing line. In the enigmatic “Song for Zula,” we get to hear another rare poet at work in music. Real poetry: “See, honey, I am not some broken thing / I do not lay here in the dark waiting for thee / No my heart is gold. My feet are light / And I am racing out on the desert plains all night.” Theodore Roethke wrote in “The Dream,” “Love is not love until love’s vulnerable.” Houck is vulnerable to be certain, and yet he asserts some level of control (think of Harvey’s poems). He ends his song with this declaration about love: “So some say love is a burning thing / That it makes a fiery ring / Oh but I know love as a caging thing / Just a killer come to call from some awful dream.” Sure he’s tossing out a reference to Johnny Cash, but why not? In “Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)” Houck tells love to its face: “But now you’re telling me my heart’s sick / And I’m telling you I know / And you’re telling me you’re leaving / And I’m telling you to go.” If there’s a more brutal send off chorus in music, I’d be surprised. But like any person who thinks they can stand up to love, Houck nearly crawls while delivering these lines from “Muchacho’s Tune”: “Hej, I’ve been fucked up. And I’ve been a fool / But like the shepherd to the lamb / Like the wave unto the sand / I’ll fix myself up. To come and be with you.” This is raw honesty. What a statement: I’m an idiot, but you’re worth cleaning myself up for. There’s your Valentine’s Day card!
Dylan Thomas Collected Poems (1953). Dylan Thomas is most responsible for my love of the look and sound of language. During my freshman year of high school I came across a picture of Thomas. He was in bowtie and jacket, right hand in his pocket, kind of leaning to his right, in a cemetery in Laugharne, Wales, the ivy up to his waist, the grave markers, like himself, rising through. And below that the caption “And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind / How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.” That’s all it took. That picture and those two lines from “The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” bring me here. I had been reading and writing poetry for maybe seven years by that time. I’ve still never seen or heard anything quite like it. This past summer my dad (me da) and I hiked Wales and went to Thomas’ boyhood home. I stood in the space that he likely wrote those words. I read his Collected Poems, that book of place while hiking. That’s the way to read any writer. Take their words to them. “The wordy shapes of women, and the rows / Of the star-gestured children in the park,” from “Especially when the October Wind.” The close of “Foster the Light”: “Now make the world of me as I have made / A merry manshape of your walking circle.” And in “Death Shall Have No Dominion”: “Though they be mad and dead as nails, / Heads of the characters hammer through daisies; / Break in the sun till the sun breaks down, / And death shall have no dominion.” Yes.
Girlpool Before the World was Big (2015). And then there’s Girlpool. An appropriate place to end this. The other artists we’ve heard have lived a little, are bent by the world, cynical to the point of no return, or just plain gone. The band, Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, both still under twenty years old, haven’t been burned too deeply yet by life. Their idealism is yet ideal. The first song off their album, fittingly enough is “Ideal World”: “I thought I found myself today / No one’s noticed / Things are okay.” But they’ve lived enough to know things won’t be ideal forever. The song ends with: “Put me on a food stamp / And a Hallmark card / Tranquilize me with your ideal world.” I hear a hint of cynicism there! “Before the World was Big” is an amazing song title for two ladies so young. They declare to each other: “I just miss how it felt standing next to you / Wearing matching dresses before the world was big.” The world gets big and then it gets bigger. Their youthful yearning drives me to their songs and their lyrics. I can’t help thinking of them as a mush less profane version of Broad City. In “Chinatown,” they let us in on the process, or steps of growing older: “I’m still looking for sureness in the way I say my name.” Nothing lasts. We all know that. It’s the source of most writing. Things wither. They burn off and float away. They can also age gracefully. In “Emily,” Girlpool catalogue their own growing from: “And in our parents’ houses / Having séances / Incense burning / Like our age.” Given enough time, sadly, they’ll change their tune. Ladies of Girlpool, see your possible futures in the writers above. John Cougar Mellencamp, unfortunately, is right.
List by Fred Dale. See more of his work in Perversion Magazine Issue Three. Fred’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chiron Review, Crack the Spine, Raleigh Review, The Critical Pass Review, Stirring, and others.