Two Poems: On Atheism and the End of the World

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………..Atheism

            I think

            I could become

            an atheist

            if I thought

            it would annoy

            my

            mom.

.

.

            Lights Out

            Science tells us

            (with near certainty)

            that one day in the distant future

            the sun will swell its proportions

            and engulf the earth

            and every living thing

            and every memory of things

            and every tree and hill

            and the whale that sings in the sea.
.

            and I think an artist could come to accept

            that she might cease to exist

            but that this gorgeous world

            might one day end

            is grief

            too deep

            for words.

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“If You’re Feeling Sinister”: A Look Back

if-youre-feeling-sinister-belle-sebastianIn 1995, Stuart Murdoch’s life did not seem to be moving anywhere fast. The twenty-seven-year old Scotsman had been suffering for upwards of six years from the effects of myalgic encephalomyelitis, better known as chronic fatigue syndrome. Because his condition made even playing on the piano an exhausting endeavor, he was unable to find work.

Living in Glasgow on public assistance, Murdoch joined “beat box,” a government program for the unemployed. He would later compare it to a “refugee camp for unemployed musicians.” The unemployed took a music training course and played music together. Once a month they were given access to a recording studio.

It was here that Murdoch first connected with the people who would form Belle & Sebastian; and it was here in the summer of 1996 that they recorded what are now widely regarded as two of the best albums of the 1990s, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister.

Though the beloved indie band has covered a range of genres in their nearly twenty-year career, from folk to shoegaze to chamber pop, and has stylistically referenced bands as disparate as The Left Banke and The Smiths, the elegiac wistfulness of If You’re Feeling Sinister has become their defining sound. Even after they gained renewed critical acclaim and an unprecedented level of public attention with The Life Pursuit (2006), a collection of irresistibly danceable power-pop anthems, critics and long-time fans rightly pointed to their earliest work as their magnum opus.

Writing and recording twenty songs in the space of a few weeks would be a career-worthy accomplishment for any band. But Belle & Sebastian went a step further, crafting songs that seem to have been whispered out of the ether, songs that don’t so much seem to have been written as captured.

Take, for example, the Satie-like simplicity of “Fox in the Snow.” With piano, guitar, violin, and vibraphone, the band conjures up a serenely autumnal world in which soft-hearted youth have fallen on hard times. For me the special gift of Belle & Sebastian, my all-time favorite band, has always been its ability to evoke the rhythms and changes of the seasons, using lyrics and music to engage the senses so fully that it really feels as though the listener is standing on a wintry street corner in Edinburgh.

Fox in the snow

Where do you go

To find something you can eat?

Cause the word out on the street is

You are starving

If the lyrics are precious, they’re also devastatingly effective, compressing whole years of hope and despair and angst into the space of a few verses. “Fox in the Snow” showcases what would become one of Belle & Sebastian’s hallmarks, their knack for writing realistic, sharply observed character sketches about people who are young and lost and very much in over their heads.

Just prior to the recording of If You’re Feeling Sinister, Stuart had moved into a bachelor flat above a church. There he worked in the parish hall and sang in the choir in between writing songs for the album.

“I always wanted to write about normal people doing normal things,” he recalls in a Pitchfork documentary about the making of the album. “Because I wasn’t normal, I was out of the game. It was very attractive to me what normal people were doing.” So he set out to write songs about the “normal” folks he ran into in the streets and on the buses of Glasgow, though his own sly perceptiveness was always winking through, creating vividly eccentric figures who are instantly recognizable and yet somehow bigger than life: a track star who was driven to fame by the lure of getting to wear terry underwear; Hilary, who’s into S & M and Bible studies; Judy, who walks the streets dreaming of horses.

Of the ten songs on this album, the penultimate song, “Boy Done Wrong Again,” is the weakest, a slow sleeper that saps much of the energy from an otherwise rollicking back half. Like Tigermilk before it, the album begins in minimalistic fashion, with only the quiet plucking of strings to accompany Murdoch’s voice. But as “Stars of Track and Field” progresses, the rest of the band gradually joins in, adding new instrumentation (organ, trumpets) layer upon layer, building slowly and progressively to a powerful conclusion that promises good things to come. “Seeing Other People” is a near-perfect evocation of early morning and the ambivalence of two people trying to let go of each other but not being able to. “Me and the Major” explores the unbridgeable gaps between classes and generations with lyrics that are both spirited and resentful: “We’re the younger generation / We grew up fast / All the others did drugs / They’re taking it out on us.”

In terms of pure atmosphere, the next two songs are probably the album’s high point. “Like Dylan in the Movies” recalls Murdoch’s experience of having to walk through Kelvingrove Park, a shady Glasgow park. The combination of guitar, strings, and xylophone powerfully evokes a sense of the year ending, of autumn, and twilight. “Dylan” is followed by the wintry and underrated “Fox in the Snow.” The placement of these two songs on the album, and their musical kinship, seem to suggest that one is a continuation of the other. It’s worth listening to the two back to back.

“Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” is a light rocker about a naïve young man. Musically it’s as good as anything on the album, but the lyrics are achingly, almost embarrassingly sentimental. “I always cry at endings,” Murdoch sings, and then, as if already regretting this exercise in vulnerability, adds in the next verse, “Oh, that wasn’t what I meant to say at all.”

However, the shortcomings of this song are more than offset by the eerie brilliance of the one following. If You’re Feeling Sinister’s title track is also the album’s standout, with a backing track of children playing and enigmatic lyrics that have been variously explained as a satire of organized religion and the final thoughts of two people preparing to kill themselves.

 

Finally, “Mayfly” is a jangly guitar ballad in the style of The Byrds, while “Judy and the Dream of Horses” closes the album in high spirits with an almost pure distillation of pop craftsmanship.

Not satisfied with the production quality of the original recording, Belle & Sebastian recorded a live performance in 2005 for All Tomorrow’s Parties. It’s worth hearing just to assess the differences between the two recordings—in 1995, the band was young and unproven, while in 2005 it was one of the most successful indie rock bands in the world. But the original is the reason for their breakout success, and it remains the better version of their best album.

Thirty Days of Poems: The Fiddler of Abilene (Day 5)

lrg_fiddle-on-lap There are tales they tell in Texas that’d make your blood run cold

 Tales of vagabonds and outlaw men with a burning lust for gold

 But of all those men with all their sins the worst there’s ever been

 Was a man in white who showed up one night in the town of Abilene.

 

            For Fernando McGraw of Statler Hall, it was the best day of his life

            He’d waited six years and now through tears he made Marie his wife

            Two hundred guests merrily processed behind the bride and groom

            With hurrying feet through the rain-filled street to Winchester’s Saloon. Continue reading

“One More Dawn, One More Day”: 3 Moments of Storytelling Brilliance

Frodo-Sam-image-frodo-and-sam-36084502-1920-800

A good story, whether in the form of a song, novel, TV series, or movie, should give the illusion that you’re experiencing something new and unprecedented. There’s a moment near the end of the story where the heroes find themselves in a unique situation facing extraordinary challenges, and the hair on the back of our necks stands on end because we know we’re witnessing the culmination of a series of choices, and if any of those choices had been different, this moment would never happened.

It’s thrilling. It gives us a rush because we know life is like that. There’s a grandeur that invests even the smallest moments because we have a dim appreciation of what it took to get here.

The following are three of my favorite storytelling moments across all media, moments where a protagonist revealed his or her true quality and the brilliance of the narrative mechanisms on display were like nothing I had seen before.
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“I made a promise, Mr. Frodo”: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

With all the computer-effects wizardry and operatic spectacle of the later films, it can be easy to forget the promise of Peter Jackson’s first foray into Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The genius of the first movie (and, to a lesser extent, The Two Towers) is that they somehow married the scale of an epic fantasy story with the intimacy of a small character drama. This was never more apparent than in the under-stated denouement of Fellowship, in which human warrior Boromir dies protecting two Hobbits after nearly betraying Ring-bearer Frodo Baggins. Frodo makes his escape by boat, thinking to finish the journey alone. But his gardener Sam Gamgee has other plans, and it’s in showing how the two of them end up together that the films have one of their best moments.

 

The Death of Krishna: The Mahabharata (1989)

The ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata, the longest poem ever written (two million words in 17 volumes), has a cast so large and a story so convoluted it rivals the Lord of the Rings, featuring demons, gods, weird monsters, vengeful reincarnations, and a magical weapon with the destructive capacity to annihilate an entire planet. But the narrative thread holding the story together (and keeping it from buckling under its own weight) is the conflict between the Kauravas and Pandavas, two halves of one family who are determined to exterminate each other.

Hovering in the background of this out-of-control family quarrel is the mysterious figure of Krishna, who for much of the story seems to be just another member of the family (albeit one who is revered by all parties), but who reveals himself, in the poem’s most famous set piece, to be more than they had ever guessed. Naturally the question arises, “If you are a god, why can’t you stop this massacre?”

Peter Brooks’ five-hour 1989 film The Mahabharata plays up the more enigmatic aspects of Krishna’s character, suggesting that perhaps there’s a more sinister agenda behind his ostensible attempts at peace-making. But the film’s best moment comes at the end when Krishna, wounded and dying, reveals that he’s just as confused and vulnerable as anyone else in the story. A young boy asks him, “Krishna, tell me quickly: why all your tricks and your bad directions?” Krishna responds with his last words: “I fought against terrible powers, and I did what I could.”

 

“One Day More”: Les Miserables (the Musical)

Victor Hugo’s sprawling, relentlessly poetic 1,400 page novel Les Miserables, which tells the story of an 1832 student uprising in Paris, boasts some of the most brilliant character arcs in literature. (The culmination of the longstanding feud between Javert, the police inspector, and Jean Valjean, the criminal-turned-mayor whom he has hunted for twenty years, deserves its own place on this list).

