Buckner’s Surrounded (Album Review)

Buckner has perfected a shaken rosebush sound–all at once moving, woody, thorny, and petaled in difficult beauty.  His album, Surrounded, attests to his remarkable virtues as a singer-songwriter.  But his virtues are not easy to appreciate; he offers no ease of access to them. The melodies of the songs on the album are lovely, but they exist more as traceries than as simple single lines, they are densely structured and closely knit–there are few big, dramatic chord changes, few reaches for the immediate, call it the hummable.  You might deem the melodies ruminative–but that should not suggest the bucolic or the pastoral:  they are fiercely ruminative, the rumination determined not to spare the ruminator or the ruminated topic or the listener–intense, brooding ruminations.


Perhaps the best way to understand the difficulty of Buckner is to consider the writing process that produced the songs on the album.  The nine songs are built from the text of five prose vignettes.  (The album liner supplies these.)  The vignettes are numbered, and their text looks a little like the text of old New Testaments–some of the words are in black, the words that become lyrics of the songs, and other are in read, the words that are part of the vignettes but not themselves lyrics of the songs.  There are also words in green bold face, the words that serve as the titles of the songs.  So each song is a complicated distillation of a vignette or of some portion of a vignette.  For illustration, the opening section of the first vignette is:

[Those static arrangements have led you to attempt a rest, but] you just won’t lie down.  Even closing your eyes, you can’t let it go, surrounded inside.

The words in brackets are the words printed in red.  The other words are the opening lyrics of the first song, “Surrounded”, whose title is the bold-faced word.  The vignette continues:

Leave it alone.  You don’t get it back [by] undoing the scenes [that] you can’t explain, whatever [it is that] you dream that you’ve buried away.

It seems like you’re there as someone removed [of the proof, then returned to the pride] and [abandoned with others] left in their place with nothing to do, [still] bound to the switch.  [But], railing again at the thought of the fight for well-earned dissent (undeserved at the time, as you’ve been shown), the motion has gone a shade of the night, only leading you on.

Before I say much more about the process of building songs this way, it is worth pausing to consider the vignette itself, independent of the song that Buckner scries within it.  Anyone who knows Bucker’s recording history and who has reflected on the character of his lyrics, knows that they are elliptical exercises, worse even than the prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi.  Buckner does not speak but conceals, gives signs, hints, suggestions.  But he won’t come clean.  Early songs were built around an implied but never actually used word (“Blue and Wonder”):

And what’s that word:
I forget sometimes
It’s the one that means
The love has left your eyes?

Bucker never actually supplies that word.  He leaves the reader wondering (perhaps a deliberate pun in the title of the song), since there is not a single English word with that exact meaning, or none I can think of.  (Maybe I have forgotten it too?)  Part of the artistry here is that by claiming that there is such a word but that he has forgotten it, Buckner supplies that sense of familiarity with everyday tragedies that we all have, even if we would like to forget it.  But Buckner always cares more to bring us around to a cold plunge into a familiar but uncomfortable reality than about telling us about such realities. That continues here:  this vignette never really tells us, in so many words, about what surrounds the narrator–it instead surrounds us itself, won’t let us rest.  What does it mean?  Something has been done, something undone, something buried, something dissented from.  But what?  Several of the sentences have a murky grammatical structure, stringing the reader from word to word without the benefit of creating any clear lexical expectation.  You find yourself at the period, stopping. but only then, if at all, having any sense of where you have been.  This is clearly deliberate–not a failure, but a success of art.  It bears comparisons with James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and with, say, Claire Lispector.

The hollow at the heart of the vignette deepens in the song Buckner finds in the vignette.  (The relationship between the generating vignettes and the generated songs varies in each case.  “Surrounded” is perhaps the song that most fully preserves its generating vignette.)  Consider the lyrics.

