Something Beyond

'beyond, the river,' by 'bunchadogs & susan' on Flickr

[Image: “beyond, the river,” by a photographer whose name displays simply as “susan” (her full account name, though, is “bunchadogs & susan”). I found it on Flickr, of course, and use it here under a Creative Commons license. The photo was taken by a pinhole camera.]

From whiskey river:

An Inventory of Moons

If you live to be very old, you may see twelve hundred full moons.
Some come in winter and you trudge out into the deep snow to
stand beneath their glow. Others come to you in the city and you
take an elevator up to the roof of the highest building and set out
a couple of folding chairs to watch it glide across the sky. Or the
moon finds you along a foreign shore and you paddle out in some
dingy and scoop its reflection from the waters and drink it down.
The moons of your old age are the most potent but seem few and
far between. They make their way into your marrow and teach it
how to hum. When your final moon arrives, it’s as if youth has
come back to you. Though instead of flaunting its yellow hat, now
it’s dressed in black.

(David Shumate [source])


…many of us in this time have lost the inner substance of our lives and have forgotten to give praise and remember the sacredness of life. But in spite of this forgetting, there is still a part of us that is deep and intimate with the world. We remember it by feel. We experience it as a murmur in the night, a longing and restlessness that we can’t name, a yearning that tugs at us. Something in our human blood is still searching for it, still listening, still remembering. Nicaraguan poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal wrote, “We have always wanted something beyond what we wanted.” I have loved those words, how they speak to the longing place inside us that seeks to be whole and connected to the earth.

(Linda Hogan [source])


On the windless days, when the maples have put forth their deep canopies, and the sky is wearing its new blue immensities, and the wind has dusted itself not an hour ago in some spicy field and hardly touches us as it passes by, what is it we do? We lie down and rest upon the generous earth. Very likely we fall asleep.

(Mary Oliver [source])

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Midweek Music Break: Jack White and Margo Price, “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)”

Jack WhiteThe White Stripes’ music never appealed to me. And I haven’t followed Jack White’s career much otherwise. But he keeps popping up on my radar anyhow, and in the back of my mind I’m Margo Pricepretty sure my inattention is hurting me more than him. My disregard (so to speak) stems almost entirely from media classification of the Stripes’ music; garage-rock is usually the label applied. And I’ve just never taken to other garage-rock performers, and I think, y’know, Why would the White Stripes be any different?

Wikipedia‘s classification of the White Stripes cites not only garage rock, but blues rock, alternative rock, punk blues, post-punk revival, and garage punk as the duo’s genre. I can’t even wrap my head around some of those genres.

But White himself is regularly said to be an aficionado and practitioner of old-time music: country, folk, straight blues… (Favorites of mine, all.) Furthermore, critics claim to hear those influences when discussing the White Stripes’ music.

So much for my critical acuity, eh?

White has appeared here at RAMH once before, as a featured performer (among Dylan, Levon Helm, Sheryl Crow, et al.) on the compilation/homage/archaeological-project of an album called The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. Of course, Hank Williams’s own bona fides as an icon of Americana music — even from the mouths and instruments of rock, pop, and (yes) garage-rock icons — don’t need any evidence from this quarter. And now there’s very recent evidence that I’m missing a good bet in continuing to ignore Jack White: his appearance a few nights ago on Prairie Home Companion: dueting with country-music star Margo Price.

But consider that duet further: the song they performed, and which (of course) I’d never heard, comes from the White Stripes’ 2005 album Get Behind Me Satan.

