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June 11, 2020

Rachel Eliza Griffiths' Playlist for Her Poetry Collection "Seeing the Body"

Seeing the Body by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths' poetry collection Seeing the Body is a moving and inspiring elegy for her mother while also examining the transformative power of loss.

NPR Books wrote of the book:

"Poet and photographer Griffiths' fifth book is a searing, fathomlessly deep elegy for a mother who died long ago, after years of an illness that held her family in its thrall. With astonishing frankness and detail, Griffiths anticipates, experiences, re-experiences, and works to meaningfully incorporate her mother's memory and death into the everyday fabric of her life."

In her own words, here is Rachel Eliza Griffiths' Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Seeing the Body:

“As,” Stevie Wonder

“Did you know you’re loved by somebody?” is the question Stevie Wonder sings in my favorite Wonder song – As. This is the question that opens my book. It’s the question I cling to as I move through a space that veers between language and image. I’m writing mostly about grief – the death of my mother in 2014 – and it’s this Wonder song that holds me upright. I love how the movements and transitions happen, and how the lyrics are a poem. Wonder’s voice praises our relationships to ourselves and to a world that is far greater than our greatest fears. Like a poem, it must be song and shared. In the middle of this pandemic, Wonder’s genius is home where I am healed.

“Move On Up,” Curtis Mayfield (Extended Version)

With Mayfield, it’s all about soul. How soul itself is a political and a spiritual reckoning. The way Curtis Mayfield loved black people is always evident in his lyrics and his range. The thing too is that he was constantly questioning and challenging his people, black people, to love our power as well as our vulnerability. Mayfield’s a classic. His voice and sound is so original that the minute you hear anything from the Mayfield songbook you know who it is. I like when I read poems where the voice happens like a Curtis Mayfield song. As I wrote my book over the years, I liked playing the music that my mother would dance to, twirling and snapping her fingers in the kitchen, while she cooked us feasts. There are poems that live as love-letters to her, and to the soulfulness of black people.

“Yeyo (Live),” Erykah Badu

I’ve come across different origins for this word, which means Mother. The live version of Badu singing this makes me cry every time. I can’t listen to it without being aware that it alters me. There’s always a new note in the listening. The first time I heard it years ago made me feel like this song held my face in its hands. I grew up on Badu. Her vibrations are cosmic/kismet. Badu is raw, is earth, is star-shine, is root. The poems in my book draw from a fully, mysterious world. Badu believes in her intuition, in her truth, in the experiment we have named Reality. The world comes into my poetry in a way it has never before. In the space of Yeyo I was created and as an artist, I am Yeyo myself. I like what my mouth must do to sing this word/world.

“Over My Head,” Alabama Shakes

When Brittany Howard sings “I don’t think of you/As bits and pieces, I think of you only like a miracle” I can’t describe how her voice goes through my entire body. She’s one of my favorite singers because she cares and she will also not give a fuck. The music we feel is happening on its own terms. I wanted that for the poems in my book too. My poems are raw and they hurt. The arrangements of Over My Head climb in their celestial repetition, insisting on loving (not only love) as ever happening, speak to the things that are at stake in my poems. I love the vulnerability and the self-knowledge of her voice singing I’m in over my head. There’s a video of her singing this song and she’s breathtaking and sexy. She reminds me so much of Prince and I grew up on Prince. I’d love to hear someone do a mix where this song bleeds into vocals of Prince’s Purple Rain. It would wreck me so good.

“Hallelujah,” Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen

I’m listing both versions because the inclusion of both voices is the best way to experience this song. It’s symphonic, sacred, lyric. While I was writing this book, Leonard Cohen died. I was in high school when Jeff Buckley died. His drowning haunted me. It still does. I’d seen Cohen in New York during one of his last performances. He wore all black and sang on his knees for most of the concert. I want my poems to kneel in smoke, to wear their strong black skin, and to sing of love and love’s shadows. The thing about poems is that any of us can come to the body of a poem and find mercy in what the poet dares to say about living. If the poem doesn’t dare, it can’t live.

“Bitch Better Have My Money,” Rihanna

This song makes me think about how my mother rolled. She didn’t take shit off nobody. She did not play about her coin, or mine. She was her own champion and tried to teach me to speak up for my worth, whatever or however I might define that in my life. I love to hear Samuel Jackson curse but my mother would have starred in every Tarantino film if you caught her on a bad day. This song encourages me not to be so serious and to remember that it’s okay for me to own who I am.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths is the author of four previous collections of poetry, including Lighting the Shadow. Her literary and visual work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, Paris Review, and many other publications. She lives in New York City.

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