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The Book I Read: I Got the Music in Me–Talking Heads 77 and Annie Kim’s Award Winning Eros, Unbroken

Listen to the podcast version of this blog entry!

I’m writing ’bout the book I read

I have to sing about the book I read

I’m embarassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart

When I found out you wrote the book I read

David Byrne, from “The Book I Read,” Talking Heads 77

I want to begin this week by delivering a quick little study of the lyric that inspired the title of my humble podcast and this blog series; for those of you still outside of that particular loop, I’m referring to the song from the Talking Heads debut album, 77, a song called, you guessed it, “The Book I Read.”

First, I’d like to tell you a little funny story about the way I arrived as a Talking Heads fan. I was in middle school when the band made its first mark in the world. I was primarily in a hard rock phase. I listened to Kiss, to Cheap Trick, AC/DC, and Rush. My musical tastes were pretty typical for the era, in suburbia, and among my age group. But for some reason, I’ll never really understand why, I felt compelled over the next couple of years to experiment. Probably my first foray into New Wave music was the purchase of Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, an album that I absolutely cherish now, but that, when I bought it, I hated. Hated it so much, in fact, that after a couple of listens I took it back to the record store, claimed it was defective, and got a refund. But the Talking Heads and that first experience haunted me a little, and months or maybe a year later, I came back to them (I don’t know why–probably because, as startled as I was by my first experience, there was a certain something that hooked me, that piqued my interest, that made me feel like, yeah, I should give this band a second chance). When I did go back, I decided to start at the very beginning with their debut album. Outside of Fear of Music, it was likely the strangest rock music I had ever heard, but unlike my first response to their third record, this time I was giddy with excitement. This album was so nerdy, so decidedly un-heavy, so jaunty, so unabashedly weird and joyful, that I was hooked. And this song, “The Book I Read,” has embedded itself into my brain. As Talking Heads songs go, it’s a deep cut, was not a hit, but it spoke to me, and keeps speaking to me over the decades. Do you want to take a little break for a listen? If so, here you go. It’s just a clip, so, if you want to listen to the whole thing, click the Spotify icon.

Byrne’s vocal performance here is absolutely unhinged. I love the imprecision of it and his ability to capture this sort of unbridled sense of exuberance and enthusiasm–“I’m tipping over backwards,” indeed. He’s so excited, he can’t be bothered to hit all the notes–and yet, this melody is absolutely infectious–and the na na na bridge, or chorus, or whatever it is–inescapably hooky. But these lyrics–maybe the first rock song I ever heard for book nerds–the club for which, I must confess, when I first heard the song, I was not a member. Maybe the appeal to my younger non-reader self was that I understood it to be a metaphor–“the book I read was in your eyes.” But later, as I did over time become a bonafide book nerd, I understood it to be both literal and metaphorical at the same time. “I’m writing ’bout the book I read. I have to sing about the book I read.” That’s what I am doing in this podcast and blog series. And the lines, “I’m embarrassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart when I found out you wrote the book I read.” Herein lies my inspiration and rationale, I suppose, for talking about books written by friends of mine as often as I can. There is something remarkable and exciting about reading books written by people you know and love. And I feel exceedingly blessed to be able to do so, and to have such an abundance of choices. Abundance is the theme of the season, after all.

Happy Thanksgiving, by the way, super belatedly. As is this episode of The Book I Read–somewhat super belated. I’ve been on a little bit of a hiatus, the demands of the school year finally eclipsing my capacity to read more often for pleasure and to write and speak about such pleasures. So, the book subject today was chosen–in part–for its brevity–a 86 page single volume of poetry–but in larger part–for it’s connection to the Talking Heads song, being, as it is, a book of poetry about music. It’s a book about a lot of other things as well, which I will get into shortly–but at it’s center are a couple of characters from music history, the 18th century composer Domenico Scarlatti and the famous opera singer Farinelli. I’m happy to be talking about Annie Kim’s Eros, Unbroken, the 2019 Washington Prize Winner for poetry, recently awarded the 2021 Library of Virginia Literary Award.