You just won’t lie down
Even closing your eyes
You can’t let it go
Surrounded inside

Leave it alone
You don’t get it back
Undoing the scenes
You can’t get explain
Whatever you dream

That you buried away
It seems like you’re there
As someone removed
And left in their place
With nothing to do

Bound to the switch
Railing again
At the thought of the fight
For well-earned dissent
Undeserved at the time

As you’ve been shown
The motion has gone
A shade of the night
Only leading you on

There is no straightforward verse/chorus structure here exactly.  There are no rhymes.  But it is far from formless.  The words ingather around whatever it is that is missing from the lyrics, some skeleton key word or phrase that would allow escape.  The words create claustrophobia, crowd densely around.  No escape offered, the lyrics end in stasis, the only hope (?) a shade of the night–a grayer black, a ghost? both?–that offers to lead you–only you?–on.  But is that an offer of anything more than empty change?Substituting one siege for another?  Railing, fighting, dissenting get us nothing deserved.

Buckner finger-picks insistently, weaving the lyrics through the pattern.  His vocal expression gives little away–the words matter, the delivery is not inflectionless.  But the singing reveals mainly the intensity of the self-questioning, of the restlessness of the desire for explanation, the restlessness full stop.

Perhaps nothing more thematizes this song, this album, and Buckner’s career, than his grappling with a wide-eyed sleeplessness, physical and psychological.  In Emerson’s essay, “Experience”, Emerson bemoans not just the death of his son, Waldo, but also, and even more intently, he bemoans the fact that he cannot fully realize Waldo’s death, concretize it into a current circumstance of his life.  He writes

In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, –no more.  I cannot get it nearer to me…[I]t does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off and leaves no scar.  It was caducous.  I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.

Buckner lives out a kind of nepsis; he paces the walls while the rest of us sleep.  He spends his nights inquiring up and down, tiring his animal eyes and the eyes of his mind.  But he cannot sleep.  He cannot bring the things that move him–those that calm him, those that grieve him, those he has loved and those he has lost, –he cannot bring them nearer to him.  They have done what they have done and he and they have moved on, no lesson surely learnt.  Everything touches him but nothing touches him:  everything slides away, led on by a shade of the night.  Life itself proves caducous.  Dream delivers him to dream, and there is no end to illusion.  –How can we hold onto lives that flux like water, running out of our clutches, leaving behind only trails of tears?  How can we step into real nature–not just as observers, pacers of the wall, but as bodily entrants into reality itself?  Our skin seems sometimes to get in between us and the world, making our grasp of things gloved, mediated, distant.  Sleep comes to seem like an acceptance, a yielding to dreams, a conniving at agreeable illusions.  Buckner will not yield.  He remains awake in the inextricable darkness.

The sheer intensity of Buckner’s refusal of sleep can overwhelm the listener.  Buckner is determined to exhaust exhaustion.  He is bound to the switch.  How can art arrest life, incarcerate it? That is a question that will keep you up nights.  Perhaps there is a confusion in it, as perhaps there is a confusion in Emerson’s grievance about grief–but, even if there is, it is a confusion we all find ourselves in eventually.  What we want nearer we can get only so near, and no more.  Nothing we care about seems capable of being both ours and other.  Everything eventually sees or saws, settling in one place or another, wholly ours and so not of interest, or wholly other and so out of reach.

Buckner always brings Emerson to mind for me.  That is because each man devotes himself to what I call, if you will excuse the term, a phenomenology of moods.  Each is more interested in finding a way to capture a mood than he is in capturing the object or scene or whatever it might be that creates the mood.  (One of the songs on Surrounded is, fittingly, “Mood”.)  Each takes mood itself to be his ‘object’.  This, I take it, helps to explain what I have called the hollowness of the lyrics, the fact that something seems always to be left out, left up to us to supply, if it is supplied at all.  –The fascination with mood has developed over Buckner’s career.  You find it on early albums, but usually as a bit or a piece of a song, not as the song itself.  As he has continued to record, the fascination has deepened.  Now, the songs are often fogs of mood, obscuring all non-moody objects, and leaving us with only the fog itself as a subject of attention.  No doubt to some this seems like willful obscurantism–but that is true only of those who cannot bring themselves to focus on the fog, to see that it is worthy of attention, despite its shifty, ephemeral nature, despite the fact that it seems always to recede just as we lean in to study it.

