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May 28, 2015

Book Notes - Kathleen Ossip "The Do-Over"

The Do-Over

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, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Kathleen Ossip's The Do-Over is a stunning poetry collection, a powerful and unforgettable elegy for the poet's mother-in-law.

The Paris Review wrote of the book:

"Unassuming and masterfully crafted, Ossip's poetry is sneaky, very often disguising itself as easy and surprising you the moment you let your guard down. . . . The Do-Over is a kind of elegy to contemporary culture: it critiques modern life while basking in its ever-younger, glitzier rabble."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Kathleen Ossip's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection The Do-Over:

I'm a lover of music but I'm not someone who needs music budded into her head to accompany every activity. I like silence too, and talk. As a poet, I find words indispensable. So I should say, I'm a lover of songs, of the corner of Music and Lyrics, the compression of them into both sense and pleasure. Specifically, I'm a lover of pop (and not only in songs, but in film too, and fiction) but only pop that transcends: When a song is both immediately accessible and deeply pleasurable and immeasurably profound, I experience true aesthetic magic. There are a lot of songs sprinkled throughout The Do-Over, overtly and covertly (the list in a minute), but first, there's a particular collection of pop songs that, in a weird way, inspired the shape and spirit of the book.

That would be Tusk, Fleetwood Mac's greatest album and, as my all-time favorite album, music that has become part of my nervous system. When I started writing the poems in the The Do-Over I didn't know much about where I was going with them, but I did know that I wanted The Do-Over, a book about death, to have the formal range and varied textures of Tusk. Singleminded in my exploration of that one grand theme, I wanted a variousness of approach, outlook, form, one way to get at the unfathomable complexity of experience. Similarly Tusk applies itself to its one grand theme (heterosexual bliss, heartache, and rage) with all the multiplicity its three singer-songwriters had in them. You never know what you're going to hear next, except that you know it'll have the shimmer of craft, of its having been thought through in some careful way, and you know that each song will sound intensely like itself. I wanted to create a similar sense of texture for the readers making their way through my book. A sampling of the range (and my favorites for each of the writers):

Lindsey Buckingham's "The Ledge"
Stevie Nick's "Beautiful Child"
Christine McVie's "Never Forget"
(the perfect final song)

Famously, Tusk was producer Lindsey Buckingham's deliberate 180 away from the smooth pop splendor of Rumours, the band's previous mega-success. There's a stripped-down weird artlessness to the production (though the playing and singing remains as artful as ever) that I like to think is also reflected in the blunt, strange, naive voice I tried to evoke in much of The Do-Over.

Now for some individual poem-song pairings:

Poem: "Tool Moan"
Song: Jimi Hendrix, "Voodoo Child"

Jimi Hendrix was a fantastic poet; my favorite of his couplets is "You can hear happiness STAGGERING on down the street
/ Footprints dressed in red," which is from "The Wind Cried Mary." But in this poem, the speaker (me) sits at an outdoor table at an Irish pub, hearing in the distance a funk cover band play "Voodoo Child" while, on the pub's patio, an accordion player attempts to compete with the noise, an epic battle of the derivative versus the authentic. I won't spoil the punchline, which explains the poem's title.

Poem: "Lyric"
Song: Robert Johnson, "Stones in My Passway"

"Lyric" is a longish poem written from the state of mind I found myself in when my beloved stepmother-in-law was dying. (Called A., her story forms the spine of The Do-Over.) I saw death everywhere, in history, in the most mundane of daily activities, in the present political atmosphere. The voice of the poem is anguished, fragmented, histrionic. Two of the three sections end in a three-line blues stanza, in which the speaker (me) voices the deluded fantasy that comes out of her death-drenched despair:

There's a crazy bright object stapled to the Western sky
There's a crown of fire bragging in the Western sky
I'll brag right along with it I am never gonna die

"Stones in My Passway" is a brilliant blues song that uses this traditional stanza, recorded by Johnson in 1936 but so elemental it might as well be prehistoric. It's insanely dark; even the singer's (sexual) body turns against him. A true bookworm, I first encountered this song when I stumbled across Greil Marcus's Mystery Train in my public library when I was in high school. Mystery Train contains a long essay on Robert Johnson's short life and indispensable work, including a detailed analysis of "Stones in My Passway." The argument it seemed to make was: If you want to feel what it is to be American, you need to live with and internalize Johnson's songs. I always (I'm tempted to qualify it with "almost always" but no, always) want to feel deeply American in my poems. This poem includes the quintessential U.S. road trip to the Grand Canyon. As a kid, my immigrant ancestry was very present to me, in the dueling ethnicities of my mother's and father's families (Irish/Italian); harder to come by was a true sense of being American, a longed-for connection with, say, the folk songs ("Polly Wolly Doodle," "Bluetail Fly") in my elementary school textbook. Greil Marcus showed me the way to that connection; Robert Johnson makes the dark end of the way visceral. "Lyric" was written mindful of that same sense of the body's tragic limitations and the same root-deep connection to the U.S. soil.

