Twitter Facebook Tumblr Pinterest Instagram

« older | Main Largehearted Boy Page | newer »

August 4, 2020

francine j. harris's Playlist for Her Poetry Collection "Here is the Sweet Hand"

Here is the Sweet Hand by francine j. harris

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.

francine j. harris's stunning Here is the Sweet Hand is one of the year's boldest and best poetry collections.

NPR Books wrote of the collection:

"Entering mid-career with her extraordinary third book, harris . . . fully emerges as one of the best and most relevant contemporary poets. She writes with a historical and linguistic reach . . . She is also in league with some of the great practitioners of poetry that makes no distinction between the personal and the political, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Adrienne Rich. Yes, I believe she's that good, writing with a timeless rhetorical force and a finely tuned ear for contemporary speech, about race, queerness, love, and grief."

In her own words, here is francine j. harris's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Here is the Sweet Hand:

Leadbelly “Where Did You Sleep Last Night (In the Pines)”

As a kid, I used to like to tuck myself away and I kept secrets. The pine trees shielding my house from the street I grew up on might have kept some of them for me. I thought of them kind of like people, asking what I was up to. What was I lying about. What was I doing there in the shade, where the sun couldn’t get to. You can hear it in the pop of this recording. The woods some of us lived in, in the middle of our city block.

Nina Simone “When I Was A Young Girl”

Every black woman has a mystery purled into the low moan of piano at the touch of Nina. Nina makes it easy that way. A deep-bellied gift. That thing you keep to yourself when people look at you crazy. Accuse you of being too readily available and knowing less than what you know you know. Thank God for Nina and the footage of her jaw set when she leaned into her keys. And the stare, when she looked up from them. The bare looking-through at them all, past them all, right into the future, where we have record of what feels like her seeing the future, right now.

Solange “Almeda”

How much emotional sense does Solange make to you. I mean the phenomenon of Solange. The air she travels on. The femininity that she slopes against in installation and wide-legg-ed pants. The thrill of her voice dotting the air. Those moments of performance where she comes through so delicate, you have to kind of lean in to catch it, the way you do when someone is telling a good story to a small circle of women. There is something angelic in her voice, including the otherworldliness and the way those wings have bone in ‘em.

Dua Selah “Umbrellar”

When I was taking art classes in college, I used to paint figures in pastel under umbrellas. Huddled into corners. The spine of the thing stretching over the mass of spiral crouching making a body, darkened by lines. I had Henry Moore’s shelter paintings on the war in mind. Those spiraling gestural lines. The wax relief. And here now, the umbrella has taken on a queerness I can’t really account for. This emerging and exciting Minneapolis artist might have a thought about it, though. They are pretty brilliant. Remember Massive Attack’s “Protection”? Yeah, like that.

MF Doom “Lightworks”

Speaking of protection, I love the masked artists of the world. Doom. Banksy. Leikeli47. Gayl Jones ain’t never gonna’ give y’all another interview.

Moses Sumney “Self-Help Tape”

In celebration of black tenderness. This is a gift and his voice is salve.

Side note: Sumney’s “Cut Me” is one of the best videos I’ve ever seen.

Rain Machine “Love Won’t Save You”

My friend Blair introduced me to TV on the Radio when I lived in Detroit. I had moved there from New York but wasn’t tied in enough to have heard of them. They lost Gerard Smith the same year that I lost Blair. Months apart. There’s a parallel there, between these artists – Blair, TOTR and Kyp Malone in this solo project, Rain Machine. Something about the thing that might really save us involving an insistence on being whatever kind of sensitive or strange or tender or lonely we are and want to be. But save us from what, ultimately? “Not the love you’re thinking of.”

Johann Sebastian Bach, Yo-Yo Ma
“Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, BWV 1010: Sarabande”

I started paying attention to classical music again last year, staying in Harlem when I was doing research through the Cullman Center. It wasn’t the first time I’d been drawn into the subtle force of classical composition, but I felt it with a new ear. Jazz and classical music share in common a commentary on speech. Some things just aren’t possible when people are talking. A kind of silence. It felt necessary when I was living, working and traveling in Manhattan. I felt grateful to it.

