May 02, 2019

Pet Sounds

On our first day in Madrid, Alli and I walked from our place to the Prado. I had volunteered to be our guide. Not because I knew the streets of Madrid any better than she did, but because I had paid my cell phone provider $10 per day to use my phone in Europe just like I use my phone here. We rolled our eyes at the thought of the money we had wasted buying a “Streetwise Madrid” map before we left. My phone became our Virgil, leading us through slim stone streets and across vast boulevards, sparing the countless precious hours of our vacation we invariably squander in getting lost. At some point, I made a joke that I was so grateful for the phone that I was in love with it. Alli said, “Don’t make that joke.”

She’s right, of course: my phone was also an emblem of the world’s disaster.

Anyway, as we neared the museum we passed an advertisement from another institution for a big retrospective of paintings by Balthus. The arresting image was Balthus’s Thérèse Dreaming, a serious looking young woman in reverie. I didn’t know Balthus’s paintings. A few years ago, visiting an old painter friend in Boston, I looked through a book of his work casually, remembering the name but not to look him up. But I wonder, I thought and said to Alli, if we should check this show out.

Of course I couldn’t neglect the brevity of our time in Madrid and the dwindling hours of pristine vacation. I mean, the vacation had to end. That’s what made it vacation: sickness unto death. Soaring aloft on this feeling of YOLO tainted by the specter of FOMO, I needed help. My old painter friend doesn’t have a phone. I know. So I texted another painter friend, asking if I should see a big Balthus show if I had the chance. “The paintings are amazing,” he wrote back from whatever time zone it was in Philadelphia. “But that dude is definitely a pedophile.”

I followed up a little, with my friend and some googling from siesta bed. I made a bad joke like, “I wish I would have asked him after we saw the show.” The situation was not unfamiliar to me. I mean, look, I’m a poet ok? And if you are a poet and you are interested at any point in twentieth century Anglophone poetry, you are probably going to end up being told that you must read Ezra Pound, who was literally an anti-Semitic Fascist. And not just as a hobby. Like, his entire poetic project depends on a deranged anti-Semitic Fascist theory of economics. And people will say stuff like “but listen to how good the words sound.”

We went to the show of course.

Thérèse Dreaming turned out to be not only a capable representation of Balthus’s oeuvre, but provided a clue to how the curators of the show would handle Balthus’s “controversial” obsession with painting nude adolescent girls staring at themselves in a mirror. Canvas after canvas returned to this scene, with slight variations in the décor surrounding the subject. In many, an adult is in proximity to the nude adolescent girl, either oblivious to her flowering narcissism or obsessed with it. In one, showing a man stoking a fire with his back turned, the wall text suggested that perhaps the fire symbolized the desire that had been set aflame in the man’s loins by the presence of the nude adolescent girl. Right.

The relentless repetition of this same scene was wearying, and we moved through the exhibitions swiftly. When I paused in front of one of his canvases, it was to look at something small. Quick marks making twilight shimmer off thick foliage, a sudden erumpent impasto coming off a singular lick of fire in the hearth. I love looking hard and long at little gestures in painting, their most insignificant ornaments. I especially sought them out at the Balthus show, when the content was gross. Afterwards, it wasn’t hard to summarize our experience of the work. There we were again, stuck in the tired, ordinary dilemma of encountering great technique in the syntax of a nightmare.

Balthus, The Golden Days, 1944–45 (detail). Photo: Brandon Brown.

Balthus, The Golden Days, 1944–45 (detail). Photo: Brandon Brown.

That dilemma is so mundane it’s almost silly to discuss. But I have been thinking about it lately, reading and rereading Stephanie Young’s new book Pet Sounds. Because Pet Sounds addresses itself to this issue explicitly, but explodes what makes its analysis so often narrow. If Balthus’s beautifully painted portraits of nude adolescent girls looking in the mirror can be dispatched in the terms most known to us, Pet Sounds studies the ecstasy and the horror of everyday love and life, in an intentionally maximal way. Young never settles for some easy thesis, even when her book is most blunt: “everything I love is born of brutal contact.”

