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October 25, 2012

Book Notes - Kathleen Rooney "Robinson Alone"

Robinson Alone

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Kathleen Rooney's Robinson Alone is a vividly realized novel-in-poems based on the life and work of poet Weldon Kees and the alter ego featured in many of his poems, Robinson.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Rooney’s syncopated wordplay, supple musicality, and cinematic descriptions subtly embody Kees’ artistic pursuits as well as Robinson’s sardonic grace under pressure. An intricate, psychologically luminous homage, tale of American loneliness, and enthralling testament to poetry’s resonance."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Kathleen Rooney's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Robinson Alone:

Although I realize I was haunting myself with an imagined ghost, as I was writing Robinson Alone, based on the life and work of Weldon Kees (1914-1955?) and his alter ego Robinson, it felt like I was having a conversation with the absent poet. In keeping with that feeling, and with the overall allusive and appropriative spirit of the book, this playlist contains a fair number of covers and tributes.

Thus, to open, an homage: "Alex Chilton" by The Replacements, 1987. This song captures the exuberant-yet-mysterious feeling of loving a cult figure with a small and passionate group of fans who are both baffled and gratified by the ongoing obscurity of the object of their affection. It gets at that sense of discovery where even though you know a thing has been experienced and will continue to be experienced by countless others, it is somehow not for everyone and also just for you: "I'm in love. / What's that song?"

On the same album, Pleased to Meet Me, they had Chilton himself as a guest musician on the song "Can't Hardly Wait." I couldn't invite Kees to collaborate, per se, but I do incorporate lines from his own letters, reviews, essays and poems, so that's almost like a guest spot.

Next, not an artistic love song, but a love song-love song: "Daniel" by Bat for Lashes, 2009, which exemplifies falling in love with someone because you grok them so much that they feel like "home" to you.

I love Kees not merely in a detached New Critical way, for his work on the page, but in an engaged New Historical way—for his Nebraskan background, his world view, his personality, his wit and his impeccable style as a thinker and dresser.

To his credit—and arguably to his detriment—Kees was not only a poet but a short story writer, a novelist, a painter, a photographer, a filmmaker and a singer-songwriter. He was gifted at just about every artistic pursuit he undertook, but he was so hyphenate that he suffered from what might today be called issues with his personal brand: people had a tough time keeping track of his various projects.

His posthumously-released album Holiday Rag consists of 17 blues, stride, and ragtime songs on which he collaborated with jazz musician Bob Helm in private sessions in San Francisco between about 1951 and 1954. Released in 1998 in a limited run, the album's liner notes say, "By current standards for new CDs, occasional parts are below par…the original tapes were paper and their hissing surface cannot be further improved." The apology isn't really necessary, because the tracks don't need improvement, and their improvisational sound—laughter and voices in the background, mispositioned microphones—makes them both near and distant, securely in the past and still alive. The next track on this playlist, "Daybreak Blues" features Kees singing and playing the piano and Helm playing the clarinet, and the funny-sad lyrics are about the disappearance of a lover, a separation that may be temporary but could just as well be permanent: "There'll be no sun in the sky. / You took your suit and shoes / And left me with those daybreak blues. / […] Staring at the sidewalk below, / down where a lot of folks go / for that's one way to lose / these awful daybreak blues…"

Kees' poems are masterful in their use of concrete detail to evoke a particular time and place. One of the best is "1926" which describes his tiny hometown of Beatrice, Nebraska when he was 12 years old, the first stanza of which goes:

The porchlight coming on again,

Early November, the dead leaves

Raked in piles, the wicker swing

Creaking. Across the lots

A phonograph is playing Ja-Da.

So "Ja-Da" by Bob Carleton, 1918 is the next track, not just for how it's mentioned in the poem, but also for its lightness and whimsy, both of which were qualities that Kees—serious as he often was—possessed:

Ja Da, Ja Da, Ja Da Ja Da, Jing Jing Jing
That's a funny little bit of melody
It's so soothing and appealing to me
It goes Ja Da, Ja Da, Ja Da Ja Da, Jing Jing Jing!

The next logical track is "Psoriatic" by Scott Walker, from his 2006 album The Drift, for its modernist appropriation of "Ja-Da" for an effect that is anxious and alienating, which Kees' work also is. "1926" takes a grim turn in its second stanza:

An orange moon. I see the lives

Of neighbors, mapped and marred

Like all the wars ahead, and R.

