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The Years of the Unified Heart

by on September 16, 2020

You can add up the parts; you won’t have the sum

You can strike up the march, there is no drum

Every heart, every heart to love will come

But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

— “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen

*

Tallboys of Steel Reserve, watercolors, and Leonard Cohen records mark 2016-17: years lost in the ether—post-grad and aimless; permeated by the existential dread of dawning upon twenty-something. I now see those days as some of the most capacious and blessed—hazy, dappled with light, full of growth and opportunity; full of so many cracks where the light has since filtered in. The dichotomies of that time made Cohen’s music all the more welcome.

Prior to Cohen’s passing in the fall of 2016, I was feeling splintered. I’d been out of college a year and a half, embarked on a messy trip of service abroad and returned early, begun stringing together part-time jobs to support my art. Trump’s election was permeable in everyday places, ambient but sinking in. One evening, I learned from my friend—a social worker for victims of sexual assault—that a man had walked up to a woman at the Target near my house, grabbed her between her legs, and said: “I get to do this now that Trump’s president.” Later that night, I told my best friends and bandmates, Joey and Trevor. We sat in a shocked silence for a while, and I remember being unable to withhold my tears. I stayed at their place, our trusted silence carving out some kind of belonging, somewhere I could rest.I sometimes get that evening confused with another from that autumn: I was with them in their house, again, and sitting in the same spot on the couch when we heard the news of Cohen’s passing. I can’t remember whose idea it was, but it felt like a communal one—we hopped into Joey’s truck, plugged in his iPod, and took turns passing it back and forth; picking favorite Cohen songs as he drove with no particular destination in mind. I think “Anthem” may have been the first pick. Somewhere during our drive, we came across a small country church with a lit sign that read something along the lines of: “If you died tonight, where would you go?” Again—a shocked silence accompanied by shared, knowing glances. We drove for what felt like hours, song after song. There was something monastic about our mutual silence, our shared grief going unanalyzed.

The morning after our drive, I printed out a picture of Cohen’s “order of the unified heart”—a symbol of two intersecting hearts (one upright, one downturned) that was printed on each of his books and represented the Jungian idea of anima/animus—that the masculine and the feminine are entwined in each of us and within our relationships. I got a tattoo on my ribcage a few hours later. I didn’t post a picture to social media, where people were sharing all sorts of elegies for Cohen. I empathized with and shared their sense of grief, but I didn’t know what I could possibly add to the conversation. There’s a unique sort of strand of survivor’s guilt I experienced, threaded into mourning the loss of someone I didn’t really know but loved well—an aching sort of reverence. It meant the tattoo was for me; a birthday gift to myself. A non-answer to the question we saw on the billboard that I’d been asked my whole life byway of my evangelical upbringing. At the time, I loved the conceptual richness of the sacred heart tattoo—the way it offered more intersections than the Christian cross.

When I notice it now, my tattoo means more than anima/animus—more than a symbol of multi-faceted love-—it means 2016: the year so many things were full of uncertainty and opportunity: the year Trump was elected, the year of our first shows as a band; the year of record-shopping in the dollar bin, the year I sold my guitar to make rent, the year of my first panic attack, the year I said I am not a Christian out loud, the year of letting the stray cat inside, the year we found her dead outside Joey’s window, the year of revolving-door records, Steel Reserve beer, and watercoloring on the floor.

O, see the darkness yielding

That tore the light apart

Come healing of the reason

Come healing of the heart

O, troubled dust concealing

An undivided love

The heart beneath is teaching

To the broken heart above

— “Come Healing,” Leonard Cohen

*

Not long before Cohen’s death, on that same couch at the boys’ house, the three of us had watched a documentary about Cohen’s time in a Buddhist monastery at Mt. Baldy in California. We were so taken with his ability to infuse the sacred with the profane, alchemize them into something wonderfully familiar and wholly magical. Plus, he was funny. We loved to giggle at lyrics from the title track of “The Future” (the album with “Anthem,” which came out in 1992 ahead of Cohen’s visit to Mt Baldy in 1994):

Give me crack and anal sex

Take the only tree that’s left

And stuff it up the hole

In your culture

We’d covered “Diamonds in the Mine” at one of our first shows as a band. Trevor had typewritten one of Cohen’s love poems as a gift for me when we’d first fallen in love, which I tacked up on my wall. When I turned 24 just days after Cohen’s death, Joey watercolored two book covers with images and lyrics of his; sort of Blakean, jewel-toned and regal. During that time and since, we’ve always freely exchanged Cohen’s poetry books and records in a rotating fashion. Whoever didn’t have one record or book could borrow it in exchange for another—they were one of the many revolving-door objects in our revolving-door friendship.

