Language Nova: Notes on Cocteau Twins by Cynthia Arrieu-King, Ana Bozicevic and Sommer Browning
CK: High school: listened to “Carolyn’s Fingers” 152 times at least senior year. No one knows. No iPod to count the number of listens. In the car. On the way to school. On the city bus. Walking through leaves. Had stumbled on it, hunched over the VCR late one night and played that part of 120 Minutes over and over until a little line of static sizzled across the screen. College: I went to London my freshman year. Listened to the song in the dorm bunk-bed. At William Blake’s tomb. On the Tube. In St. Paul’s. Bright, frothy, sublime, ultimate, heady, careening: all the things you want in a song, all the time, as if there were no other song. A free, legal high. Und so weiter, forever.
I even had a bumper sticker for the Cocteau Twins. My only bumper sticker. Ever. How could I not love their tracks, fizzing and lilting and sounding like something utterly familiar but in tune with an eternal thing?
Then one day when I was in graduate school (second time), I posted a blog entry of several favorite items. Maybe an ad for a sandwich. Other stuff. Something about the dusk being really weird that day. And that my favorite song in the whole world was “Carolyn’s Fingers” by the Cocteau Twins. And then Ana Bozicevic commented, “Mine too.”
And then, a few years later, in conversation, I found out that it was also the favorite song of Sommer Browning. So here we all are.
SB: I write this dreaming of Cindy, Ana & me perched on pillows on someone’s floor listening to “Carolyn’s Fingers” or “Heaven or Las Vegas.” Since this is a dream, the albums are on vinyl and we’re drinking Mackeson, an English milk stout you can’t get in America anymore (Yes! There’re things you can’t get in America!). Each of us, grown up so differently in very different soil, thousands of miles apart, yet now entwined and familiar. It’s the normal, bewildering mystery of friendship. We all begin as babies, translating our lives in parallel, and what (time? god?) angles us toward each other. Us three, in love with many of the same things, one of them the band Cocteau Twins, and I’d wager to say, we love this band similarly. The unique and personal details of our lives brought us to the music, yet we seem to translate it in the same ways. It’s a funny word to use, translate, considering they lyrics of Cocteau Twins are notoriously indecipherable. The band’s singer, Elizabeth Fraser, says “I make up my own words and steal things from languages I don’t understand.” I like this. I like to think about translating made up words. We do it all the time, whether brillig or slithy. Translation awakens affinity.
Translation is the third stage of protein biosynthesis. There are four phases of translation: activation, initiation, elongation and termination. These stages mimic life, they mimic youth, they mimic narrative, any of life’s microcosms really. Because protein biosynthesis produces genes, and because these stages produce protein strands which produce genes that determined my eye color, govern my metabolic rate, shaped my eardrums, so we too grow in this way, physically and psychically. It makes sense. It hurts my heart a bit to be so robotic about things, but it’s grounding, too. I’m going to use the four stages that grow protein strands to talk about what this music means to me.
Long before I listened to music, I lived in the world of hearing. I heard The Eagles, the Grease soundtrack, and Rick James like I heard the school bell. The strand was in discrete bits. I had the depth I would need for listening, certainly. I used this depth when I felt love, anger, shame, fear—is it biology that prevented me from feeling this in music? Does it take a certain physical evolution to derive emotion from outside of oneself? Mature means ripe, it’s a word from biology co-opted by Saved By the Bell, Aaron Spelling, Gidget. Now it means responsibility more often than it means the ability to reproduce. Years of Wednesday chapel, the ocean, the only time I ran away, the solace of computers, the Cold War, some formula of these things activated my listening.
Along with NIN and This Mortal Coil, my first boyfriend, Clarke, played me Cocteau Twins. Young, nail-biting love initiated me into their space, a kind of church, the thick adulterated tracks piled upon thick tracks building fibers of melody in an abyss of pedals—imagine jumping in and activating each you touched: distortion, overdrive, delay, all the reverb in the world. A hive echoing in space. Prosperity defines the wasteland because what is desolation but abject excess? Elizabeth Fraser’s voice electronically weaved to become a choir, and I’m the only one not singing. I listen better when silent, simultaneously enveloped and shunned.
