Thomas Reed’s novel Pocketful of Poseys is funny, moving, and profound family drama.
Foreword Reviews wrote of the book:
“Simultaneously heartwrenching and comical, Thomas Reed’s novel Pocketful of Poseys follows a family from the death of their matriarch to their journey to scatter her ashes. . .Subtle and meaningful.”
[Spoiler Alert! Some of the key plot points of the book are hinted at—or blatantly revealed—in the following paragraphs.]
Since the significant action of Pocketful of Poseys begins with the matriarch of the Posey clan hitching up to the legendary Woodstock music festival in August of 1969, any soundtrack of her family narrative would predictably overflow with songs from that epic long weekend. Cinny Posey was there in the rain, mud, and sunshine for everything from Richie Haven’s opening “High Flyin’ Bird” to Jimi Hendrix’s closing “Hey Joe”; she named decades’ worth of cats after her favorite performers; and she spent her whole life working through the consequences of her hours of abandon at Yasgur’s Farm. Here are some of the tunes that might suit the story of the Poseys.
No other song, excepting maybe Jimi Hendrix’s searing “Star-spangled Banner,” makes a stronger claim to being the anthem of Cinny’s Woodstock Nation. When Frank Posey lands his job in the English Department at Dartmouth College, he’s immediately dubbed “the Shelley guy and his Joni Mitchell wife”—a fine comparison given her looks and her artful iconoclasm, both. As I look back on forming her character, I’m inclined to think Joni’s lines about “bombers riding shotgun in the sky turning into butterflies above our nation” shaped my invention in ways I hadn’t appreciated until I sat down to write this. Cinny is a bit of a loose cannon, but her overall impact on the world and her family involves crashing up against hard and unpleasant facts and then working her softening and reconciling magic on everyone around her.
“Foxy Lady”—Jimi Hendrix
Cinny would have heard this Hendrix mainstay the last day of the festival, after the liberating atmosphere of the festival had irrevocably changed her life. She is, in many ways, the quintessential foxy lady, co-founder of an Oberlin College co-op infamous for its semi-annual naked banquets. At the same time, she is finally an abidingly loyal wife and devoted mother, channeling her in-born naughtiness into the bawdy quips and comments that humiliate her daughter even while they charm and delight virtually everyone else. Her step-granddaughter, Sage, is just as foxy in her own way, although she campaigns tooth-and-nail against the objectification of women embodied in the song’s lyrics. Nobody’s going to try to “take her home” without learning that foxes have very sharp little teeth.
The Posey matriarch hitchhikes up to Woodstock as Lucinda Maynard and comes home as “Cinny.” Her friends and family—fiancé-and-then-husband Frank included—are predictably curious about the change. The normally forthcoming Cinny is strangely coy about it. I imagine her looking something like the Mona Lisa when she’s asked to explain the switch, allowing only when she’s pressed that the festival was a life-changing experience and a slight name adjustment only made sense. Once Cinny has died, her children Grace and Brian piece together clues that suggest that Neil Young’s being at Woodstock was a crucial factor. “I wanna live with a cinnamon girl. I could be happy the rest of my life with a cinnamon girl,” read his lyrics. They could represent husband Frank’s protestations of love and intent—and another man’s long-term aspirations as well.
“Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”—Country Joe and the Fish
This one’s on my playlist, in part, because Country Joe McDonald doesn’t get listened to very much anymore, although few artists evince late sixties’ counterculture more vividly than he and his Fish. I chose this particular song because the title catches Cinny’s remarkable decision to hasten the end her life—and also because the jocularly fatalistic lyrics capture her wry, logstanding cynicism. If you don’t know the song, be forewarned about the naughty cheer that kicks it off.
“Somebody to Love”—Jefferson Airplane
Tough choice between this and “White Rabbit,” both of which were on the Airplane’s Woodstock set list. Despite Ella’s fondness for ganja, though, the revelatory power of drugs is infinitely farther from the heart of Pocketful of Poseys than the quest for someone to love. Grace, of course, is convinced that her mother named her after Grace Slick, the Airplane’s legendarily stoned chanteuse. Among her twin brother Brian’s resentments is that he wasn’t given an equally luminary name from among the Woodstock headliners. Those went instead to his mother’s cats.
