Cellar doors and pretty wars

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Ernest Hemingway, in a grumpy frumpy, super duper hangry, defensive and bitter diatribe against William Faulkner said, “There are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” 

Those are the words I hoard. 

I cling to the tattered lyrics of songs and the etched images of poems. I gather quiet sentences hidden between thick polyester exposition and lines of dialogue meant to be passed on the side of the road. I comb through shouts and whispers, seeking words of solace to pocket for later. I build bird’s nests and jewelry boxes for them, and I keep them safe.

But I also contaminate words. 

They become synonymous with me, these phrases I choose to keep. When they were written or spoken or sung, they were not, in the slightest, intended to apply to my life. But as I pick up these strings of nouns, verbs and whatnot and tie them around my fingers, I become interloped with them. 

My dog-eared phrases chronicle my personal history. I pull them from their secret hiding places, where they are carved into journals or written onto the jackets of old books, and one touch brings a Rolodex of memories and feelings back to me. And I am always shocked by how easily these words can walk me through the crisp details of my life. 

Allow me to unlock some of Wilco’s lyrics of love: “She’s a jar with a heavy lid/ My pop quiz kid/ A sleepy kisser/ A pretty war/ With feelings hid/ She begs me not to miss her.” 

I often chew on this lilting poetry until it dissolves on my tongue and conjures paisley hallucinations of my own romantic experiences — the failed and the educational. Jeff Tweedy croons of feelings hid, and I recall my muffled laughter after awkwardly losing my virginity to the world’s worst movie. Sing of closed jars, and I think of the many I’ve tried to open, and the times my own heavy lid stopped crushes from becoming relationships. And as I pinpoint the constellation these twinkling love words form, I realize that I want to give sleepy kisses, be someone’s pretty war. 

In a poem titled “Let it Enfold You,” Charles Bukowski “found moments of peace in cheap rooms just staring at the knobs of some dresser or listening to the rain in the dark.” 

I too have listened to that rain, seen that dark. I too have found peace in my share of cheap rooms. The disjointed calm of this poem calls into question where I, myself, find simple serendipity. Sublime comfort in my life is born from the sound of hockey sticks smacking pucks into a net, from vacuuming my new rug and from the color blue. For Bukowski it’s knobs of random dressers, for me it’s really green house plants. 

Then Elliott Smith sings “Shiva opens her arms now/ To make sure I don’t get too far,” and I trap those lyrics in the intensive care unit of a Burbank hospital. Those words trip over ventilators and breathing machines, and those guitar chords mix with the wavering beeps of a heart monitor. Another listen and these lyrics unwittingly step into my living room, interrupting a familial intervention in full swing. And if I recall this hymn once more, I think about how Shiva was opening her arms for Smith, but it was my friend Blaze who she took instead. 

I coat the quotes that I’m drawn to with pieces of myself. And when I am feeling nostalgic, I don’t look back on my memories directly, but I remember through these lines of songs and poems and stories that I keep tucked behind my ear. After all, it’s much easier to find salvation in other people’s words than in your own. 

And collecting the words of others only to personalize them is vastly human. It’s why we memorize the lyrics of songs. It’s why we quote movies in our daily conversations. The words we collect expose parts of us — parts of us we want to share, but can’t in such specific terms. And these words exist as both infinite and microscopic; they may mean nothing to someone else, but they hold the weight of the world to us. 

When Kurt Vonnegut described Lot’s wife in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” he wrote: “She did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.” As I digest these carefully spun sentences, I think of how the words I hold on to — the words we all hold on to — represent my constant and human need to look back, to trace and record my own path with carefully selected markers. 

But as a result, all of this column was written by a pillar of salt, crystallized and surrounded by hidden pockets of words. Well, so it goes.

Contact Maisy Menzies at [email protected].