October 25, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Avni Vyas's debut poetry collection Little God is as thought-provoking as it is whimsical.
Anne Barngrover wrote of the book:
"Part trickster, part soulmate, part self-reflection, there is nothing small about Avni Vyas's little god."
When I began writing Little God, I was in the middle of loss, and more loss. My father’s health, after several invasive surgeries, hung in the balance of physical therapy and antibiotics (he survived another year longer than we expected, but nothing was ever certain); I had suffered a miscarriage months before and moved through loss the only way I knew how: work. While I gave myself space to grieve these, and the other losses that churned up (failures, mistakes, regrets), conversations with Little God opened up unfamiliar processes and possibilities for me as a writer.
Most importantly, this book was drafted ambidextrously, meaning half the poems were initially composed by my non-dominant hand. Channeling language through an uncomfortable and clumsy process for me required attention to the shape of a poem’s narrative and its internal argument. Many of the poems take a narrative approach, a conversation between the speaker and Little God, and over time, this constraint allowed the voice of Little God to encompass the acerbically loving as well as the childishly wrathful. As a result, the poems read as a back-and-forth between these two figures and can be considered an ongoing conversation.
After the book found its home at Burrow Press, my father passed away in a North Florida ICU, in the middle of a pandemic, from an antibiotic-resistant lung infection. Two months later, I learned I was pregnant. The ironies of the book kept beating against my shoreline like a laugh track of tides. Composing this playlist, 20 weeks pregnant, conversing with the spirit of my now-deceased father at every turn, feels like coming back to the poems full circle. Finally, creating this playlist feels like trawling through my cosmic linen closet. In some ways it feels like offering shape to the poems themselves, adding necessary texture and dimension; in other ways, I’m revealing that I still sleep on bedsheets with spaceships and cartoon flora, but most importantly, I believe I’m letting the characters in Little God crawl off the page and into other people’s instruments for a while.
“Oh Baby” -- LCD Soundsystem
In a dreamlike melody invoking a kind of umbilicus between the speaker and Little God, James Murphy’s lines serve as kind of a stage where the two characters meet: “Oh love/ You came to me/ You were having a bad time/ There in your home.”
“Fetch The Boltcutters” -- Fiona Apple
The chorus of Apple’s song develops the line “Fetch the bolt cutters, I've been in here too long,” underscoring a claustrophobia both Little God and the speaker experience simultaneously. It’s no coincidence that this collection was composed at the start of the pandemic, when we collectively struggled with feelings of isolation, our own echo chambers, even the narratives we’d composed for ourselves. Little God and the speaker are testing their psychic boundaries with themselves and each other, wondering whether one is a god or a ghoul, and whether the other is big enough to contain him. Before they can negotiate this together, Little God and the speaker must first sever themselves from who they think they’ve been. Apple’s song is an invitation to shake off the rain from our coats and venture forward on our own terms.
“I Don’t Love Anyone” -- Belle and Sebastian
The speaker and Little God have a stand-off early in the collection, a face-off of pride. They both win, holding fast to their respective obstinacy. Belle and Sebastian’s jangly guitars and sweet pop belie the heartbreak of the song’s refrain. In the poem, Little God and the speaker share a common refrain, a play on Belle and Sebastian’s title. “I don’t need anyone,” they call to each other. In the song, the upbeat melody clashes against the lyrics’ sadness in which a speaker learns to endure, rather than embrace. Similarly, Little God and the poem’s speaker forgo offering each other any tenderness.
“Lilac Wine” -- Nina Simone
A lack of mercy in the speaker and a lost beloved echo through “Lilac Wine.” By mercy, maybe what she means is something big enough to hold a future, the way Simone’s voice seems to. In one of the poems, the speaker recalls her failed relationship and reflects that it lacked this element. In the year or so since writing that poem, I am tempted to boil it down to “softness” but that’s not exactly right. Mercy is as strong as it is soft, and perhaps best exemplified by the heartbreak in this song. I am struck by Simone’s purple voice as it deepens over the low rumble of piano notes, struck again by the closing lines, “Lilac wine, I feel unready for my love.”