“When You Find Out Who You Are”—Incredible String Band
I admit that this song, the strangest and longest on my playlist, is unlikely to make anyone jump up and dance. One YouTube viewer recommends it narrowly for times “When you want to trip without the acid . . .” Still, it’s the song that Cinny wakes up to after sleeping with a stranger in a rain-pounded tent, realizing that (given the right bacchanalian circumstances) she is completely capable of betraying her fiancé. There are other wrenching personal epiphanies in the book ss well, and it could probably even be subtitled, “When We Find Out Who We Are.”
“That’s the Way Love Goes”—Merle Haggard
I had to include a song that Cinny would have rolled her eyes at as Milt, her dying neighbor across the hall, blasted his country and western dirges at excruciating volume. Something, you know, that would have added to her incentive to pass away quickly. I expect I chose Merle Haggard because of the disdain I held him in when “Okie from Muskogee” came out in 1969. It has emerged since that his intent may have been satirical and that its becoming an anthem of the reactionary right may have been as unintended as “Born in the U.S.A” becoming the same for more recent right wingers. In any case, “That’s the Way Love Goes” seemed as good a choice as any. Many fans consider it to be one of Merle’s very best, and the title comes as close as a title could to the focus and theme of Pocketful of Posies. I also love the line, “I’ve been throwin’ horseshoes over my left shoulder.” Maybe it’s the way it gets at the hazards of superstition.
“Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright”—Bob Marley
An absolute natural for my playlist, since it’s the song Kingsley Shaw is singing at the destination wedding when Brian first sees him—and begins to fall in love. This is another one that captures the gist of the novel, as unlikely as it may seem that a book about self-starvation and the sprinkling of parental ashes in challenging locations will end up as a feel-good story. Everything sorts out for the best, though, because honesty really does turn out to be a great gift of love.
“When I See You Smile”—Bic Runga
Writing Pocketful of Poseys allowed me to return in my memory to New Zealand, where I’d spent two wonderful sabbatical years with my family. The spunky little country has quite a distinguished record for popular music, from Split Enz in the 70s to Lorde today. One of our very favorite Kiwi artists, though, is Bic (pronounced “Beck”) Runga. Her minute-and-three-quarters song, “When I See You Smile,” takes my breath away with its pure and intimate sincerity.
“Sing a Song”—Earth Wind and Fire
Cinny reminisces about the year she and her husband Frank spent in Oxford while he was writing his dissertation on Percy Bysshe Shelley. By far the best dancing in town, she claims, was at The Stage Club, a hangout for gay students and anyone who realized that the gay students knew where the best dancing was. A friend at the time introduced me to the place, and we more than once danced until the sky east of Magdalen College brightened from cobalt to gray to coral. “Sing a Song” was one of the deejay’s staples.
Sage is a huge Beck fan, impressed by the way he never rests on his sonic laurels but is always seeking to reinvent himself. Of all the characters in the book, Sage surprised me the most, morphing from a young woman I thought would be annoying into one I would be proud to have as my daughter. I chose this song in her honor because it captures the devotion and patience she didn’t know she had in her until her mother whisked her off on a trip around the world to scatter the ashes of people she barely knew. “When the sky fades out and the roads all end, I’m gonna wait on you, gonna wait on you.”
This last is my “just plain weird coincidence” song. The title of my book comes, of course, from the children’s song, “Ring Around the Rosie.” I toyed with the idea of including a recording of that one but, on a whim, I Googled “Ring Around the Rosie Rock Song” and got a hit on Stellar’s “Ashes.” I gave it a listen and kind of liked the catchy vibe, agreeing with one of the YouTube listeners who asked, “Why does it feel like I’ve been listening to this song for my whole life even though I just discovered it today?” Lo and behold, when I then Googled “Stellar,” I discovered that it is a New Zealand band. And if that weren’t enough, it was formed by Boh Runga, Bic Runga’s sister. I confess I’m somewhat awed by the whole circular thing. If Pocketful of Posies is ever made into a movie, I’ll suggest that this song play as the final credits roll. Oh! Trigger Warning on the f-bombs!