June 1, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Gretchen Marquette's impressive poetry collection May Day was called "lovely, dark, haunted, and haunting" by Publishers Weekly.
I wrote the bulk of my book, May Day, during a rough two years. My long term partner and I had gone our separate ways, my brother was deployed to Afghanistan, and my dog, the husky I'd had since she was six weeks old, was declining. My grief was disorienting, but I was also beginning to feel a new, deeper love for my friends and for my city. I was working as an adjunct at a handful of schools, so I was spending a lot of time in the car. A lot of my poems began somewhere on those stretches of highway while I listened to music, and cried, and thought things through. Each of these songs was heavy on my playlist during that time, though it's difficult to say exactly what they inspired. Instead of trying to do that, I've decided to write snapshots—this is what my life was like when I was writing my book, and these are the songs that I loved.
"Frankie's Gun" — Felice Brothers
I don't know that I'm writing a book yet. I'm just writing a lot of poems because my heart is broken. I'm also studying the work of Federico Garcia Lorca, and trying to figure out what, in the United States, our version of duende might look like. One of the places I've found it is in The Felice Brothers—a band from the Catskills that raises the hair on my arms.
One night, they come to town, and I head to the Triple Rock to see them. At the show, I feel lonesome and awful and thrilled, until a guy with long blonde hair and a white silk fedora shouts, in the emptiness between songs, "You used to be better!" The crowd becomes silent—some make a dangerous "Ooooh" noise. The guitarist, who is also the vocalist, and, unhappily, sick with pneumonia, moves to the edge of the stage and plays the next song, "Frankie's Gun," without taking his eyes off the guy in the hat. He doesn't sing. He just plays, and he glares. Halfway through the song, he drops the guitar and walks off stage. Moments later, as the band continues to play, someone walks up from behind and knocks the fedora off the man's head, messing up his blonde hair. He throws a punch and all of a sudden the whole room is fighting. The room is like a shallow pail of minnows, writhing; it's grotesque, and my heart is pounding. I move to the periphery of the room, and watch as the bouncers slowly empty the floor.
There are little puddles of blood everywhere. The band has stopped, and walked off stage, but I don't want to leave. As shaken as I am by the fight, I'm angry that I'm losing my chance to be with them—they never come to town, and their music helps me understand my grief. Their accordion player, a large, affable guy with a coarse beard, comes out to apologize to a girl holding an icepack to the back of her head—she was pushed backward in the fray—and standing there, he spots something strange. He makes his way over to one of the puddles of blood. "Yep," he yells, for the benefit of the few of us remaining in the bar. "We got a tooth here!"
I leave, out into the quiet night. A police car still sits, its lights perversely festive, like a circus. Behind me, a couple walks arm-in-arm to their car. "You're talking about guys who got their start busking in the New York City subway," she says. "He got off lucky. Those fuckers could shiv him in a parking lot and not look back."
"Lights Out, Words Gone" — Bombay Bicycle Club
The fall after graduate school, I start teaching composition. The day before classes start—and by extension, the whole of my teaching career—my boyfriend's twin brother comes over. They pack all of his things up into a pickup truck and drive away. I'm not in a great place that semester, but the classroom is an unexpected refuge. My students are all new freshmen—bright, funny, and engaged. I love them.
It's only October, but we've had an early storm. The bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul is particularly impassable. From parked car to smallest twig, the whole world is sealed in ice. The line of cars barely moves as each one takes its turn struggling up the icy incline on Marshall Ave. I watch the stoplight ahead turn green and red three times without moving ten feet.
It's going to take an hour to get to campus, and by that time, class will be half over. All I have is a dumb flip phone—I can't even send an email telling them I'm stuck. My students all live on campus, and are undoubtedly arriving in our classroom at that moment, but there is nothing I can do. I dig in my cup holder for the plastic dinosaur that found its way into my car earlier that summer, and set it on the dashboard, so that I can't see the time. The world around me is, actually, incredibly beautiful in the temporary way that characterizes ice storms. Autumn is over, and even though it's too soon for most of the world—many trees had leaves remaining—it was not too soon for me. Regardless of the calendar, this was the first day of winter, and the only thing to do was to pretend I was in a parade, celebrating it. We all inched along.
