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October 4, 2017

Book Notes - Jeffrey Schultz "Civil Twilight"

Civil Twilight

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jeffrey Schultz's collection Civil Twilight brilliantly captures the power of poetry as political statement in the 21st century.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Already the winner of National Poetry Series honors for 2013's What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other, polished poet Schultz shows his craft in long, cleanly reticulated lines. ... The title poem is masterly, moving from the 'bland abstract expressionism' of America's landscapes to the 'beauty of transgression,' as demonstrated by 19th-century Parisian rioters and Sixties students, whom Ronald Reagan said he wanted to meet with a bloodbath, to the speaker's absorption in life's superficialities as a friend suffers. VERDICT Weighty but worth it for serious poetry readers."

In his own words, here is Jeffrey Schultz's Book Notes music playlist for his poetry collection Civil Twilight:

I wrote the poems in this book over a period of about five years, and during that period my relationship to music—and, I think, culture generally—changed pretty substantially. I tend to hear music a lot differently now. The eight poems in the book are long and dense and layered, so I'm going to lean on multiple songs in some cases. This feels a little like cheating, but some of the poems have like three epigraphs, so maybe the sense of excessiveness captures something about the poems themselves.

"Stare Decisis et Non Quieta Movere"

Billy Bragg and Wilco, "California Stars": Woody Guthrie's never-recorded lyrics are set to music by Bragg and Wilco here. This is maybe what the poem would like to say but can't in good conscience say. The song's nostalgic, plaintive longing is almost irresistible, but in Los Angeles today, it all sounds impossibly romantic. Guthrie wrote "This machine kills fascists" on his guitar, but I think we all have to recognize at this point that our musical forms coexist happily with fascism and can even be used to brand it. So far as I know, Trump still plays the Rolling Stones at his rallies; he even used Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" at one point. Reagan used Bruce Springsteen. They all do it. It's hard, and probably quite dangerous, to pretend that there's anything inherently resistant in these forms.

The Clash, "Know Your Rights" & "Car Jammin'": These are the opening tracks from the Clash's finale, Combat Rock. "Know Your Rights" tries as directly as possible in its lyrics to confront the deep contradictions in the distribution of our supposedly universal, supposedly fundamental rights, e.g., "You have the right not to be killed. / Murder is a crime! / Unless it was done / by a policeman / or an aristocrat." Joe Strummer's sneer is in really fine form here. "Car Jammin'" is I think an interesting culmination of the Clash's project of trying to incorporate pop forms from around the world, and is much more successful as a pop synthesis than most of the attempts on Sandinista. The range of reference both in the lyrics and the basic musical material of the song has the effect of collapsing events that are perhaps widely separated in time and space into a single musical moment, a single image. I've tried, through different means, to create a similar effect in the poems in this book. Of course, even the Clash couldn't find forms not amenable to fascism. "Rock the Casbah," from this same album, was the opening song of Armed Forces Radio's in-theater broadcast during the first Gulf War.

"Habeas Corpus"

Arcade Fire, "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)": Though this is one of the last poems in the book I finished, I've had pieces of it floating around since 2004 or 2005, when I was definitely listening to the Arcade Fire's debut, Funeral, pretty incessantly. My Ludditesque tendencies weren't so highly developed back then: I had an iPod and everything and used to listen to this when taking our dog out for a walk on winter mornings in Oregon. My wife and I moved to Michigan in 2006 and the ice images deepened there. I remember thinking that the songs on this album seemed to strain against their own formal confines, seemed to want to shake themselves to pieces and be free of themselves. Of course they couldn't, and in that they seemed more honest about what they were. That feeling of being trapped inside of something beyond our understanding came to be the core of this poem, which also cannot become free, but tries to get closer to glimpsing a vision of what binds it.

"Civil Twilight"

Pixies, "Debaser": For a while I adopted this song as a sort of personal anthem. There's a good deal of hostility in and behind this book. A fair amount of it is directed at certain aspects of poetry itself, but in this poem, Ronald Reagan may get the worst of it. I've always enjoyed this song's the reference to Buñuel and Dalí's Un Chien Andalou. Though I'm not much of a surrealist, I admire surrealism's iconoclastic ethos.

Drugstore, "El Presidente": I can't pretend I'm a good person; I really genuinely enjoyed imagining the detail of Reagan's stagnation into death in this poem. I've listened to this song more than a few times since last November. I just yesterday found myself saying "We even assassinated a president once," where "we" meant anarchists. Obviously some careful backpedalling and clarification was necessary. Everyone carries listening devices on them these days. I'm not going to be assassinating or attempting to assassinate anyone. Not really my speed. But I like how the chorus in this song sounds like it could almost drift off toward somewhere where things are entirely otherwise.