Where to begin describing this treasure of a poetry volume. Let’s begin at the beginning, perhaps, with the opening poem that is not a poem, but rather, a kind of introduction written in a series of aphoristic little pieces of prose, a thing titled, intriguingly, “Confession.” It works almost as an explanatory, a thesis, or, a statement of purpose. It gives us a bit of back story: Annie Kim, a classical violinist, randomly finds in the stacks a biography of Domenico Scarlatti and starts to read. Interested not in the biography itself as a genre, but in this particular case the eros or the passion contained therein. Somehow her interest is piqued by the friendship between this somewhat obscure 18th century composer and the castrato singer Farinelli, and their story somehow resonates with hers: “The hunt is rarely about the thing,” she writes. Her confession ends with these two striking aphorisms:

To be a thief you must love what you steal. I saw that I could write myself into their shadows. That I would need to pierce myself.

*

Counterpoint: the art of pursuing more than one melodic line, each independent but connected to the other.

Herein lies the crux of Eros, Unbroken. Through the story of the interconnected lives of Scarlatti and Farinelli, she will explore her own story–or, at least, the story of the collection’s primary speaker–and this “counterpoint” will take her deeply into the murky waters of love and passion, the difficulties of a family rift, the heart-rending disconnection between father and daughter, and the separations that must occur in order to put back together a divided life, finding what Parker J. Palmer calls the “hidden wholeness.”

Let’s spend a bit of time unpacking the “Eros” in the title of this volume before we proceed. I think most of us know Eros as Aphrodite’s minion, a companion and child-god of love and sexual desire, most often portrayed as the baby with a bow and arrow, or, as the Roman’s penned him, Cupid. Our word “erotic” springs from the Greek eros–and mostly when we hear this word we think about sexy-sexy time. That’s not the meaning we’re looking for with this book of poems. Modern philosophers and psychologists use the term “eros” to describe something more widely known as a kind of “life energy,” or, in Jungian psychology, relating to the process of individuation–rising above and beyond our tendencies toward projection, becoming conscious of anima or animus, and ultimately arriving at something like true self. In fact, immediately after the introductory “Confession,” and before the first poem in the collection, we have an epigraph from Jung: “Eros is not form-giving but form-fulfilling; it is the wine that will be poured into the vessel; it is not the bed and the direction of the stream but the impetuous water flowing in it.” Well, that should clear things up. One of the central figures in the collection, the castrato Farinelli, has given up his sex for the perpetually perfect voice for singing–he has been “unsexed,” castrated, and yet, his passion for music, his clarity of purpose throughout, is not stymied, is unbroken. He becomes the model, then, of an undivided life, about which Scarlatti, and the 21st century speaker in these poems, maybe the poet herself, are envious–or are trying to emulate in their way.

This book of poetry is divided into five parts, containing, respectively, 3, 3, 2, 10, and 5 poems. The first part mentions Scarlatti and Farinelli not a single time, but explores the modern concerns of the central speaker of the collection. I tell my students on a pretty regular basis that we cannot assume the speaker in a poem is the poet herself, but there are times when, our knowledge of the poet and our lack of evidence that anything has been fabricated, a lyric poem can be safely interpreted as coming from the perspective of the poet. Of course, even in this case, it doesn’t mean that everything the poem says is literally true or autobiographical–I remember William Stafford saying (loosely) that sometimes the poem “wanted” his father to be mean–even if that wasn’t really the case in actual fact. Just so as not to muddy the waters, I’ll refer to the primary character in these poems as the speaker, rather than as the poet.