Antonio Vivaldi, I Solisti Aquilani, Daniele Orlando
Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 8, RV 315 “L’estate”: I. Allegro má non molto

We shall endure
To steal your senses
In that lonely twilight
Of your winter’s grief.

- Pauli Murray

The priest poet is a whole mood. A genre unto itself. Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, George Herbert, Pauli Murray, Ernesto Cardinal. The insistence on solitude, reverence and meditation produces an art form that looks away from the self, toward salvation. People thought Vivaldi was composing while he was conducting mass, which feels like the perfect equivalent to daydreaming in class. Maybe I should teach a class on it.

Low “Fear”

This song is one minute and 46 seconds long, which is just long enough to give you a mood and then take away its resolution. Resolution isn’t always feasible. It actually probably belongs to the poem “startle” from my second book. But it works here, too. Their music has always struck a chord in me that feels so intimate that it feels a bit – dare I say – spiritual, even while I’m not sure the question of faith would afford us that kind of intimacy in real life. They’ll probably be on the playlist for my next book, too. Just as unsettling.

Yann Tiersen, Lavinia Meijer “La Valse d’Amélie”

Can I be honest? I put this song in here because it felt beautiful and then I checked and realized it’s from the French film, Amélie, so I re-watched the movie after many years. What’s wild is that the first occurrence of this song is from a scene where Amélie rejects dating life “pour les touts petits plaisirs” and one of those ‘smallest of pleasures’ (like running her hands through a sack of dried peas and skipping stones in the canal) is when she takes to watching a hermit in his apartment through her window with a tiny little telescope as he paints the figurative details of a Renoir derivation he repaints annually. I love this kind of synchronicity. Is that my brain doing that? Keeping it all connected. Because this is so much the mood of the book for me.

Note: Thanks to the poet Baba Badji for helping me figure out the French.

Frank Ocean “Nights”

I have a handful of songs that I have such a private relationship with that it makes it difficult to really talk about. Prince’s “Ladycabdriver,” Luther Vandross’ “Superstar,” Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” – a few others. “Nights” is in this category. The transitions in this song make it more of a composition than a song. Most of the songs on that Simone album do something similar. I could write a whole essay on what happens for black folks when they move into a different stage of a song that would include Stevie Wonder, Nina, Pharaoh Sanders, John Coltrane, and TV on the Radio, actually. They’re masters at it – moving from one plane to another. Transitioning into a mood that connects what almost feels like two different genres. The time it takes. The patience. Ocean did this, too, on Channel Orange with “Pyramids.” I love how arcs work on blond. Beginning one place and ending up in a whole different place. The transition that can only happen in the journey. God, I love this song.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk “Island Cry”

Rahsaan Roland Kirk is an underappreciated genius. This song feels so cobbled – jazz, Eastern European, Klezmer, Middle Eastern, Caribbean. It feels like commentary on the mind of a jazz musician.

Playboi Carti “Magnolia”

I’m kinda’ really into what’s become known as “mumble rap.” It feels pretty perfect for the moment, tbh. I thought a lot about transitions in this playlist and I love how naturally this song feels like a response to Kirk. Because that motley thing is New York. So I might not be hiding shit in my socks, but I have kept this mode in my earphones whenever I felt like hiding away. I like how the lyrics kind of slip in and how it feels a bit like translation when you mutter it to yourself.

Mal Waldron “All Alone”

This is one of the many songs on this list that sort of perfectly puts to music how I think about solitude. The trill on the notes. The transition feels like opening the window to some bright morning. I heard it for the first time as I ventured out for a long evening drive in Houston, also for the first time. Drove out to where the road got skinny and Mexican men sat outside in cowboy hats at picnic tables eating a supper from what also looked like a convenience store. The sunset was beautiful and fiery. I wanted to get out of the car and walk out into the big empty fields just beyond the overpass as the sun dipped into the switchgrass and film. And that feeling. Well, that was enough.