*

In 2017, the three of us moved into a house together and organized all of our records alphabetically on one big shelf. After they were all shelved we took a step back to admire our handiwork. We laughed at how expansive our Cohen collection was, sprawling out in the C’s like some kind of kingdom.

When I think of these treasured lost years, it’s Cohen’s music that accompanies them: a sonic context for all that growth and longing. It’s our tipsy, ambling covers of “Suzanne” at two in the morning with additional, improvised lyrics, our rice-and-beans dinners on the couch with Trevor’s copy of “Death of a Ladies Man” spinning round, a cheap candle flickering on the coffee table. It’s late nights at the since-demolished J&J’s Market & Cafe, where all of us had worked and dropped into like a second home, certain we’d find one another. It’s the bitterness of over-extracted coffee uncannily complimentary of an over-sweetened muffin, and “Closing Time” on the speakers when it was time to shuffle folks along. It’s going to La Hacienda on Nolensville Pike for a Saturday morning breakfast of huevos rancheros and hot, black coffee, then walking to Phonoluxe next door and looking through records. It’s finding a beautiful original pressing of New Skin for the Old Ceremony there, joyfully spending all my tips from a week of work on it, and putting it on the record player the instant that I got home.

New Skin was Cohen’s fourth album—the one where he left behind his previous producer, studio musicians, and the golden, cloying concept of ‘the Nashville sound’ and headed back to his more austere New York City folk scene roots. How coincidental to find this rare record in Nashville of all places, where I and my bandmates also sometimes felt simultaneously within and outside of the sometimes-mechanistic music scene.

The album cover was the original, before the artwork was banned and changed on later pressings. It is an image from the alchemical text Rosarium philosophorum, and was referenced in Jung’s work to symbolize the union of opposites—just like Cohen’s own unified heart symbol. I loved the Judeo-Christian references emanating from the record, recontextualizing these ancient symbols and words to mean something new, sometimes something radically different. It’s all condensed there, in the title: new for the old; a ceremonious reimagining I could feel fully welcome to. A communion table I could sit at comfortably.

And who by brave assent, who by accident

Who in solitude, who in this mirror

Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand

Who in mortal chains, who in power

And who shall I say is calling?

—“Who By Fire,” Leonard Cohen

*

I don’t listen to Cohen’s records as frequently as I used to. They don’t sit well in a casual context, for me; they require my full attention. Devotion, even. They’re like friends that live in a distant place but correspond with diligence, easily picking up where we left off. Joey’s since moved out of the shared house where Trevor and I still live, but he has his key. We still share equipment and records, practice in the music room, and play more and more often each year, it seems. Our friendships have grown up along with us, as we’ve taken on jobs, commitments, and projects that don’t allow for the same kind of consistent, casual hang-outs we once shared. We’ve become more intentional, monastic, like Cohen at Mt. Baldy, maybe.

We’ve found our place in Nashville, which is not fixed to any one ‘scene,’ but rather with one another—with our wider community which grows and vines in ways we’d never expected.

We’re devoted to one another in everyday ways. I can’t think of a better songwriter, anyone more emblematic of the ephemeral and unspoken, the mundane glory of our true love, our blessed friendship, then Cohen—serenading those lost years when they were in no hurry to be found.

##

Lauren Turner is a writer and musician (Lou Turner) in Nashville, TN. She is the author of Shape Note Singing (forthcoming from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2021). Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in Image Journal, Cathexis Northwest Press, Chapter 16, and more. She serves as a blog editor for the freeform community radio station WXNA FM in Nashville, where she hosts her literary program, The Crack In Everything.  

Music

“Born to Die” and “Off to the Races” Essays by Denise Jarrott

by on May 13, 2020

Born to Die

I am 17 and I’m not ready for the rest of my life. This much life already feels like an accident, and the approach of my twenties a confusing, improbable indulgence.

I don’t know yet that I am not intelligent enough to survive on intelligence alone, and I am not pretty in the way they want me to be. It is 2004, and when the weather is tolerable, I develop a habit of driving out to the most deserted beach on the lake and walk back and forth, the wind blowing back my long black skirt. When it is cold, I sit in my car and I scream.

I am a girl who was born in Spirit Lake, which sounds romantic, but imagine a frozen lake in the middle of a field that stretches so far that the rest of the world seems impossible. Imagine the Ferris wheel and the orange yellow light of parking lots where teenage girls in halter tops and fringed faux suede belts laugh as they hop in the cabs of pickup trucks. This is the only place I know to be home, though it has not felt like home for a long time.

