May 12, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Mary Allen's memoir-in-essays The Deep Limitless Air is compelling and poignant.
Jo Ann Beard wrote of the book:
"Mary Allen's effortlessly original voice addresses the reader with startling simplicity and moral clarity, whether she is introducing us to the tender friendship between a young woman and a celebrated octogenarian, or allowing us to see through her eyes the beautiful solemnity of monks at their devotions, or tracing her own strange citizenship in the liminal realm of a disrupted childhood and the years that follow. Simply put, read this book. Allen's beguiling and brilliant writing will leave you exhilarated."
I’ve always been someone who fixated on a particular album or song and listened to it over and over, rather than someone partial to a particular genre or musical era. The only thing that matters to me is whether a given piece of music makes me feel something. So the music I like is a mixed bag of stuff that spoke to me deeply and still speaks to me deeply when I hear it again. And when I listen now to some piece of music that I listened to over and over for a while in the past, the time that I was listening to it comes back along with it: the exact emotional landscape of that particular era of my life. The essays in The Deep Limitless Air are a bit like that too. Each essay captures a moment in my life that stuck in my mind, an image or detail that resonated continuously in the field of my consciousness, although I didn’t exactly know why. It’s often only when I enter the moment in the writing and follow it where it takes me that I get to what it holds. And writing these book notes involved taking leaps like that too. First there was identifying songs that resonate—in the sense of producing a deep, full, reverberating association—with the essays. My brilliant friend Michael Feuerstein came up with some of those ideas and I came up with others. Then there was making the connections, taking the many little intuitive leaps in the dark, in the writing, between the rhythm and lyrics and emotional pitch of the music, and the language and meaning and emotional pitch of the essays.
"A Taste of Honey" by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, for Bees
“Bees,” the first essay in my collection, is about my father and me installing bees in a hive in my father’s yard while my mother, whom I was afraid of and had run away from home to get away from when I was eighteen, was in the house. How we dumped 25,000 bees, which I had ordered for a college course on beekeeping, in the home-assembled hive, and a quarter of them flew up out of the hive and a few of them crawled up my coat sleeve and then they and more bees started stinging me. "A Taste of Honey" by Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass came out at least ten years before that happened. I listened to it on the radio and then on my record player when I was a kid—I had good taste in music when I was a kid. It’s sprightly, sparkly, sexy, not at all like the not-too-happy story of me being stung by bees and by my fear of my mother. But when I listened to it recently, there was something in the music—the sweetness of it, the cheerful promise in it—that somehow called up that moment in my life and the honey to come.
"And When I Die" by Laura Nyro, for Birthday Cake
There’s a breezy cheerful tone to this song as it delivers its lyrics about being dead, gone, buried in a coffin deep underground. I’ve never been good at whistling in the dark like that, but my sister was. She whistled in the dark right up to her own death, when she killed herself with morphine after her ALS progressed to the point where soon she wasn’t going to be physically capable of it. The minute I turned on this song this morning, as soon as the first Youtube bars came blaring out of my laptop, I started crying. Crying for my sister, for Laura Nyro, for us all. I’m still crying. I’m not thinking about the one child born and a world to carry on. There’s was one child born in my sister’s life, a beloved daughter born not too long after Laura Nyro wrote this song. My sister was an unwed mother. I drove her to the hospital to give birth on a bitter February night, when she’d waited almost too long so she wouldn’t have to pay for an extra hospital day because her insurance wouldn’t cover the birth because she didn’t have a husband. My essay Birthday Cake is about that, about how my sister made being a single mother in a small town look easy, how she lived her life laughing at gossip and fear and everything else in the same brave cheerful way Laura Nyro sings about her death. My sister even made her own death look easy. Her daughter is still here and so are the rest of us and so is this world, all doing our best to carry on.