Poem: "How can we know the journey from the path?"
Song: Bob Dylan, "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

For a while, the British poet Roddy Lumsden enjoyed setting up poetry readings that centered on a single iconic song. When he came to New York in 2009, he invited a bunch of local poets to write poems based on lines in "Subterranean Homesick Blues." He assigned me the lines "Keep a clean nose / Watch the plain clothes," which happen just before the celebrated "You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows." Like the song, my poem questions the intentions of "institutions of power" and looks for a place of freedom (of body, of imagination) in a death-ridden culture. The poem was composed while I was listening to the song.

Poem: "Amy Winehouse"
Song: Amy Winehouse, "Rehab"

Poem: Donna Summer
Song: Donna Summer, "I Feel Love"

The Do-Over includes five elegies for famous people who died while the book was being written. "Amy Winehouse" and "Donna Summer" bookend the sequence. Fittingly, the "Amy Winehouse" poem focuses on the formality of her persona and of her craving for escape via substance abuse, so "Rehab" is the appropriate soundtrack. The "Donna Summer" poem is more celebratory, although her death was also untimely, and "I Feel Love," her groundbreaking collaboration with Giorgio Moroder (the first time Brian Eno heard it he said "I have heard the sound of the future"), is called out in several lines of the poem, including the first: "Discourse that night concerned the warm-blooded love we felt."

Poem: "Three True Stories"
Song: Madonna, "Give Me All Your Luvin'"

"Three True Stories" is exactly that, actual things that actually happened to me and other actual people. The third true story happened in the aftermath of the 2012 Superbowl. Madonna put on the halftime show, with the help of a bunch of guest superstars, including a medley of her hits and the premiere of her new offering, "Give Me All Your Luvin'." As many unlikely things tend to do in our house, this song led to an existential dinnertime conversation. You wouldn't think that we could wring death out of this supremely lightweight pop song (and selfie-paean to the life force personified, Madonna) but we did, with my teenage daughter getting the last, knell-like word.

Poem: "What is Death"
Song: John Lennon, "Imagine"

The Do-Over follows the process of A.'s dying and its aftermath; "What is Death" is the poem where the story of her death is told, where she, as a living person, leaves the book. It's a long poem, with many repeated lines and images, one of which is "Above us only sky," from "Imagine." John Lennon was cremated in Hartsdale, NY, where A. lived and died. The first occurrence of the line informs readers of that fact and expresses shocked outrage about the impossibility of life after death:

John Lennon was cremated there.
What??!! Above us only sky?

After that, the line recurs, as the speaker (me) tries and rejects various ways of understanding what happens when someone you love is, abruptly, no more.

Above us only sky.
We don't have the tools, yet, to prove

much of anything. I believe in cosmic energy, spirit
heading to reunite with the source while our

bodies burn to ash or decompose. She would say:
Enjoy life on earth because this is all there is

Story: "After"
Song: Prince, "Kiss"

I knew that I'd have to grapple with the afterlife in this book about death, but for a long time I couldn't figure out how. My dilemma was that I wanted to make the extremely nebulous possibility of an afterlife feel real in the world of the book, something that didn't seem to happen with my attempts at poems on the subject, which no matter how I tried felt tentative and speculative. What finally emerged was the short story "After," where a somewhat clueless woman visits her dead ancestors at night (through the portal of her boyfriend's bathroom mirror) while she struggles with career woes by day. Though she ultimately ends up losing everything, for a while her relationship is happy enough, and "Kiss" serves as the couple's seduction song.

Poem: "The Arrival of Spring"
Music: Mozart, String Quartet No. 14 in G major, K. 387 "Spring" - I. Allegro vivace assai

After death, we hope for rebirth, and as survivors we usually find some metaphorical way to achieve it. In the last section of my book, after A.'s death, I include poems about how we grope our way toward those moments of grace. Spring is a rebirth available to everyone, every year. This poem was inspired by my favorite painting, Botticelli's Primavera. It depicts the moment at which spring blooms, with Venus presiding over all in the center, the Three Graces dancing on her right, Mercury stirring up the clouds with a wooden rod to let the sun shine through, Zephyr and Chloris enacting the allegory of winter-into-spring, blindfolded Cupid hovering. I always think it looks like a charming 15th-century cocktail party with the guests in classical costume. The poem ends:

Below the canopy,

all is explained,
and explained.

This pleasant and necessary delusion happens to all of us occasionally and is perhaps most pleasant and necessary after a great loss. Mozart seems the obvious choice for a soundtrack.

Kathleen Ossip and The Do-Over links:

the author's website

Brooklyn Rail review
New York Times review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review
Slate review

Huffington Post interview with the author
Tin House interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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