The musical Les Miserables takes all this plot and condenses it into a lyrical and at times devastating two-and-a-half-hour saga of war, vengeance, grace, redemption, and romance. The entire last half of the story functions as a series of climaxes. And while the tear-inducing lament of Marius on re-visiting the barricades where his friends met their grisly end is probably the emotional high point of the play, in terms of sheer narrative power, praise is owed to the entire sequence where Marius, Cosette, Eponine, and their love triangle is introduced, and especially the song “One Day More,” which takes the emotional journeys of ALL the characters, crystallizes them into a few simple verses and chorus, and reveals that in spite of their many conflicts, our heroes (and villains) have far more in common than they would ever admit.

 

Thirty Days of Poems: Dolorosa (Day 4)

          039_3888x2592_all-free-download.com_18102988  I went to a wedding today

            the second I’ve attended since

            you got married.

            You would have loved the venue:

            a small stone chapel

            almost like a cottage

            in the woods

            with a high Gothic ceiling

            and a stained-glass portrait

            of the via dolorosa

            hanging just over the altar.

 

            And the ceremony

            may have been more high church

            than what we were used to

            growing up in Texas

            but the bride processed in

            to some Elvish-sounding music

            and after the exchange of vows

            we all had communion

            and the newlyweds came in together

            bearing the grail and bread.

 

            The whole first year after

            when I heard about a friend’s engagement

            my immediate reaction

            was to try and stop it.

            It was silly of me, I know:

            not every walk down the aisle

            has a cross at its end.

            And over time

            I got better, or

            learned how to fake it.

           

            But today

            when the priest said,

            “Speak now, or forever hold your peace”

            it was hard not to think of that moment

            in your wedding

            and the silence where

            no one spoke.

 

           And when the bride and groom

           pledged their fidelity to one another

           in sickness and in health

           to have and to hold

           from this day forward

           I thought of you and him

           the vows he made to you that day

          flanked by the groomsmen

          with whom he had already

          betrayed them.

 

          One day

          a few years from now

          I’ll have my own ceremony.

          And with laughter and communion

          my friends will escort me

          into a new realm of life.

          But even amid the celebration

         there will be a quiet ache

         dull but persistent

         because of the empty space

         where you should have been

         and the marriage you never had.

Thirty Days of Poems: She’s Ubiquitous (Day 3)

05-02-2013i            She’s ubiquitous

            She wouldn’t call herself a genius

            but I know she is

            A novelist, an actress

            She’s on billboards and Broadway

            The writer, star, director

            of a one-woman play

 

            She’s pale as the sun

            as quiet as the moon

            and she doesn’t

            understand the world

 

           

            She’s ubiquitous

            she wonders what the moral of the story is

            she takes her coffee black

            she stays out past midnight

            sipping Chardonnay and reading

            N. T. Wright

 

            She’s ubiquitous

            but lately she’s been feeling nervous and listless

            She’s sick of putting up with boys

            and their pathetic grandeur

            and wishes she could meet a guy

            who understands her

 

           

            She’s pale as the sun

            as quiet as the moon

            and she doesn’t

            understand the world

 

            (and sometimes late at night

            we take that desert road

            out where the stars are street lights

            and when we hit the end of that trail

            where the dust shines like fog

            and the grass hums around us with a million voices

            I pull out my flamenco guitar

            and she dances).

 

A Poet of the Margins

BreakingBadFelinaThe whole first half of this year I was so sure I wanted to write a “mundane,” realistic fantasy story about the boring lives of ordinary people.

 

But when I went out to dinner with Spencer last night, he said, “You, Boze, don’t have to write something realistic.”

 

And then today I was writing poetry as part of Teryn’s “Thirty Days of Poems.” And I started reading the lyrics to some of my favorite songs. And I realized there’s a thread running through a lot of them, and it may be the same thread that’s got me reading Flannery O’Connor and that made me fall so much in love with Breaking Bad.

 

Maybe the reason I loved that show so much wasn’t because it was gritty and realistic (a lot of critics said it wasn’t), but because it was all about people living on the margins. And maybe that appeals to me after all I’ve been through, as I begin to see more clearly the outline of the crucified God.

 

I wrote on Twitter, “I’m realizing that a lot of my favorite songs are about people on the margins, dreaming, fighting, desperate, struggling to get by.” And then quoted Walt Whitman: O you shunned persons, I do not shun you. I will be your poet.” And said, “Like Whitman, I want to be a poet of the forgotten and unsung.”

 

And I think that’s the kind of story I need to be writing, because that’s the kind of person I’m becoming. A person who sees life’s ragged edges. Who listens to the hurting, gets to know them, hears their stories. Who loves those who are trapped in desperate places.

 

Up until now, as Spencer pointed out, my story hasn’t really had a center. I think this is the center. These are the kinds of people I’m called to write about.