As rendered by White, Price, and their backing musicians, it’s about non-garage-rock as one can imagine, right down to the mandolin, fiddle, and bass accompaniment. Even the soul of the song is Americana: a broken heart, family relationships (even hinting, ever-so-carefully, at incest), a touch of wistful wry humor…

Just as a sanity check, I spent several hours’ research looking into others’ reactions to the song, not just as performed on PHC but from its first appearance on the Stripes album. Probably ninety per cent of the results returned were (unsurprisingly) simple lyrics, or MP3 downloads, with no discussion of the song itself; most of the others were just casual mentions (especially of the PHC performance). But here’s a selection of the rest, in no particular order:

  • Reddit: discussion of the song and this specific performance (“Meet Your Theme Song…”)
  • The New Yorker: “The Gift & the Curse: Jack White’s Vexing Brilliance” (“…surely written by Hank Williams… White delivers the kind of compressed and restrained pain that country songwriters spend years trying to perfect”)
  • NME review: “The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan” (“a rousing waltz which… Loretta Lynn would have no problem singing”)
  • Slant Magazine: (ditto) (“steeped in heartbroken ‘woe is me’ wordplay but delivered with a solemn sincerity that tells you that Jack ain’t playin'”)
  • The Fader: “The White Stripes Want Truth, Romance and Beauty for a Fallen America” (“a straightforward country-soul-‘n’-gospel ballad on the piano, and Jack almost whispers the third verse”)
  • Baeble Music Blog: Time Capsule, on “The White Stripes ‘Get Behind Me Satan'” (“a piano-heavy, bluesy, stubborn lament, lacking a home yet too proud to look for one”)
  • Google Books: Jack White: How He Built an Empire From the Blues (by Nick Hasted) (“…straightforwardly comic. But the last verse’s barely audible murmur ends with a near-suicide in a river”)

And here, finally, is the video of White’s and Price’s performance on Prairie Home Companion (link to the full lyrics below):

[Video courtesy of Prairie Home Companion; lyrics here.]

And finally, if you’d like, you can listen to the White Stripes’ own version of “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet”) here.


Addendum: I should also mention the Dwight Yoakam song, “Ain’t That Lonely Yet.” [Video with lyrics here.] It appeared on Yoakam’s 1993 album This Time, and Yoakam’s performance won a Grammy as Best Male Country Vocal Performance. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that the two songs are related (aside from their titles and the basic message — the tones are very different); no one else seems to have made the possible connection. However, I have found evidence that the two songs can be confused. (Ha.)

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Deeper Roots than Reason

'Spirit of the Demon' (poster for 'Howl's Moving Castle'), by Edward J. Moran

[Image: “Spirit of the Demon,” poster by Edward J. Moran for the Studio Ghibli film Howl’s Moving Castle. (Found on DeviantArt.) The film — and other films from the mind of Hayao Miyazaki — rewards the viewer approximately in proportion to how little one thinks about what one is seeing.]

From whiskey river:

Such Silence

As deep as I ever went into the forest
I came upon an old stone bench, very, very old,
and around it a clearing, and beyond that
trees taller and older than I had ever seen.

Such silence!
It really wasn’t so far from a town, but it seemed
all the clocks in the world had stopped counting.
So it was hard to suppose the usual rules applied.

Sometimes there’s only a hint, a possibility.
What’s magical, sometimes, has deeper roots
than reason.
I hope everyone knows that.

I sat on the bench, waiting for something.
An angel, perhaps.
Or dancers with the legs of goats.

No, I didn’t see either. But only, I think, because
I didn’t stay long enough.

(Mary Oliver [source])


A moral character is attached to autumnal scenes; the leaves falling like our years, the flowers fading like our hours, the clouds fleeting like our illusions, the light diminishing like our intelligence, the sun growing colder like our affections, the rivers becoming frozen like our lives — all bear secret relations to our destinies.

(François-René de Chateaubriand [source, in slightly different wording])


’til soon

Even you, raw matter,
even you, lumber, mass and muscle,
vodka, liver and chuckle,
candlelight, paper, coal and cloud,
stone, avocado meat, falling rain,
nail, mountain, hot-press iron,
even you feel saudade,
first-degree burn,
a longing to return home?

Clay, sponge, marble, rubber,
cement, steel, glass, vapor, cloth and cartilage,
paint, ash, eggshell, grain of sand,
first day of autumn, the word spring,
number five, the slap in the face, a rich rhyme,
a new life, middle age, old strength,
even you, matter my dear,
remember when we were only a mere idea?

