Karin Cecile Davidson’s story collection The Geography of First Kisses eloquently explores love in all its forms.
In writing the fourteen stories of this collection, I hadn’t started out with music in mind; however, the songs kept showing up. Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” a confused version of Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer,” Megan Palmer and the Hopefuls’ “Love’s Wish,” even Chopin’s “Preludes, Op. 28: No. 4, Largo.” The briefest mention of music colored the stories, gave the characters intention, pushed tone into place. I had to laugh at times at what landed on the page. Seriously, all that Dylan? And a bunch of BeauSoleil, which makes sense because there’s a whole lot of Louisiana in these stories. Much of the music came to light after the writing, like Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and Jason Isbell’s “Dreamsicle.” What results here is a ridiculously long playlist. Extra songs are listed as well in terms of an extended-play experience—“lagniappe,” that little bit extra we love in Louisiana.
When thinking of the stories as a collection, rather than single moments, one finds thematic layers of loss, yearning, love, and belonging. To me, it’s as if each piece were part of an ivory-and-indigo patchwork quilt, with an Americana feel—heavy on Gulf Coast, light on Midwest, and with threads that trail as far as Canada and Europe. A theme song seems the best way to begin, and Lucinda Williams certainly leads in that direction.
“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” – Lucinda Williams:
theme song for the collection
In Lucinda Williams’s “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” there’s a way in which the world leans backward, a kind of retrospective glance, and sets one down in the present at the same time. The voice, rough yet steady, calls one to look and listen, to pull back the curtain and peer outside, or to stare out the window of a moving car, the crisp sigh of gravel beneath the car tires. To wake up to the scents of breakfast, the Loretta’s voice on the kitchen radio; to sit straight and behave, to climb into the car and go for a ride, then hear Hank singing from an AM station while the world flies by outside, the unrelenting world outside.
The stories of The Geography of First Kisses lean in this same way, back in time and yet right here and right now, with similar southern sounds and sights and scents—the crush of oyster-shell driveways under car tires, the view from a bedroom mirror into a hallway where a mother and father argue, breakfasts of scrambled eggs and pecan-studded pancakes served on bright yellow plates. Their worlds are colored by backward glances, where little girls have smudged faces, that “little bit of dirt mixed with tears,” and where women can’t quite take care of themselves, much less their children, and where longing and sometimes searching for something better nearly always sends them back home.
“Blue” – by Joni Mitchell, performed by Rufus Wainwright:
“The Geography of First Kisses”
The song “Blue” by Joni Mitchell does much to inform this story’s narrator, an unnamed teenage girl: “Joni’s words cluttered my mind—sea and sail and song and sinking. Though I thought I’d known, I’d lost sense of all I wanted. I’d lost all sense of direction.” Themes of sailing, searching, finding direction, and setting a course cross over all too quickly from first kisses to whiskey-laced sex. The fact that the song is sung here by Rufus Wainwright seems fitting, the longing in his voice, edgy and equal to the yearning of the young narrator.
Extended play: “I’ll Try Anything Once” – Joni / “Madman Across the Water” – Elton John / “Main Theme from BUtterfield 8” – Bronsilaw Kaper & David Rose / “Come Sail Away” – Styx
“You & I” – Wilco / “Horses” – Maggie Rogers:
“We Are Here Because of a Horse”
For this story, there is one song for Sam, the narrator, the story’s heart, and one for Meli, the story’s pulse. Drumbeats and missing horses and broken childhoods drive the narrative, Sam following Meli toward her dream, one that is elusive and can only be seen from a distance. Sam’s song is “You and I” by Wilco, for he longs for the true duet of his marriage, “all the good with the bad,” and Meli’s is “Horses” by Maggie Rogers, for her longing is tied to her past. She sees the horse and knows “there’s a way.”
