Tuesday, November 29, 2022

"Poolside at the Dearborn Inn" - The Very Last Year & Marysville Last Month

"Poetry, despite what has been written in the shadow of murky etymologies and unkempt epochs during the dull regenerative paces that compose our human time, is a little more than  series of absurd acts of love we could never plan out in the morning or the day before at dusk" 

- Cal Freeman, "Ars Poetica While Reading "The Death and Live of the Great Lakes" 

The idea of "absurd acts of love" being in a poem, let alone in a poem about poetry, is one of the many profound moments in Cal Freeman's latest book, "Poolside at the Dearborn Inn." In the case of Freeman, this is the observation of a husband wading out into lake water to deliver a cocktail to his wife. These little human moments fill the pages and poems, and its what I've come to enjoy from "Heard Among the Windbreak" and "Fight Songs" in the fortunate years I've gotten to know Cal and his work. 

"Poolside" came out in April, and while it would be a lie to say I waited to read it specifically until I got homesick for Michigan, having moved to Ohio over the summer, I did find myself yearning for much of the life unique to the Mitten Freeman loads these pages with. But it isn't just Michigan-for-the-sake-of-Michigan: this is a specific Michigan. Like Jim Daniels (who's latest, "Gun/Shy" I immediately read after this) or Elia Hohauser-Thatcher's "The Prophet's Toothbrush", this is A Guy's Michigan. There's nothing I love more than the Local Thing, and Freeman's homage to his late father ("University of Detroit: A Brief Memoir with Basketball and Poetry") is definitely A Guy's Michigan.

Maybe the lines of that poem echo especially to me because last year, during the Most Important Year of My Life, I too lived my working life where Professor Freeman taught "English in a brick building / where the ceiling tiles / regularly peel from their glue / and plummet." Maybe this reverie of the place I was when I became a father, which is a meditation on fathers, looms in a space of fond nostalgia for the life before my life. The Very Last Year, if you will. "A clocktower squeezes out the minutes / and chimes the half-hour" I read as I giddily get that reference.  

But let's say you didn't also teach English at University of Detroit Mercy, or that you didn't get to see a warm celebration of life for John Freeman, or hear stories from his friends, his children, his colleagues, at the University library, ostensibly celebrating the release of this book but mostly the life of a titan. You'd still enjoy "Poolside at the Dearborn Inn," I am sure of it. People act like poetry is this obtuse thing that you have to "get." Freeman (and this is a compliment) makes it impossible not to. He tells you about his dad, about beer fridges in garages, about the Great Lakes, about birds, about history. And that's stuff we can all take with us. He tells us about philosophy, and theology, and about native tree-life to Michigan. He sees things, he tells stories about history.

But back to the idea of poetry as "absurd acts of love." The occasion for my reading this book (other than a craving for shawarma and a can of Hamms) was my toddler (I resisted the urge to write infant: he was an infant when I still lived in Livonia, a poem on its own really) having a tooth ache. Baby Motrin be damned, the dude couldn't sleep. I lit a dim light, held him in one arm, and Freeman's book in the other. To Ben: it was the reverberations in my chest soothing him. To me: it was the words making those rhythms that soothed the un-soothable. I confess, the baby probably didn't "get" the poems but I am convinced he enjoyed them. I know I did.

You might say reading poetry to a dude who has yet to fully acquire language skills is absurd. An act of love. A poem in of itself, if you will.

Don't let me make yet another post be all about the baby, though. The book, the poems, are good period. A few days after the toothache subsided Ben was at daycare and I had the day off, which I spent at a greasy spoon in Marysville, Ohio, with the book, cheap coffee, and hearty pancakes. I'm no sommelier, but this was a damn good pairing. Over the clatter of the weekday crowd, I was really struck by this verse:

We live in what people on the coasts 

call "flyover country," where underemployed

industrial workers drink cheep beer

and play backyard games to kill

the time. 

Killing the time with me at Mc Kinely's Grille were folks of all ages, who I will not condescendingly romanticize. But, as if lifted from the scene in a Freeman poem, one gentleman went around to each table of diners and, pointing to a picture of the original Marysville civic building said, "Welcome to court" and told the story of how this very building was the old courthouse, before it moved across the street, and then later down the block. 