So, I became my own version of the sad girl. My strange clothing was gleaned from the free clothing room at church and the local Goodwill, my eyeliner smudged around my big, bored eyes, ensconced (or trapped) in my beloved American tourist wasteland. My sadness was in so many ways a performance, but a very real monster lurked beneath the surface. Beneath the opulent fantasy of my own teenage melancholy was something very real, a darkness even the sad girls couldn’t save me from. Something that wasn’t quite chemical and wasn’t quite imaginary. It would be many years before I could name it.

At seventeen, I wanted to feel the sort of love that swallows people whole. I wanted a love that made me feel like a saint drunk on Jesus, a love that will make me bleed for a reason other than feeling like a cornered animal. I wanted sweeping violins and crazed feminine pain and a glut of roses. I was ready for something that felt like a drug, someone to make me feel as infinite as the fields that surrounded me.

I am haunted most of all by the possibility I was (and still am) just bored. Could it be that it wasn’t a reverence for a seismic love, for self-destruction, or for another place that would save me and make me into a new person? It was an attractive prospect to be someone else, even if that person was living a distorted life. Maybe I just wanted an escape from that small town with the neon sno-cones and wholesome families rubbing shoulders with amoral twentysomething factory workers on weekend benders. That town that wanted so badly to be arrested in an endless summer.

It would seem paradoxical, even false, to say that what saved me that year and so many other years were other sad girls, some who had survived and some who had not.  Sylvia Plath and her incisive dark humor. Her bitter truth emerged from beyond the grave through the voice of my best friend Ashley, rehearsing her performance piece for speech and drama, an excerpt from The Bell Jar.

Years later, it was Chan Marshall’s haunted vocals in Moon Pix were like a dense, heavy blanket in a friend’s dark apartment, songs that staved off death and welcomed it in the same breath. It makes no sense, no sense, no sense…playing on repeat in the dark of an unfamiliar apartment as I tried to sleep off jet lag.

Later, there was Lana Del Rey. She came to me like a crossroads demon snaking through an internet radio station as I walked to work from my apartment one evening.  My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola, she sang. I stopped in my tracks. My eyes are wide like cherry pies. Suddenly, the college town I’d grown to know as a cage to pace in became darker, wilder. Wherever she was, there was complicated men and ill-gotten diamonds and lost highways and the Pacific Ocean, roiling thousands of miles away.

I fervently consumed the Paradise EP, then Born To Die, and in consuming that sweetness, I tasted the familiar bitterness. I’d wished she had existed for me when I was seventeen, when I was living in that lake of spirits in the middle of endless cornfields. I wish I’d had her as a guardian angel to guide me though those early years, her voice in my ear as I sat in my car, telling me that “sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough, I don’t know why.” I didn’t know why either. I still don’t.

 “Born to Die” begins with Lana asking “Why? Who, me?”,as if she never asked to be here. There’s an appealing teenage nihilism to “Born to Die”—it’s a song that evokes star-crossed lovers getting high on the beach, at the edge of a field, in a convertible, in a pickup truck, on the boardwalk, in the woods. We never asked to be born, and though we whine as much when we were young, it is later, having survived our wild, wild lives, when we have children of our own who cry though the night and never let us rest, it is finally then when we realize that they are trying to find the language to ask “Why? Who, me? Why?”

Off to the Races

I am 30, and I don’t have anything to lose. I take off to New Orleans with a lover I choose to keep a secret, because it is happening in the twilight of my marriage and the end of grad school and I think to myself that this may be the last time I can ever do this. It is exciting to keep a secret, and maybe I am finally bored enough to try something truly stupid. Just to see if I can get away with being this reckless this late in the game.

 I’m sunburned scarlet in a backyard saltwater pool of an old hotel, in a white swimsuit I will wear only this once, on this afternoon in New Orleans under lime trees and a shimmering of humidity. Everyone is smoking and drinking at the edge of the pool and it doesn’t seem like anyone here cares if their swimwear is flattering. Every now and then, the smell of marijuana wafts over the bodies in the pool.

It is a little bit primal, this city, heavy with the smell of rotting shellfish and sticky absinthe and impossible flowers. It doesn’t feel like America here, or any other place I’ve known. There is something older that haunts this place, this city of love and death and sickening history with street names like Desire, Bourbon, Piety. The man I brought with me, a man just as reckless as I am, watches me smoke cigarettes and trip over to the bar to ask for another margarita. A man takes me on a date with the bittersweet night. For three days, I am his baby and he would fight for me even if I never asked him to.

