In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Claire Wahmanholm intensely connects ecological existence with the personal in her poetry collection Meltwater.
Monica Youn wrote of the book:
“When we call a poet visionary, we usually mean that the poet in question shows us impalpable abstractions in realms far removed from our own. But Claire Wahmanholm is a visionary of the concrete, the stippled and slippery textures of the precarious present, and the unthinkably imminent. The patterns she reveals to us are the fractal geometries of fear as our surroundings, our loves, and our very selves are pulled into the spiraling inevitabilities of ecological collapse. These poems are devastating, even in their heartrending tenderness. Wahmanholm is a poet of singular and essential power.”
In her own words, here is Claire Wahmanholm’s Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Meltwater:
I generally don’t listen to music when I write, and when I do, it’s only instrumental or ambient stuff. It blows my mind that some writers can hold two sets of words in their heads at once. So with a few exceptions, these aren’t tracks that I was actively listening to as I wrote Meltwater. It’s more like “here’s another way to access the tonal and emotional arc of the book,” which is about fear, the future, eco-collapse, parenthood & children, death, dystopia, self-destruction, guilt & responsibility, hopelessness & (maybe) redemption. SHALL WE??
William Basinski—“dlp 1.1”
This one, though, is one that I listen to while I’m writing, and if I had my way, I would play in the background of the rest of the playlist (it’s about as long as the rest of the tracks combined!). It’s pretty much just this repeated four note phrase that slowly crumbles and flakes away over the course of an hour, becoming progressively more stuttery and quavery. By the last fifteen minutes, whatever melody there had been has vanished into a series of sporadic, echo-y bursts, like footsteps receding. There’s an erasure sequence in Meltwawter that operates by a similar logic, featuring nine poems that erase progressively more of their source text so that the final iteration preserves only twenty-five words out of the original 2,200.
Laurie Anderson—“O Superman (For Massenet)”
I’m obsessed with the way breath—Anderson’s repeated “ha”—structures this track. I was aiming for a similar thing with “O,” the opening poem of Meltwater, which also uses repetition to propel it. “O Superman” deals more directly with the eerie inexorability of American empire than Meltwater does, but there’s a shared sense of threat, of alienation, of the human desire to be held—even in automatic, electronic, petrochemical, military arms. Laurie Anderson also obviously saw ahead into the rot of the 1980s, the early years of which marked a sharp rise in global temperature that we have not yet, and may never be able to, talk ourselves down from.
If “O Superman” takes the cynical approach to human endeavor, “Oceania” offers a sweeter, more generous angle, imagining the ocean addressing all of humanity as if we were her children (“You have done good for yourselves/ Since you left my wet embrace/ And crawled ashore”). It imagines us as not dangerous or greedy, not bent on profit and destruction. But we are, of course, and so this song feels like a fantasy (any song that appeals broadly enough to be featured in an Olympic opening ceremony is going to have an element of fantasy). Fantasy or not, though, there are true things here: “Your sweat is salty/ I am why,” is such a direct, visceral reminder of our permeability to the more-than-human world, and to the ways we are beholden to it, even as we turn away from them.
Brian Eno—“The Big Ship”
I’ve found myself listening to a lot of ambient stuff, especially Brian Eno, since my children came into the picture. This one in particular has this kind of inexorability and excitement, as if preparing for a voyage, but maybe there’s sadness and anxiety in there too. The thing about ambient music is that you bring a lot of yourself to it, lol. Has the voyage started? Are we moving? Are we watching the ship come in? Is it leaving without us? Is the ship death? These are the questions.
Lots of strong, idiosyncratic female vocalists on this list! There’s an eerie mismatch in this song between the childishness of the vocals and the direness of the content (the song is from the perspective of an unborn child responding to a nuclear blast). Permeability is a big theme for me—in this case, it’s not just about the non-boundaries between a child in utero and its mother, but between ourselves to the larger world. A fetus has no choice but to accept whatever its mother provides (including nicotine, including radioactive air). I often think about what I may have passed on to my children, what I am still passing on to my children. We can’t choose what we love; we can’t choose what we’re bound to. I picture myself as the child, I picture my child as the child. We’re all here because of someone else’s choices. Just by existing, just by breathing, we are in danger.