Now, it might mean nothing, but it could mean everything. "What are you nostalgic for today?" the opening line of "The Treacle and the Trace" asks me. In this third courthouse is the marriage certificate legitimizing my wife and I's union (in Union County, no less). The second courthouse sits across from me and my ceramic coffee mug. The original are the bones around me while I read this book.

What can we learn? To observe, to be an eye to the world, to nostalgia, to places and people who are important, to voices that need to be heard. "Poolside at the Dearborn Inn" does this. It also made me want a Faygo. Add history and storytelling to the list of "absurd acts of love." That's poetry in real life. My infant gets it. Cal Freeman gets it. Look up his poems. You'll get it too.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

(repost) Epilogue on Animal Collective's "Time Skiffs"

"Bend to the moment / feel no thought / listen to the sound of people hoping / that in the moment there will be bliss / a cause for the moment to be healing"

Back to "We Go Back," today, I was listening to Animal Collective's excellent album Time Skiffs, released earlier this year, while driving in the dark against a grey sky and what the midwest affectionately calls "wintery mix" which is what the weather was like when this album was released earlier this year. Time flies, to be trite. The annual ritual of ranking the year's music releases is looking to present me with an interesting challenge. First of all, my family changed so much this year: we moved, we got new jobs, we got a new job, and our baby (born in November 2021) has been here for it all. That stuff - from nighttime feedings, house hunting, campus-visits - dramatically impacted my usual music listening habits. The second reason is that it seems like all my favorite bands released incredible new music this year, which really gums up the works for new stuff. And what's worse, the move (literally at the halfway point of the year) really separates Jan-June releases from June-November. Early-year releases always need a refresher, but this year was different.

This is to say, when I put on Time Skiffs it was so easy to bend to the moment, to find bliss, even healing in relearning these amazing songs. In "Car Keys" Panda Bear sings "how are we doin' now?"

We're doing good, is the short answer. In the post that follows, originally written in March of this year, there's a lot of anxiety expressed about the world, about becoming a parent. Now Ben is one! and he's great! and healthy! and hilarious! Tonight, he fell asleep while listening to my favorite song on the album, "Royal & Desire." It was a small thing, a tender moment. Nothing, really. One moment his eyes open, searching the ceiling, my face, the room, for familiar shapes. The next, closed. During both moments I'm humming to him along with the song, rubbing his back, rocking him.

In "Passer-by" Avey Tare sings "thanked a passer-by / for pointing out a thing / I probably would have missed"

Its these small moments that make the year. Time Skiffs, and by extension all the (softer) music I managed to listen to and enjoy this year, help to point out these moments. Add something to their importance and their permanence. I'm looking forward to rediscovering this album and "Royal & Desire" again, the passer-by reminding me once again, of what Benjamin was like in November 2022, one year after he was born, falling asleep while listening to a song he and I both seem to love.

Part 1: We Go Back
“over and over our song on my brain / I go back / we go back and I play it again / how far we go back is how forward / we’ll go”

For one sublime week in October 2019, Animal Collective played a brief run of shows in the Southwestern United States. Returning to their pre-Painting With form, Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Geologist, and Deakin debuted new jams, focusing their sets around unfamiliar, quizzically pre-formed ideas.  In fact, less than half of the songs played in their average setlists were old cuts, including a return of “For Reverend Green” (which they hadn’t played since 2006 when previewing Strawberry Jams) and Merriweather Post Pavilion-era favorites like “On a Highway” and “No More Runnin.”

“Trickle of a moment down my life / history in motion” 

In early 2018, 3/4s of the band performed two legendary sets at the Music Box Village in New Orleans, debuting entirely new sets of “site specific music” that took advantage of the unique venue-as-instrument space in Louisiana.

Thanks to the fastidious tapers and Animal Collective’s fan-friendly approach to bootlegs, the Music Box shows and the 2019 tour was thoroughly documented. Songs like “Royal and Desire” and “Prester John” had four years of life as mp3s before Time Skiffs’s triumphant release. I’ll never, for example, call “We Go Back” anything but its proper name: “Boulder” 

Going into 2020, these bootlegs – moments of life – became a real history in motion for a band too far out of reach. I played all six of the 2019 tour bootlegs obsessively as the winter snow fell, as the holiday came and went, as the new year began. Surely, these songs would find life in a studio. Surely, the mystery of the Music Box songs would chew up entire sides of vinyl in the months, if not weeks to come!
I couldn’t wait:

“in the moment there will be bliss / a cause for the moment to be healing / and to begin.”

