“You love being devastated,” Max said as we drank gin and tonics at my dining room table the night we found out about Hugo’s closing for good. Hugo’s, the bar where Max and I yelled about listening to Moonface during the worst years of our lives, where I yelled about the time I saw Moonface play the entirety of Julia With Blue Jeans On and Spencer Krug sat down at his piano and told us that he’d be playing the songs according to their sadness. I yelled about accidentally sneaking into a bar in Austin where Waxahatchee was playing, then running into Katie Crutchfield in the bathroom and gushing, because when I heard her sing “The radio counts your thoughts,” I recognized the feeling of driving across the South with a lover I could not bear to leave, even though I knew better, the feeling of confusing music with meditation, the feeling of letting 20 or more hours blow through the car and graze my skin, the feeling of calling the whole thing healing. I yelled about Katie singing “You’re the only one I want watching me” the night I dragged my sister to see Waxahatchee with me in Harrisonburg, the first time I heard “La Loose” slowed way the hell down until I could no longer recognize it as a dance number and realized how the words expose a kind of love as doomed as a night with all the stars thrown from the sky.
Call 911, or call my mom, because someone has got to come collect me. This is what I scream to Jo on the phone while wandering the grocery store in velvet and cheetah print and smelling like pussy, or while walking home at two in the morning after thrashing on the floor like a demon at karaoke, or while waiting in the emergency room with a hand needing stitches. What Jo screams back is a promise to flip a table. I call Jo from the show while Lorde covers “New York,” so they can scream along with me all the way from Chicago, “You’re the only motherfucker in the city who can handle me,” then “You’re the only motherfucker in the city who can stand me,” then “You’re the only motherfucker in the city who’d forgive me,” until we disappear from each other’s screens, collapsing and heaving, because we love to mythologize the songs we hear while dancing at shows, or while riding the bus with headphones, or while waiting in line for coffee, because we love to create narrative, and destroy narrative, and because neither of us wants to be alone in the wreckage.
Ocean Vuong asks, “why can’t the language of creativity be the language of regeneration,” and I want to imagine how it would feel to say that a song I love, an album I love, blooms like a magnolia, to say that a song carries me to the river and washes the blood from my knees, to say that an album calls me in from the porch because dinner is hot and waiting on the table.
Would it feel like Titus Andronicus playing “Four Score and Seven” at Strange Matter, everyone in the crowd throwing their arms around each other and singing along with Patrick Stickles, “This is a war we can’t win, after ten thousand years, it’s still us against them,” and everyone proving him wrong by inviting everyone else into the moment, calling everyone else into the movement, making sure no one feels lonely, no one feels forgotten, and no one feels heartbroken, promising to look out for each other and check in on each other and give whatever we can, because the enemy is everywhere, and we will not retreat a single inch, and we will be heard?
Would it feel like Grouper playing in the chapel at the University of Virginia, crouched on the floor over her electronics with static projected in the background, like someone experimenting in their bedroom, recording and looping a cicada, or sharing transmissions from elsewhere in the cosmos, voicemails from beings we have no idea how to conceptualize, or recalling a dream involving a choir singing in the balcony of a church with its doors flung open in the snow? Would it feel like “(2nd Heart Tone) Mary, On the Wall” playing through computer speakers while lighting a candle for the full moon, learning to read the cards arranged on silk, learning a little about the magic, then more about the magic, as the seasons change, struck with a memory of a woman singing on the porch at the beach in the middle of the night? I remember and remember without seeing where to put it down.
Anne Carson writes, in Autobiography of Red, describing Geryon, the winged red monster and gay teen, reacting to a photograph taken by the grandmother of his lover, Herakles, of an erupting volcano, “Geryon did not know why / he kept going back to it. / It was not that he found it an especially pleasing photograph. / It was not that he / did not understand how such photographs are made. / He kept going back to it.” I mean, I would keep going back to it, like I keep going back to a video of Pharmakon performing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Margaret Chardiet illuminated in red while beating a sheet of metal, then yelling, then howling, then moving into the crowd, like I keep going back the night I saw P.S. Eliot play at Market Hotel, the way they opened with “Broken Record” just like I guessed and played “Cry Uncle” directly into “Bear Named Otis,” the way Katie Crutchfield sings, “I write you letters all the time,” then, “Our parents met on the back seats of Datsuns,” and how it all feels so big and destined in a Southern fashion that I have no idea how to explain other than to describe a wedding on a humid night in September.