(Paulo Leminski, translated by Elisa Wouk Almino [source])

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The Voice, the Song, the Vision, the Light

[Video: 10,000 Maniacs and David Byrne (live), performing Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be.” (Lyrics here.)]

From whiskey river:

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of today) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also.

(G. K. Chesterton [source])


Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning

There are questions that I no longer ask
and others that I have not asked for a long time
that I return to and dust off and discover
that I’m smiling and the question
has always been me and that it is
no question at all but that it means
different things at the same time
yes I am old now and I am the child
I remember what are called the old days and there is
no one to ask how they became the old days
and if I ask myself there is no answer
so this is old and what I have become
and the answer is something I would come to
later when I was old but this morning
is not old and I am the morning
in which the autumn leaves have no question
as the breeze passes through them and is gone

(W. S. Merwin [source])

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'Clam Chowder, Bouillon, & Biscuits,' by Professor Bop on Flickr

[Image: “Clam Chowder, Bouillon, & Biscuits,” by user Professor Bop on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) The building is unidentified, only noted as “in New York City’s Meatpacking District.” (Curious about the user name? The photographer’s profile page cites “Professor Bop,” by Babs Gonzales: “He can do it so can you / Take a song like Auld Lang Syne / Then you add a bebop line / Oop be dop la kloog a mop / Like Professor Bop.”)]

From whiskey river (italicized lines):

Wait for an Autumn Day
(from Ekelöf)

Wait for an autumn day, for a slightly
weary sun, for dusty air,
a pale day’s weather.

Wait for the maple’s rough, brown leaves,
etched like an old man’s hands,
for chestnuts and acorns,

for an evening when you sit in the garden
with a notebook and the bonfire’s smoke contains
the heady taste of ungettable wisdom.

Wait for afternoons shorter than an athlete’s breath,
for a truce among the clouds,
for the silence of trees,

for the moment when you reach absolute peace
and accept the thought that what you’ve lost
is gone for good.

Wait for the moment when you might not
even miss those you loved
who are no more.

Wait for a bright, high day,
for an hour without doubt or pain.
Wait for an autumn day.

(Adam Zagajewski [source])

and (italicized lines):


Everyone should be born into this world happy
and loving everything.
But in truth it rarely works that way.
For myself, I have spent my life clamoring toward it.
Halleluiah, anyway I’m not where I started!

And have you too been trudging like that, sometimes
almost forgetting how wondrous the world is
and how miraculously kind some people can be?
And have you too decided that probably nothing important
is ever easy?
Not, say, for the first sixty years.

Halleluiah, I’m sixty now, and even a little more,
and some days I feel I have wings.

(Mary Oliver [source])

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Vital Specifics

'Sally, Weld County, Colorado' (1984), by Robert Adams

[Image: “Sally, Weld County, Colorado” (1984), by Robert Adams. First found at the National Gallery of Art. (Above copy from the Fraenkel Gallery’s exhibit Perfect Times, Perfect Places.) Sally was Adams’s own dog. Says a New York Times review of an exhibit at Yale featuring the photo, “It pauses on a dirt road perhaps 10 yards away, looking back over its shoulder as if to invite us to follow and to wonder: ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?'”]

From whiskey river:

Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and—it was the most casual of moments—as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given. Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity.

(Mary Oliver [source])


From the Shore: Toronto

All afternoon I’ve watched the gulls
off the breakwater at Lake Ontario.
No one here seems to like them,
how they scavenge,
hover like icons,
against a metal sky.

But I am here from another country
not so foreign as the gulls’
and I like their garrulousness,
their joyful noise
and the way they hang in the air
flying and not flying.

(Henrietta Epstein [source])


Are there scenes in life, right now, for which we might conceivably be thankful? Is there a basis for joy or serenity, even if felt only occasionally? Are there grounds now and then for an unironic smile?