“Fireproof” -- The National
The speaker in this collection recounts a challenging moment in the poem where Little God witnesses a kind of psychic forging. I wanted her to have a song that reflected this molten turn in her character:
“Like a red-shouldered hawk, the little god/ divebombs puddle after puddle in the parking lot, mistaking the reflection for a depth, a door.”
“River” -- Leon Bridges
In the poem “Little God Attends Community Beach Yoga,” Little God finds moments of peace not through the spirit, but a tongue-in-cheek attempt at it. (“I learn about letting go/ from white people chanting om.”) My own experience with group exercise and yoga (restorative and welcoming, appropriative and racialized) rings true here as well. For Little God, turning to the natural world is one way to move through this cacophony. Underneath the humor, though, a restlessness permeates as Little God flits his observations from the sand and sky to the rental properties in the poem.
“Sound and Color” -- Alabama Shakes
In The Odyssey, Odysseus asks his sailors to lash him to a mast and ignore his pleas for release before plugging their own ears with wax. This always confused me. The commonly accepted answer is that he chose to listen to the sirens’ song despite its danger to satisfy his intellect, but it was also an act of arrogance. When the poem’s speaker “screeches [herself] mad” after hoarding her silence, she enacts a similar act of hubris in her flight of madness. Who does she think she is? Closer to spiritual access and alliance than “River,” I think “Sound and Color” resembles a rainstorm, with guitar and vocal swells. This storm isn’t meant to drive one to madness but perhaps to push one forward. At one point, after the speaker confesses her transgressions, Little God remarks, “I forget the storm can sing!” This song reminds me to resist a kind of clean wish or arc for the speaker or Little God, regardless of what “forward” means.
“Heaven” -- The Walkmen
As a counterpoint to “Fireproof,” the speaker and Little God meet for the first time under the grim auspices of an abortion clinic. Rather than offer tenderness, Little God encounters the occasion as sartorial, as in, Why isn’t there a good outfit for this? Not exactly the kind of support you want from a god, but then again, Little God doesn’t offer mercy, just consistency. His sentiment, ironically, echoes in “Heaven”: “Don't leave me now, you're my best friend/ All of my life, you've always been.”
“Can’t Get Enough of Myself” -- Santigold
As Santigold sings it, I hear the state parks and preserves and beaches of Florida bop: “Oooh, All I want to do /Is what I do well/ Ain’t a gambler but honey I’d/ Put money on myself/ Oooh, All I want to do/ Is bottle it to sell/ Cuz my brand of vainglory is/ Much better for your health.” In “Little God Discovers Slang,” variations of the word thiccboi serve as an all-purpose song for Florida’s bizarre ecosystem of waterbirds, crustacea, mangrove islands, tourists, and developers. Acid-sun and lemon-bright, Santigold’s song is ideal for sunglasses and bombast. Similarly, Little God at his brightest, communes with other birds, tourists, and ecologies. The self, as Santigold sings it, might be a raucous negotiation, an antithesis of suburban development crawling with prehistory in the form of wood storks, gators, and bobcats.
Make Me Feel” -- Janelle Monae
When Monae sings, “It's like I'm powerful with a little bit of tender/ An emotional sexual bender,” I hear Little God bemoaning all the times he never waggled it. His comic desire -- wanting and wanting -- gets projected on spring exploding around him shamelessly while he’s stuck tending to the speaker. For some reason, his discomfort strikes the speaker as funny. At the time of writing this, a pandemic also flourished in our country, as people lost jobs, lives, stability. In light of this larger loss, personal desire feels so small, so containable. I remember taking daily walks in my neighborhood, going out of my way to give everyone wide berth, while simultaneously feeling like, “I wish I felt safe stopping and talking.” Maybe the Janelle Monae song provides a counterbalance to the great emptiness that permeated 2020, how desire, beyond the sexual, was really about connection.