So in part one of Eros, Unbroken, the speaker steps forward in the first three poems, immediately digging deep in experience for appropriate metaphors: the reflecting pool in “Eros the Binder and Loosener,” bringing to mind the wells of Seamus Heaney’s “Personal Helicon,” man-made water bodies through which our selves are reflected and where inspiration is found; in the second poem, “Friend,” a snake, shown to the young and somewhat squeamish child by a friend, is a reptile that becomes another kind of muse: “Friend, I want to ask it,/how did you come into the open?” And then the poem “Violins: Violence,” the first of a few long poems in the collection that share a particular contrapuntal structure, a structure in which lyric poetry is interspersed with quotes from Marcus Aurelius; straight up expository passages about the origins, meanings, and relationships of words, violins, violence, vitulare, vitula, violare–to violate, the resonating holes in a violin: f-hole, to forte, fine, fuck; and some prose pieces which appear to be autobiographical sketches of our speaker, like this one: “In my old life I argued to a judge that the definition of wrongful act includes violations of a pre-existing duty, that loss includes liquidated damages. I lost. Not all bad acts are wrongful acts, he said. Not all loss is bargained for.” It turns out that Annie Kim is also a lawyer–and knowing this makes it harder to separate the speaker from the poet, and this first long poem deals with the excruciating painful exploration of an abusive father–the counterpoint to the melodies around coming into herself as a professional and a musician and a poet. Some distance is achieved here, though, in the lyric passages about the father–the point of view moves into second person: “shit-like offspring–/that was his favorite/curse for you in Korean.” The discursive nature of this poem, and later poems like it, appears both in content and form–as while the subjects shift and the tone shifts and the point of view shifts, there’s also a shifting on the page. Some stanzas are aligned left, others to the right, there are chunks of prose, some stanzas are double spaced between lines with shifting indentations. It is in every way, contrapuntal. Beautiful. Devastating. And, dense, exhilaratingly so.

I realize I’ve kind of gone on and on about the first part of the book and its third poem. If I were to do this as well for the remaining parts, this would need to be a series of blog entries/podcasts about a single book of poems–I could go on all the way through the new year! I won’t do that. Certainly, I think, this incredible book is worthy of it, no question–but I do not think I am up to that task, joyful as it might be.

So let me try to describe the remainder succinctly–a fool’s errand, really, dealing with so much nuance and complexity, but I will make the attempt, and, by necessity I’ll leave way too much unspoken. That’s probably fine–especially if it makes you want to read this book of poems, which you should.

In part two we’re given two unattributed epigraphs, “Tell me, what would you do for a perfect voice?” And “Tell me what perfection means to you. Completion? Rapture? Pain?” –epigraphs that feel weighty, that almost perfectly encapsulate what’s to follow. Part two begins with “Castrato,” a poem structurally parallel to “Violins: Violence,” but here the counterpoint in poetry and prose centers around the singer Farinelli, his castration, his wish to be “without desire,” ironic, given that to have the perfect voice in perpetuity is a desire–or, maybe, rather, a purpose against which other kinds of desire, material desire, or sexual desire, might be a distraction. But the connection to our 21st century speaker, even though she is almost invisible here, is undeniable in the motif of violare–to be violated and yet, not to feel vulnerable or victimized.

Eros, Unbroken proceeds with Farinelli at its center, in persona poems in which he is given a voice–in letters to his brother, and most interestingly, in conversation with the composer Scarlatti. There are a number of poems that read like little plays; “Everything Swims,” “Fire Chasing Air,” “To Hold Something Close,” and “Bright Skin of a Snake” are all poems written in dialogue between these two characters over a period of about 20 years or more–an astounding feat of imagination on Annie Kim’s part, if you ask me, given that any record of conversations like these would have been impossible. These conversations are philosophical, sophisticated, wide-ranging–but to me, authentic feeling. I had tons of fun reading them out loud, trying on these characters. At first, Scarlatti is a mentor, maybe even a father figure, at one point advising Farinelli not to ignore the attentions of a woman interested in him–but sometimes, maybe more often, the roles seem reversed. Scarlatti, poor, deeply in debt, is rescued by his friend, both financially and emotionally, intellectually.

