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July 13, 2016

Book Notes - Michael Homolka "Antiquity"

Antiquity

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

Michael Homolka's debut poetry collection Antiquity is innovative and powerful as it brings the ancient and modern worlds together.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Homolka's alluring debut seamlessly tiles scenes of past and present to create a mosaic that is constantly conscious of the inescapability of time...…. Aware that he is presenting perennial human questions in new imagery, Homolka lets his metaphors do the work so that the craft, not cleverness, shines through."


In his own words, here is Michael Homolka's Book Notes music playlist for his poetry collection Antiquity:


The poems in this collection stage meeting grounds for the irreconcilable. Aryans and Jews find themselves face-to-face in a common afterlife. Heroes of ancient Greece and Rome puzzle over American values. The Black Death reprises itself, this time to victims already aware of the historical significance. Antiquity churns to confusion the events, technologies, and beliefs of eras, isolating essential human qualities that do not change with time.



"Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta" – Bartók

Nothing says disillusionment, disorientation, and despair like Bartók's strings. "Goshen," the sequence that opens the collection, is set in a theoretical afterlife in which Jewish victims and Aryan aggressors must reconcile. The prospects are dim and weird, and a certain amount of disconcerting titillation takes place. "Music for Strings, Percussion & Celeste" would provide the accompaniment to this sequence as well as to the collection as a whole.


"Pennyroyal Tea" – Nirvana

I listened to a lot of Nirvana in high school. "Ode on Quote How to Live," the poem that immediately follows the opening sequence, probably stems from a high-school era cynicism. Feelings of general suckyness come on utterly unfiltered during that time—I don't think I've ever dwelled in them as purely or obligingly since. Few bands I can think of take on feelings of general suckyness as well as Nirvana. This track, for me, captures it best.


"Go West" – Pet Shop Boys

I love ancient Roman poets—Catullus, Horace, Martial, and Juvenal in particular. They neither denied themselves despair nor lay victim to it. They leveled insults at lovers and politicians from which there was no getting up. The first few poems in Section 2 of Antiquity operate along similar lines of viciousness and vulnerability; however, they also attempt to highlight incompatibilities between that ancient mode of hostile direct address and today's less declarative and more self-questioning aesthetics. Why "Go West" for poems that model themselves after the voices of antiquity? I don't know, but it just seems to fit. It's bouncy and festive, but the lyrics point to the futility of trying to start anew. Out West where life is peaceful, skies are blue, and there is sun in wintertime? No—we all know it's Grapes of Wrath, perpetual drought, Schwartzenegger as ex-governor, and one of the most ineffectual public education systems in the country. Shame on everyone, as the Romans poets might say, but we can still bob our heads to a nice beat.


"I'm Leaving You Because I Don't Love You" – Jens Lekman

The refrain of this song is so depressingly direct it's hard not to laugh. The uptempo piano and synth play against the awfulness of the admission with a kind of sensual, celebratory quality. Many of the middle and later poems of Section 2 likewise try to push the limits of plainspokenness with a tone that undercuts. I think the effect is related to the boingy, underwatery nostalgia found in this song.


"Estampes; Pagodes" – Debussy

I don't know how often the time signature changes in this piano piece, but it must be a lot. It's a short work, and feels emblematic of Impressionism, but with maybe more disorientation and uncertainty than I'm imagining was typical. The poem that closes Section 2 is titled "Unjustified Mood on a Monday Evening" and has nods to Napoleon and Monet. I think the poem is lighter-hearted than most of the other poems, and also perhaps performs the act of never quite settling on its direction. More than most composers, I'm never ultimately able to put my finger on what Debussy is getting at. I like this feeling of being left with tones and sensations and everything up in the air.


"Cult of Personality" – Living Colour

Section 3 of Antiquity begins with the poem "Ruins," which traces an encounter between an anonymous contemporary male and the Roman god Jupiter. The god is relaxing by some pillar fragments from one of his ruined temples and figuring out what to do. The unnamed man is trying to ascertain whether or not, after the passing of so much history, he still falls under Jupiter's spiritual jurisdiction. He has trouble getting the god's attention since the god is listening to music on his headphones. The song Jupiter is listening to, despite the serenity of the seaside breeze that blows through the quiet scene, has to be "Cult of Personality." It's just about raucous enough.


"I Get Nervous" – Lower Dens

This song feels like a strange overlap between wanting to start over and wanting to take stock. I think of the track as playing in conjunction with "Modern Sensibility," which explores a related ambivalence, though more from the standpoint of poets and aesthetics. The music is mostly instrumental; the poem comes close to something like a mood without words.


"Let Me Walk, Lord, by Your Side" – The Stanley Brothers

"East" is set during a disastrous flood somewhere in late nineteenth century small-town USA. People's lives and property are getting rapidly destroyed as the poem begins, and they wonder what this might be saying about their relationship to God. The mandolins and vocal harmonies of the Stanley Brothers connote an era of late frontier America and the still robust desire to walk with the Lord in the midst of adversity.


"Bottle Up and Go" – Lead Belly

Toward the middle of "East," people are swept away involuntarily but also do their fair share of abandoning others. The urgent, almost hectic, feel of Lead Belly's voice matches the poem's flurries of split-second decisions with lasting consequences.


"White Dove" – The Stanley Brothers

"East" concludes with somber assessment, and looks ahead to what will likely be a long emotional aftermath. The refrain of the Stanley Brothers' song—"I live my life in sorrow / since mother and daddy are dead"—speaks well to the sentiment at the end of the poem. I think this song would be playing somewhere after the town had been razed and regressed once again to prairie.


"Milo Hayward" – Jeremy Pelt

It's difficult at times to predict whether this track is stopping or starting. Piano chords slash at the air; trumpet and sax struggle at (but also comment from) the surface. The later poems in Section 3 deal with lack of certainty in a more choppy and obtrusive way than some of the collection's earlier softer edges. I think three poems in particular—"Transients," "History Moves in Waves," and "A History of Art,"—also move in stops and starts. Restlessness, some levity, transience as a kind of grating given.


"Sister Europe" – Psychedelic Furs

The track "Sister Europe" feels unsettlingly prescient with its flangey swooshes and chorusy guitar riff. Resignation permeates vocals and instruments alike. "Sister of mine. Home again." I can't quite believe the same sister is returning to the same home as before, nor do I think I'm expected to. "Emanation," the collection's final sequence, is set during one of outbreaks the Black Plague among victims who have already been made aware of the outcome. A lot of Antiquity centers on latter-day attempts—both personal and more general—to return to life exactly as it was in the past, the impossibility of ever doing so, and the counter-impossibility of ever moving on.


Michael Homolka and Antiquity links:

Library Journal review
Publishers Weekly review

The Southeast Review interview with the author


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