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January 21, 2010

Book Notes - Kathleen Rooney ("For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs is an impressive essay collection from Kathleen Rooney. Rooney's clever perceptions of life as a woman in her 20's are clearly and passionately expressed in these essays, no surprise to fans like myself of her prose and poetry.

In her own words, here is Kathleen Rooney's Book Notes music playlist for her essay collection, For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs:

For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs is a collection of essays, and it's like an album, sort of, with different tracks arranged in such a way as to be equally satisfying listened to/read randomly by themselves, or all in a row. Like you could go through and experience each piece sequentially, one right after the other, or you could set the book to shuffle, or just listen to the single. There are 11 essays, so for the soundtrack to the book, I've picked 11 songs, one per piece.

"Natural Is Not in It" is about getting a Brazilian wax with my sister. Obviously, having a molten hot substance applied to your lady parts in order to have the hair there yanked is not "natural," so I took the title from a Gang of Four song about how capitalism alienates us from our bodies and then sells our bodies back to us. That said, the track I'd pick to accompany this piece is "Pokerface" (Lady Gaga, 2008). Love her or hate her, Lady Gaga is fully aware of the possibilities of self-presentation and of her own artifice—an artifice that is polarizing, not unlike that of, say, pubic waxing. "I'm just bluffin' with my muffin"? Exactly.

"For You, For You I am Trilling These Songs" is the title essay, and its own title comes from the poem "For You O Democracy" by Walt Whitman, whom I admire for his poetry, but also for his huge-hearted love of America even when it was doing horrible and disappointing things. This piece, like quite a few in the book, is about working in politics. Specifically, it's about preparing to appear in a 4th of July parade with a progressive, anti-war Democratic senator in a predominantly conservative, pro-war Republican town. It's easy to get jaded and angry when one is dealing on a regular basis with jaded and angry people, people who think that the ideas of cooperation, civility, and bipartisanship are laughable, so "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" (Elvis Costello, 1979) goes with this essay.

"Fast Anchor'd, Eternal, O Love!" also takes its title from Whitman, and is about falling in something like love with an authority figure, so it gets "Reel Around the Fountain" (The Smiths, 1984) for its soundtrack. The song is also about being inappropriately attracted to a person who is clearly wrong and probably too old for you. Whitman's "more resistless than I can tell, the thought of you!" is not so far from Morrissey's "Fifteen minutes with you, I wouldn't say no." Also, this stanza from the song?

I dreamt about you last night 
And I fell out of bed twice 
You can pin and mount me like a butterfly

But "take me to the haven of your bed"

Was something that you never said

Two lumps, please 
You're the bee's knees 
But so am I

Genius. The self-regard, the lyricism, and the funny-sadness make this song kind of like a personal essay.

"I Will Catch You" is about teaching at a small religious university in the Pacific Northwest where, for some reason, I had more students plagiarize than anywhere else I had taught ever. I believe in second chances, but one of these students was especially egregious in his cheating. The third time I caught him, I followed through on my syllabus' boilerplate and the school's policy and told him that he was going to Automatically Fail The Class. Needless to say, he freaked right out, alternately apologizing for and denying his wrong-doing to the point where we had to participate in one of those academic dishonesty hearings set up like a courtroom. Both he and I had to present our "evidence" on whether or not he was "guilty." Fortunately, the panel found in my favor and he earned the F he deserved, but the whole thing ended up being an absurd production, absurd like the one described in "Take a Bow" (Rihanna, 2008), where the refrain is all "Don't tell me you're sorry 'cause you're not / Baby when I know you're only sorry you got caught." Being a teacher should not mean having to be a cop, but man do I hate it when people lie to my face and then sob when I catch said lie, not because they're remorseful, but because they are like, so bummed they didn't get away with it.

"Staircase" is about drinking in McSorley's ("snugandevil" as e. e. cummings calls it) in New York and getting hit on by an aggro douchebag who seems incapable of accepting that not everyone in the bar would be honored to sleep with him. It's also about Diderot's concept of "L'esprit de l'escalier" or "the wit of the staircase," which is when you think of a great comeback only after it's way too late—not at the party, but on the stairs leading away from it. That's how I felt that night as I tried to get this guy to stop groping me, so the song I'll pick to go with it is "Knock ‘Em Out" (Lily Allen, 2006). The whole song applies, but the spoken word part at the beginning is dead-on: "Alright so this is a song about anyone, it could be anyone. You're just doing your own thing and someone comes out the blue. They're like, ‘Alright, what ya saying. Yeah, can I take your digits?' And you're like, ‘No not in a million years, you're nasty, please leave me alone.'"

"To Build a Quiet City in My Mind" is a companion piece to "Staircase," kind of, in that it takes place on the same visit to New York. On that trip, I tried to locate all ten of the apartments that my all-time favorite poet and mysterious disappearer Weldon Kees (1914-1955?) lived in when he was there. Although I wasn't able to go into any of the nine that I found, there was still something satisfying about being able to look at the rooms that used to contain him—something haunted, like the kind of haunting described in "These Foolish Things" (written by Harry Link, Hold Marvell and Jack Strachey, performed by Billie Holliday, 1936):

A telephone that rings, but who's to answer?
Oh, how the ghost of you clings

These foolish things remind me of you

"Did You Ask for the Happy Ending?" gets "People Got a Lotta Nerve" (Neko Case, 2009) to accompany it because both the song and the essay are "about" injustice to animals, but not. The essay describes a tour of the Olympic Game Farm in Sequim, Washington (where retired Disney animal actors go to die) that my husband and I took with my parents. In the essay, like in the song, these creatures are both intrinsically pathetic (the grizzles have been reduced to having white bread tossed at them from car windows, as Case's elephants have been reduced to "standing in a concrete cave / Swaying") and metaphorical for human experiences and feelings. You could say I anthropomorphize them, but I do really think that animals got a lotta human characteristics.