(Robert Adams [source])

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Book Review: Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun

Cover: 'Night of the Animals,' by Bill BrounA couple reviews of Night of the Animals have alluded — unconvincingly, I think, despite superficial similarities — to Noah’s ark and/or more generally the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Yes, it’s true: the novel’s mainspring is the saving of the world’s creatures; both the world’s destruction and its salvation are at stake. But if you hope and believe you’ll be getting a “retelling” of those Biblical stories, updated to a 21st-century landscape, you will be very surprised (maybe disappointed) by what you find in the book’s pages:

The genre, murky — a sort of near-future, dystopic science fiction/fantasy cast in prose perhaps a bit more “literary” than you’d expect; the time, about forty years from now, with numerous flashbacks to the 1960s; the setting, mostly London (and in the flashbacks, up in the Midlands region — the “waist” of the island). The dialogue is littered with dialect obscure enough to require clarifying footnotes.

But the biggest surprise among Night of the Animals’ conventional elements lies in its protagonist, Cuthbert Handley.

Sounds like the name of a stereotypically anal-retentive, mousey-in-stature librarian or clerk, eh? Maybe. But this Cuthbert Handley — well, no. He’s enormous in size, three (approaching four) hundred pounds of, well, fat. (Not that fat people cannot be heroes, but it defies convention.) He’s old (not that the aged cannot be heroes…): in a point in history where living to 120 years of age is common, Cuthbert himself is over 90, and held together not just by his own flesh and bones but by numerous artificial “BodyMods.” He belongs to a class referred to as the capital-I Indigent — all but homeless, rough-sleeping in parks and alleys, the lot.  Finally, he’s almost suicidally addicted to a hallucinogenic beverage called Flōt (not that penniless addicts cannot etc.); Flōt is apparently legal, and the book suggests that its use is both tacitly approved by the government and sneered at by the unaddicted upper class. (Not at all to suggest that they themselves don’t use it, but they — you know — have such better self-control, right?)

More deeply, Cuthbert lives in thrall to a specific childhood event: the drowning of his elder brother Drystan, while little Cuthbert could do nothing to save him. (Cuthbert himself nearly drowned in the same “adventure.”) Since Drystan’s body never turned up, Cuthbert has lived his entire life — while in a state of mental health declining to the point of near-madness — believing that Drystan never died: he was simply lost, waiting for Cuthbert to find him. Surely this is a delusion. Surely his Flōt addiction has compounded the problem.

That much is obvious to everyone Cuthbert has ever known, will ever know. And naturally, that much is obvious to the reader of Broun’s book…

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Weekend Music Break: GQ, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”

GQNot at all a men’s style magazine, GQ is a girls quartet, each described at the group’s Web site as “a recent graduate” of Baltimore’s Towson University. Although they often use the a capella descriptor for themselves, the phrase most others reach for seems to be barbershop quartet. Toe-MAY-toe, toe-MAH-toe maybe: they made their first public splash in 2012 by winning the regional Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival, “the premier American showcase for vocal harmony music” — regardless of specific genre label — and then went on to place second in the nationals, performing against groups who’ve adopted one or the other of those labels.

(Happily, as far as I can tell, no one — least of all, GQ themselves — uses the rather hokey term for a “women’s quartet”: Sweet Adelines. In a recent Tweet, one of the group expressed gratitude for the other three and for “our barbershop family.”)

The core of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s “definition of the barbershop style” goes like this:

Barbershop music features songs with understandable lyrics and easily singable melodies, whose tones clearly define a tonal center and imply major and minor chords and barbershop (dominant and secondary dominant) seventh chords that often resolve around the circle of fifths, while also making use of other resolutions.

That’s quite a mouthful, almost none of which makes sense to me (or, I’d wager, to many other non-musicians). But the sound and style of barbershop singing is instantly recognizable. Stereotypically, a bass vocalist provides a sort of beatbox bum-bum-bum-BUM rhythm in the background, while three foreground voices — a couple of tenors and a baritone — twine around one another and sometimes merge, for sustained notes, in a glorious three- or four-part harmony. The content of barbershop music also follows stereotypical paths: “traditional” popular songs, often from the early 20th century.