"Deleted Scene"

Grant Lee Buffalo, "Sing Along": This is the most direct connection between a song and a poem in this book, though there's no direct reference in the poem to the song. I've been fascinated by the scope of this song since the mid-90s, when I first heard it. Grant-Lee Phillips's lyrics—and this is similar to what the Clash were able to accomplish in "Car Jammin'"—sometimes manage to collapse great expanses of time and space into a single, luminous line or verse: "Man built a furnace, / A Mercedes Benz. / Man built the cities of / Kansas and Berlin." Or "Man built a market, / For Mohammed Ali, / Evel Knievel and the legacy / of John Wayne / Gacy, Gacy." The chorus gets at the heart of the problem: a soaring and perfectly harmonious declaration that the singer cannot sing along. Lovely as it sounds, it has nowhere to go at that point, which I think means it points toward something true, even if it can't say anything about it.

"Offering of Two Burning Calves"

Dolly Parton, "9 to 5": It would make a lot of sense to point to Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee" here, but, as I allude to in the poem, I've always hated that song. This poem is concerned with having to push a car that's broken down in traffic. I've had my share of unreliable cars, but had a particular 1964 Ford Galaxie—by far the heaviest car I ever had to push—in mind here. "Me and Bobby McGee" pretends it's found freedom in destitution and thereby degrades the image of freedom to an image of destitution; Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" pretends the oppressiveness of the everyday is something we should bop along happily to as we struggle to survive it. This is the cardinal sin of all work songs, a genre I have a soft spot for, particularly this one. I love the mimicry of typewriter sounds, an updated echo of the hammer and rock mimicry of earlier chain gang and coal mining songs. For how many more generations will we even be able to hear such references? Can we now? Seems to me that we've now largely let such mimicry go; we've let the computers that so structure the horror of the everyday take over the production of music wholesale. Because they sound exactly like themselves, there's no more difference to tell.

"Sort of Like, Um, the Falcon & the Falconer or Whatever, but Sort of Not"

The Velvet Underground, "Who Loves the Sun?": I've also always had a soft spot for songs that indulge that most basic formal irony of pairing a straightforward, upbeat, major key verse-chorus-verse with "sad" lyrics. This poem maybe tries to play around with and reverse certain aspects of that formula: it tries to draw out, against the pull of their own gravity within the negative form of the poem's imagination, images of something like social happiness that are in reality nothing but the delusions of mass conformity.

Hole, "Rock Star," a.k.a., "Olympia": Speaking of the delusions of mass conformity, I really have to thank the 90s of my adolescence for orienting me to these at an early age. With all the new technologies of media distribution and the progressive splintering of what once seemed like movements into mere styles that might be reassembled in any number of supposedly novel configurations, it hardly seems possible anymore to have a moment like we did in the early 90s, when both rock and hip hop became newly hostile to what their genres had hardened into. Of course, this was really only another return to the punk or roots moment in the cycle of popular styles, but now that cycle seems to have been endlessly interrupted, perpetually layered on top itself over and again; everything now is available all the time and style has become far more a matter of personalization. If that sounds like it has freed us from conformity, freed us to become our individual selves, I'm certain nothing could be further from the truth: conformity is a matter of adopting a supposedly personal style, and this has been made inescapable: even stylelessness has been made a style. There's no position outside the whole.

But anyway, Hole and Courtney Love in particular were treated terribly. When I was in high school and playing guitar and in a band, all guitar playing high school boys had to agree that Love had no business even trying; this was part of the price of admission to the fraternity of guitar playing high school boys. Obviously, she was better, infinitely better, than any of us, but we refused to even listen. I secretly liked the Hole songs I heard (though I did not seek them out on my own), but felt I couldn't admit it much. Hole deserves credit.

"Resolution in Loving Memory of Sky & Gooseflesh"

Beethoven's Grosse Fuge in B♭Major, Op. 133: I think, at the end of the day, there's something fugue-like about all of the poems in this book. This poem and the final poem are probably the most conscious of this fugue-like aspect, are probably the most densely and complexly interwoven, but all of the poems strive toward something like the development of complex and contradictory thematic simultaneity. Beethoven's tremendous Grosse Fuge is certainly beyond this poem, but it's maybe the sort of thing the poem aspires to. I listen to this piece often, and struggle to hear it more and more fully. More and more, in the poems in this book, and certainly in the poems I've been working on since completing this book, I've become interested in forms that are too large to fully grasp in any single moment, but that are nonetheless whole and unified. In a totalized global social system such as ours, it seems to me that such forms still have some ability to reflect something of the objectivity of our experience.

"& Plays It One More Time, with Feeling, in the Rotating Piano Bar atop the Grand Hotel Abyss"

The Coup, "Laugh, Love, Fuck": This song has essentially nothing to do with this poem, which wants to be a song all of its own terms, but it does maybe speak to my own state of mind when I completed the poem.

Jeffrey Schultz and Civil Twilight links:

excerpt from the book (the title poem)

HuffPost review
Library Journal review
The Millions review

Fogged Clarity review by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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