The strand grows, elongates, album by album these strangers grow, develop, produce videos, appear on 120 Minutes, come through DC and I miss them, come through DC on the Four-Calendar Café tour and I go. I stand with other fans in love with Fender Jaguars and inverted chords and I’m there part poseur because I just love her dress, the fog, her spinning.
Ted, a friend, tells me when he first heard Cocteau Twins he thought Fraser was singing in angel language. Consciousness has this amazing quality to be infinite until it ends. In language, that reads as a paradox, but in practice it’s natural. Termination. This stage is the most important because endings never happen. The strand is finally built. Angel language would have to be indecipherable to mortals, eternally evolving as the angels experience new emotions, new parts of the universe, as they define divine neologisms to describe a new peculiarity in the ennui of immortality. Change is sacred and so inaccuracy is sacred. Translation, the phase, is complete. What I’m left with is how I translate the untranslatable. When I sing along to “Carolyn’s Fingers,” this is what I sing:
Lisa you said Laura chis and dance with menahas
Someday you seed him terror house
E-he frau how teak how you need me
Again gen gen gen now go
Cheek fed terror house who sew sew solid now
Leave leave leave me married now go
This part Lamar suffers baseball’s whining let me out out out
Be still listen to me be bald
E-he he he be softer to me now
Sublime Yassis atop top top free le chat chapeau
Again gen gen gen go chalk Choctaw
It splays it to me how how
Lessons to me chokehold (x 2)
AB: I’m thirteen. And so happy. I’m imagining my own funeral. The casket slides toward the incinerator (because, who wants to be buried? Gross.) – & then they play this song! This ultimate song that is fingertips tweaking the wavelengths of sunbeams. The casket burns & c(r)ackles with joy. Next minute, I picture my wedding – petals, doves and whatnot – and as I glide toward the altar, the same song plays. The same joy follows the casket & bride. A train of joy.
It’s been twenty years, and this is still the song. What is its power? There are words, but not – more like suggestions, to be interpreted like musical hieroglyphics across the languages. At first, back in Croatia, the first two lines go: “Nisam blabla; Esterhazy sam ja.” (“I am not blah blah; Esterhazy am I.”) Now my Anglified imagination-organ hears something different. French platitudes plait themselves in somehow; and, of course, the longing – adolescent or midlife, all part and parcel – and the heavenly aspect. At the bottom of tongues, you are loved, but damned if you understand why, or how.
I read the YouTube testimonies to “Carolyn’s Fingers” by Cocteau Twins, as sung by Elizabeth Fraser, and the heaven-struck supplicants are in unison:
“Heaven linger tout simplement sublime et intemporel ethereal extraordinary from another planet Music of the gods and the voice of an archangel touching deep, deep in the heart and soul If this song doesn’t make your soul sing, then nothing will Obscenely Beautiful & Utterly Brilliant Angel. I used to imagine this album was a recital of forest nymphs—”
Alongside the heavenly aspect, something else keeps popping up in their testimonials: let’s call it first consciousness, of meaning- and self-formation. Sez Kartoffelbrain:
“its funny, this is one of the earliest songs i can remember hearing, and seeing…i can remember the colour of the carpet in the room, a deep grey, and even what the old television looked like in my ma and das.”
& “Elizabeth could have been cussing in the song and I wouldn’t care coz the way it’s done is just so beautiful. The best music is beautiful in all languages.”