Interspersed between these letters and conversations, is, ultimately, Annie Kim, writing herself “into their shadows.” “Bildungsroman, 1999” is a poem that explores a moment in the speaker’s life on the verge of some kind of wholeness–in music, in poetry, in finding her voice for “singing.” “Everything is worth your look, I’d like to tell/that self, everything is still beautiful,/even if you have no words to say it.” And in the poem “Leap,” recognizing the profound significance of the father as “a bridge you crossed to burn/more than a living father: yours.” For better or worse, our parents become our bridges–we may have to burn them on the other side.

I have said before that I am a lover of poetry, not a scholar. Even when I am doubtful of my own ability to comprehend, I am still finding things to get excited about. Here is a book of poems that reveals a world most of us are unfamiliar with. I mean, I still haven’t listened to any Scarlatti. I could probably go for his hundreds of keyboard sonatas, but I am not a fan of opera music. None of that matters. Annie Kim has taught me what I needed to know, has intrigued me with a drama about musicians centuries gone, has created a veritable novelistic breadth in a book of poems, has dealt honestly and brutally with all kinds of family of origin stuff–to which we can all relate on some level, and, as David Byrne has rapturously intoned, it hit the soft spot in my heart when I found out Annie Kim wrote the book I read.

Let me share this one short poem that, in an amazingly condensed way, reminds us of the liberating powers of music:

Uses for Music

Because there is no soundtrack for the brain.

Because nothing has the beauty of a cage

you can enter when you want and leave behind.

So you can crawl across the floor and give it shape.
So one day you will release the snake–

you know, the one who lives inside you, has to move,
who can’t keep still.

Annie Kim, from Eros, Unbroken

Until next time, thanks for reading; I hope to post again by the end of the year. So, in the meantime, happy holidays, be well, be kind, and cheers!

Note: The format of the poem in Kim’s book is not accurately replicated here due to the limitations of the WordPress drafting tools–apologies Annie!

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The Book I Read: Rock Star Fiction, Erasure, and Mother Love

(Books discussed in this blog: Wolf in White Van, John Darneille; Her Read, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, and Paddock, Mary Lou Buschi)

In April of 2019 I thought I would begin a series of book review blog entries titled after one of my favorite early Talking Heads songs, “The Book I Read.” So I did that. The trouble is: that first entry was the only entry! You know what they say: the best laid plans something something blah blah blah. Today, two years later and some change, I still think it’s a good idea. I am a person that is perpetually in a state of dissatisfaction about how much I read; every year of my life since leaving a formal education program where I am pretty much forced into the endeavor, I vow to read more, and specifically, to read more for pleasure. “The Book I Read” series seemed to be a tidy way to hold myself accountable, both for the reading and for the other thing I’d like to be doing more often–writing. And, too, I think the review, while I know nothing about how to do one properly, keeps me engaged in an activity I have always found, as an English teacher, to be a pedagogically sound practice: Okay, you’ve read a thing. Write about that experience! And as a student, I always found that my writing about my reading helped me to internalize the experience and to remember more of what I read. Perhaps this practice is why I have a much better book memory than a film memory. All I can tell you about a film I saw two years ago, or even two months ago, is whether or not I liked it. Don’t ask me to tell you what it was about–except to say something like, you know, it took place in outer space, or in the future, or it was about a boy and a dog and some vampires.

Because I am a musician that writes, or a writer who makes music, I have a soft spot, or an affinity, with others like me. Some famous rock musicians are very good writers. My first experience reading a rock star who could really write was Bob Geldof’s autobiography of the late 80’s. I’ve read David Byrne’s stuff. Mark Oliver Everett, The Eels guy. I’ve got Ben Folds on the shelf waiting. With Wolf in White Van, I have my first experience reading a rock musician fiction writer. John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, a band I have been smitten with over the last two or three years, is the author of this gem, and this was my first summer reading project.