Buckner’s problem (and, so, not his willful obscurity) is how to bring into focus the very stuff that we take to soften or blur our focus, to hinder our gaze.  The things it is hard to see from up close, because they are often best visible in the distance.  (Emerson has his own version of this problem.)  I suspect that Buckner’s method of composition, the creating of the vignette, then the subtracting from it until the lyric emerges, is itself driven by his problem.  The vignette captures the mood, but does so in a way that threatens to solidify it, to make it too object-like.  Subtracting to find the lyric de-objectifies the mood, as does adding the music, the melody.  Buckner captures the mood by capturing us in it, by getting us to find ourselves inside it, instead of standing over and above it, outside it.  We come to know the fog by learning how to see it, and to see in it, as best we can.  Buckner’s pursuit of mood creates the strange mix of determinacy and indeterminacy in his lyrics, the combining of sketchy personal presences with carefully delineated emotional detail.  The songs are scenescapes of free-floating emotional disturbances.

“Surrounded” is one of the best of the songs on the album; but there are no weak songs.  There are deeply lovely songs, like the unanswered mystery of “Beautiful Question”.  There’s the trembling demon seance of “Mood”.  The album ends with a transcendental take on a symbol of the temporary, “Lean-To”.

Buckner is a songwriter of real brilliance.  His songs are exercises of that brilliance, a force creating its appropriate expression.  These are not songs that wear what makes them so wonderful on their sleeves.  They require time, frequentation, serious thinking.  Thoreau once remarked that books must be read as deliberately as they are written.  These songs must be listened to as deliberately as they were composed.  Buckner wears himself out.  He wears his listener out.  And that, odd as it may be to put it this way, is part of the point:  what Buckner is doing is demanding.

On a Certain Use of ‘Democratic’ in Whitman

I have come to Whitman slowly, zigzag, reluctant.  I do not know why.  I do not know fully why.  I do know that my youthful exposure to him left me in flinty indifference.  (I must have pulled Leaves off the shelves in, say, 10th grade.  I worked in a library and stood and read what I shelved or read what caught my eye near what I shelved.  I was not–and was–an ideal library employee.)  I reckon that part of my (lack of) reaction was tied up to the ceaseless singing of ‘democracy’.  I have always had a hard time with art that slummed with politics.  My thought must have been somesuch:  “Yeah, right, democracry.  It’s great and all.  But come on.  Canting for democracy?  Not just any democracy, but an earlier version of the one I inhabit?  No, no, not for me.  Go your own way, Walt.  I will go mine.”

I am not here to apologize for my 10th grade self.  He was my 10th grade self–sophomoric by definition.  I have not, at any rate, put that child away entirely.  He is still along for my ride.  I still shrink from the appearance of politics in poetry.  That’s a reaction of mine not yet completely owned.  I hope one day to own it completely or to shrug it off.

Whitman with butterfly

But a couple of days ago, caught up now in a much different general reaction to Whitman, I came across this, from the “Preface Note to Second Annex”:

I have probably not been enough afraid of careless touches, from the first–and am not now–nor of parrot-like repetitions–nor platitudes and the commonplace.  Perhaps I am too democratic for such avoidances.

That use of ‘democratic’ stopped me.  (It is, I admit, in the half-hug of ‘perhaps’.  But I rate that staginess and not an expression of actual half-heartedness.)  I had made a very similar use of it myself earlier in the day.  But my use of it was not meant to be political, but rather ur-political, a recognition of a fact about human relations that underwrites any political use of ‘democratic’ I could vote for.  So too,  realized, was Whitman’s.

Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless–each of us with his or her rights upon the earth,
Each of us allow’d the eternal purports of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here. (Salut Au Monde!)

His, my, our use of ‘democratic’ is a use as a greeting-word, as a profound acknowledgement of others, not en masse, not as a political body, but as an each-in-all, as individuals too distinguished to be the same and too similar to be entirely distinguished.  Such an acknowledgement makes demands, demands even on art, on poetry.  (And on philosophy.) It demands writing poetry to such individuals and for such individuals.  It demands an unclamping, letting the poetic machinery run free, acquiring a careless, carefree touch.  It demands liberation from an over-active poetic conscience, from concern about repetition, about platitude, about commonplaces, about saying something too trivial and obvious, something insincere, something unworthy of reader or occasion.  The poet must overcome scruples and take the breaks off his heart, and let his tongue wag unleashed, garrulous to the very last.

This feature of Transcendentalism-of Emerson and Thoreau, and, yes, I now admit, Whitman–is one that makes it honorable, and that ties it to writers and philosophers I care about, each of them a Transcendentalist in his or her way:  Socrates, Plato, Kierkegaard, James, Wittgenstein, Lawrence, Frost, Murdoch, Anscombe, Robinson.  It demands that we lift up our ordinary lives into our philosophical imagination, making them receptive to intense reflection, without making them fodder for scholarship or museum preservation, never forgetting that the point is to know those lives better so as to live them better.

(I am not claiming to have made a discovery for anyone else here, only for myself.  I now suppose that this use of ‘democratic’ is all over Whitman, and that everyone but me has known it.)



Cicero on Inconsistency with Yesterday

You appeal to my writings, and testify to what I may at some time have said or written. You may deal in this way with others, who in their discussions follow prescribed rules. We live for the passing day ; we say whatever strikes our minds as probable ; and so we alone are free.

Look Homeward, Look Back

It is about time for us to leave Bordeaux.  We fly back home tomorrow.  I then head almost immediately to a conference on Early Analytic Epistemology, a conference at which I present an essay on Sellars I have been struggling with for quite a while, but which shows very little evidence of that fact (I fear).

When I return from that conference, I begin teaching my usual summer course on the Seven Deadly Sins.  I enjoy that course and look forward to it.

I have gotten a chance to talk a lot here with my friend, Jean-Phillippe Narboux, a wonderful man and wonderful philosopher.  We’ve spent some hours reading Merleau-Ponty together–those hours were very rewarding.  I also met and got to talk at some length with Joseph Urbas, who teaches American Literature here, and is writing these days on Emerson and Thoreau.  It was good to talk about Emerson again–it has been a while for me–and Joseph makes a most rewarding interlocutor.

I thank both of them. I also thank the folks who attended my papers and asked questions.  The papers will be better because of those questions.

Goodbye, Bordeaux, and thanks again!

Bordeaux May 4, 2013 011

Carlyle, from Heroes and Hero-Worship

It is well said, in every sense, that a man’s religion is the chief fact with regard to him. A man’s, or a nation of men’s. By religion I do not mean here the church-creed which he professes, the articles of faith which he will sign and, in words or otherwise, assert; not this wholly, in many cases not this at all. We see men of all kinds of professed creeds attain to almost all degrees of worth or worthlessness under each or any of them. This is not what I call religion, this profession and assertion; which is often only a profession and assertion from the outworks of the man, from the mere argumentative region of him, if even so deep as that. But the thing a man does practically believe (and this is often enough without asserting it even to himself, much less to others); the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest. That is his religion; or, it may be, his mere scepticism and no-religion: the manner it is in which he feels himself to be spiritually related to the Unseen World or No-World; and I say, if you tell me what that is, you tell me to a very great extent what the man is, what the kind of things he will do is. Of a man or of a nation we inquire, therefore, first of all, What religion they had? Was it Heathenism,—plurality of gods, mere sensuous representation of this Mystery of Life, and for chief recognized element therein Physical Force? Was it Christianism; faith in an Invisible, not as real only, but as the only reality; Time, through every meanest moment of it, resting on Eternity; Pagan empire of Force displaced by a nobler supremacy, that of Holiness? Was it Scepticism, uncertainty and inquiry whether there was an Unseen World, any Mystery of Life except a mad one;—doubt as to all this, or perhaps unbelief and flat denial? Answering of this question is giving us the soul of the history of the man or nation. The thoughts they had were the parents of the actions they did; their feelings were parents of their thoughts: it was the unseen and spiritual in them that determined the outward and actual;—their religion, as I say, was the great fact about them.