Lana’s voice rises and falls, rhymes “cognac” with “lilac“; rhymes “shameless” with “basement“. I can tell she is something of a poet, but more importantly, she is a singer (as all poets once were). There’s a deftness to her vocalizations, switching from sultry femme fatale and wide-eyed, bright young thing, as if two hyper-feminine demons are fighting over her soul. Or, more likely, these two versions of the same woman are what her adored “old man” requires her to perform, and she must switch between the two at his whim.

As a singer, she tries to please the audience in the same way she would please her lover, and it is utterly heartbreaking. That is why she is so tired. A starlet is both scarlet and harlot, waiting to be kissed in the garden of earthly delights, waiting to be loved for every inch of her tar black soul. She is both the persona and the person beneath, maiden and odalisque, woman dancing on the verge, on the edge of the Hollywood sign. She is tired because she has been so many other women and is so good at performing them that she has forgotten her identity.

This battle for control between Lana’s internal selves may be most brutal, most raw, in her infamous 2012 Saturday Night Live performance, which is admittedly difficult to watch. She sways in a white lace gown, her nerves buzzing and bare. The dark femme fatale voice is too deep, the delicate Lolita self too saccharine. Juliette Lewis tweeted that the performance “is like watching a 12-year-old in their bedroom when they’re pretending to sing and perform.” This vulnerability, coupled with Lana’s vocal stylings, is usually her strength, but in this case it was rough-edged, the line between the two personas too distinct. It is jagged, it is schizophrenic, it is the opposite of the polished performances required of a young woman. 

No one is certain whether or not Lana Del Rey’s consistent aesthetic is simply an aesthetic, or if her life really does consist of roses blooming in time lapse in the dark heart of America,  of fragile girls swaying through hotel rooms in red satin gowns and the wealthy, charismatic, dangerous daddies who are the still point of their faltering worlds. Perhaps it is not the point to speculate whether or not the art is derived from the artist’s life, especially if that artist is a woman and inevitably, the truth would be painted as either histrionic or duplicitous. In the beginning of her career, there was much speculation on whether or not Lana Del Rey was a overproduced persona, a Frankenstein’s monster created by her wealthy father. She was accused of being “fake”, but what would it mean for a performer to be “real”? Does the audience want realism?

Years after that fever dream of a few days in New Orleans, when I am living in New York, a different lover describes me as “confessional”, and by that point I have learned to expect such commentary from men, and I have learned that it is rarely, if ever, a compliment.  If anything, it is a warning to protect myself, that I can’t be such a delicate prairie flower in the unforgiving city. As if experiences were finite things to give away, and once those stories are told enough times, they lose their power. Sometimes I hope as much.

Is Lana confessing? Am I actually confessing, or is committing my experiences to words just hiding “the truth” behind a scrim? Sometimes she sounds a little exhausted with the histrionics, as if she’s told the same tale a thousand times of the man who gained incredible wealth by less than honest means, the story of hotel pools and love on the run. A world so sparkling and opulent it can’t last forever. The old man is a “thief” and a criminal and his girl is “crazy”, which she apologizes for multiple times, “God, I’m so crazy, baby , I’m sorry that I’m misbehaving…” but this demurring is only another means of seduction, for she is also “Queen of Coney Island, raising hell all over town.” Her tossed off “sorry ‘bout it” apology is an acknowledgment that her being “crazy” is another way to keep her lover, and whomever enters her world, interested. She knows that it is not direct authenticity the audience wants, but spectacle. The audience wants to be seduced.

Removed from this narrative, Lana’s Saturday Night Live performance is essentially what we do when we listen to Lana Del Rey’s music: perform our own internal narrative. We are twelve years old and swaying in front of a mirror. We are thirty years old, sunburned and drunk in a strange city. We are twenty-five and the woman we are and the woman we want to become and the woman we fantasize about being are in a bloody battle that will probably never end. It’s heaven and hell, truth and lies, the starlet and the harlot. Sometimes those things cannot be contained, sometimes they just are what they are, a girl caught in a daydream of a life she’s only pretending to live.

——————————————————–
Denise Jarrott is the author of NYMPH (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2018), and two chapbooks, Nine Elegies (Dancing Girl Press) and Herbarium (Sorority Mansion Press). Her poetry and essays have appeared recently in Luna Luna, Cover, The Boiler, Yes Poetry, Queen Mob’s, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a series of essays in conversation with Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. She grew up in Iowa and lives in Brooklyn.