Here’s a quick gloss of the premise: a young man, terribly disfigured by an accidental gun shot to the face, makes his way in the world as a role-play game designer, the protocols of which are extremely lo-fi. For a subscription fee, his customers play his RPG through written correspondence–that’s right, letters. He sends them a scenario, they send him a kind of narrative account of the choices they make, and in return, he sends them options for their next “move.” There are a few key dramatic arcs in this novel–or, a few key questions that provide readers with the impetus to keep on trucking. One: how did he fuck up his face? Two: is he responsible for the deaths of two of his players–killed no less in the process of “literally” acting out the scenarios in Sean’s RPG? How does one so disfigured navigate the world? Why doesn’t he seek plastic reconstructive surgery? What’s up with his parents? Is a relationship between Sean and his childhood friend Kimmy possible post-accident?

I liked reading this novel. Darnielle can really craft a sentence, and the novel is evocative, poetic, sometimes funny, and philosophically engaging, cerebral. It can also be frustrating. The first big question, how’d he fuck up his face, is ultimately answered, but we are made to wait until the very end to find out–and the answer is not altogether clear or satisfying. The other seemingly big question about the deaths of his customers is answered rather economically before we’re really half way through the novel–it turns out for the reader to be a kind of dashed expectation–at least it felt that way for me, as I expected it to be a key plot feature. Perhaps neither of these questions are the important ones, and it seems that Wolf in White Van may not be a novel driven by plot–but rather, by voice, by character; and the thing that moves us through as we bip back and forth in time with our narrator should really be the psychology of this guy, unraveling and understanding his nihilism despite his privileges and gifts. Certainly, the key might be in the unpacking of this potential metaphor of the Role-Play Game. People spend a whole heck of a lot of time pretending to be in a world that doesn’t exist, in the same way that people who are not gamers at all spend a considerable amount of their time on the planet skirting reality.

This next thing, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth’s Her Read, is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is manifestly unique. The book, about 260 pages long, is a single poem–a poem in a form we call an erasure. We have an erasure, essentially, when a poet has taken an existing non-poetry text and created something new and unique through the process of blocking out significant chunks of the original. I have come to know it as a common teaching technique in writing classes where the goal is to have students thinking about language and the various choices poets make–while simultaneously easing the anxiety around the blank page–everything is there for you already; you just have to find it. It’s like sculpting–you remove stuff in order to discover the shape or the image or the meaning inside. Super fun. I’ve only encountered erasure poems by serious poets on a few occasions, most notably, Tracy K. Smith’s erasure poem from the Declaration of Independence, a poem that totally transforms and reframes our understanding of American history.

But Steinorth’s poem is not simply an erasure–it is, as the cover announces, a “graphic poem.” It is a full color printing replete with drawings, photos, diagrams, and replications of the original source–a book originally published in 1931 called The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read–so that the reader can visually see Steinorth’s white out erasures, her doodling, her coloring, her stitching, her cutting and pasting, her manipulation of classic paintings–and the ghost of the original text, sometimes attempting to peak its way out from under the white-out, sometimes appearing vividly around the new poem, crossed out against Steinorth’s circled choices or otherwise as a kind of backdrop or wall paper out of which the new text or an art image leaps out. Without saying anything about the poem’s subject matter or themes, I must begin by just saying what a blast this piece is to read. It is tremendous fun. It gives new meaning to what folks sometimes say about any literary work–that the reader must learn HOW to read it. On almost every page, we are faced with a new kind of puzzle, sometimes a straightforward and easy adjustment, other times diabolically difficult. And, decidedly, it is just a beautiful thing, an art object as well as a literary artifact.