Insane, B. with his throat cut,

Fifteen years from now, in Omaha.

And Walker's song resets the jazz standard in a menacing atmosphere:

Ja-da ja-da
ja-da ja-da
jing jing

Wrapped in blankets

then in blankets

Hear the germs
pinging on
the night wind

Cross the west
coast to the
west coast to
the west coast

The angelus

Because the artist is an alter ego representing a high degree of self-awareness and artifice, as well as an obsession with and an attraction toward death, Lana del Rey's "Born to Die," 2012 is the next track. Kees invented his own persona, Robinson—not unlike Berryman's "Henry," begun ten years later—as a quasi-alter ego who appears in four poems. Robinson is a sophisticated and world-weary cosmopolitan man

in Glen plaid jacket, Scotch-grain shoes,
Black four-in-hand and oxford button-down,
The jeweled and silent watch that winds itself, the brief-
Case, covert topcoat, clothes for spring all covering
His sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf.

Next up is "Down to Zero" by Joan Armatrading, 1976 as performed by Bettye LaVette, 2005.
Falling—failing—was an unceasing source of anxiety for Kees, who spent his life working on projects with which he never felt quite satisfied, and which never quite got the recognition that he felt they deserved. As I researched his life, it seemed like he also suffered from an absence of people who could try to support him when he felt himself failing. The lyric "When you fall, fall at my door" makes me think of that lack. Also, both versions of the song, the cover and the original, are powerful, which I tried to make the case in my interpretation of Kees' life and work in Robinson Alone.

Speaking of loneliness, "The Blue Room," written by Rodgers and Hart, 1926, performed a cappella by Chet Baker, 1953 comes next. It's an ostensibly happy song—a love song—but the specificity of the happiness somehow makes it heartbreaking, especially this part:

We will thrive on,
Keep alive on,
Just nothing but kisses,
With Mister and Missus
On little blue chairs.
You sew your trousseau,
And Robinson Crusoe
Is not so far from worldly cares
As our blue room far away upstairs.

Kees named his own Robinson after Crusoe as an acknowledgement of the isolation of modern urban American life in the 1940s and 50s. Baker recorded this version at the end of a session during which he'd been recording with a full orchestra, and the eerie man-alone-in-a-room quality of his interpretation is melancholy without being purely sentimental.

The penultimate track is "The Sinking of the Titanic" by Gavin Bryars, 1969–, performed by Bryars, Phlip Jeck, and Alter Ego, 2005. The biggest mystery about Kees' life is how and when it ended. His purported death date gets followed by a question mark because he'd been talking about either running away to start a new life in Mexico or committing suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. It seems most likely that he chose the latter option. Either way, a lot of his work possesses a drowning quality—a horrified man struggling to keep his head above water. The tragic (yet heroic) and watery subject matter of Bryars' piece seems appropriate in that regard, as does the fact that it is indeterminist and Kees' life is indeterminate. On this 2005 recording, the ghostly crackle of Philip Jeck's distressed vinyl recalls the pop and hiss of the Kees/Helm recording mentioned above, and generally evokes traces left by those who have vanished.

The list concludes with "Here and Now" by John Foxx and Harold Budd, 2003. The haunting piano melody is reminiscent of Kees, himself a piano player, and the song overall feels as though it's reaching and reaching without ever resolving—not frantically, but more like a lullaby. The Wikipedia page for Harold Budd lacks a citation for the following "fact" but states that Budd was "raised in the Mohave Desert, and was inspired at an early age by the humming tone caused by wind blown across telephone wires." That desolate and creepy and beautiful aural image is so wonderful that I want it to be true. Either way, that idea and this song seem like a fitting end for a mix inspired by Kees.

Kathleen Rooney and Robinson Alone links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book (the author reading "Robinson's Hometown")
excerpt from the book ("Robinson's Friends Have Come Over for His 41st Birthday")
excerpt from the book ("Robinson's Hometown" and "Robinson Walks Museum Mile")
video trailer for the book

The Rumpus review

HTMLGIANT interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Live Nude Girl
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Oneiromance
Necessary Fiction essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
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weekly music & DVD release lists

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