Part Two: Prester John
“It’s the end of this / it’s the end of havin’ to worry ‘bout it”

Global pandemic. What can you say that’s already been said? One day I’m celebrating my 1-year wedding anniversary and the next day my wife and I are frantically canceling plans, classes, and figuring out how to work with our students from home. Surely this won’t last.

“treating every day / as an image of a moment that’s passed”

We’ve been working from home for nearly four months. “Bridge to Quiet” is an intentionally small affair from Animal Collective, and its great, but it isn’t any of the songs floating around from the years past. Its all new, and its all exciting, but it doesn’t do much to close the monotony of quarantine living.

Its hard to blame Animal Collective, its four members living far apart (even oceans, in Panda Bear’s case) you can feel the wind being sucked out of a shared lung. “Prester John is breaking down / his heart is breaking down.”

Maybe we’ll get some songs in the fall?
“Treating every day / as an image of a moment’s that’s passed”

What’s the moment passing? Us? Or the nightmare pandemic?

Part Three: Strung With Everything
“Don’t peek, it won’t last that long, or rarely / its really new every day”

Among Animal Collective fans, there is nothing scarier than demoitis. Noun: a condition of spending too much time with well-documented tour bootlegs. Couple the fact that you can find a recording from just about every AnCo live show in the world with the fact that AnCo usually plays new materials before it comes out with the fact that Domino Records (Animal Collective’s label) will announce an album like five months before release and you’ve got the perfect storm conditions for burning yourself out on the drip-feeding of singles (“Prester John” first, way early, then “Walker” and “Strung With Everything” much closer to the release) and falling victim to the dreaded demoitis.

“there’s a natural clicking / that can be heard in the kinks / you need to forget the trouble-maker”
I made it a religious affair to spend time with the tour boots, shit, the 2019 material was hands down what I listened to the most in 2020. These are messy and chaotic – both the wide gulf of recording quality and the band themselves. Warts and all you can hear the kinks, but you can also hear the brilliance of these songs floating somewhere in the mix in megaupload files and dot zip folders of mp3s.

The week before Time Skiffs came out I wanted to see how strung together everything really was, so I fired up the Music Box boots, then the 2019 tour boots, and then the 2021 tour boots. Me and the baby, up at all hours, had a little nightly ritual: play a show and a half, pausing only for diaper changes and warming up bottles:
“let’s say tonight you and me / we’ll watch the sky fall into pieces”

How good are these songs, floating against the warmth of a desert night in Big Sur two years before Ben was even an idea?
“for a moment imagine strings / holding the trees from falling down”

My world is turned upside down. You’re going to be a father, my wife says. (Among other things) Music is the tie that keeps me earthbound.
“You know I would not be afraid / with your head against my shoulder”

Baby, strapped to my chest in his little carrier lets out a snore, bored of the conceit of this section of this blog post.
“And even though all hearts are strange / we’re all strung with everything”

It turns out like writing, or a baby, or an album, it takes some time, and many lose ends, to come together to make something perfect. A dissertation, Benjamin, or Time Skiffs (note: these three things are not of equal importance).

After two years of such poor miserable distance, how wonderful to be bound to such tangible things? To be so firmly connected. Yes: “we’re all strung with everything.”

Part Four: Cherokee
“late for its arrival / my mind’s begun to find / early peculiarities of how it defines time”

Time Skiffs was kind of two years old the day it came out, but it was also four years old, and it was also a newborn package of songs. Kind of late, but perfectly on time, and perfectly capturing the weird passage of time since a few months after those October 2019 shows.

I note, a little disappointed, the auto tune on Avey Tare’s voice from “Cherokee” is gone from the album.

But that’s just about my only disappointment in the rapturous release of Time Skiffs. As it comes to a close after my first real listen, Deakin’s haunting voice in the stunning “Royal and Desire” (which is, I’m convinced, their second best song – guess the first) I keep hearing a few lines: “song shuts my eyes / reminds me of my fight / to know the way / the way to love like a child.”

