A Poem – Eyelash

Eyelash

I guard your sight with fragility.
Warding off dust and crushed rocks.
Yet you don’t feel me. But you look odd without me.
And to think you don’t think of me
when you rid of me
with your breathe
as I scream
for a continued life as
your beauty-beholding guardian.
How could you?

 

Anathallo – A Lyric Study

As we continue this series on my favorite songs by my favorite artists, Anathallo takes center stage with the forgotten song “To Gary and Marcus: The Sovereignty of God is Omnipresent.” Or, for the sake of easier reading, “Gary and Marcus.” This is a song that would seriously benefit from a listen to the song before reading the lyrics. Anathallo, especially in their earlier days, were very free form in their song structure and the musical progression lends itself to the emotive lyrics. Check it out:

“To Gary and Marcus: The Sovereignty of God is Omnipresent”

I could not come this time and stand on my feet.
I just thought of you and sank.
“I’m tough, I’m tough,” I told myself,
but I fell apart.

Thin arms cling lightly to my sunken chest.
I hold my breath.
Your sad eyes droop with hopelessness,
and I feel like I’m dying with you.
And I hold your toothpick ribcage.
And I pray aloud into your ear,

“Lord what would you have of me?
To plead before You for this child?
Why does faith seem so foreign to me now?”

Every time I see your beautiful faces
in my thoughts, or in something I see,
may faith stand firm.
Let it grow from grace I have received and know
that this grace abounds to you
so far away.

 

Pretty heavy song, no? Let’s get into it.

Form
1. Rhyme Scheme – I scanned this song about a hundred times trying to find something. And it took some scraping to find two examples of slant rhymes, or rhymes that aren’t technically rhymes but kind-of-sort-of sound similar. Stanza 1 Line 1 has a slant of “time” and “my” and Stanza 2 has a slant on “chest” and “breath.” That’s it. These rhymes serve to bring some sort of loose unity to an otherwise very free form structure. I think it especially helps to have this near the beginning of the song.  It serves to bring the listener along without totally losing them in the radically different foundation of songwriting.
2. Meter – Again, free form. No pattern or repetition to be found, really.  When you listen to the song, though, it’s a hard fact to believe. The lines seem so rhythmic. But that could be because of the great jazz-like music that accompanies the lyrics. If there is a pattern, I can’t hammer it down.
3. Diction/Devices – Alliteration, Repetition. “I’m tough I’m tough I told myself,” and “Thin arms cling lightly…” and “Why does faith seem so foreign…” are great examples. Come to think of it, these devices might be what lends to the “sneaky-rhythm” in the song.  Even in free form, something has to ground the song for it to succeed. I strongly believe its these devices that do it.

On the Diction side of things, we some extraordinary word choice. “Toothpick ribcage” and “sunken chest” evoke strong images. And I was particularly struck in the last stanza where we see Matt Joynt (the lyricist and frontman) refer to God’s “beautiful faces,” a reminder that God has many ways to reveal himself and has “face” in different forms. Love Love Love it.

Themes
1. The Problem of Suffering Children – Joynt lays out a story (no doubt personal) of the narrator looking upon a dying child and wondering what he can do, and how to reconcile this with his faith.  He even expresses his doubts in what he believes, “Why does faith seem so foreign to me now?”  “Lord, what would you have of me?” Questions that are, no doubt, legitimate and worthy of pondering.
2. The Frailty of Humans – While Joynt highlights the awfulness of dying children, he also showcases the frailty of the narrator.  This situation leads him down a path of tremendous frailty and weakness. And just as this child he sings about is sick and dying, so too is his disposition and faith. It’s almost a commentary on physical sickness begetting emotional and spiritual sickness.
3. Beauty in Grace – After the amazing climax in the music after the third stanza, we get a lovely drop out of everything except the tapping of sticks. An auditory signal of stripping everything down to its basics. And as the music does so does the philosophy in the lyrics. Joynt knows that when he gazes upon God’s character, he sees why he believes what he does. His thoughts, his feelings, his experiences remind him of the beauty he finds in the gospel, in the grace of God.  And he takes another leap of faith, admitting he doesn’t have an answer to this child’s death, or have an action of which to take. He simply recognizes and encourages the child, knowing that the grace he has received from God, surely extends to the child.

The song takes a heavy and erratic direction in its structure but takes a deconstructing approach as it reveals the foundation of Joynt’s faith and philosophy: Grace abounds.

Sufjan Steven’s “Seven Swans” a Lyric Study

Sufjan Stevens’ “Seven Swans” is one of many legendary indie folk albums from the Michigan native.  Some call this his most vulnerable album, though it is definitely his most spiritual.  The album is a must listen, and we will study the lyrics of the title track.