"Cream" — Prince
My friend Jamie has come to visit. She's moving overseas in a few weeks, and we won't see each other for a while, so we make it count. We have exactly 24 hours. We have Bloody Marys at Grumpy's, and go thrift shopping in Uptown. We both find denim jackets and pins shaped like strawberries. We head to the place in St. Paul where we used to hang out in graduate school—The Cheeky Monkey, and we drink white wine and talk about A Monster's Notes by Laurie Sheck and The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill. We talk about how we miss graduate school. We drive back to Minneapolis and change our clothes and go to Ice House, because there is a Tom Petty cover band playing that she wants to see, and I'm hoping to run into someone I have a crush on. We both drink too many vodka tonics and rely on Jamie's friend to drive us home. On the way, we stop for sandwiches from Caffrey's, sitting around the high top tables, listening to metal, and talking about the 80's. We like to reminisce. I have a studio apartment, so we share my bed. The next morning she has to leave so early that she doesn't wake me. Later, I know she's gone, but it feels like she's there; I'm unbearably sad. When I get into my car, it's silent; I forgot that she'd asked to keep the mixed CD we'd been listening to all day, and that I'd given it to her. Hey, she texts me a few days later, You're filthy cute and baby you know it.
"Feel Real" — Deptford Goth
For a long time, all I can listen to is classical music. Everything else has some sort of painful association attached to it. Eventually, I risk tuning in to Radio K, The U of M's campus station, because I'm less likely to hear something that I recognize. One day, mid-winter, 7am, they play a song—"Feel Real"—and I fall deeply in love with it. It becomes the first song, and first album that belongs to me after having my heart broken.
"Nocturne" — Wild Nothing
This coffee shop is the only place I feel calm; I come here almost every night. It feels like a living room—the lighting is perfect. Sometimes I sit at the bar near the register and talk with Jim. For a few months, he was "the new guy," the one who played oldies on the satellite radio, but we've become friends. I'm a really boring person at the moment; all I talk about is how sad I am, but he never changes the subject. Over the years we'll figure out that we have lots in common, especially in regards to how we make art, but when we first become friends, it's because he's kind. He makes caramel lattes with whole milk and serves them to me in pint glasses. I do the crossword, and eat oranges that I brought along with me, and drink hundreds of lattes. I have two albums that I can listen to — Deptford Goth's Life after Defo and Wild Nothing's Nocturne. Sometimes, I feel good enough that I can put my headphones in and write for hours. All of this is such an incredible relief.
"Counting" — Autre Ne Veut
It wasn't a winter of denying myself. The hard part was not wanting much of anything. One thing I want, infallibly, is to stop at the McDonald's on the corner right before I get to campus. Every morning I go through the drive through, a creature of habit among other similar creatures, to the extent that often, I see the same cars in line. I order my egg and cheese biscuit, and drive to the parking lot, giving the plastic slice of cheese time to "melt." Then I sit in the lot and eat my sandwich, waiting as long as I can to enter the building.
There is a song that I can't stop listening to—one that I didn't like at first, because I thought it was grating. But then I realize how much I wish that a poem could make the exact noise of this song. I become obsessed with this song. I play it on repeat, turned up loud, hoping that none of my students spots me. I have never felt more alone on the earth, but it occurs to me, suddenly one morning, in the middle of my "Counting" + Egg Biscuit ritual that someone else made the sandwich I'm eating. The fact that someone has cooked me breakfast is moving to me, and a little strange.
"Doses and Mimosas" — Cherub
There is one thing that makes me happy all winter and it's this song. I close all of the curtains in my second floor apartment, and put a chair in front of the swinging door that leads into the back half of the apartment (in case my new roommate comes home.) I put in my headphones, and I put on my heels, the tall, red velvet ones. I play this song on repeat, and dance on my hardwood floors, grateful that the people who live downstairs are friends of mine.
"Song for Zula" — Phosphorescent
Every day, I drive the same route home from St. Paul, the back way, down Fairview. I've been caring for a baby named Anna since she was ten days old, and now she is almost two. At the end of every day, I get in my car, and she watches from the porch, waiting for me to honk my horn twice. She understands "be careful" to mean, "slow down." She understands that if she whispers, urgently as I set her in her crib at naptime, "Sing… sing!" that I will pull her out and rock her, singing "Dancing in the Dark." Once, I test her, and find she's learned the words to this song. She understands that I will come back tomorrow, because I always honk the horn twice before I drive away. It's all part of the routine, just as, later, I dissolve the second I turn onto Fairview, sobbing unless I have to stop at a red light.