“Here Comes the Night Time” -- Arcade Fire
For Little God’s temple, the speaker suggests he is a swamp god, which Little God dismisses. The speaker, though, insists Little God regenerates like lizard tails and Hindu deities. The beatific is everywhere, despite Little God’s desire for a proper temple. This song reminds me of the edge of Payne’s Prairie at the outskirts of Gainesville, Florida. If you drive there at night and pull over on the shoulder, you can listen to the swamp scream with cicadas, frogs, and alligator grunts. I imagine Little God finding a temple there, prairie ablaze with sound, with these lines from “Here Comes the Night Time”: “But if there's no music up in heaven, then what's it for? /When I hear the beat, my spirit's on me like a live-wire/ A thousand horses running wild in a city on fire.”
“#88” -- Lo-Fang
I used to think my notion of godliness was Lo-Fang and Jonathan Van Ness running his fingers through your hair. I stand by this notion. At its heart, this collection is about finding a place to know oneself. Little God fumes at the speaker for not being more promiscuous in her youth; the speaker boils over at the memory of serving as a relationship’s only witness without asking to be seen herself. These moments of regret offer a nice place of reckoning for each character: So? So what? Lo-Fang’s “88” stretchy synths and Hemerlein’s glossy vocals offer an answer. “Tear it down/ if nothing matters.” And so, our characters clear space to rebuild.
“This Tornado Loves You”-- Neko Case
Little God, despite his childlike wrath, loves the speaker ferociously. Neko Case’s lyrics have haunted me for years, this idea that that natural disaster could double as a beloved’s epic tantrum: “I have waited with a glacier's patience/ Smashed every transformer with every trailer/ 'Til nothing was standing/ 65 miles wide/ Still you are nowhere/ Still you are nowhere/ Nowhere in sight.” The voice in this song reminds me of another reflection: Little God and the speaker reflect in each other an unanswerable, unsatiated want. Neither can provide what the other needs, but it doesn’t stop them from demanding it anyway.
“I’m An Animal” -- Neko Case
Selected as a corollary to “This Tornado Loves You,” I always heard the line in the second stanza as “I do my best but I’m made of mistakes” which seems like the overlap between the speaker and Little God. I got the impression they communicated most clearly as animals, not religious figures or beloveds. By coexisting in animal form, Little God and the speaker spend less sentimental energy bemoaning. At times, I imagine them symbiotically. If you ever visit the Florida theme park Gatorland, you’ll find a man-made lake with a creaky wooden boardwalk leading out to a gazebo. The boardwalk lines the edges of the lake where mangroves provide shelter for an avian nursery. Herons and egrets build their nest into the spindly branches where a mindful birdwatcher can catch a glimpse of a rare juvenile stork or heron. Placards along the boardwalk remind visitors that alligators of all sizes hang out near the mangroves because, while they are fed regularly by park staff, they remain vigilant for when an egg or young chick plops out of a nest. Watch closely, and notice they form a menacing hemline by the vegetation. The birds are well aware of their presence, so you’ll also note many of the gators are missing an eye or chunk of tail. “I’m an animal,” Case sings. “You’re an animal, too.”
“Here Comes the Sun” -- Nina Simone
In this version of The Beatles’ classic, Simone’s voice offers hope. Maybe I’m a sucker for this song as it was my father’s favorite. In “Little God Explains Comedy,” he recounts a story my own father told me of my entrance into the world. As Simone sings that “it’s alright,” I project a kind of humor into that line. The world is alright with or without you, whether or not you live to see the next day, whether or not you are complicit in its beauty. Little God, channeling my father, seems to think light can help, too.
Avni Vyas is a poet living and writing in Florida. Her poetry and nonfiction can be found in journals such as Grist, Meridian, The Pinch, Juked, Crab Orchard Review, Arts and Letters, Rigorous Magazine, and others. She is the Essays editor at Honey Literary, and poetry editor at The Offending Adam. She teaches in the Writing Program at New College of Florida.