Megan Fernandes’s I Do Everything I’m Told is a smart and ambitious exploration of desire, a striking and haunting collection of poetry.
Vulture wrote of the book:
“Megan Fernandes writes beautifully on the thorny relationship between grief, regret, and desire with verse that spans continents and beloveds and alternate timelines. . . . Fernandes’s poems are loving and messy but always precise, her insights the kind that make you reevaluate your entire life. This book captures Fernandes at her most mature, exciting, and brave. I Do Everything I’m Told is a perfect entry point to Fernandes’s captivating and irreverent style.”
My book, I Do Everything I’m Told, takes its title from a playlist I made while in Venice.
It was just as the pandemic lifted in Italy and I took the first flight from NYC to Venice to see someone I loved and hadn’t seen in over a year. It was deserted. To see the city of tranquil green waters, dead poets, ancient, labyrinthine walkways, stone rubble fountains, abandoned Madonna statues stuck in century-old crevices, and a beleaguered hospital that looked more like the gateway to paradise, gave the old city-state a bizarre, uncanny surrealism.
Venice, stitched together by old conquests and art renaissances and literary mythology, was suddenly met with a contemporary global death event, a working class city devoid of its tourism, and for me, an unintelligible, queer love story. As my poem in my book says, “Time is all mixed up.” For me, this was a period of so much simultaneous regret and hope, self-admission and self-deception. What resulted was a playlist of the bittersweet. Not quite annihilation, not quite recovery. Not quite land, not quite sea. Not quite giving in or up, but something also with the knowledge that something had deadened in me.
I found myself drawn to a kind of the slow, dreamy, liminal sounds of Miguel and Blood Orange and Lana, to the sonic deconstruction of J. Dilla, the throwbacks of my coming-of-age faves like Portishead, the album that saved my life in 2019 (Foto by Kota the Friend), and a smattering of random bittersweet kings from Miles Davis to Rachmaninov.
It is constituted by songs I listened to on repeat from the period of October 2019-June 2021, but I formalized the list in June 2021 while sitting on a balcony in Venice, trying not to listen to an argument of a couple inside. So in that way, it brings us back in the world of children and those moments when a kid puts on the TV a little louder, grabs their headphones, pumps up the music, in order to not hear a conversation. That desire to dissolve a tumultuous foreground into the background? That’s a drive I understand. Which is the drive of our inner children which says, instead of this shitty reality, what about a dreamy oddness, outside of time?
- “Sure Thing” by Miguel
If I’m the reporter, you the news. If I’m the match, you the fuse. The devastating vulnerability of love within the contract of the conditional “If I/ then you” construction. I think there’s something here that’s trying to figure out the relationship between I and you, object and subject, muse and writer. And also that sometimes exciting, sometimes violating space of being possessed and one’s possessiveness.
2. “Wild is the Wind,” by Nina Simone
This song is the thesis of the book. What might it be like to surrender to forces unintelligible to us? I remember reading Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o’s essay on a “Theory in the Wild” in which they mention this song and how Simone imagines the wind as a force outside of language, outside of apparent meaning, outside of signification. That such a wind might be when “intensity bows to communication” and I liked thinking of desire in this way, that desire might be so strong and unknown to us, so intense and confusing. There’s something chilling in this acknowledgment that we might not have as much agency as we believe.
3. “Glory Box” by Portishead
Yo, the sensory opening of this song. Like you’re on a tempting cliff. But the jump is about the ten long seconds before you touch someone’s lower back. But also, the fatigue! The exhaustion in this song: “I’ve been a temptress too long.” Picture me at seventeen listening to nonstop Portishead, but also, knowing that my self-insights were “the beginning of forever and ever.”
4. “Yesterday” by J. Dilla
One of my favorite Morrison quotes is in Beloved when one character says to another, “we got a lot of yesterday.” What does so much time stacked in the presence of another person do to intimacy? When you know them the way you know a clock, the afternoon, summer light in Philly? I love Dilla’s interludes and how he imagines repetition, where he believes repetition gets us, which is not quite a loop. Repetition has a plot. It does progress to some epiphany, but it does by asking us to constantly return to some “before,” some “yesterday.”