“Seven Swans”

We didn’t sleep too late. 
There was a fire in the yard.
All of the tress were in light.
They had no faces to show.

I saw a sign in the sky:
Seven swans, seven swans, seven swans.
I heard a voice in my mind:
“I will try, I will try, I will try.
I will try, I will try, I will try.”

We saw the dragon move down.
My father burned into coal.
My mother saw it from far.
She took her purse to the bed.

I saw a sign in the sky:
Seven horns, seven horns, seven horns.
I heard a voice in my mind:
“I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord.”
He said: “I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord.”
He said: “I am Lord, I am Lord, I am Lord.”

He will take you. If you run,
He will chase you.
He will take you. If you run,
He will chase you.
Cause he is the Lord.

This was the opening of Sufjan Steven’s tour in 2010.  The ominous banjo was accompanied by a projection of tiny little stars on a large screen behind the band.  All lights were turned down except for a spotlight on Sufjan, and the flickering of reflected lights from the large projection screen.  That specific performance in Asheville, NC was one of the best concert experiences in my life.  Sufjan has such a strong sense of tone throughout every aspect of his art. Let’s dive deeper.

Form

  1. Rhyme Scheme – No technical rhyme scheme, though its worth noting that repetition sometimes guises itself as a rhyme. See “I will try…”, “I am Lord…”, and “He will take you…He will chase you.” So how does this lack of scheme lend itself to the structure and effectiveness of the song? Well, some songwriters and poets, believe that meter is a more effective tool in creating a sense of rhythm without distracting from the actual meaning of the words spoken or sung. Thought I can’t lie that a good rhyme scheme in a song is like butter on freshly baked bread; a great pair.
  2. Meter – Here we find the definitive structure of the song. rigid syllabic counts on each line.  Can you guess how many syllables per line? That’s right. Seven. With the exception of the “I will/I am…”  lines and the last stanza has a few lines in the four to five range.  Obviously, this is no mistake. Stevens creates a unique syllable structure to mirror the thematic elements of the song; seven being the classic number in revelation representing God. It lends to a unique rhythm that pairs well with the lone banjo and delicate vocals. Have you ever tried writing a poem with strict syllables per line? It’s difficult.
  3. Devices/Diction – Repetition creates a beautiful contrast in “Seven Swans.” In the first example we see, “I will try,” versus the second example of “I am Lord,” we can see the comparison of humanity to deity.  He shows that in his own mind, he has a finite limitation in what he can do, but the Lord has no limitation, he is infinite and powerful, as per the wonderful and terrible imagery that Stevens portrays.  Dragons, Swans, people being burned to bits, and great fires. Yikes. The tone, again, controlled through specific word choices. The feeling that we felt in that auditorium in Asheville, was majestic and terrifying. Repitition, contrast, fantastic imagery, all performed at a master level.

Themes

  1. Revelation – Sufjan has been known to stretch the truth and we’ll talk about this later, but at the concert he explained how this was a song about how lightening struck a tree in their backyard and it caught fire. Their father woke them all up to witness it, and then the fire spread into the yard and the image of Seven Swans appeared in the sky playing John Phillip Sousa on trumpets. Whether or not this story is true doesn’t quite matter. What matters is the depiction of the fantastic and the extroardinary in life. Some moments are things we will remember forever. Some of them change our lives. I’ll add too, that some might deny or be skeptical of these moments. I’m not sure that it matters to Sufjan. He seems to concern himself with the revelatory nature of what he finds in the God he follows, or rather, the God that reveals himself.
  2. Sovereignty of God – We’ve already gone over the frightening images of dragons and burning people, so it goes without saying that this shows fearful representation of God.  This God has the power to destroy and uses it as he pleases.  He chases, he takes, he burns, He is Lord.
  3. Storytelling – This is an interesting one. As I stated earlier, Sufjan is known to stretch the truth on his songs. He doesn’t really like to delve too deep into what his songs mean, lest he ruin the enjoyment of interpretation for the audience. So he tends to explain much like the Joker explains where he got his scars. He changes the story every time, though he does keep some central points consistent. However, the main objective Sufjan has in his songs is to be sure to tell a good story by making a good song. Interpretation is left to the audience, and whatever point he tries to get accross is secondary to the form of the piece. He’s said that he doesn’t believe faith is worth discussing publicly as it is a private matter, though he writes intensely spiritual and personal songs about his faith. This creates a great deal of mystique around him. Just as soon as we feel like we can pin him down, he goes off and creates a concept album based around electronic sound and an obscure artist, then turns back around goes back to write a folk album about his parents. He loves to tell stories, and even likes shaping his own.

