Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Song For Lonely Giants

Face in the leaves, song in my throat.
Fall through the air, hoping to float.
Practicing my solitary scales 'til they grow heavy,
Too heavy to carry.
Watching them go where they will go.
  -- The Mountain Goats, “Song for Lonely Giants”

I am the father of a poet. It is a strange thing to be, especially since being a poet is what I first wanted to be, soon after – or perhaps concurrent with – my longing to be Pistol Pete.

How different is it, really? The graceful swan’s neck of the wrist, the sagging gray socks, the long bangs hiding the eyes, the sloped shoulders, the desperate impossible grace, the certainty that the clock has ticked down to its final seconds, the beauty that forever trumps strength and, even better, again and again tricks it, robs it blind.

But I would have to wait for years and years for poetry to enter my life the way I’d imagined it to be in the life of a true poet: sacramental, essential, without which not. I would have to wait for the daughter for whom the music of the spheres rang in her ears with the echoing pleasure and portent of Sunday church bells.

So I was listening last night to the poet Lisa Spaar explaining the origin of each poem she’d chosen to read, and I was filled with some measure of gratitude that I did not have to be a poet myself, that I could merely be a poet’s father, for the poet must, if she is the real deal, as my daughter sadly and splendidly is – the poet must respond to every moment, every encounter, every word on the page, every pigment and accidentally encountered animal, every memory and shine on the shoes and plink of finger nail against glass as though contained in it is both beauty and horror, the gasp and yawp and cry of everything it means to be human. How hard that must be! How incredibly impossibly unbearably hard to live such a life.

So my daughter says on the phone that she wakes up every day filled with sadness and must then find, must name for herself, all the reasons to cast that sadness aside: the promise of friendship, the prospect of accomplishment, the beauty of the one small moment that one might miss if one were not, well, attending to life.

That’s what the poet does, isn’t it? Attend. Be present. Be there now. And now. And now.

And So what I will beg and claw for the rest of my days is that she be granted every single goddamn moment of her life that morning’s wish: promise and prospect and beauty.

So I go to my daughter’s room like a penitent to a dusty abandoned shrine, and I root around on her shelves for the poets who will speak to me as they have spoken to her, who are gentle and generous enough to offer something of what I need.

This week I found, as I had never found in my fifty-one years to heaven, as Walker Percy describes a life, James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break.

And here’s what occurs to me, though it may be as wrong as sin: that James Wright is the poet I’ve been searching for, poetic father of the son John Danielle whose epigraphs grace these pages. James Wright is the muse that JD may have never encountered, may have never read, though I suspect he has and would be willing to wager good money on it. If he has not, though, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all there in Wright’s poetry as it s in JD’s songs: the desperate son searching and searching, scrounging and scouring and scavenging the vast and familiar and unknowable American landscape for meaning, for the promise of transcendence, for love.

For love, of course. What else is there?

Here’s one of the poems in Wright's The Branch Will Not Break:

In the Face of Hatred

I am frightened by the sorrow
Of escaping animals.
The snake moves slowly
Beyond his horizon of yellow stone.
A great harvest of convicts has shaken loose
And hurries across the walls of your eyes.
Most of them, all moving alike,
Are gone already along the river.
Only two boys,
Trailed by shadows of rooted police, 
Turn aimlessly in the lashing elderberries.
One cries for his father’s death,
And the other, the silent one, 
Listens into the hallway
Of a dark leaf.

I may be wrong, of course. I am nothing if not an expert at being wrong. But I think it’s possible to imagine the young poet choosing to strum, with fierce and frenetic strokes, the strings of a barely tuned guitar and then to try to sing these words only to discover that he, more than singing, is shouting them out against the awful wretched unbearable silence.

And the shouting is a good and fine thing. There's music in it.

Tell me you can’t hear John Darnielle’s brittle pleading nasal voice in these lines: The sad bones of my hands descend into a valley / Of strange rocks. Or: An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven. Or: All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home. Or: I do not even have ashes to rub into my eyes.

I’m sure there’s a formula for all of this: a certain American childhood, a Christ-haunted landscape, the glow of street lights against dented cars, flowers left too long in their vases, candles burned down, papers yellowed.

Whatever the equation, the answer is not me, no matter all my longing, all my inclination toward the exquisitely ecstatic beauty of melancholy. I am not musical, not a poet, though I try again and again to hammer my words into some ghostly echo of the real thing, the real deal, the without which not.

