I entered a contest in good faith on the the Mountain Goats forums for the purpose of
- engaging in friendly wishes of death to all other entrants
- finding new sources of unhealthy jealousy of the talent of others
- putting myself on a deadline to write
- maybe winning a cool prize!
The only rule was: write a poem about the Mountain Goats.
the Mountain Goats are my favorite band. Consult my last.fm on any day, play with the filters, and watch the Mountain Goats’ meteoric rise1 toward the top of my most-listened-to artists. Of course I’ve written pages upon pages on the work of John Darnielle, the MEANING of the songs/albums/turns of phrase, and of course I had thoughts, feelings, opinions, “whatever” about the Mountain Goats, but I’d never tried to write poetry about the Goats.
I consider John Darnielle to be a poet of the highest regard, and likely one of the best lyricists in the history of english-spoken music, and what a coincidence that we are all alive to witness it!, et cetera. Writing poetry about poetry is something I always felt was silly. I find it pretentious and arrogant when poets write poems that specifically respond to other poems in such a way that the response does not stand alone but must be read alongside the other poem, but the poem makes no specific reference to which poem they’re responding to—you’re expected to be so cultured that you just know. It makes me feel put down, and it’s very unbecoming of a poet.
Sure. I understand that poems very frequently talk to one another. But the finest poetry stands alone from the work it draws on and can function without it. I’m referring to only a small sect of amateur poetry that I primarily encounter on the internet and from 200-300-level poetry students and also asshole jerkfaces.
The point I’m getting to is that I didn’t want to write poems about the Mountain Goats because I felt that most such poetry would fit into the category of pretent. This contest provided me with an opportunity to bypass all of these criteria, as everyone that this poem would be meant for would already be exactly familiar with my references. So I proceeded to pore through my brain to make a connection to any song, and settled on one called “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones” from the 2005 magnum opus The Sunset Tree.
The song is about when John was young and spent the summer in a room with his girlfriend, and didn’t see any of their friends, and everyone wondered what had happened to them, and they dyed each other’s hair black and looked like twins. But even without that specific explanation, the song is clearly rife with codependency. Take a look.
We stank of hair dye and ammonia.
We sealed ourselves away from view.
You were looking at the void and seldom blinking.
The best that I could do was to train my eyes on you.
We scaled the hidden hills beneath the surface,
Scraped our fingers bloody on the stones.
And built a little house that we could live in
Out of Dinu Lipatti’s bones.
We kept our friends at bay all summer long.
Treated the days as though they’d kill us if they could.
Wringing out the hours like blood drenched bed sheets
To keep winter time at bay but December showed up anyway.
There was no money, it was money that you wanted.
I went downtown, sold off most of what I owned.
And we raised a tower to broadcast all our dark dreams
From Dinu Lipatti’s bones.
I have no idea what it’s like to be in a codependent relationship because I am an unlovable hag2, but I get this (I think)! The falsetto, the muted guitar sounds, all of it all of it is just so fragile and slight and speaks exactly to the tenuousness of the situation at hand.
I chose to write about this because I recently won a struggle to understand this song, and it’s still not my favorite but I think it paints a picture that I struggle with, having never been in a codependent situation. I did my best to insert myself into the lyrics and I wrote from Jackie’s point of view inside the song, saying the unsaid things that lie very close to her mind.
Here is the original sonnet I wrote and submitted to the forums contest:
the lightless moon took its place overhead
and all heat seeped into unforgiving forgotten places
struck down by doom for rising out of bed
electrocuted by the eyes, the eyes,
looking in from all directions
so it carried on, a Tony-winning drama
performed night after night with cute perfection
“almost too cute, almost too cute”
tracing my ligaments with your furry hand
up each angle and down each limb
surfacing to breathe, breathing when you can
the crowd was silent, the crowd was dead
and we listened to a record
and not another sound was heard.
I revise a poem or story about 20,000 times before I ever submit it for criticism, and this particular one was whipped out in a few minutes of frenetic compulsion thanks to the sport of contest. But I am vicious, vicious to myself and my work and my words and my characters and I toiled over this poem in my mind and notebook and .doc files for a week, because after I wrote it I realized it was fitting to an assignment for my poetry workshop to write a sonnetic imitation or response to another poem. Killing two birds with one pretentious stone was the ideal course of action.
What I came up with was a wretched piece of work that you will find below. I’ve been reading Chelsey Minnis IF YOU CAN’T TELL!
The lightless moon took its place overhead
and all heat seeped into unforgiving places.
Money strewn on the floor, you strewn on the bed.
…electrocuted by the eyes, the eyes,
looking in from all directions…
So it carried on, a Tony-winning drama
performed night after night with cute perfection
“Almost too cute, almost too cute.”
Tracing my ligaments with your fuzzy hand:
up each angle and down each limb,
surfacing to breathe, breathing when you can.
The crowd was silent, the crowd was dead.
…and we listened to a record…
…and not another sound was heard…
Do your worst in the comments. Peace out.
1. Acknowledging the incongruity of the phrase “meteoric rise”.
2. All of the people I’ve been desperately in love with and dependent on have not returned the feelings in kind, and when it comes to debating whether this is a good or bad thing I think it’s quite safe to say: good for emotions/brain-state/mental health, bad for well of empathy and emotion from which to draw for creative purposes.