September 2, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kathleen Rooney’s poetry collection Where Are the Snows is funny and moving, and a testament to the uncertainties of the modern day.
José Olivarez wrote of the book:
"Reading Kathleen Rooney’s Where Are the Snows is refreshing. Here is a book unafraid to face the various crises of the world and admit it might not work out. The magic of Rooney’s writing is its lightness: funny, playful, cynical, indulgently dark, and poignant, Where Are the Snows is always delightful. I promise you won’t be able to stop reading these poems."
The elevator pitch for my latest poetry collection Where Are the Snows includes the fact that my goal was to make each line at least as goofy and determined to connect as a YouTube comment. I enjoy listening to music on YouTube because of all those faceless individuals leaving exuberant personal and hyperbolic statements about how the music makes them think and feel, and how they want to share it with the people in their lives. It’s exciting to get to make some comments here about songs that capture the collection’s vibe.
“My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” by Mitski (2016)
This song is less than two minutes long—intense existential reckoning in a tiny space. “I work better under a deadline,” she sings. I do, too, and that’s how this book came to be. In April of 2020, Kimberly Southwick-Thompson put together a poem-a-day writing group and joining was the best thing I could have done in terms of getting through those agonizing days. Kim is a fantastic poet and the editor of Gigantic Sequins and her leadership and prompts mixed with the support and encouragement of the community she created made this manuscript possible.
“When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin (1971)
Covers are fascinating—why people make them, what makes one transcendent and another terrible, what re-working and re-listening to an old song by a newer band can give to an audience, and so on. The original version of this blues song was written by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy in 1929 after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The climate crisis looms throughout this book and I like that both versions of this song speak honestly to how bad ecological upheavals already are and are going to be. “Crying won’t help you, praying won’t do you no good”—that lack of sugarcoating appeals to me. But this is not a song about giving up; it’s about admitting what you’re up against and going on anyway.
“Talking Reality Television Blues” by Tom Jones (2021)
I’ve written thousands of words for Megan Campbell and Ander Monson’s March Xness tournament of songs about how much I adore Tom Jones. For decades, he’s been one of the most adept interpreters of other people’s work, and his take on Todd Snider’s song is no exception. Against a Radiohead-esque background of anxious, grinding guitars and percussion, his voice is obviously that of an octogenarian and the age and weariness give extra pathos to his spoken words:
Then a show called “The Apprentice” came on and pretty soon
An old man with a comb-over had sold us the moon
We stayed tuned in, now here we are
Reality killed by a reality star
“He Got Game” by Public Enemy (1998)
The book’s title comes from the François Villon poem whose refrain is “where are the snows of yesteryear?” and which operates as an ubi sunt: a meditation on mortality and the transience of life and the fact that everyone—the good and the evil, the ugly and the beautiful, the famous and the unknown—are all going to pass from living memory. I like how this song moves across time, capturing the spirit of its present in the '90s blended with a similar attitude of disgust and resistance from the 1960s by way of the sample from “For What It’s Worth” from 1966 and the guest appearance of Stephen Stills. “White men in suits don’t have to jump”—this song finds the joy and the fun within protest.
“Mercury in Retrograde” by Sturgill Simpson (2019)
Thanks to my parents, I grew up listening to late '80s and early '90s pop country before sexism, xenophobia, proud idiocy and full-on Toby Keith-ification made it almost unlistenable. The shiny production and poppy arrangement of this song, plus Simpson’s decent politics and witty lyrics turned my head. Where Are the Snows contains lot of mysticism, Catholicism, astrology and overall questing spirituality, so a song about seeking explanations in the heavens feels apt: “I keep tugging along the thread / Hopin' it all might come unravelled / I keep tryin' to throw it all away / But it comes right back around.” Doesn’t it feel kind of like Mercury is always in retrograde these days?
“Walkin’” by Denzel Curry (2022)
In his generous blurb, José Olivarez says, “Here is a book unafraid to face the various crises of the world and admit it might not work out.” This song, to me, seems to have that orientation, too, especially in the refrain: “Clear a path as I keep on walkin' / Ain't no stoppin' in this dirty, filthy, rotten / Nasty, little world we call our home.” Like everything is really hard—racism, patriarchy, disinformation, the oppressive grind-until-you-die / stay-divided-and-conquered ethos of neoliberal capitalism and on and on. But keep trying, keep making art, keep walking.
“Can You Get to That” by Funkadelic (1971)
That monster groove, those Hot Buttered Soul backing vocals, and those lyrics about karma and balance make this my favorite song off the album Maggot Brain. I got it stuck in my head during that excruciating stretch of days in early November of 2020 when we were waiting for the final vote counts in Pennsylvania and Georgia to see if Biden’s victory would be confirmed or if we’d have four more years of literal Satan: “Can you get (I wanna know) / I wanna know if you can get to that.” Thanks to organizers like Stacey Abrams, we got to that.
“Down the Line” José Gonzalez (2007)
Don’t let the darkness eat you up” he says over and over at the end—a necessary reminder that the April 2020 poetry group gave to me when I needed it most. Literature is more than the words on the page and the books that, if you are lucky, you get to have published; it’s the people and practices that surround the words.
“Weird Ways” by Strand of Oaks (2019)
The soaring melancholy and longing of this song are exquisite, especially when Timothy Showalter sings, “There are colors in the places you can’t find / it’s a way of (way of) saying goodbye.” This book is really funny, but it’s also super-sad, an elegy for everything. It’s hard to love everything so much but know it’s going to die, and this song gets it.
“Like I Used To” by Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten (2021)
Beautiful, bittersweet, and wistful, this song is a stunning collaboration by two phenomenal vocalists about going through something that leaves you changed, which is also kind of what Where Are the Snows is about. “Crossing my fingers like I used to” seems like the attitude of someone who’s been through an ordeal and isn’t foolishly nostalgic for any return to the Before Times (because we all know those were fucked up, too), but who is hopeful for whatever lies ahead, and for their own ability to meet it with an open heart.
“Snowflakes Are Dancing” by Isao Tomita (1973)
This whole album – Tomita’s arrangements of Claude Debussy’s impressionistic tone paintings for Moog synthesizer and Mellotron – is enchanting, but especially the title track. The totalizing brutality of climate change means that snowflakes may soon be unable to dance anywhere outside, but odds are good that they’ll still be dancing in my mind.
“Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles (1966)
I dedicated the book “to the future” and I mean it. Despair serves the system. I try to remember to stay curious, stay positive, stay hopeful. Giving up and nihilism are luxuries for the privileged, and this song manages to be convincing when it says, “That love is all / That love is everyone.” It is! And if it’s not, it can and should be. Like I say in the poem “The Point in Time or Space at Which Something Originates”: “I don’t like the Beatles, but ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is a good song. ‘Play the game Existence’ to the end’—pause—'of the beginning. Whoa.”
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a collective of poets and their typewriters who compose poetry on demand. Her most recent books include the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, and her criticism appears in The New York Times, The Chicago Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay, and teaches at DePaul.