Today, as I'm driving, I'm listening to the song whose lyrics have been making it much worse for me lately, but also better somehow, as when I had an infection in my foot when I was little, and my mom held a too hot washcloth to the cut. I play the song again and again. I wonder if I'm a masochist. I saw love disfigure me into something I am not recognizing. This is the crux of my essential problem. I am unrecognizable to myself; my life has become unrecognizable. After thousands of days and nights beside a person I loved, I'm alone. My days with Anna are orderly, even pleasant. We build a zoo for her animals with wooden blocks. We turn on the radio and dance. I serve her lunch—plain yogurt with a teaspoon of maple syrup mixed in. I don't know what to do with myself though, once my day with Anna is over.
The speed limit on Fairview is 30mph, but nobody obeys it. As I speed toward home, beating red lights, I see that during the night, someone has managed to climb onto the ledge between the overpass and the train bridge, and has spray painted the word ACHE in three foot tall letters. Red letters. I'm so grateful for words, that someone has them, because often lately, I don't. A large pickup truck in the oncoming lane flashes its lights at me, twice, just before I head up the hill. Dimly, this registers in my head as being significant. Remembering at the last second what it means, I slow down in time to pass a cop running radar. I add to my list. I am grateful for words. I am grateful for the driver of the pickup. I am grateful for the person who risked it, and painted the appropriate word on the overpass.
"Simple Song" — The Shins
He says he doesn't know how I'll fit "The Atomic Collider" inside a poem, but all I need to do is talk about the indoor amusement park, my hips and knees pressed against his under the lap bar of the rollercoaster. All I need to say is suddenly even the false trees were lovely for no reason. A few nights later we drove down Summit Ave. The houses felt disapproving, their dark eyes covered in spectacles of cold glass. I snuck inside, carrying my shoes. I could have started by saying, Then my green dress bent itself over the arm of your couch. I could start with, Then I touched your hair.
"Dark Star" — Polica
Nikki is learning anatomy in her figure drawing class. I like sitting still. We spend hours in her sunny studio, talking, while she draws and paints. It's been over a year since I have really been seen by anyone. I am grateful that over the course of the fall semester she makes a record of my life. I've been scared recently, that I won't be able to hold on to it.
One painting takes several days to complete. It's November, but I am wearing only underwear and a cami, reclining on a futon. She puts space heaters around me, and Clementines within reach; she places a small TV in my eye line and turns on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When we're done, we walk to the Bad Waitress for chocolate chip pancakes and iced tea with maraschino cherries in it. Walking up Nicollet I have several bursts of joy that make me feel tethered to my body. Nikki always has paint on her face—it's the most endearing thing.
"Garbage on Glue" — The Blind Shake
All through the miserable spring, I tromp around the neighborhood with both dogs. One of them needs to be carried when her paws freeze in the sleet. The other, a husky, is perfectly happy, and in fact, wants to keep going, for blocks and blocks. I'm already afraid that this is the last spring of her life, so I try to humor her. Before we've reached the end of our street, dirt, oil, and grit from the old snow coats her belly. I'm carrying the other dog in my arms.
"Five Years Time" — Noah and the Whale
It's February. I'm visiting my sister and her family, and having a bad day. My four year old niece announces, "It's time to put on the happy song I found for Gretch." My sister catches my eye in the rearview mirror. This song is way too bright and chirpy; I want to throw myself from the vehicle. My niece is staring at me. She doesn't take her eyes off me the whole time it's playing, watching for it to take effect. It's a song about visiting the zoo—something she and I have done together many times. She is smiling. She really, really wants me to be happy.
"Lost it to Trying" — Son Lux
I'm scared of so many things. My dog, Sage, is having a bad time. She's limping up the stairs. I have to carry her; she's heavy. Today I turned around and Lucy was lying next to Sage on her dog bed. That's happened less than five times in a decade. I'm worried that Lucy knows something that I don't. I'm angry at myself. Last year, I laid in my bed every night, wanting to die. Sage wasn't hurting then, she was fine. I could have gone on a hundred walks with her, and now it's too late. She can't make it around the block. I missed it. I was prepared to leave her, but now I don't want her to go. I don't know why life is so hard, and I don't know what will happen when Sage dies. Where will I bury her? I can't think about it. I wish someone was here with me. I can't believe I'm alone during this part. I'm afraid that the grief and fear I lived through last year is just on the other side of where I'm sitting. I'm afraid that if I feel too much, I'll tear the vellum I've put in between this place and that.