Sufjan Stevens has been a huge influence on my creative self in how he is bold enough to instill his worldview into his art without compromising form or content. It can be done, and this song exemplifies it.  I strive to do the same.

Mewithoutyou’s “C-Minor” A Lyric Study

After years of listening to music I can say, unequivocally, that the best lyricist I’ve ever heard is Aaron Weiss of the band mewithoutyou. To exhibit his genius, we will break down the lyrics of their song, “C-Minor”.

 C-Minor Lyrics by Aaron Weiss – performed by mewithoutyou

Our house wrapped in disrepair,
A small mouse peeked out from a hole beneath the stairs
Nearby to where my dad sat in his favorite chair,
Thinking about the gov’t and muttering a prayer
So I scattered some oats in hopes she’d stay
And sat still to stop from scaring her away-
But she hurried on her little way
And scurried around my mind
Ever since,
Every day

Open wide my door, my door, my Lord
(open wide my door)
To whatever makes me love You more
(open wide my door)
While there’s still light to run towards

Like water on the dry wood
Equal parts misguided and misunderstood
But all the neighborhood
Watched a fire burn from where they stood
As the smoke said
“We’re not half as bad as G-d is good”
Still there’s a whisper in my ear,
The voice of loneliness and fear, so I say:

“Devil, disappear!
I’m still (ehh… technically…) a virgin
After 27 years-
Which never bothered me before,
What’s maybe 50 more?”

She came back for the oats
But she brought along a “friend”
(this never ends)
The harder the rain,
The lower the flowers in the garden bend
(this never ends)
I’d rather never talk again
Than to continue to pretend
That this never ends

Listen to it here if you wish:

In order to succinctly discuss the lyrics of a poem, or song, I find it useful to break down the technical form of the work and discuss the themes in depth in a separate category.

Form: 

  1. Rhyme Scheme – On the surface, a fairly simple scheme. The first stanza follows an AAAABBBCCB pattern, though when we listen to the song, the end of the stanza feels more like BBBB. I think the CC portion of the stanza was written for more emphasis on “ever since / every day.” In any case, we see this scheme repeat itself in the other verses, stanza’s 3 and 4. In the chorus it’s very straightforward: DDD. But lets break this down even further. When we break down each line, we can see that theres a rhyme scheme within the rhyme scheme (And this is part of what makes Weiss masterful.)Stanza 1 line 2 – a slant rhyme of “mouse” and “out”
    Stanza 1 line 2/3 – “stairs” and “to where” pairs with “chair” and “prayer”
    Stanza 1 line 4 – “oats” and “hopes”
    Stanza 1 line 5/6 slant rhyme of “scattered” and “sat”
    Stanza 1 line 7/8 “scurried” and “hurried”So within just the first stanza we can see a much more complex scheme taking shape. Not only are the rhymes happening at the end of the line, but are, in some cases, finding themselves within the line themselves. So if we were to break the lines into halves, the scheme would more resemble A/BB/AA/ACA/DE/DE/FE/FE. Craziness! The sophisticated use of rhyme within the opening stanza sets up and pairs well with the fantastic meter.  Weiss can’t sing (or chooses not to), so its imperative that this structure help carry the audience through the poetic word structure.
  2. Meter – Very complex meter (or syllabic rhythm) exists here, but its incredibly tangible. We can hear it, see it. It took me a bit of time to try and understand how this song worked as far as meter, because I knew it was very much there, but nothing was adding up to a pattern, until I broke it down even further, much like what we did with the rhyme scheme.For the sake of time, we will look at the first stanza again. Because of the rhyming scheme and stresses that Weiss puts on certain syllables, we can ascertain that he has divided certain lines into two sections. So that’s what we will do. Check out the syllables for each half of each line and see if you can find a pattern.

    ///
    Line 1 – 7 syl
    Line 2 – 5 + 7 syl
    Line 3 – 5 +8 syl
    Line 4 – 5 +9 syl
    Line 5 – 6 +4 syl
    Line 6 – 5 +6 syl
    Line 7 – 5 +4 syl
    Line 8/9/10 – 5 +8 syl

    ///

    This might look like a jumbled mess but it might help us understand why these words sound very rhythmic in nature. The first halves of these lines hover around 5 and 6 while the second halves of the lines range from 4 to 9. But do you see it? Lines 1-4 end with about 8 syllables then lines 5-7 have an average of 5 syllables when in the last combination of lines 8,9 and 10 add up to 8 syllables. It’s similar to the pattern we see in music when we see an established theme, a departure, then a return. It’s not perfect, but the pattern is certainly there. And with Weiss’ style of vocals, its very easy for him to merge certain words into less syllables.  All this helps us conclude that Weiss is a genius and I am a nerd.