5. “Doin’ Time” by Lana del Ray
A classic. And yet, also a reinvention. The threat in Lana’s indifferent tone, always a bit detached, but also repeating “Evil. We’re coming to tell you she’s evil. Most definitely” is to be taken as such a serious warning. I listened to this song on repeat in October 2019 when my heart was shredded and I was a robot. I only had to pray that I was treading water before some relief and also, making the love object into a “bad” object which sometimes we have to do, however unfair, in order to recover ourselves.
6. “Dance for You” by Rachel D’Arcy
We all want to be the exception, to be chosen, to find out the dangerous threshold of our love: “I wouldn’t kill for anyone, but I would kill for you.” This is maybe the only song I’d strip to or have someone strip for me to… it’s giving bottom energy: “Tell me what do.” Hot.
7. “Alkaline” by Kota the Friend
“Lately, I just say I’m out of town” (what I say to everyone in NYC when I want to be left alone!) starts this song, one of my favorites from the Foto album by Kota the Friend, but actually, this WHOLE album could have been on this playlist. The themes of distrust, self-isolation, and putting on a face/persona. It’s also a song about coming back from a mistake, coming back from stupidity, from indignity: “Don’t you know the foolish always grow wise?” My other favorite songs on this album include “Church,” “Sedona,” and “Hollywood.”
8. “It Never Entered My Mind” by Miles Davis Quintet
The epitome of bittersweet. This song is the lost dream playbook. Not quite regret, but like when you can see your parallel life playing out and how it would’ve been nice, but also, how it’s not going to happen. What’s pleasurable is the ability to perceive a possibility. What’s annihilating is the sensation of “splitting” that occurs from what is possible and what is real, what you could have and what you do have. That little break in time and space? Bitter. Also, sweet.
9. “Shadow Man,” by Noname, featuring Phoelix, Sabo, and Smino
I love Noname’s flow, a little chatty, a bit out of breath, always cutting. The first poem in my book, “Tired of Love Poems,” makes an allusion to lyrics in this song which read “Bless the nightingale/ Darkness keep you well” and my opening poem talks about writing a sonnet to a bird in the black of night, almost imperceptible. Shadow Man plays with the idea of shadow boxing, fighting off some kind of alter-ego or punishing inner child.
10. Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto 2 in C Minor, Opus 18
Maybe the most beautiful song ever composed, written, played. Torrential. Dramatic. Turbulent. But also so much dynamism. It builds and pivots. It’s the perfect classical song for someone with ADHD.
11. “Blasé,” by Archie Shepp
For me, an intuitive follow-up to Rachmaninov with its long opening, it has the lesson of repetition from Dilla, and the poetics of Kota (a little spoken word in here), this song by Shepp, a brilliant American saxophonist, kills me slowly like the Fugees. It’s sermonic. It reminds me of Amiri Baraka and the musicians of the Black Arts Movement compositions.
12. “Sheet Music,” Vince Staples
This is maybe the most fun song on the list. I play this when I’m leaving and arriving to a city (and I’m always leaving and arriving to a place). The bars are so clean and swaggy and I love the alliteration and dental consonants of the lyrics. It’s also a song about making bad decisions even when one has few resources (relatable!).
13. “Gur Nalon,” by MadStarBase
A little shoutout to Mumbai, home of my grandparents for forty years, with this DJ collective mixing Bollywood music and club beats. There’s a kind of lostness I revel in and these beats remind me of being young and visiting my family in India and watching music videos on my grandparent’s television. Some part of that kid meets the nightlife NYC kid when I listen to this song, which again, does the work of the book in collapsing time and geographies. It’s disorienting in the best sense.
14. “Bad Girls,” by Solange
A perfect exit. Something really ’80s cinematic about those opening beats and then the trickle of voice. The speaker is still a bad object. Waking up in other people’s bed. Makeup that is two days old. A taxi ride to nowhere. But still in the inability to articulate where she’s going, the speaker still goes, which is what I hope my book conveys. Not all progress or plots or epiphanies lead us to some paradise or idyllic homeostasis. We discover ourselves slowly. We repeat our dumb mistakes, but maybe a little less messy this time.
Megan Fernandes is the author of the poetry collections I Do Everything I’m Told (Tin House) and Good Boys, a finalist for the Kundiman Poetry Prize and the Paterson Poetry Prize. Her poems have been published in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, The Common, and the Academy of American Poets, among others. An associate professor of English and the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College, Fernandes lives in New York City.