No one else worked in the dark room on Friday or Saturday nights, or at least not while I was taking a photo class in college, during fall, which meant I could pick the music. I developed pictures of trash, flyers drifting off a garage, televisions abandoned in the grass, rotten wood leaning against brick. I tried making everything about texture, but I could not compose, and I was shit at figuring out the light. I did what I could, soaking the prints in chemicals, watching the images materialize, listening to St. Vincent singing, then screaming, “Come cut me open,” or listening to Victoria LeGrand singing, “I’ll take care of you,” or listening to Angel Olsen singing, and asking, “Where is my harmony?”
Desire embarrasses me, but watch as I bend over backward until my hands touch the floor, then watch as I fold my legs behind my head. The shape I make, a rainbow cleaved to the ground, where someone could climb for shelter, or the shape I make, a knot to be untangled with both hands.
I bought red pants with a high waist and wide legs to match New Mexico. I mean the desert, terracotta shattering, rose blooming, the mesa jagged against the sky. I mean Patricia Charbonneau in Desert Hearts (dir. Donna Deitch), revving backward down the highway in her black convertible, then opening her porch door until it creaked, looking Helen Shaver up and down as though to say “have mercy.”
Denim on denim, tied and revealing, not giving a shit.
While driving across the desert between Albuquerque and Jemez Springs, I put on One Direction, because the piano in “Steal My Girl” could shred the sky like an angel and crush me. “I don’t exist if I don’t have her. The sun doesn’t shine. The world doesn’t turn.” I want to have a problem with such possessiveness, and I want to have a problem with such patriarchal desire, but I hear the song as cosmic and embarrassing devotion, a feeling that gathers in my throat until I fucking weep. Or, until Chris rolls down the windows, and I yell the song into the air.
Carrie Lorig writes, “I try to put my devastation on the ground. I try to put it on the ground and pay it. My devastation, I pay it.” What I want to know is how. My devastation, pitchers being emptied into a river. My devastation, a window spilling light into the background of a photograph. My devastation, a pit made of weathering steel. I have no idea how to even begin to hold it. I have no idea what I could possibly owe it. Maybe the lavender I found growing everywhere in Albuquerque, or maybe the turquoise rings scattered on the street. Liz Bowen writes, responding to Carrie Lorig, “i want to stop owing my devastation i / think it should pay me / my devastation should make an offer of me / don’t you think my devastation should put me / on the table.” What if my devastation has embodied me. What if my devastation has swallowed me. What if my devastation has emptied me. I have no idea how to tell the difference.
All I can think to do is dive into the river as Craig Finn playing Walt Whitman says, “I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket, and buried him where he fell,” as Sufjan Stevens sings, “Bury the dead where they’re found.”
Ella Longpre writes, “In an act of forgiveness she excuses herself from the table. You remove the table (throw it against the wall), the table is now what you have done and she has disappeared.” The truth is that Caroline and I pulled the dill, squash, fennel, kale, marigolds, and the garden became what we had done. The truth is that the kitchen became what we had done, the road became what we had done, but what about the marsh in Florida where we saw anhingas darting through the water like snakes and roseate spoonbills probing the reeds, birds we could not have dreamed and colors we could not believe, and what about the stereo playing serpentwithfeet singing, “With you, I can empty myself of all my rivers and become a remarkable sky”?
Hauled ass down the mountain in a Ford Super Duty, closest to a monster truck I will ever drive, while light from the afternoon disintegrated until the world seemed lunar except for the road that I want to remember being red as hell. Found a snake jacket on the trail that Chris wanted, but Elizabeth and I said absolutely not, because you never know what kind of curse might follow you home. I carried one bottle for drinking, one for gathering water from the river, the hot spring, plus grasses and blossoms. Chris and Elizabeth called it a spell bottle. I called it a witch bottle. Magic turned to sludge either way, but it still lives on my dresser with a bottle shaped like a grinning crescent moon. I could say that we were listening to Hop Along, because Chris and I talked about Hop Along the first time we walked his dog along the river, but the truth is that I switched the radio to silence to keep an eye on the mountain.
I look up whether it is legal to shoot a dog. I have to know after hearing Frances Quinlan sing, “Honey, you know I had to shoot that dog you loved so much. You know I had to do it,” and then, reversing, “I know you had to shoot that dog I loved so much. I know you had to do it.” I have to know whether this is business as usual or an emergency. I have to know which is more heartbreaking, or which is more gracious, and whether either can be forgiven.