Emahoy Tseque-Maryam Guebrou “Homesickness”

I somehow found this beautiful album doing some research on itinerate preachers. Guebrou is an Ethiopian nun who studied music in Switzerland and was held with her family as a prisoner of war in Italy when she was a girl. Feels relevant. This whole album is so gorgeous. I wish I understood more about piano music to understand the emotional quality I get from it. Like it’s from another era. It has such a eerie sense of joy. I’d probably lay it next to the poem “What Milkman Leaps For” after Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

Playboi Carti “No Time”

I have a weakness for slow songs by rappers, particularly when they get all existential and shit. Future’s “Hallucinating,” Vince Staples’ “Summertime.” Moments that seem ripe either for scalp-greasing or hotboxing seaside. Even if these days “drown my demons out; clear my mind” just helps me get my head right for washing a sinkful of dishes or putting on my best game face for a zoom meeting. I didn’t really want the vibe of Or Nah on this playlist. But I did want to include hiphop that makes me feel good for no reason but my own rhythm. Maybe one of these days I’ll rap for you.

MF Doom, (Thom Yorke remix) GAZZILLION EAR

I love how Doom just has his own cadence. This song is such a good example of that. You can hear how the beat is landing for him, just whenever he decides to touch down. Like these astral-ass lines happen on 12 beats – which I’m pretty sure is nutty by any standards, even though I don’t know how to read music well or anything.

Villain man never ran with krills in his hand and
Won't stop rockin' til he clocked in a gazillion grand
Tillin' the wasteland sands
Raps on backs of treasure maps, stacks to the ceiling fan
He rest when he's ashes
Ask 'em after ten miles in his goulashes, smashes stashes

Anyway, that’s the other thing why I love him. He is singular and odd and brilliant. Also our birthdays are a day apart, so there’s that.

Black Taffy “Geraldine”

Saucy interlude.

Dinah Washington “Bitter Earth”

I have so many feelings about Charles Burnett’s film Killer of Sheep beyond the short poem in Sweet Hand for it. Something about the clarity in Washington’s song gets to it, though. The enunciation. The deliberate delivery of the rhetorical questioning in this song. It feels like how I like to make a question without the question mark. My friend Jericho hates it when he asks me a why question and I say: “You know why.” This song feels like that. But heaven does know, Dinah. Or at least it sure does know now.

Domenico Scarlatti, Daria van den Bercken “Sonata in F Minor, K.183: Allegro”

Apart from loving the beauty of this song and of van den Bercken’s playing, I thought a lot in this book about the notion of lilt and lifting. How do you get something off the ground? How can tone be serious and light at once. It’s interesting to me that allegro is considered a ‘heartbeat tempo’ (120-168 bpm), because that’s much faster than the average heartbeat, which seems to gesture at a notion of a lilt as an organic mode. I don’t know if I wholly think that, but it works for this book, at least – and for where my head has been the last couple of years. It’s also interesting that I was thinking of this composition in this way, only to learn that Daria van den Bercken likes to hitch her piano to truck beds and literally play on the road or hoist the whole instrument onto a crane and play over various international cities from time to time, mid-air.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, Claire Huangci
“5 Morceaux de fantasie, Op. 3 no. 2: Prelude in C-Sharp Minor”

I tend to imagine a lot of city folks like Rachmaninoff. Speaking of heartbeat. This seems more our speed. Dark. Difficult. Pervasive. Terribly intentional. Rude, really. Like you’re not gonna’ keep me up all night yelling in the hallway. or pretend like you didn’t see me about to take the last seat on the train. The confrontation in it feels very appropriate and also very 20th century - this being the only 20th century composer of the four-poem suite I did for the book. I love how Huangci, though, keeps the pace and liveliness even in the heavy-headed melody.

Emahoy Tseque-Maryam Guebrou “The Homeless Wanderer”

Listen. Don’t be surprised if one day you hear tale that I’ve off and joined the nunnery.

Wanda Davis “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”

This version brings me back to “Versal,” too. A response to Leadbelly’s call. Ms. Davis was born in Shreveport and all I really know about her is that there’s not enough of her music out there. I hope one day I get to hear her sing here in Texas somewhere. After all this mess is over. And a black girl is standing in it.

francine j. harris is the author of play dead, winner of the Lambda Literary and Audre Lorde Awards and a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Her first collection, allegiance, was a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery and PEN Open Book Awards. Originally from Detroit, she has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston.

If you appreciate the work that goes into Largehearted Boy, please consider making a donation.