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October 19, 2018

Brian Laidlaw's Playlist for His Poetry Collection "The Mirrormaker"

The Mirrormaker

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

Brian Laidlaw's impressive poetry collection The Mirrormaker is both moving and lyrical, and comes with a companion song suite written and performed by the author.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Poet, songwriter, and musician Laidlaw follows The Stuntman with more work that superimposes the myth of Echo and Narcissus on the Minnesota landscape through the story of Bob Dylan and Echo Helstrom."

In his own words, here is Brian Laidlaw's Book Notes music playlist for his poetry collection The Mirrormaker:

“The Girl From the North Country” by Bob Dylan

In a way, this tune is the origin point for The Mirrormaker. The collection is based, in part, on the now-mythic relationship between Bob Dylan and his high-school girlfriend Echo Helstrom – a.k.a. the girl from the north country – and on the even-more-mythic relationship between a different Echo and a different Narcissus.

I was staying in Bob and Echo’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, a few years ago, sleeping in the basement at a musical collaborator’s house, and I had a kind of poem-vision where Echo climbed through the garden-level window; I hadn’t intended to start writing about that particular figure, it wasn’t a premeditated project, but the whole book and song suite spiraled out from that one moment.

“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel

I had been writing poems for a while already when Neutral Milk Hotel’s album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea came out, and I had been playing guitar in bands before that, too, but somehow I had never really considered the possibility of being a songwriter until I heard this record. Jeff Mangum’s fragmentary, image-driven, half-dream-half-narrative sensibility as a lyricist exerts a profound influence on my writing (both of poems and of songs), and was particularly present in the construction of this book.

When Mangum sings in this tune about “how the notes all bend and reach above the trees,” it feels presciently post-pastoral; it gestures toward the way that songs, histories and landscapes haunt one another.

“Sleeping Dogs Lie” by Brian Laidlaw

This is a slightly unusual (but perhaps appropriately Narcissistic?) Book Notes in that I’m including a couple of my own songs on the playlist! “Sleeping Dogs Lie” is part of the suite of original songs that accompanies The Mirrormaker, and it’s the tune that most explicitly interfaces with the book’s text – the poem “Anechoic” and the lyrics of this track are in direct conversation with one another. This is also an especially Dylanish song in its form: eight or nine verses, high syllable counts, and a braided rhyme scheme similar to the one that Dylan uses in many of his near-novella-length songs.

“Ballad in Plain D” by Bob Dylan

One of my favorite (long) songs of Dylan’s is “Ballad in Plain D;” while much of his work seems to operate on a kind of larger-than-life, persona-reliant scale, this song stands out as a remarkably vulnerable and intimate portrayal of a relationship gone wrong. Maybe the most powerful part of this tune (for me, at least) is that the verses seem perfectly structured set up to deliver a crashing, resounding rhyme at the end of each stanza, but many of them end instead with an absolutely heartbreaking non-rhyme – as though the singer were too crestfallen and distraught to deal with such trivialities as rhyme.

“Scarlet Town” by Gillian Welch

The other through-line for The Mirrormaker has to do with resource extraction, both in terms of iron mining on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range from whence Dylan hails, and in terms of the way that songwriters may “mine” their relationships and experiences for “material.” This song, written by one of my favorite contemporary songwriters, isn’t about Hibbing, but as soon as I heard it, I thought of this area. When Welch writes “Look at that deep well / look at that dark grave / ringing that iron bell / in Scarlet Town today” it makes me think of the Hull-Rust Mahoning mine, the largest open-pit iron mine on the continent, which sprawls off like a man-made Grand Canyon just a few blocks away from Hibbing’s downtown.

“Bad Luck” by Neko Case

In the poem “The Golden Rule of Copyright” in The Mirrormaker, I wrote the quatrain

the first time I saw the moon
I thought it was my own idea
damn plagiarists
I said—or I thought

and when I heard Neko Case’s new album Hell-On, I was struck by the faint echo of a similar sentiment in the lines:

Love, the most contrary asset of them all
Dragging in on nature’s coattails
Acting like it wrote the moon
Trying to pass riddles as poetry
Embargo is love’s waiting room.

Especially since both Case and I are talking about lunar plagiarism, I think it’s awesome how these images seem to draw on one another. I wish she had stolen that idea from me – it would be the honor of a lifetime! – but I’m quite confident that she didn’t.

“Cherry Bomb” by Spoon

Cherries are sweet and innocent; bombs are not. Their cohabitation in the phrase “cherry bomb” is a poem in itself; it gave the title for one of the poems in The Mirrormaker, and also provides the hook for one of my favorite tracks by Spoon. This song was playing (anachronistically) on the radio in the mental poem-version of my dad’s story in which he’s driving in his dad’s – my grandfather’s – convertible. He lights a cherry bomb and tosses it back behind his head, only to realize that the top of the convertible is up – so the bomb lands in the backseat and blows it to pieces. All of that is true, except the part about Spoon playing on the radio; that one detail is true only in my mind, but not possible in reality, because this story took place in the 1960s.

“Dark Sides” by Brian Laidlaw

I inhabited the landscape of The Mirrormaker for several years, and amassed a giant stockpile of interrelated material, both poetic and musical, during that stretch of time. In addition to the companion book The Stuntman (Milkweed, 2015), I also released a little EP called “Echolalia” as a kind of “B-sides” from Echo-and-Narcissus-world. This song “Dark Sides” is a musical echo of a poem – also called “Dark Sides” but containing different text – in The Mirrormaker. We recorded the tune at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone Studio, an all-analog-tape facility in San Francisco. The tape-delays and tape-loops here are, to my ear, the perfect soundscape for the Echo myth.

“Sawdust & Diamonds” by Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom is a master of navigating the balance between text and melody. Her song “Sawdust and Diamonds” from the album Ys is one of many shining examples from her body of work. This song is on my playlist because of the way it blurs the realms of the “natural” and the “mechanical;” the birds in her song seem simultaneously to be both living creatures and automata. That image and sentiment resonates with a poem of mine called “The Sparrows” in this collection; it also relates, more broadly, to the fact that a landscape like a pit mine is a kind of collaboration between natural and human forces; the red iron cliffs and the red iron soil are surely “natural”, but the hole that exposes them is a human creation.

“From a Buick 6” by Bob Dylan

There are almost no direct references to Dylan lyrics in The Mirrormaker – the bigger stylistic inspiration was his crazy prose-poetry book Tarantula – but the one exception is in the very last poem of the collection, called “If Earth.” It includes the parenthetical line “(I need a dumptruck, baby)”, which comes out of the song “From a Buick 6” off >Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan’s couplet sings:

Well, you know I need a steam shovel mama to keep away the dead
I need a dump truck mama to unload my head

That line came into my mind at one point when I stood on the viewing platform that overlooks the Hull-Rust Mahoning mine. I was watching dump-trucks the size of small buildings carrying loads of material across the crazy Martian landscape of the enormous pit… It made me think of Dylan’s own mind as a mine, a location of endlessly rich material, of constant digging, and – as the lyric suggests – a certain amount of weary raggedness as well.

Brian Laidlaw and The Mirrormaker links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Midwestern Gothic interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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