Extended play: “Heavy Metal Drummer” – Wilco / “Wild Horses” – The Rolling Stones
“Love’s Wish” – Megan Palmer & the Hopefuls / “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” – James Booker / “The Limit to Your Love” – Feist:
Chloe wishes for so much, mostly to be elsewhere and with someone else. To be in Louisiana instead of Ohio, to be with Gus Van Sant instead of Simon, to fly through life, a damselfly in the bayou, rather than lie under a skylight looking up at clouds and jet trails. The line “love wishes for confusion” from the song “Love’s Wish” by Megan Palmer & the Hopefuls reveals Chloe’s state of mind, while James Booker’s rendition of “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home” is an honest plea, a reflection of her heart. By story’s end, Feist’s “The Limit to Your Love” best echoes Chloe’s relationship with Simon and how she can find a way—”I know, I know, I know / That only I can save me / I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go / Right down the road”—perhaps along a road past fields of corn and wheat and llamas in that bottle-green truck with Gus at the wheel.
Extended play: “Both Sides Now” – Joni Mitchell / “The Flower Girl (La Violetera)” from City Lights – Charlie Chaplin
“Cinnamon Girl” – Crazy Horse / “Mr. Soul” – Buffalo Springfield:
“The Biker and the Girl”
I’ve been told this story holds a lot of heat, and this is true—burns from a welding iron and a searing hot cast-iron skillet, a warm spring evening in New Orleans, as well as the heat of passion. If I could choose a song that best fits this kind of heat, it would be “Cowgirl in the Sand” by Neil Young and performed with Crazy Horse. The drive and resonance of the guitar solos alone could carry the backstories and the forward momentum of the present story which belongs equally to the biker and the girl. That said, there is no way to stream this song (Neil Young’s reason for this is as clear as Joni Mitchell’s), and so, songs that might present the tone of the story for the girl and the biker respectively include Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” (Crazy Horse) and “Mr. Soul” (Buffalo Springfield).
Extended play: “Party’s Over Now” – Noel Coward / “Love the One You’re With” – Stephen Stills / “Different Drum” – Linda Ronstadt & The Stone Poneys / “Cowgirl in the Sand” – Neil Young w/Crazy Horse
“Stormy Weather” – Etta James / “La Valese De Port Arthur” – BeauSoleil / “My Love (The Storm)” – Amanda Shires:
“Eliza, in the Event of a Hurricane”
The love and allegiance of one sister for another marks this story, and Etta James’s “Stormy Weather” is a beautiful window into these sisters’ world. Hurricanes rule here, and Eliza has been obsessed with them since she was a child. Like an instruction manual for how to handle Eliza during hurricane season, the story is told in second-person viewpoint and covers the ground of southern Louisiana, from Cut Off to Thibodaux, over Grand Isle and within the New Orleans levees. BeauSoleil’s “La Valese De Port Arthur” might be heard over the loudspeakers at Dufrene Building Materials, while Amanda Shires’s “My Love (The Storm)” might be heard from the jukebox at the Saturn Bar.
“One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” / “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” – Bob Dylan:
“One Night, One Afternoon, Sooner or Later”
There’s no avoiding it: this little story just begs for its own playlist, limited to two songs here (five in the extended-play version). All Dylan. “Blonde on Blonde Dylan. Highway 61 Dylan.” Young Lors is caught inside a long hot New Orleans summer with Jude and Micah, and she’s just not sure how much longer she can spend as a part of this threesome. Late ’70s SNL, too many bottles of Bolla Valpolicella, too many cigarettes, the bluster of blue crabs, Micah and Jude’s guitar duets, and Micah’s middle-of-the-night desires all send Lors spinning and trying to find a place to land.
Extended play: “Highway 61 Revisited” / “I Want You” / “Just Like a Woman” – Bob Dylan
“Sweet Dreams” – Tammy Wynette / “I Looked at You” – The Doors:
Farmer Howdy Miller of Dynamo, Iowa is beyond taken with the mysterious stranger who has come to town. And Morgan Loving, that stranger, has her mind set on two things: tossing a good pig and staying for a long while. Surprisingly, these circumstances fit together, the unlikeliest of connecting puzzle pieces, like the pairing of Tammy Wynette’s version of “Sweet Dreams” and The Doors’ “I Looked at You.”
Extended play: “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” – Pink Floyd / “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” – The Doors
“Evangeline” – Emmylou Harris / “Chanson D’Acadie” (Evangeline Waltz) – BeauSoleil:
“That Bitter Scent”
Evangeline is up north in Tonawanda, working the counter of a donut shop, wishing for her life back in Louisiana, the life she’d had and would’ve had before the oil spill ruined it all. Emmylou Harris’s “Evangeline” and BeauSoleil’s “Chanson D’Acadie” set the tone.