The loves birthed by brutal contact in Pet Sounds constitute an enormous register. They include her person, “a not-rich married white bisexual guy with a medium amount of power,” and their elderly cat, “a kitten in a world of blood / and dirt, kittens in a world / of shit. our pet. at night.” Their affair, their breakup, their reconciliation, their marriage, and the weirdness of what that word means. The loves birthed by brutal contact include the tremendous and noble Golden State Warriors, sisters and moms and friends and kids, Van Morrison, The Grateful Dead, memory, a future not so fucked by brutal contact.

There are also, and not incidentally, things born of brutal contact that the poem does not love. The motherfuckers who kidnapped Tilikum, the police, Greil Marcus.

So, clearly, Pet Sounds is not just a book about the bad artist who makes the good art, although its curriculum includes that. Pet Sounds studies how the dilemma we might feel about a Balthus or an Ariana Grande song represents itself in our richest interior experience: the realm of love and life. The book opens with a short poem, a longer poem, and then a long poem called “Pet Sounds.” The first two pieces key the central struggles that will unfold in the title poem.

One of the book’s epigraphs is the famous quote from Marx: “If money, according to Augier, ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” Marx is such a drama queen, I love it. But of course it’s true for those of us who live under the duress of this monster’s reign, that we are covered in the demon’s share of filth and pollution even when we are doing something like falling in love: “you drip from head to foot with bankruptcy / from every pore with debt, I ‘m covered with / food stamps, worker’s comp.

Of all the things that Pet Sounds is about, it is only barely about Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. An epigraph below the Marx quote is from Brian Wilson: “God only knows what I’d be without you.” And later, the record appears when Young and her person are separated, as one of the ex’s effects that survive the horrific distribution of commonly held and lived-with things when you break up. Young observes, “the lost objects / of breaking up so often music.”

What is Pet Sounds even? I’m not convinced anybody knows yet. I guess there is probably a species of boomer who thinks of it as the conclusion to the heroic period of The Beach Boys, the irretrievable moment in which the band doesn’t want to have fun fun fun anymore because daddy took their up tempo two-minute-thirty-second pop song away. You know who I mean, the kind of person who might conceivably not think Mike Love is one of the world’s great villains. And then of course its more recent reception centers around Brian Wilson as a mentally-ill genius who made the finest studio record of all time, a Hamlet for production nerds. Well, if I may lean towards the latter, I don’t think that can account for what Pet Sounds represents. Above all, like Young’s book, its pop hypothesis is too full of feeling to adequately deal with in a hot take.

But even that dimension, the freaky meadow of feels, is hard to pin down. The frenetic ecstasy of “Good Vibrations” is moderated by the fact that it’s still a genre song, no less than “Sloop John B.” The sheer, unintimidated beauty of “Don’t Talk “is countered by the ugly feelings of “Caroline No.” Even the record’s opening track, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” a song whose melodic intelligence, composition and harmony boggle the mind with its seeming perfection, is nevertheless a counterfactual text. The unstated thesis of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is, tragically, that things are in reality not very nice. I mean the message of Pet Sounds in full might be that life sucks, only complicating that picture by the logical contradiction that comes into effect when you realize that this sucky life includes Pet Sounds.

Stephanie Young. Photo courtesy Nightboat Books.

Stephanie Young. Photo courtesy Nightboat Books.

That’s the kind of impasse that guides Young through Pet Sounds. One she never flinches from. The book’s courage is in facing these abysses and diving in, when what one really wants to do is run away from them and into the good-smelling arms of one’s person, stroke one’s cat, listen to groovy tunes, roll around in the grass on pleasant drugs. Inside of these terrible situations, this cavernous, impossible, banal predicament of regular life, Pet Sounds arrives to do the stupidest thing in the world, write a love poem, and thank God. It makes life suck so much less. It’s like if Dante had written Inferno and Paradiso as one book.

I mean, life does suck.

And, as the saying continues, then you die.

A few days before we went to Spain, I noticed a dull pain in my side. It wasn’t terrible pain, only barely irritating. But it was weird. And it didn’t go away. There are a lot of things that could have caused this pain. Undoubtedly I did something idiotic at the gym, putting misplaced pressure on one of the tendons connecting my rib cage to my spine. Nonetheless, I immediately decided I was experiencing the first noticeable symptoms of a fatal late-stage cancer. While Alli slept in the surprisingly firm beds of Spain’s Airbnb’s, I scrolled through pancreatic cancer symptom blogs, experiencing like passing shadows each stage of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s spectrum of grief in quick succession — or at least that insomniac panic which impersonates grief so well. Pain for all of the now-dead people who posted on the pancreatic cancer symptom blogs. Anxiety for myself. Anguish for Alli.