But what’s this poem about? And is it a good poem? I am a poetry lover, not a poetry scholar. I don’t think of myself as much of a critic–only that I know when I’m reading a poem if I’m enjoying myself or not, if I’ve understood the poem or not, or if I’m able to appreciate the various moves the poet is making. I’ve already confessed that I enjoyed myself thoroughly reading Her Read. But it is what I would call a difficult poem–in that it’s meaning is allusive–or rather, that my understanding while I read was tentative, slippery. I take full responsibility for that. I can say, though, that Eleanor Wilner’s introduction is astounding and astoundingly helpful, and the author’s preface, “Her Apologia,” is also edifying. Perhaps most helpful is the revelation that the source text, The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read, makes mention of exactly zero women artists–and in a subsequent edition from the fifties, only ONE. So–my biggest take away from this beautiful book is that the poem is a kind of reclamation of the history of art by and for women writers and painters and art enthusiasts. This is after all, her read, her reading, Steinorth’s illumination of what was missing in Herbert Read’s original text–and yet, present all the same! I just blew my own mind right there. I doubt this is accidental: the whole time I was reading I kept thinking of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I bet Steinorth would consider that pretty good company.

Finally, I arrive at Mary Lou Buschi’s Paddock, a volume of poetry so sparse and spacious, even at 64 pages, that it begs to be read more than once. So I did that. Outside of preparing for a writer’s workshop on a manuscript, I don’t think I’ve ever read a complete volume of poetry cover to cover more than once within the space of a couple of days. I felt it necessary perhaps to revel in its weirdness. That’s true. Or maybe I thought I’d understand it much better the second time around. That checks out, but still, I must confess, my understanding feels limited, superficial. Poetry like this makes one especially thankful for blurbs on the back covers, which, in the poetry world, are often little mini-essays in and of themselves. In the effort towards stepping away from Paddock with anything like an “understanding,” Patrick Donnelly’s blurb on the back cover was immeasurably helpful. He doesn’t have the answers either–but his speculating about what could be was a tremendous lifeline. Like Her Read, I found this volume to be a difficult but enormously rewarding reading experience. My own poetry, and (surprise surprise) the poetry I like best, is narrative in nature–where a story is being told or an experience is being described that is rooted in a comprehensible world–even if that world is exceedingly weird. I also enjoy lyric poetry that describes an emotional response or teases out a philosophical territory–and yet still is grounded somehow in a familiar world. The most rewarding reading experiences where neither of the above approaches, narrative or lyric, seem to be relevant or important, is in my deep reading over the years of Samuel Beckett. His disembodied voices, his gallows humor, his vaudevillian approach to the deepest existentialist questions, has been some of the most satisfying reading of my life. Paddock reminds me of Beckett more than anything else, and in particular, his play Waiting for Godot.

In Paddock we have three primary voices, girl 1 and girl 2, and a chorus. The chorus does what choruses do: sets the scene, provides commentary, maybe helps interpret the proceedings, lends a kind of mythic aura to the whole. The girls are our main characters–but in actual text real estate, their lines and their conversations are clipped, truncated, brief, and, like the conversations between Vladimir and Estragon from Godot, strangely surreal, comical, absurd. And like their Beckett counterpoints, they are on a mission it seems, not one of waiting, but one of looking, searching–and of trying at one and the same time to leave and to arrive. What are they looking for? Who are they leaving or hoping to join? Mother. And this, thankfully, is given us right out of the gate by the chorus: “Once, as there are many,/time stretches infinitely,/2 girls set forth,/to find a mother,/who is she,/who is I,/who is Dear.” Now the mysteries of this collection, similarly to the mysteries of Godot, are questions the reader may have that the text of the drama does not answer explicitly. Where are these two girls? In what state? Are they dead? Are they about to be born? Clearly, (I just said “clearly”) they are in some kind of liminal space. How are the girls related, or are they? What trauma has their “mother” experienced and by whose hands? Do they have the same mother or different ones? Is “mother” literal or metaphorical, symbolic? These are huge unanswerable questions–but again, like in Godot, the pleasure and the meaning is in NOT getting the answers you seek, but instead, more questions. In the end. . . No, I’m not going to give away the ending!

Paddock is not just a collection of poems–it is a singular and difficult drama. The more I think about it, the more likely I am to give it a third reading. It is beautiful and weird, nightmarish and strange, puzzling and profound.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap on my second attempt in two years at a blog about books I am reading in the series I have called “The Book I Read.”

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Filed under Literature, Reviews, The Book I Read, Writing and Reading