  3. Devices and Diction – One of the biggest literary devices that Weiss uses in C-Minor is alliteration. “…sat still to stop from scaring…” and “…scattered some oats in hopes she’d stay,” are the obvious ones, but smaller apparent ones include “…misguided and misunderstood…” and “Devil disappear!”However, metephors and personification shine brightly in the piece. They communicate Weiss’ inner struggle with desire, and how he might be idolizing companionship with a woman. He does this through a picture of trying to lure a mouse with some oats. We can tell that this mouse represents a woman because of the surrounding context. He calls the mouse a “she” and he later states that “she came back for the oats but she brought along a ‘friend,'” which is evidence that this mouse represents a being, a person, a woman.But outside of desire for companionship, he paints a peculiar picture of water, wood, smoke, and a neighborhood of people watching this fire in stanza 3.  Weiss is a christian, so we can extrapolate a few lines to explain certain christian tenants. One of which is that God is good and people are sinful.  I believe that he’s describing the christian church as a divided group of people who are “misguided and misunderstood” much like water on dry wood. The neighborhood seems to be those outside the church.  They watch a fire burn, which I take to mean that they’re watching the sinful hypocrisy of the church going up in flames and providing a smoke. But the beautiful end to this metephor is an admition of depravity and a praise of the goodness of God.”The smoke said ‘We’re not half as bad as God is good!'”A gorgeous line, one of my favorites.

Themes:

  1. Sinful Desire: Part of the appeal to Weiss’ lyrics is his incredible vulnerability. He lays it all out there with pure honesty and seemingly has no qualms about sharing his shortcomings. A common theme in much of his music is the confession of sinful desire. In C-minor, he confesses a fear of loneliness. He shares how he has tried to lure someone into romantic a relationship only to be hurt and left thinking of the “what-if’s.” Between the first stanza of setting the story of the mouse and the third stanza of the portrait of the sinful church, he opens up the choral refrain, “open wide my door, my lord, to whatever makes me love you more.” It’s as if he knows that the desire for a relationship should not supersede the love he has for God. So he’s stuck in this tug of war between what he desires, and what he knows he should desire. How human is that?
  2. Suffering: Weiss is someone who has dealt with a temptation of suicide and had at one time taken a vow of poverty. So it’s of no surprise that suffering would be an important issue for him to talk about. C-Minor shows a different kind of suffering, one he had spoken about before but not in this sort of light. He views suffering, in this case the desire for relationship and the real presence of loneliness, as a way for him to love God more.  He also tries to show the macro version of this in Stanza 3. What I believe to be the church in discord, suffering and painfully creating a fire that the world sees, sets up the wonderful “We’re not half as bad as God as good,” line. He states that the sufferings and shortcomings of the people of God are not even worth comparing to the glory of God himself. He laments in C-minor, but not without a solid hope.In stanza 4, Weiss admits the temptation to think a certain way as a result of his suffering. That he can succomb to loneliness and fear, but he knows that he’s made it this far while being a virgin (how vulnerable to admit that!) so what’s going the rest of my life doing that? How could that make me love God less? Poignant lyrics indeed.Also, the refrain of “This never ends” clearly states the vicious cycle that suffering can lend to ones thinking.  When will this anguish end? Will it ever? The refrain (perhaps the greek chorus?) states that it will never end, which sets up the last line.
  3. The Need for God: Between the verses, Weiss prays to God to lead him to whatever makes him love God more.  He comes back from each verse knowing full well what is most important, what’s at the base of his being: The love of God. He needs it.I don’t think there’s a better line that expresses this than perhaps the best metaphor in the song “The harder the rain, the lower the flowers in the garden bend.” The picture of hardship and suffering as hard rain causing the flowers to bend, signifying worship is a beautiful picture of the christian view of suffering. It creates a dependence, a need for God. The harder the suffering, the more christians cling to God.He struggles between desiring a relationship more than desiring God, but he knows that perhaps this suffering has led him to, in fact, love God more.  He admits that it’s trying, and sometimes feels like it will never end, but he knows that he can’t go on pretending like it will not end. Because, well, It will end.

C-Minor is a prayer, a confession, a plea. He wants God to lead him wherever he will love him more, because he knows that’s what he needs. And if it leads through suffering, all the better. It will cause more worship. What a song.

Falling Asleep

one shrill saw
comes ripping
through the night:

his sounds like
shredding logs
and hers soft.

she lies with
one eye shut,
one peeking –

a night owl
on watch for
scrambling mice.

And between
their bodies
bedsheets chill

in tensile
air. her breath
leaves the mouth

as droplets
of mist: this
night is cold.