"Champagne Coast" — Blood Orange
I see César at May Day Café. I see him unlocking his bike, and I'm in such a hurry to park and cross the street, that I leave my keys in the ignition and later, I can't find them. I don't know why I want to talk to him so much—I've only talked to him once before. But when he sees me crossing the street, he calls my name, and when I reach him, he hugs me, and while hugging me, he says, "Today, they have lentil soup." And I'm surprised by how good it feels for him to hold me like that for three seconds so I just say, "My favorite is carrot ginger." And he says, "That's everyone's favorite. But I just love lentils." The way he says it, it's almost like he said, "I just love kittens." It's started to snow—they've been warning us all day that a storm was coming. "You'd better go, so you can get home safe," I say, and he says, "I love riding my bike in the snow." I go inside and get my lentil soup, and sit facing the window so I can watch the snow falling. Home is just around the corner, so it doesn't matter how much snow falls.
"Winter '98" — Cymbals
Last winter, from a distance, I finally saw my home. I was in Santa Cruz with Ryan and Amanda, feet bare on a beach. I couldn't stop greeting every green thing. Back in Minneapolis, pavement was sealed under ice, streaked with salt in its clean places. Lately I'd been walking everywhere arm-in-arm with friends in case we slipped. When I left we'd been ten days into a cold snap that didn't let us rise above zero, but my favorite building in the skyline was a gold firework, frozen in place. In Santa Cruz, I watched kids running out of the ocean and into towels held open by their mothers. I saw for the first time that there were so many worlds, and all existed at once. On the beach, everyone stopped to point out the dead gull, its feathers worried by water into gray yarn, eye burst and disappeared. Everyone took care to avoid the abandoned sand castle, its turrets softened in the wind. Dead bird, people said, pointing. They guided left or right around the castle's dry moat.
"Thunder Clatter" — Wild Cub
My best friend Caitlin is making me a mixed CD—"a friendship mix." She's been talking about this so long that it's become a joke between us. "Finished with my CD yet?" I ask, and she says, "I'm still working on it." I have no idea what's taking her so long. I love her for many reasons, but this brand of quirkiness is one of the best.
Finally, one day, she tells me the CD is ready, and that she'll bring it over. We sit in my car, just outside my house, and listen to the CD. She has a stack of multi-colored construction paper squares on her lap. We listen to the song, and when we get to a lyric she feels is most pertinent, she hands me one of the squares with the lyric written on it. She does this for every song. One of the songs says, again and again, "You are the love of my life," and I think about how I used to say that about the person who broke my heart, but that it's also true that Caitlin is the love of my life. And that Sage is. And even the stranger at the grocery store who keeps me company waiting in a long line. Caitlin has chosen these songs carefully to show me that I'm loved because she knows that for a long time, I couldn't feel it. So many times in the last year I've called her, breathless, always apologizing that I'm still having a hard time. "Whatever you need, pal," she says. "Whatever you need."
"This Must Be the Place" — Talking Heads
I'd given up on all of it until he came to visit. Maybe it was the falling pressure signaling a storm, or the way all evening he'd comforted my old dog, who was afraid of the weather, but what I felt was tenderness. I felt so lucky to have someone else there who remembered her, young and slender, disappearing into buckthorn in the bluffs of La Crosse. The next day we went underground, into a system of caves. The rock damp smell and sifting sand made my heart fast in my wrists—he turned out our head lamps and I saw nothing at all—anti—marvel—and heard nothing but both of us slightly breathless. When he kissed me I stopped testing the depth of water in flooded chambers and just wondered instead if pleasure ever stopped to watch what it does to our skin. Later, above ground in heat and light, we sat next to a river the color of a beer bottle. I asked if he knew the word for the small flowers growing on the bank because I only knew them as Love-in-Idleness and he said, I'm not sure but I think that's exactly what I am.
"Lost Souls/Eelings" — TR/ST
The lake in the park beside my house is a half mile around. In June everything is growing so fast I swear I can almost feel it, like a humming, and on sunny days, the green is psychedelic. Geese watch over their goslings, hissing at anyone who comes too close, and blue herons, my childhood favorite, fly over, graceful and ungainly at the same time. Beside the path at the south end of the park, a cat is rolling around the grass purring. This cat is always here in the summer months, waiting to be touched behind the ears. Around her neck she wears a collar and a shiny tag that says only, "I'm Fine." I walk around the lake so many times that I don't try to count. I keep my headphones in and walk until I'm thirsty, and then I go home and get the dogs. We take a blanket into the park and I bring my notebook. We sit under the cottonwood tree, and from this vantage point, the island in the center of the lake looks like an impressionist painting.
Gretchen Marquette and May Day links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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