Pet Sounds is full of grief, of death and the apprehension of death’s imminence. It makes sense. I’m not so stupid that I’m going to try and suggest what death is — like I don’t even know what Pet Sounds is — but one thing death is, probably, is a horizon point which governs all of the questions Young raises in Pet Sounds. We want our lives to not suck, because we have to die. Similarly, the counterfactual yearning of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” would be irrelevant if life were infinite. The fact of death is the vanishing point for anybody who thinks wouldn’t it be nice.

Young writes about her father’s death in Pet Sounds, but some of the book’s most devastating passages center around the imagined death of her person, and her cat. A page near the poem’s end consolidates some of the book’s most crucial points of departure: the nightmare of gender, the stupid and callous economies which the nightmare of gender makes possible and promotes, the sight of death in the distance.

I call you my husband when the PG&E
rate guy comes around pounding on our door
it’s true, the bill is in your name

I call you my person mostly
I said partner for a while

it felt wrong
it doesn’t matter

if I could disinvest us of the categories
what’s left? Two cat ladies
two men and a baby who is a cat
older than both of us combined
like Benjamin Button I hold him
to my chest he scrapes
his chin on the side of my breast
I put him down abruptly

he will die before us
the truck will go before you
and you probably before me
whose blue book value so declined
I will have become a cat lady
without a pet

what passed for a series of choices in my lifetime

Of course one of the nightmares come to life in Pet Sounds is the bad fiction of gender, wherein compared to a “not-rich married white bisexual guy with a medium amount of power” a woman is like a car. The death of one’s person is not the death of that bad dream. Pet Sounds is written inside of that oneiric space, and it does not offer a redemptive path out of it. It is a love poem unlike any I have ever read — vulnerable but full of courage to confront the real conditions that express themselves as garbage inevitabilities. It could be — it can be otherwise.

If you’re in the Prado you see some paintings. You try and shoulder your way into seeing Las Meninas and The Garden of Earthly Delights. You get yelled at by security for taking pictures. You see Goya’s “Black Paintings,” bleak pictures about how life sucks, then you die. And you can see Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death.

The Triumph of Death is not like Pet Sounds or Pet Sounds. It does not offer beauty and terror in a composite, covertly utopian masterpiece of melody and harmony, nor does it face this fiery trash world with affirmation and refusal in equal measure. I mean, it is a fucked up and hilarious masterpiece of its own. Perhaps my favorite detail is the skeleton riding a hurdy-gurdy, making sweet catchy melody while the wheels crush the maxillofacial bones of some peasant. There’s a lot to love about The Triumph of Death. Its scale is so expansive, as if Brueghel had made a list of the most transgressive figures to show suffering the sentence of death common to us. Troubadours, cardinals, sleeping pilgrims: sweethearts of the grave.

Well, it’s true. The winner is death, and you are the loser. It’s like being in a car race against James Dean in the movies. Either way you go down in flames. But, as the Beach Boys’ classic drama of death by vehicular braggadocio, “Don’t Worry Baby,” reminds us: don’t worry baby. I mean, do worry. That hurdy-gurdy bag of bones is right around the corner. Stephanie Young’s Pet Sounds isn’t naïve about this horizon. It makes it bigger, even more expansive. It outdoes itself. It becomes more than light and bends of light. It becomes water. As Young writes,

stuffed full
it still doesn’t explode

despite every shape that crashes there
upon the category

the way water tends to run around all obstacles

or the way large wave pools channel excess water through a
return canal

where it can be used to generate another wave

Comments (2)

  • I hope that Brandon compiles his art writings into a book.

  • Cheryl Klaas says:

    This review by Brandon Brown is brilliant. It makes me want to view the paintings of Balthus, read Stephanie’s book, and listen to Pet Sounds for the millionth time, but with a different ear. Full disclosure: I am Brandon’s mom, but still.

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