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September 20, 2022

Jayme Ringleb's Playlist for Their Poetry Collection "So Tall It Ends in Heaven"

So Tall It Ends in Heaven by Jayme Ringleb

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.

Jayme Ringleb's poetry collection So Tall It Ends in Heaven startles with its poignancy and beauty as it explores how the past influences our present and future.

Kaveh Akbar wrote of the book:

"Countless very good first books of poetry enter the world each year, but only a fraction of a fraction are as mature, assured, or ambitiously realized as Jayme Ringleb’s So Tall It Ends in Heaven. A peacock wails, the devil taps at the window, and young boys anoint each other in charcoal. Ringleb possesses that rarest triumvirate fluency of ear, heart, and mind that you find in the great poets of any era, any place―one poem here ends, “We sleep / in a snarl, like lovers found in snow.” Another, “It’s almost a heaven, / neglecting you.” It’s thrilling to discover a book you know you’ll revisit for the rest of your life. These poems are better than good―they’re undeniable."

In their own words, here is Jayme Ringleb's Book Notes music playlist for their poetry collection So Tall It Ends in Heaven:

So Tall It Ends in Heaven follows a queer speaker who obsessively revisits the objects of his former devotions—an ex-husband, an alienated father who once rejected him because of his sexuality, and the god of the religion in which he was raised and by whom he has been demonized. The speaker hopes to move through these failed relationships, to travel out of their grief and into his own consolation and self-love.

Music played a large part in the process of writing many of the poems in the book, particularly when it came to the initial drafts. I kept a short playlist of songs, which became a kind of emotional or tonal touchstone for the initial stages of the poems—a way, as I generated new content, of keeping in register, keeping a kind of focus. These are some of the songs I listened to, mostly on repeat, during the nearly ten years it took me to write the book.

“Darlin’ Ukelele” by Jolie Holland

I kept quite a few Jolie Holland songs on my playlist, some of which, like “Old Fashioned Morphine” and “I Wanna Die,” I may have actually listened to more than this one—but “Darlin’ Ukelele” eventually became a favorite in large part because of its loving openness to wonder and contentment. There’s a loneliness and inward focus to the song, but it’s always been a kind of emotional reset of a song for me, a kind of heartening refresher or reminder as I worked through some of the harder poems in the collection.

“Doomed” by Moses Sumney

Moses Sumney’s music almost always communicates desolation and beauty in equal measure. Lonely, reaching, and self-reflective, this song questions self-worth during a period of lovelessness: “Am I vital / if my heart is idle? / Am I doomed?” The grief of the song is inescapable, but so is its tenderness, and it’s that balance that made this song a years-long go-to.

“Dust” by HÆLOS

Garrett Hongo, author of The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo and a former teacher of mine, once discussed with me how repetition in poetry, especially of entire lines or stanzas, shuts down narrative progress. If the story must continually return to the same line, sentence, sentiment, or event, then there’s no movement forward. Instead, there’s stagnation, obsession, trappedness—which can be a very useful drama, both in poetry and in song. I think “Dust,” with its heavy repetitions of the lines “I can’t feel enough” and “This love ain’t mine,” interestingly profits from that drama; it takes the grief of those lines and transforms them into a kind of mantra, a source of power.

“Plain Gold Ring” by Nina Simone

The song opens without instrumental accompaniment, introducing a speaker in love with a man who “belong[s] to someone, but not me.” When the percussion and piano start up, the ballad becomes more tonally complex—half love song, half war cry. The speaker is committed wholeheartedly to both her desire and the impossibility of its being actualized: “In my heart it will never be spring / Long as he wears a plain gold ring.” There were quite a few Nina Simone songs on my playlist—“Wild Is the Wind” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” were other favorites—but I’ve always loved the deceptive simplicity of this one.

“Teardrop” by José González

This Massive Attack cover has been a long-time favorite (as has the original, to be fair), particularly because it differentiates itself from the original by accomplishing through acoustics the effect of a forceful crescendo. The entrancing love described in the lyrics becomes almost more dangerous, as a result: everything builds up to the final lines, and then, unlike the original, the song quickly ends. There’s an embodiment of both obsession and the inevitable failure of its outcome here, and this was particularly helpful to me as I began to consider the obsessiveness of my book’s speaker.

“You Are All I See,” by Active Child

The title might give it away, but this is another song about obsessive love. I appreciate this one as a counterweight to the González and Simone tracks I’ve named here. The title of the song is also its refrain, which, accompanied by flourishes of a harp, comes across as bright-eyed, tender, open, and utterly devotional. Countless times, this song reminded me that my speaker’s obsessiveness could be used toward productive, and not just (self-)destructive, ends.

“Cherubim,” by serpentwithfeet

You’re almost certainly noticing a pattern here, and this is another song that fits it: “Cherubim” opens with a refrain of “I get to devote my life to him,” and it is another song where devotion to another becomes an obsessive form of empowerment. But this song is again a counter to some that I’ve named before. I don’t think empowerment is ironized or undermined in “Cherubim.” Instead, it’s a source of delight, and the song is a willful display of the frenzy and chaos of its love. (It’s also got a music video that is to die for.)

“My Wife, Lost in the Wild” by Beirut

In addition to being a frequent go-to, this song inspired the book’s second poem, “My Husband, Lost in the Wild.” I’m fascinated by the mixture of tones in the song: the lyrics are slurred, overlaid, and mournful while the electronica borders on the cheerful. This isn’t new territory for Beirut, whose song “Scenic World,” another favorite of mine, accomplishes the same. This seemingly detached whimsy was one of the inspirations for some of the fantastical elements of poems in the book.

“The Butcher” by Larkin Grimm

There’s an eerie sweetness to this Larkin Grimm song, which combines brief images of brutality with gentle acoustics and falsetto. The refrain, “Without a mind / Without a body or a mind / Without a mind / Without a body or a numb and useless mind,” is at once deeply ironic and entrancing, so the overall effect is to trap the listener between a world of brutality and a world of relief, or even pleasure. This song, too, helped me to imagine my way through the drama of some of the book’s otherworldly elements.

“For Today I Am a Boy” by Antony and the Johnsons

Every time I listen, the music of ANOHNI’s former band heals my heart by breaking it. I struggled to decide which of the band’s songs to include here—I could go on and on about “Cut the World” and their cover of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”—but “For Today I Am a Boy” is, I think, a triumphant song with which to end this list. There’s a sense in the song of being on the way, of not having arrived—and the song seems to rejoice in that, to accept the self as it exists on a broader timeline. While I was considering my expectations for my speaker’s evolution and the potential resolutions I could work toward in the book, this song was an invaluable reminder that the self is not fixed, that healing and self-actualization are slow, and that that’s okay.

Jayme Ringleb is a queer writer raised in the southern United States and northern Italy. Their debut poetry collection is So Tall It Ends in Heaven (Tin House, 9/20/22). Jayme’s poems have appeared recently in Poetry, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, and Ploughshares. An assistant professor of English at Meredith College, Jayme lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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