I am the father of a poet, though, and that is enough for me. It is actually, in the end, even better, because my own words, no matter how well I’ve crafted them, never make me cry, never make me bow down in silent gratitude. But the poet’s do; my daughter’s do. And that will always be enough.

Friday, November 4, 2011

You know this already.

“I cut the flowers that grew near the door,
and I arranged them in the center of the floor.
The room was so empty.
There were pale shadows inside.”
   -- The Mountain Goats, “Edvard Munch”

You know this already: I want to sing.

You know this already as well: everything is to be found in song.

Here is Ralph Ellison, for instance, in his first published music essay, describing flamenco: “Great space, echoes, rolling slopes, the charging of bulls, and the prancing and galloping of horses flow in this sound much as animal cries, train whistles, and the loneliness of night sound through the blues.”

And so you’ll find the blistering sun in Malian blues and the crooked cobblestone streets in fado and the modest white clapboard churches atop hillsides in bluegrass…

All of which you already know.
So there’s nothing new here, nothing you don’t already know – which is exactly, come to think of it, the way songs work. You know it all already, the song says. But I’ll tell you again anyway, sweet and true. And the singer sings the chorus one more time not to tell you what you don’t yet know but to affirm what you both do.

We’re not talking just any songs, of course, but the right ones, the real ones, the impossibly true. They become more beautiful and delicate, more moving and triumphant (or more desolate, more blue, more inclement or dappled or enticing), the second and then the third and then the fourth time through, each an acquaintance who becomes a friend and then, only over time, with repetition, the beloved, though never an entirely faithful one and certainly not forever: you’re both better off forgetting one another for a while, going your separate ways, crossing paths only every now and again, unexpectedly, at some peculiar time or unlikely place, though it must always be – yes? am I wrong? – precisely the proper season for such a meeting.

Is that accurate, that each song, each right and real and impossibly true one, has its own particular season? Or is it better to say that they conjure their own weather? Is there any sadness that belongs just to summer? Any joy strictly to winter or to fall? Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard. Mercy Street. Thunder Road. Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight. Let It Be Me. Julia. It Had To Be You. Fall on Me. Is there a season, a time under heaven, turning and turning, to each?

Songs are, like poems, private meditations hammered and shaped into public utterance, ardent testimonials of faith or carnal desire, wry manifestos of triumph or defiance, wistful odes to all there is to lose, which is usually – okay, always – youth and love, love and youth, two sides to the same thin rattling coin that again and again finds the hole in your pocket.

The dandy balladeer beneath the balcony window; the cavernous cathedral’s slope-shouldered, arthritic organist; the street-corner crooner in his tattered tuxedo jacket; my teenage son fervently strumming his guitar, belting out Brett Dennen or the Avett Brothers: all of them ask only that most meager of favors: merely to be heard. Why else would one perform, play and sing, sway and strut and bow?

And so the singer loves an audience, every auditorium or stadium seat sold and church pew filled, every inch of dark low-ceilinged clubs lined wall-to-wall and stage-to-bar with piously faithful initiates, thousands and thousands of car radios tuned to the same station, the same infectious tune: Rolling in the Deep, Paparazzi, Love the Way You Lie. Crocodile Rock. California Girls.

But this, too: I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down. Backstabbers. Guns of Brixton. Surrender. War.

What is it good for?

And there’s always a story to the song, isn’t there? In this case, it’s that the original recording of War featured the mighty Temptations, but the song was re-recorded before being released as a single with a new vocal track, this time by Edwin Starr, one of the minor leaguers in Motown’s stable, the change made in order to avoid alienating any Temptations fans who happened, in 1969, to think the goings-on in Vietnam were worth more than what the song insisted they were worth: absolutely nothing.

And what an astonishing conflagration ignites this version: sanctified hymns and swaying choirs and stop-time trumpet blasts alongside a preacher’s Pentecostal shouts and dance-floor gyrations and the relentless call and response, call and response, of white-hot defiance while heartbroken mothers deliver their sons to the undertaker and the war, for all that rabble-rousing, nevertheless rages on.

How many songs tear at the heart and soul like that?

That’s the amazing thing; there’s the miracle: it’s not just a handful or dozens or hundreds but by now, the universe thrumming and thrumming these millions of years,  seven billion of us alive on the planet, it's got to be hundreds and hundreds of thousands of songs that do just that: tear at the heart, tear at the soul. Imagine what it’s like – how always, every moment of every hour of every day, someone is listening to a song and, though they’ve heard it dozens and dozens of times before, thinking Here it is, everything I’ve known and felt already. Here it is, and once again it is mine and once again it is new.