ANOHNI has been doing really interesting stuff lately, especially surrounding climate catastrophe (the title is a reference to the projected increase in global temperature by 2100). This is the most violent song on this playlist, with its hammering background and its lyrics about taking a torch to the breeze, the fish, “all those tiny creatures.” Many of the poems in Meltwater imagine the results of this attitude, which is of course grotesque, cruel, hyperbolic. But if the impact of our daily (in)actions is still “fish go[ing] belly-up in the sea,” does it really matter what our intent is?
Neutral Milk Hotel—“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”
We all know this song is genius, but I actually can’t stand listening to it because it’s existentially painful. The fear of death is behind a lot of Meltwater, and it’s made worse by (or rather, is a direct result of) the merciless intensity of love that I experience, and which is impossible to give up. And this track articulates that so directly that it freaks me the fuck out.
Death Cab for Cutie—“I Will Follow You into the Dark”
BUT WHY STOP THERE?? I’m including this song even though I find it unbearable to listen to myself. It’s hard to face art that taps into your own impulses so directly. It’s like touching the third rail. There are several poems in the book that imagine taking one’s life into one’s hands after tremendous, apparently unending and insurmountable pain. I would like someone to say no, don’t do that, that’s unreasonable, but Ben Gibbard DOES NOT and that terrifies me. Since having children, of course, my life is beholden to a set of principles, which makes a choice like that impossible. And I don’t know how I feel about that.
More uncanny ambient stuff! “Chimera” has a lot of definitions: a Greek mythological monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail; an “unreal creature of the imagination”; biologically, an organism that contains a genetic medley of tissues. For me, this piece feels like the second definition: a monster built out of whatever anxieties you throw at it. The three-note phrase that repeats throughout the piece feels like my brain shuffling and reshuffling its lo-fi terrors against itself.
The political context of “Zombie” is not Meltwater’s, but it foregrounds the effects of violence on children in a way that Meltwater also does. And it speaks so powerfully to the temptation to disavow the violence, to say it has nothing to do with us, to be “one of the good ones,” to point elsewhere. But violence (environmental, political, racial, gender-based, all of the above) lands in everyone’s lap, which is one of the things that makes living on this earth so painful.
Ralph Vaughn Williams—“The Lark Ascending”
God I love this piece, even though I’m only including the opening section. It’s gorgeous, poignant, tender, precarious. It reaches toward joy without—in my experience—fully getting there. But I’m happy to have it pull me along behind it as it tries. Ralph Vaughn Williams based “The Lark Ascending” on a poem of the same title by George Meredith, which, honestly, is embarrassing for Meredith. This piece is such an improvement—an example of music doing something that a poem never could.
The Decemberists—“Sons & Daughters”
Meltwater is generally very dark, but it does make a turn toward resistance, a commitment to survival, by the very end. And for me, that resistance is in the service of children, so I wanted a song that rallies around children in the way this one does. The song keeps adding elements—extra vocals, extra harmonies, extra instrumentation—becoming progressively more full, more victorious, as it goes on. The crescendo at the end is such a jubilance. Meltwater never arrives at this kind of exultation, but it’s something I want for myself.
Florence + The Machine—“Free”
I’m going to list this as a little bonus track—like the one that runs during the credits, lol. The opening lyrics might as well be the motto for not just Meltwater, but for my life in general: “Sometimes, I wonder if I should be medicated/ If I would feel better just lightly sedated.” Like I’m not seeking any treatment for whatever anxiety/intrusive thoughts I have, BUT SHOULD I BE?? But of course, taking the edge off the pain would also take the edge off the delight, and I’m not sure it’s worth it. And after all, isn’t this what life is? Isn’t this what it means to be an artist? “To exist in the face of suffering and death/And somehow still keep singing?” Yes. What a fucking exhilaration.
Claire Wahmanholm is the author of Meltwater, Redmouth, and Wilder, which won the Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry and the Society of Midland Authors Award for Poetry, and was a finalist for the 2019 Minnesota Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Ninth Letter, Blackbird, Washington Square Review, Copper Nickel, Beloit Poetry Journal, Grist, RHINO, Los Angeles Review, Fairy Tale Review, Bennington Review, DIAGRAM, The Journal, and Kenyon Review Online, and have been featured by the Academy of American Poets. She lives in the Twin Cities.