I don’t know how my child will love, but at this moment in the time skiff’s journey up life’s river, I know how I love my child. Uncomplicated, uncompromising. Permanent. When two years pass I imagine I feel more strongly about that than I could possibly imagine. But will I love this album in 2024, five years after first hearing its songs? 

“And we’ll always come ‘round / ‘round / ‘round ‘round / ‘round ‘round…” Deakin echoes as Time Skiffs slowly slinks away. I turn the record over and press play again. Round and round again, patient enough for the delayed gratification of this record, but still impatient with a child’s giddy love, to hear more, to see more, to watch something exciting grow right before your eyes. While my child grows right before my own.

Friday, November 11, 2022

What do you say about a song? Notes on November 10, 2021

Hell wakes you up choking and you feel so afraid,

help! is this my place?

Searching to find what to say, am I okay?

Coheed & Cambria's "Rise, Naianasha (Cut The Cord)" was released on a Wednesday. That was not the most notable arrival that week: Ben, my firstborn, was 'released' on November 7, and our family was released from the hospital that Tuesday.

Which circles us back to Wednesday. Our dog, finally settling down after a few days at Uncle Bill's house. Rachel and I, with much help from her mom, settling into a routine. Ben, settling into being a cute newborn. This might be hindsight, but I can't remember when it occurred to me that my life would go on, that this very sudden flash of my son's arrival, a month early no less, would change from extraordinary to routine. Not to say as we celebrate his first birthday that he is not extraordinary (he is), but at some point I had to wonder when I would get back to checking twitter, listening to music, building anticipation for new music, planning concert tickets for upcoming tours, etc. I wonder when I had that thought. New parent, old habits. 

I like to imagine Rachel was getting some much needed sleep, her mom and I sitting in the living room, something on the tv, half-awake. Ben snoozing in his swing, maybe his bassinet. What I remember for sure is I was sitting on the couch when a notification on my phone at 12:03 a.m.:

In my lizard Coheed fan brain I knew I couldn't blast this off of my cell phone: what if I woke up any of the blissful sleeping creatures in the house? Should I leap up and grab headphones? Should I wait until tomorrow? What if Ben wakes up while I'm listening? This all flashes between my ears and behind my eyes in seconds as I get up to find my airpods, of course I'm going to listen to the new single from Coheed & Cambria.

I don't really know if there's something to learn here. Maybe the lesson is that becoming a parent doesn't require you jettison your old hobbies, habits, passions. I certainty didn't feel pressure to do that from anywhere except my own dumb sense of obligation (which manifested in an ill-advised fire-sale of vinyl from the record collection during Rachel's first trimester). Maybe the lesson is your old passions have a heighted sense, because everything in my life after Ben was born suddenly had a heightened sense. Maybe the lesson is that Coheed & Cambria make ass-kicking guitar rock.

I'm not interested in a lesson so much as I am interested in coincidence. It is a fact that when Ben was born one of my lives ended and a new life began. It is another fact that two days later "Rise, Naianasha (Cut The Cord)" came out. It is yet another fact that the narrative arc of VAXIS Act II: A Window of the Waking Mind is specifically about parents trying to make sense of welcoming a child into their lives. And finally, it is a fact that while I was listening to "Rise" for the first time, in the dark, while everyone (dog included) I loved in this new and overwhelming way, slept, I heard the following lyrics:

Call me and I'll be there
when you need your great, great destroyer
oh my, baby boy
don't you cry, it's you and I
in a do or die
now cut the cord

Jack White (couldn't get through a post without a name drop) once said "maybe it means everything maybe it doesn't mean anything" but how can you tell me, dear reader, that the day I come home with my newborn that this song comes out. While I am knotted by terror and insecurity something so familiar and comforting sings into my ears in a lyric about Vaxis's mother: "you've got to believe / you've got to be strong for her." Shit, me too, I probably think.

There are specific details about that week I do not remember too well, as you can imagine. But what I do remember, and will never forget, is every time I listened to this song, and every time I listen to it still, I think of that small bundle of blankets living and breathing. I think of myself floating around the block on a walk with the dog, rushing home to my baby boy. I probably could have invented some meaning to ascribe to bringing Ben home to a Coheed & Cambria song. To use an in-universe joke here, the metaphor really hits you over the head with a hammer.

What do you say about a song that comes at the right place at the right time? On November 7, 2021: Ben was born, and my life began again.