Those who know me know that I have a deep and abiding love for R.E.M. (both the band and the sleep cycle). That title, a lyric from Swan Swan Hummingbird, popped in my head the other day as TW and I were driving, and I sang it out as if it were still 1986 and Life’s Rich Pageant was in the cassette player as I clattered along in my Tercel, traversing the back roads of my hometown.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a song analysis or rank albums or howl for my lost youth (you’re welcome). I’m simply thinking about how art sticks around, how we adopt it and translate it and make it part of ourselves.
Lines come to me a lot: random bits of songs, poems, short stories, novels, movies, plays. They often return out of context, removed from their original state, little fragments that I add to my trove of language. Sometimes I understand why these bits come: the sound or rhythm, the image borne within, the humor. Sometimes it’s a mystery, but there they are anyway, like a flash of sun in the eye that forces me to squint, to take time to look closer.
Perhaps I’m pondering something that is screamingly obvious: People like to quote stuff. Along with porn and cat videos, the Internet is mostly just sites devoted to quotable quotes with hazy attributions (“I like Web sites”– W.B. Yeats). Perhaps, too, such a line-hearing habit is detrimental; first, it’s a bastardization of someone’s art, and second, it’s a colonization of my own imagination. Shouldn’t I remember the whole work? Shouldn’t I be drumming up lines of my own?
I guess if all I did was run around babbling quotes I might be in trouble. But for me, I’m not just repeating them to repeat them. If it’s about language or image, I’m examining that language or image, putting it on repeat or in freeze-frame in order to study it more closely, to understand its effect. Some recent examples: Shakespeare’s “How now, wit, whither wander you?” from As You Like It; Whitman’s “I depart as air/I shake my white locks at the runaway sun”; “They is, they is, they is” from Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” I turn them and turn them and turn them, and I never tire of their beauty and wonder.
Sometimes, though, these little flecks transform into my own little metaphor. Take the most recent reincarnation of”what noisy cats are we”: It returned to me as I was stopped in a car at an intersection, gazing out at the suburbs of Birmingham, which teemed with gas stations and food chains and exhaust fumes. Whatever the song’s intentions, over time, and removed from its source, it has become something else for me, a way to process an abstraction: something about the desperation of the masses, of how we find ourselves mewing and clawing at the state of our lives.
If I have a point, which is doubtful, I guess it’s that I find the possibilities of such fragments both remarkable and deeply reassuring as an artist and as an audience member. A song, even just a slice of it, can return unbidden to a person more than twenty-five years after its first hearing, and allow that person to name and articulate a confusing, unconnected moment. These parts of the whole pulse and shimmer across time, gathering the dust of the universe, just waiting for a space to land.