Emerson and Montaigne 2

I find it natural to parcel out my reflections on Emerson by addressing first Emersonian sentences, then paragraphs, then essays.  (This is more or less Firkins’ approach.)  Emerson uniquely composes each.  Although I have had a go once at Emerson’s sentences, I want to try to say something about them again.

I reckon that Firkin’s is right to claim that the obscurity of Emerson’s sentences has more to do with strangeness than dimness.  But I judge the strangeness more strangeness of form than of content, although content is strange too.  Emerson does something strange with sentences, he puts them together in his own peculiar way.  Part of what Emerson is doing is striving for aphoristic integrity, a cut-from-diamond hardness and perfection, for sentences that can withstand judgment simultaneously literary and philosophical, and severe.  He plays for high sentential stakes:  No sentence may be mere filler, or only a very few, at most.  Virtually every sentence has to be such as to retain perfect integrity even if isolated from its particular paragraph and particular essay.  Wittgenstein in TLP accounts for sentences so as to render the sense of any one independent of the truth of any other.  Emerson tries to write sentences such that the understanding of one is, in some sense, independent of the understanding of any other.  Sentential self-sufficiency.

But, even so, Emerson writes these sentences into paragraphs and these paragraphs into essays.  How?  How can these aphoristic atoms become molecular?  How can sentential self-sufficiency be retained in a paragraph in which sentences stand in mutual relation, perhaps even in some sort of mutual dependence?

I will let the questions hang for now.  –Back to sentences.

Emerson is also handles his lexicon strangely.  He so words sentences that often the words in them mean more, and mean it differently, than the words do in the sentences of others.  But assigning that differently meant different meaning cannot be done unless the word is left where it is.  It does what it does there, in that sentences, flanked by just those other words.  (The phenomenon is most familiar in poetry.  Emerson manages it in prose–and not in prose-poetry, in prose.)  These words play something analogous to the role that technical terms play in other writers, although they are not technical terms in Emerson.  (There are no technical terms in Emerson.)  Instead, they are carefully managed flections (inflections or deflections or reflections) of the meaning of the word, fully contextually bound, but carrying forward much of what is most completely his own in Emerson’s writing.  (Consider: ‘aversion’.)  Sentences featuring his truly characteristic lexicon cannot be paraphrased.

Emerson and Montaigne 1

I will begin with a quotation–as I so often do.  But–“we are all quotation”–so, why hide it?

This is from Firkins’ strange and compelling book on Emerson.  He is addressing the issue of clarity in Emerson.

Dr. Garnett writes of the individual sentence in Emerson:  “His thought is transparent and almost chillingly clear.”  For most men, the clarity is hardly of the sort that regulates the temperature.  It is true, nevertheless, that for Emerson, as for Browning and Meredith, around the fact of obscurity and illusion of greater obscurity has grown up.  The trouble with Emerson is more often strangeness than dimness; the indistinctness of the moral Monadnock or Agiochook which he points out to us is due rather to the distance of the peak than to the haze of the atmosphere.

I will let this quotation stand alone for a moment.  I will have something to say about it, and about other moments in Firkins, in the next post.

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