(“Down by the Old Mill Stream” is not only considered typical, but also a frequent target for humor, especially parody. See, for instance, this clip from Eddie Murphy’s 2003 film, The Haunted Mansion — in which four haunted statues perform the song.)

But GQ (and similar groups), while honoring the tradition, are also determined to break from it. They showcase offbeat and often very contemporary songs, and explore ways to adapt traditional techniques to “modern” ears. For example, GQ’s big hit at that 2012 regional competition was “Timshel,” by Mumford & Sons. (Here’s a video they made, sometime later.)

GQ’s second album just dropped this summer, as the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign. At the Kickstarter project page, they chose to feature the video below to demonstrate their approach, using the old swing hit — think the Andrews Sisters — “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön.” Among other attractions, the video offers a nice visual demonstration of classic barbershop style: adding a voice at a time, melding them into a single layer. I really like it.


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Down to Specifics

'LA River and Washington Boulevard Looking East, Santa Fe Railroad,' by Michael Light

[Image: “LA River and Washington Boulevard Looking East, Santa Fe Railroad,” by Michael Light. (Larger, higher-resolution version here.) See the quotation from Rebecca Solnit, below.]

From whiskey river:

We pass the word around; we ponder how the case is put by different people, we read the poetry; we meditate over the literature; we play the music; we change our minds; we reach an understanding. Society evolves this way. Not by shouting each other down, but by the unique capacity of unique, individual human beings to comprehend each other.

(Lewis Thomas [source])


The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.

(Graham Greene [source])


Mother Talking in the Porch Swing

Inside the river is there a river?—
it could follow slow water the way
the real current follows a stiller
shore. And in your life the life that
hurries could pass, and pass its
open neighbor the earth, and its shore
the sky. To be here, and always to find
places in the current, the dreams
the river has—surely we bubbles
ought to tell about it?

Listen: One of the rooms the river has
after its bridge and its bend in the mountains
is a place waiting for the sun every
afternoon, when the sun dwells
at a slant under a log and finds
that little yellow room and a waterbug
trying to learn circles but never making
one its shadow approves. Miles later
the river tries to recall that dream,
turning with all of its twisting self
that found gravel and found it good.

Just before the ocean that river
turns on its back and side and slowly
invites the world and the air and the sky,
trying to give away everything, everything.

(William Stafford [source])

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Layers of Often, of Seldom, of Never

'127/365,' by Tom Wachtel on Flickr

[Image: “127/365,” by Tom Wachtel. (Found on Flickr, used here under a Creative Commons license.) The caption provided by the photographer: “Yellow often shines in sparkling company. Red will almost never dance alone. Green is seldom seen behind the screen of might-have-been, pining softly for what words were meant to mean.” And yes: I found this image after coming up with the post’s title.]

From whiskey river:

Often times, a person will think they know you by piecing together tiny facts and arranging those pieces into a puzzle that makes sense to them. If we don’t know ourselves very well, we’ll mistakenly believe them, and drift toward where they tell us to swim, only to drown in our own confusion.

Here’s the truth: it’s important to take the necessary steps to find out who you are. Because you hold endless depths below the surface of a few facts and pieces and past decisions. You aren’t only the ripples others can see. You are made of oceans.

(Victoria Erickson [source])


Often down here I have entered into a sanctuary; a nunnery; had a religious retreat; of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel. That is one of the experiences I have had here in some Augusts; and got then to a consciousness of what I call “reality”: a thing I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist. Reality I call it. And I fancy sometimes this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek. But who knows—once one takes a pen and writes? How difficult not to go making “reality” this and that, whereas it is one thing. Now perhaps this is my gift: this perhaps is what distinguishes me from other people: I think it may be rare to have so acute a sense of something like that—but again, who knows? I would like to express it too.

(Virginia Woolf [source])


All through our gliding journey, on this day as on so many others, a little song runs through my mind. I say a song because it passes musically, but it is really just words, a thought that is neither strange nor complex. In fact, how strange it would be not to think it—not to have such music inside one’s head and body, on such an afternoon. What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?

(Mary Oliver [source])

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