Think Music: Elizabeth Cohen on Tom Waits

img_1797In a novel I am writing, teenagers create a David Bowie appreciation society in the early two-thousands. They get together in a dilapidated trailer outfitted with a battery operated CD player and blacklight and sit in the purple dark listening to “Space Oddity” and feeling the words rush through their blood while around them the grown-up world collapses in upon itself.

It has been terrific fun setting a novel to Bowie tracks, but my own life is most often set to the tracks of Tom Waits. It is in his world of down-and-outs and ne’er-do-wells, of back alley boozers and atomic strength love gone wrong, that I move and live. It is my primary soundtrack always, even if interstiched with Lou Reed, Edith Piaf, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith and punk rock. If I listen to classical music, it is the song cycles of Shubert or Berlioz or the strange little antic pieces of Eric Satie. In case you haven’t picked it up yet, I am a musical romantic and a romantic in every area of life. What this means is that I often make my teen daughter cringe by crying at the color of the evening clouds or sad news on the TV and that I am overcome by longing and inspiration easily.

This fall, this is evidenced by the poems in my new collection, BIRD LIGHT, a book dedicated to that very same teen, “my little bird, my light.” This book of poems is wrought with what I consider my “Waitsian” side, my inner derelict, my big, big broken heart full of wonder and ruin.

Indeed, I listened to my man Tom while writing so many of these poems that it should be dedicated to him. Spinning his CDs (especially Rain Dogs and Bone Machine) on my car player, I often pulled over to the side of the road and scribbled these poems over the years, much to the chagrin of those driving past me, who may find my sudden inspiration annoying on their commutes.

If I could pick a single song that ignites my poet brain, every single time, it is the song “Alice”:

It’s dreamy weather we’re on
You wave your crooked wand
Along an icy pond
With a frozen moon.
A murder of crows I saw
And the tears on my face
And the skates on the pond
They spell Alice.

In this song, a sad ass love song if ever there was one, a man is actually inscribing the name of a woman he loves with ice skates on a frozen pond. But it is the simple and pure poetry of the lyrics that moves me, the lyric similes and clever slant rhyming: “your hair is like meadow grass / on the tide And the raindrops in my window / and the ice in my drink / Baby all I can think of is Alice.”

front-cover-bird-light-generic-v9-0_3The poems in BIRD LIGHT are each about birds, singular or collective, and while written over the course of many years, they each reach for that same note that is hit in so many Waits songs, always in a minor key, always full of mystery, evoking scraps of narrative. Alice was the song I was listening to when I wrote the poem “Festival of the Cranes,” which is about a wildlife preserve in Southern New Mexico that is home seasonally to birds, but is also about the beautiful scrappiness of men who I have known and men I have loved—my first boyfriend who now “sells used cars on Fourth Street in Albuquerque” and “my best friend’s brother, who went to prison for a decade” and is now “a gardener for a university.”

“The world recovers,” goes this poem, “just look at this / The rise and rise of a species / like the ground itself has decided to fly. / Not far from heaven, really, if heaven is a place / where things lift up / by some internal power / and move on with their lives.”

I can summon and conjure up my poet brain with songs like “Rain Dogs,” “Christmas Card from a Hooker,” “Gun Street Girl,” or “Hang Down Your Head” at any given moment. This is the secret of music, I think. That when you find your soul, music will contain moments, like a phrase from Schubert, a refrain of Waits or Bowie—or for me, in Leonard Cohen’s desperate “I’m Your Man”—that will ever ignite you. Such songs are the spark plugs of your heart. They are your writer gasoline.

Some people, in fact many I have met, require total silence to write. They need to hear their own thoughts and music upends that somehow. Drowns out their own brainwork.

Others need music without lyrics, instrumental. A friend of mine writes to the preludes of Chopin. That would never work for me because those preludes are so beautiful and complicated and up-tempo, they are distracting. The music would eclipse my writer heart, cast it in shadow.

I need something not just beautiful, but tinged with the ominous, just weird enough to make me go and then recede into the background out of pure familiarity. I have listened to Rain Dogs so many times that it has become me. It is stitched onto me. And because it is me now, I can write from those clickety-clack rhythms (as in Bone Machine, an album almost all about metrics) as if they were my own heartbeat. Or my pulse. I hear them and they become non-sound after a time, as normal as air. And I have to breathe to live, I have to breathe to write.

Elizabeth Cohen is an associate professor of English at Plattsburgh State University, where she teaches creative writing. She is the author of a memoir, The Family on Beartown Road, a book of short stories, The Hypothetical Girl, and six books of poetry, most recently BIRD LIGHT (Saint Julian Press, 2016). She lives in Plattsburgh, NY, with her daughter Ava and way, way too many cats.

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