"California Dreamin’" performed by Jose Feliciano, for Cockroaches
I wasn’t dreaming of California during the moment in my essay Cockroaches. I was in my twenties and living in Boston, not in New York where John Phillips was when he wrote this song. I had a sublet full of someone else’s dying plants, so close to Logan Airport my phone calls were drowned out by the sound of jets landing and taking off, and when that sublet ran out I lived in an apartment full of cockroaches in Allston. I had a boyfriend back in Northampton who played the guitar and sang this song like Feliciano, head tilted back, eyes closed, his voice strong and clear, not echoing with the deep resonant mournfulness of Feliciano’s but still beautiful. There was some aura of otherworldliness about him that made me think of Feliciano singing this song too. I was estranged from that boyfriend when I was living in Boston—cheating on him with a guy I was temporarily crazy about, about to break up with him. I ran away from him the way I was running away from myself, and it wasn’t until I listened to this song recently, that the memory of him playing California Dreamin’ came back to me and I got a taste—a direct hit, the way music can do—of how lost, how not safe and warm I was, when I was living in Boston in my twenties: the brown leaves, the gray sky.
"Generique" by Miles Davis, for Somerville
"Generique" by Miles Davis, from the album Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, is enough to stop you cold, right in the middle of your living room, as the long piercing modal notes come ringing out of your speakers. I have listened to it over and over and it happens to me every time. I don’t know how I came to buy this CD or when. A glamorous dated black-and-white photo of Jeanne Moreau, who starred in the 1958 Louis Malle noir film with the same title, for which this music was the soundtrack, is on the cover of my CD box. I’m sure the picture caught my attention in the store, but I think I must’ve bought the CD for its title, Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, which means elevator to the gallows, or ascent to the scaffold. Ascending the scaffold was how I felt as a kid whenever I was about to be around my mother. Terrified beyond reason or measure, arrested, on the brink of emotional decapitation. It’s how I felt when I was about to see her after an eight-year hiatus in our relationship, how I felt when I went to visit her on her deathbed a couple of years later. It’s the feeling I tried to capture in my essay Somerville, darkness, dread, the way life sometimes seems to hang by a thread, even when it doesn’t.
"April Joy" by the Pat Metheny Group, for Blue Blotter
I saw Pat Metheny play on the Boston Common on July 12, 1982. It was part of a concert series. I remember the warm early evening air, Pat Metheny’s humble Midwestern accent when he spoke between songs—I didn’t know yet I’d be moving to Iowa soon but the Midwest was already catching hold in my imagination like a secret story. Most of all, I remember Pat Metheny’s signature guitar-playing, which sounded almost like a voice, plaintive, exultant, rising and dipping and rising higher, with Lyle Mays’s piano riffs joining in like another voice, high, clear, thrilling. When I went to that concert, new vistas were opening up inside me through the magic of hypnosis—I was going to a hypnotherapist in Central Square who’d made it possible for me to fly to New York and give a public speech when I had a phobia of both, some deep-seated fear of getting off the ground. I loved hypnosis so much I kept going to him. One day in a trance I saw an ugly pea-green desk blotter turn celestial blue, the most beautiful blue in the universe. It reminded me of how, at the very end of the Pat Metheny concert on the Boston Common, after the final note of April Joy, the drummer Dan Gottlieb threw his drumsticks way, way up in the air and we watched them twist and twirl against the pale pink evening sky, stop, pause, fly back down, and then he caught them.
