August 16, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Angela Palm's Riverine is lyrical, surprising, and evocative, and one of the year's most powerful memoirs.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Densely symbolic, unsentimental, and eloquent, Palm's book explores the connections between yearning, desire, and homecoming with subtlety and lucidity. The result is a narrative that maps the complex relationships that exist between individual identity and place. An intelligent, evocative, and richly textured memoir."
I listen to music before and after writing, but not during. It helps to recreate the mood of a piece, to bring me backwards in time, to bring me through a flickering access point to a now-distant place. Music pulls our lived lives, even the forgotten segments, to the surface. In writing Riverine, music shook loose many memories that became reconstructed scenes, or sentiments stitched beneath facts. Below are some particularly influential songs.
"Soldier, Soldier, Won't You Marry Me?" by John Langstaff and Mary Woodbridge
The book opens in a map. Specifically, in swampy, rural Indiana, southeast of Chicago. I grew up in a small riverside community, in a bog that wasn't really part of any town, and I had a hard time understanding what that meant. Obfuscating that further, our neighbors were Revolutionary War reenactors—representing Native American involvement in the war. We lived on old Potawatomi land which had been taken by new Americans at the turn of the eighteenth century and drained to be made into today's farmland. I was acutely aware, even as a child, of a confused history of land and people, of our living on abused and stolen land. These neighbors taught us to make jewelry and artifacts from animal hides, how to forge metal into knives, how to shoot a bow, how to identify useful and poisonous foliage, and so forth. We would gather together around a fire and sing old war songs accompanied by fiddles, banjos, and washboards, but they were the songs of British soldiers and Irish seamen.
An excerpt from the song "Soldier, Soldier, Won't You Marry Me?" appears in the opening essay and to my mind is a soundtrack to the beginnings of a female identity that would take me twenty years to shed and reconstruct. I would sing it as I re-blazed trails in the swamp of our back yard, collecting old Potawatomi arrowheads and river clam shells.
"Standin' on the Porch" by Joe Firstman
"Standin' on the Porch" describes a man perched on his stoop "with a gun in his hand just because he can" and is underscored by a stalking guitar melody that sounds like a burgeoning threat. This was a familiar scene, a familiar mood in my neighborhood, that is evoked in at least three essays in the first half of Riverine. Men with guns in bars, men with guns on their porches as the river floods, men near to bursting with violence. Thinking back to how many firearms and other weaponry existed on our dead-end street frightens me now. But guns are no match for nature. Water will rise, tornadoes will flatten.
"I'm Only Sleeping" by The Beatles
The essay, "This Movable State," describes my mental escape from home through meditation. It's the first way I am able to leave, while sitting still and watching my real world go by outside my window. The Indian influence of the sitar makes its subtle introduction into mainstream Western music via several songs on the Revolver album, most notably in "Love to You." The process of meditation feels a lot like this song and its sitar notes. It's a kind of sleeping wakefulness. In "I'm Only Sleeping," which includes a backwards guitar duet between Harrison and Lennon, the sleepy, dreamlike feeling completes itself in lyric and tune. I'd like to bottle that song, make tea of it.
"Down to the River to Pray" by Allison Krauss
I spent years trying to be religious. I earnestly, if skeptically, prayed. I witnessed baptisms and communions and prayer circles. I waited near riverbanks for miracles that never came. You can't grow up in the Midwest and not have spent some time absorbing this culture, passing it through you to see if it fits. The essay "DIY for the Faithless" documents my tour of Christianity and Catholicism, and ultimately, my rejection of formal religion. This song is one of my favorites of Allison Krauss's gospel-influenced music and evokes the corporeality of religion: bodies in the water waiting for a god.
"Beautiful Child" by Fleetwood Mac
Much of Riverine centers on my attachment to the boy next door, who I grow up with, fall silently in love with, and have my first sexual experience with. All the while, he is spinning away from me into a life of crime and drugs. "Beautiful Child" captures this loss of innocence even as it mourns our childhood bond. It reflects our fraught relationship as it shape-shifts over time.
"Disarm" by The Smashing Pumpkins
When the boy next door commits a crime that sends him to prison for life, my disbelief settles in and stays for a very long time. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Smashing Pumpkins, and the song "Disarm" became an anthem of confusion, anger, and despair. Though the song purportedly represents some trauma in Billy Corgan's past, it also captures perfectly my friend's inexplicable transformation from boy to killer. There's a drama in the orchestra accompaniment that swells up over the refrain, sweeping everything under it like an oceanic tide. Like murder does.
"Gone Till November" by Wyclef Jean
This song is specifically about men running drugs and leaving their loved ones behind—with the implied possibility that they may not come back at all. In Midwestern slang, some of the phrases in this song—"going down south," for example—can also refer to doing a prison stint. In Riverine, I write about three people I visit in prison—my uncle, Mike Tyson, and my neighbor. This song reminds me of them and of my visits to prisons.
"Suburban Song" by The Massacoustics
In the last third of the book, I attempt to assimilate into suburban life with my husband and two children but immediately register the experience as something like agony and feel the need to flee—there's a caginess about it for me. This song by The Massacoustics describes a person who doesn't fit into suburban life, doesn't want a 401k, two-car garage, or nine-to-five job. I listened to this song on repeat in preparation to finally leave Indiana and move to Vermont.
"Closer to Fine" by The Indigo Girls
This song is somehow everything. It's a call from the dark for the light. It's a relentless pursuit of something better that is willing to try all paths. It's a seeking, roving commitment to letting go and giving over one's need to know. I'm for that. My move from the flatlands of Midwest to the mountains of Vermont was that. Is that.
"Slouching Towards Bethlehem" by Joni Mitchell
This song, of course, is an allusion to an allusion to an allusion. Joni Mitchell, back to Joan Didion, back to Chinua Achebe, back to W. B. Yeats. There's a wonderful Paris Review article that analyzes the "widening gyre of heavy-handed allusions to Yeats's [poem] ‘The Second Coming.'" Like Joni and Joan, I've also pillaged and appropriated a few measures of the poem, namely the line "the falcon cannot hear the falconer" and the poem's ominous falling darkness in the essay, "On Robert Frost's Lawn," in which I become unsteadied by my immersion into a mountainside gathering of artists and untrusting of nature and of a mere topical reading of Frost's poetry. This essay leads up to my reunion with the neighbor boy, which is a "second coming" of sorts.
"Nebraska" by Bruce Springsteen
The essay "Map of Our Hands" describes an intense prison visit with my friend, in which I confront him about our past and his crimes nearly two decades later. As I wrote this essay, I watched the Terrence Malick film Badlands over and over, which opened up some interesting parallels in my telling of the experience. Badlands and the song "Nebraska" are based on the relationship between Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, teenage lovers who embarked on a killing spree in Nebraska in 1958.
"For No One" by the Beatles
In the book's final essay, "Life on the Installment Plan," I openly consider my marriage and how this past love who has reemerged affects my life now. Parts of this song explicitly mirror my experience—rote routine, loss, the way that relationships can stagnate as years pass—though there is a coldness in the song's subject that I hope does not mirror me and mine. The final scene of the book is rather ambiguous and suggests that I've cut them both away from me, in order to exist on my own. For no one else, so to speak.
Angela Palm and Riverine links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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