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” – Procol Harum / “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” – The Persuaders, performed by Annie Lennox:
Sandra steps out of the cold into the warmth of the Berlin Zoo Ape House with her young daughter, Alice, and her infant son, Ben, all the while watching a female gorilla and considering her place as a wife, a mother, a photographer. She knows her life’s complications—the “thin line between love and hate”—but wills herself to stay.
Extended play: “A Whiter Shade of Pale” – original by Procol Harum, performed by Annie Lennox / “Use Me” – Grace Jones
“Preludes, Op. 28: No. 4, Largo” – Frédéric Chopin, Alexandre Tharaud:
“The Last I Saw Mitsou”
Mysterious moments of books and more books and Mitsou’s momentous reaction. Chopin responds with “Preludes, Op. 28: No 4, Largo.”
“Chez Seychelles” – BeauSoleil / “Ain’t That a Shame” – Fats Domino / “Crescent City” – Lucinda Williams:
“In the Great Wide”
Miracles happen in Antoinette’s New Orleans: cream-colored roses appearing overnight from sidewalk cracks, the faces of ten of the twelve apostles appear on the bowling pins in lane seven at Trinity Lanes, and Antoinette’s own baby begins to disappear. Faith is questioned, trust is tested, and still the miracles keep happening. BeauSoleil’s “Chez Seychelles” escorts, Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” lays the blame, and Lucinda Williams’s “Crescent City” reminds.
“Dreamsicle” – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit / “My Girl” – The Temptations / “Good Morning Starshine” – original Broadway production of HAIR:
“Soon the First Star”
Celia is doing her best to navigate between her mother and father, always ending up with her mother’s friend Nicky, while her parents mess things up and try their worst at sorting things out. Jaon Isbell’s “Dreamsicle” echoes much of Celia’s story, while The Temptations’ “My Girl” and “Good Morning Starshine” (from the original Broadway production of HAIR) attempt to lift Celia above her circumstances.
“When We Were Young” – Lucy Schwartz / “Wade in the Water” – Eva Cassidy / “Cotton Candy Land” – Elvis Presley, covered by Stevie Nicks & Chris Isaak / “Cotton Candy” – Al Hirt:
“If You Ask Them Nicely”
May tries showing Lizzy how to catch minnows, while Lizzy considers the discontents of their summer together. Another little story with a long set of songs, from Lucy Schwartz’s “When We Were Young” and Eva Cassidy’s cover of “Wade in the Water” to a pair of tunes, like children, in love with cotton candy.
“Another Lonesome Morning” – Emmylou Harris / “Where or When” – Wynton Marsalis / “Where or When” – Peggy Lee / “Happiness” – Taylor Swift:
“She’d turned nine in October of 1955, the year when presidents and mothers were sent to the hospital.” And so, Carly is sent from New Orleans to live a while with relatives in the Mississippi countryside. Through time with her older cousin Robbie, her aunt and uncle, their trio of hunting dogs, and the surrounding woodlands of bobwhite quail, she comes to understand more about the way a heart can strike and just as easily falter. Emmylou Harris’s “Another Lonesome Morning,” the two versions of “Where or When,” and Taylor Swift’s “Happiness” all sway well with this final story and give a soft landing place for The Geography of First Kisses.
Extended play: “Bob White” – Carmen McRae / “Wildwood Flower” – Maybelle Carter / “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” – Wynton Marsalis
Karin Cecile Davidson is the author of the novel Sybelia Drive (Braddock Avenue Books, 2020). Her story collection The Geography of First Kisses was awarded the 2022 Acacia Fiction Prize and is forthcoming from Kallisto Gaia Press in 2023. Her stories have appeared in Five Points, Story, The Massachusetts Review, Colorado Review, Passages North, Post Road, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. Her awards include an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, the Waasmode Prize, the Orlando Prize, a Peter Taylor Fellowship, and residencies at the Fine Arts Work Center, Atlantic Center for the Arts, and The Studios of Key West. Originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, she now lives in Columbus, Ohio. Her writing can be found at karinceciledavidson.com.