"I Have a Dream" by Herbie Hancock, for The Nightmare Years
"I Have a Dream" is the first track on an early Herbie Hancock album, The Prisoner. The record is a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated the year before it came out. The song is described on the internet as “lyrically reflective, not solemn or sedate,” but to me it’s full of foreboding and grief—about Dr. King’s assassination, the many ways Black people have been held prisoner in this country, slavery, Jim Crow, actual imprisonment. It conjures up hope too, the hope of the moment when Dr. King stood in front of an enormous crowd on the Washington Mall and made that speech, an entirely different historic moment, a whole different kind of speech, than the historic moments I was thinking and writing about in the essay The Nightmare Years. Those took place during another set of nightmare years, the 1930s and ’40s in Germany: huge crowds raising their voices and arms saluting Hitler, which my friend William Shirer, a writing and broadcast journalist, witnessed and had nightmares about until the end of his long life. My essay, The Nightmare Years, is about how I met and caught his attention when I was in my late twenties, in the middle of my own private, mostly unconscious nightmare years, about the friendship that grew up between him and me, about his affectionate esteem and the pleasure and distress—fallout from my damaged sense of self—it brought up in me. It’s about the ways our private nightmares and dreams get caught like fish and swept along in the ocean of the public trances that affect everyone. When I listen to I Have a Dream by Herbie Hancock I think I can hear all that. It’s in the urgent beating bass at the beginning, the minor chords, the building tension between the percussion and strings and many wind instruments, horns, oboes, bassoons, trombones, clarinets; the swirling sound of flutes, the pure rising voice of the flugelhorn, and Herbie Hancock, like a witness noting, striking, commenting, on the piano.
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, for Boobie in Paradise
It’s easy to conflate Hawaii with Oz, to think of Hawaii as that place over the rainbow: the blue sky, white beaches, giant turquoise waves, warm constantly benevolent air, wild roosters with rainbow-colored feathers, actual rainbows. I went there at Christmastime the year Donald Trump won the election; my ex’s daughter paid all my expenses including my airfare with airline points. She and her siblings were meeting their father and I think they wanted him to have someone to hang out with while they were there. Plus, I have good relationships with them all—four beautiful grown-up kids with two different mothers. One night we all went to a restaurant on Maui and saw Willie K. play the ukulele and sing, everything from a rendition of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus to opera. It was the best performance I’ve ever seen. Willie K. is dead now and so is Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, whose rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow haunts our music-listening with its sweetly transcendent voice and trilling ukulele playing. I never would have gone to Hawaii if it hadn’t been for my ex-partner’s daughter’s generosity. I was landlocked for many years, couldn’t get off the ground in my life and my imagination. My essay Boobie in Paradise is partly about how I got over that, and it’s about my Czech ex-boyfriend Marek—the Boobie of the title—about his dark imaginings at the time we went on that trip, involving Russia and Putin and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And it’s about how, no matter what kind of paradise you find yourself in, you can always find a way spoil it.
"That Smell" by Lynrd Skynrd, for The Way Back Home
In the song it’s the smell of death all around you, whiskey bottles, the angel of darkness sticking a needle in your arm. In my essay it’s literally the smell of what can only be called, inelegantly, shit. Shit on a train, someone else’s shit that a purse gets innocently put down on top of, on a shelf in the tiny shuttling Amtrak restroom, then gets transferred to a shirt and the bottom of a tote bag holding a library book on the floor where the purse is laid down, and no amount of washing during a layover in Chicago will get the smell off the writer’s hands, the purse, the tote bag. (The shirt gets thrown away, replaced by a Ronald McDonald t-shirt purchased in the train station). The smell of shit follows me, the writer, persistent, disgusting, alienating, shaming. It’s only at the end of the essay that it becomes clear what that smell of shit has to do with that smell of death all around you, the whiskey bottles, the angel of death sticking a needle in your arm. They’re not her whiskey bottles, angel of death, needle in an arm, they’re someone else’s, but it’s still feels impossible to get away from them. Because with addiction, as in a mess on a train, someone else’s shit gets on you and you can’t get it off.
Mary Allen is the author of a literary memoir, The Rooms of Heaven (Alfred A. Knopf and Vintage Books). She received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 2002. Her work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Tiferet, Real Simple, Library Journal, CNN On-line, The Chaos, Shenandoah, Spoon River Poetry Review, and in the anthology If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught in the Creative Nonfiction Department at the University of Iowa. She lives in Iowa City and is currently a full-time writing coach.