"All Tomorrow's Parties" is obviously titled after the song by the Velvet Underground and Nico, and it is about a party, but the song I'll pick to go with it is "Step into My Office, Baby" (Belle and Sebastian, 2003). In a reversal of the subject matter of "Fast Anchor'd, Eternal, O Love!" I'm the authority figure in this piece and one of my students falls in something like love with me. Or at least tells me he thinks I am "a total babe," etc. Knowing he felt this way was a little bit cute and a little bit strange, and this song seems to embody the kind of if-I-could-just-be-alone-in-a-room-with-you fantasies characteristic of unrequited/unfulfilled scenarios.

"First Person Impossible" has a title that refers to narration from the perspective of someone who couldn't possibly narrate, such as a dead person. The essay is about my move from being a professor in Washington state to being a Senate Aide in Illinois, specifically about the time I hired two of my students to drive my husband's car from Tacoma to Chicago while we drove the Budget truck. (See below about why I didn't just drive the car myself.) As Martin and I drove, or rather as he drove and I rode shotgun, I kept thinking about time zones and radio stations and feeling ghostly, neither here nor there. And I was reading John Berryman as I was feeling this way, so the resulting essay mixes the road trip with his poetry. When we stayed with friends in the Twin Cities, for instance, they drove us across the bridge over the Mississippi that Berryman jumped from to kill himself in 1972. So the song I'll pick to go with this one is "Stuck Between Stations" (The Hold Steady, 2006). For one thing, it's a great driving song and for another, it's actually about John Berryman: "The devil and John Berryman / Took a walk together. / They ended up on Washington / Talking to the river. / He said ‘I've surrounded myself with doctors / And deep thinkers. / But big heads with soft bodies / Make for lousy lovers.'"

"Always Crashing in the Same Car" is titled after the David Bowie song from 1977, which Wikipedia tells me is about "the frustration of making the same mistake over and over," and which may refer metaphorically to Bowie's cocaine addiction. For me it refers literally to my fear of being in a car and crashing it. I don't own a car and I really hate driving, but my current job requires me, every eight weeks or so, to rent an American-made vehicle and chauffeur the senior Senator from Illinois around Chicagoland. That said, the song I'll pick to go with this essay is "Killer Cars" (Radiohead, 1995), which starts:

Too hard on the brakes again,

What if these brakes just give in?

What if they don't get out of the way?

What if there's someone overtaking?

What if I do something stupid with this very important man whom I greatly admire sitting next to me in the passenger seat? "Don't die on the motorway / The moon would freeze, the plants would die" says the song. I'm not a terrible driver, just an average one, and I've gotten much, much better after being in this job for the past two-and-a-half years, but each behind-the-wheel I do for work is still a harrowing adventure.

"However Measured or Far Away" takes its title from Henry David Thoreau's oft-quoted line in Walden that says, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." The essay is about my cousin Jennifer—who is one year older than me and who was like a sister to me growing up—deciding at age 29, after earning her PhD in engineering, that she was going to become a Roman Catholic nun. Her decision had nothing to do with me (duh), but it made me feel that I was losing her; it was like she was dying. She kept talking about all the things she wanted to do "for the last time" and I tried to help her do some of them. This essay should be accompanied by "The Ghost in You", but not the Psychedelic Furs version, even though it's awesome. The Counting Crows acoustic version that was featured in the movie Clueless in 1995 better captures how desperate and pleading her decision made me feel, even as I outwardly tried to be supportive: "Don't you go / It makes no sense!" But she went.

Finally, I'd include a hidden track for the essay that my editor (rightly, I think) encouraged me to cut: "Self-Portrait at 27," which was about a time when I felt miserable, purposeless, and out of place. I was having some much-maligned/oft-dismissed twentysomething "ennui," I suppose. The song I'll pick to go with that absent essay is "The Con" (Tegan and Sara, 2007), the title song from the album of the same name. When somebody asked her about the title in an interview, Tegan said, "Is this really all just a con? Having a career, buying a house, getting married—do any of these things really give us comfort?" In my essay, I basically answered that with, "Uh, no." But my editor pointed out that I might sound kind of whiny and adolescent, and that it might put people off. As this song says, "Nobody likes me, maybe, if I cry." But if you think you might like me, maybe, if I cry, you can always email me and I'll send you the essay just for kicks. Bonus track!

Kathleen Rooney and For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs links:

the author's website
the author's book tour events

Chasing Ray review
Examiner review
Publishers Weekly review
Washington Post review

The Collagist interview with the author
HTMLGIANT interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Live Nude Girl
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for oneiromance

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (a yearly reading project)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics & graphic novel highlights)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)

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