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February 3, 2016

Book Notes - Paula Bohince "Swallows and Waves"

Swallows and Waves

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.

Paula Bohince's Swallows and Waves is a collection of 60 poems inspired by Japanese Edo-era woodcuts and scroll paintings.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"This collection of evocative poems brings to life a world long gone but resonant with our own. Each finely wrought poem reveals hidden depths upon rereading."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Paula Bohince's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Swallows and Waves:


Swallows and Waves is comprised of sixty poems, each inspired by a different artwork from Japan's Edo period (1603-1868). The poems depict scenes from nature (birds, animals, flowers) and also human relationships (between friends, lovers, parents and children). Part of the enjoyment in writing the poems came from trying to render these scenes, while allowing room for interpretations and metaphysical questions.

In the poems, everything in nature has a consciousness, a will, conflicts, and desires. It was wonderful to imagine, for instance, a crane as an empress, with dominion over a snowy landscape, or the moon and grass providing parental love to a pair of rabbits, or the thoughts of a young samurai on his horse, ready to depart for war.

When I write poems, I often listen to one song on repeat for hours, to create a mood and white noise. The song, then, can't be too dynamic or it will break the reverie. With this playlist, I paired songs with specific poems in the book, to shade and compliment the reading. The titles of the poems are the same as their inspirational artworks.

"Every Time We Say Goodbye" by Chet Baker: accompanies "Lover Taking Leave of a Courtesan"
How poignant and true are the lyrics "how strange the change from major to minor" to capture that transition of being with to being without? It's poetry. The Baker version is wordless, only a soft, sad trumpet with piano. This parallels the actions of the lovers in the poem, wordlessly rising at dawn, preparing to separate. He dresses slowly, to show reluctance. She grasps his clothing lightly, to indicate her pleasure and loyalty. Even though, from the title, one might think the relationship is merely transactional, both the artist and I hold onto the idea of more. "When you're near, there's such an air of Spring about it. I can hear the lark somewhere begin to sing about it." I love these lyrics, particularly imagining a goodbye in the morning.

"So Lonesome I Could Cry" by Hank Williams: accompanies "Hibiscus and Korean Nightingale"
The song begins "Hear that lonesome whip-poor-will. He sounds too blue to fly." The pun with blue is so simple and pure in the context of imagining a bird. My poem envisions a long night in which the nightingale has sung for a mate, unsuccessfully, and now is exhausted and alone with himself at dawn. The song also asks, "Did you ever see a robin weep…" I love that there are two bereft birds to accompany the one in the poem. What we often think of the romance of the night (stars, blackness, privacy, sex) is undercut with the glare of day and its loneliness.

"I've Been Loving You Too Long" by Otis Redding: accompanies "Peacock"
Oh, the world-weary, genius, pleading voice of Otis Redding. The tension of this song, to convince a cooled lover not to leave, to try to revive that love, to express such vulnerability with the line "With you, my life has been so wonderful, I don't want to stop now." As the horns come in and climb, the urgency in the voice matches the intensity. In my poem, the peacock is perched on a rock, tail down behind him like a king's robe, gazing in the direction of what I imagine is the absent peahen, who has either left or died. His grief is royal, just like his cascade of feathers without cause to flourish anymore.

"Where Is My Love" by Cat Power: accompanies "The Love Letter"
I love Marshall's raspy, haunted voice and the languidness of the lyrics "Horses galloping, bring him to me." It's the kind of dreamlike utterance one would feel in reading a letter, half in the room, half in a fantasy. How moving the repetition of "Where is my love" with the emphasis on different words as the question is repeated, as if to produce a different result. In my poem, a mother and daughter are leaning against each other, holding a love letter (for whom it's not clear), sharing a faraway look of poignant longing. I liked imagining the sensual confusion of having the lover's words, the ink, but not his body. And in Edo-period Japan, the lover would indeed return by a galloping horse.

"Sailing" by Rod Stewart: accompanies "Descending Geese at Katada"
Imagining sailors or fisherman coming into harbor at the end of day has always been so affecting to me. Stewart's almost salt-roughed voice seems exhausted and ready for home. How beautiful the simple lyrics "Like a bird, across the sky. Passing high clouds…" My poem begins with geese flying as from a sunset, over mountain-shaded sea, and then turns its gaze to the fisherman coming through the shallow reeds to their homes. One of the most breathtaking moments in the song is that long pause after dying in "I am dying, forever crying, to be with you," imbued with yearning and grief. The choir that comes in feels like all of the boats in my poem, the men with their own separate loves and griefs, coming together.

"Sacrifice" by Sinead O'Connor: accompanies "Woman Tearing a Love Letter"
This version is one of my favorite songs of all time, for O'Connor's clear and powerful yet vulnerable voice, the protestation of the lyrics, the whispered "I gave my heart" at the end. And the artwork on which this poem is based is one of my favorites from this era. In it, a woman is standing outside of her house, with bits of the letter already fallen at her feet, and it seems to me such a determined, almost self-punishing act, with the letter (its recollections and promises) destroyed, so there can be no more fantasies. I imagine, in the poem, even the outside world of neglected flowers suddenly appears to this woman anew.

"Walking to You" by Everything But the Girl: accompanies "Lovers in the Snow"
I love that this song has both a male and female voice, going over their shared past, singing alone and in duet, and how the moments described don't take place in bed but rather walking around together. The intimacy of these day-lit moments, and how the song is filled with unanswered questions, feels true. The softness and repetition of the song felt somehow "snowy" to me. In my poem, a couple in close up (him in black, her in white) is simply walking in the snow, and it felt completely erotic: their closeness against the white, bed-like snow, the canopy of snow-heavy pines. I write that they couldn't be closer, even if the underfoot snow was a mattress, a sentiment which seems reinforced by this song.

"Sign Your Name" by Terence Trent D'Arby: accompanies "Peach Blossom Spring"
The groove of this song feels like quickening heartbeats, and I love the lyrics "We started out as friends, but the thought of you just caves me in." The poem depicts Spring bringing everything to life, and I couldn't help but imagine a long Winter preceding it, the snow-bound friends huddled inside, men and women, talking and talking endlessly, until there are no more words, and then stepping, finally, like blossoms, out of their snowy clothes, being seen with new eyes. One season tips into another, and friendship ignites into passion.

"Feeling Good" by Nina Simone: accompanies "Bullfinch on a Branch of Weeping Cherry"
"Birds flying high you know how I feel. Sun in the sky you know how I feel…It's a new dawn, it's a new day…" What an absolutely triumphant song. My poem takes place at dawn, with a bullfinch on a branch, and I imagined that bird as a young man, returned from the comfort of a courtesan, having made love all night, feeling confident, satisfied, changed, looking out at the blue dawn, with no need for song. I adore this version for Simone's astonishing, joyful runs at the end that seem to mimic birdsong. The lyrics look at nature (a dragonfly, the scent of the pines) to then say to it "You know how I feel." This song, more than any other, comes closest to encapsulating all that I tried to do with the poems in Swallows and Waves.


Paula Bohince and Swallows and Waves links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Publishers Weekly review

Bucknell University 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

Online "Best of 2015" Book Lists

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)
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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