& “It’s amazing that songs ‘without lyrics’ could be so emotive. The lyrics I read are good but I couldn’t care less about them. It’s like looking at a piece of art that just stuns you You don’t think about the brushstrokes, you think how wow it is. When I was a kid, I thought that the lyrics were Latin or some ‘scholarly’ language—”
Music critics are on the same page. One guy in the UK called her “the voice of God.” The castrati must have been swooned over with this sincerity the unbeliever thinks comical. Others term what Fraser does glossolalia, mouth music. The anthropologist Felicitas Goodman finds that the speech of glossolalists reflects patterns of their native language, while William Samarin argues that this resemblance is only on the surface – glossolalia is only “a façade of language.” A façade on what? Kartoffelbrain and Sommer & Sommer’s friend Ted & Cynthia & my own love- and death-minded beast-bride-brain know implicitly, and can tell you straight up: on the sublime, dummy, on John Dee’s ur-tongue of angels where each word brings a thing into being, the learned langue of the tower of Babel.
Fraser says she “goes with the sound and the joy,” and – “I can’t act. I can’t lie.” I start thinking about this self-abnegating author sticking to “truth,” the spatiality of time, Bergson’s “duration,” heaven & mu/nothingness, but within a few seconds of listening to Fraser, I just don’t give a fuck. I’m crying with joy. It’s beautiful and humbling to witness meaning being born, wed to & dying into non-meaning. Few artists have this access, have it to give. I listen and I’m the newborn seeing the kindly face and hearing the voice above me, indecipherable but immediately understood; I’m a dog being cussed at kindly, Keats listening to a nightingale. What does she say?
Niece, son, blah love–
chester hats look nice.
Tell me a synonym for Tejas:
hey high fraud! ye Vendler-handler me.
We intend, and then don’t go, child–
chaperones & chess unite.
Niente, intended; love child shuffle–
chap in time, sussurant.
Purr, i, oh. Yeah, and love.
Niece, cordone moll – c’est fou, que c’est drole –
be spas, while he putter down the hall.
Extend, son, to me, apple bow –
the point is truly lost – be swept in a hole.
Listen to me, child –
be swept within an apple.
Ah, i – baby – yeah, dot my i.
Simplement, Jesus c’est chachacha–
reshuffle my mind. Reshuffle my mind.
We intend and then don’t go, child–
(naughty, bother me!)
Niente, indented – man-child, chum-paw.
Existence, up to me? A faux pas–wish it could be droll.
(Nocti, blind my i!)
Listen, believe me – chill oak, yo –
dot my i.
CK: I’m trying to follow through on Sommer’s suggestion that we write what we hear as the lyrics of “Carolyn’s Fingers.” It’s a struggle. How can we break this gold into something prosaic? To me, the words are really just as incomprehensible as any of their other lyrics (except maybe the words to “Pitch the Baby” – “I only want to love you.”) I was game. I made transcriptions of the first four lines:
Kneee sehm! Haahbla! Chee ho zed, ehsta hen sue neh.
So ee sehem, tehhes aneigh ho, neehah fran ho esta
Even even though
Nidin’t didn’t dee ho
So basically we don’t hear the same things. It’s like in the first grade where it dawns on you that the red you see isn’t like the red Matt Philpot sees. Some first inkling of philosophy. We live with what we can barely discern, what isn’t even representational and never tire of this song, nevertheless. I personally always sing along to the gibberish I hear and it’s always different or just out of intelligence’s reach.
This sentence represents a whole other article in which I plumb the depths of Ana and Sommer’s poems and even some of my own and note how and why our approach to narrative situation might predispose us to liking the Cocteau Twins and their organic sublime. But that’s not this article.
If you Google the lyrics to “Carolyn’s Fingers,” there are apparently “actual” lyrics. I already knew this decades ago and dumped the information out of my mind. I had always reverted to the default notion the lyrics are in Esperanto, anyway. But the band’s strangeness surprises me further: In this narrative moment, the he and the she are stuck in the mire of a messy love, the titular fingers are an outreached hand… a hand rejected. It’s actually kind of wry and sad, unlike the music itself. And so the “correct lyrics” — I don’t think any of the three of us would ever try to learn them. Maybe that’s just a strand of what we work out in our own poems:
When he said, ‘You are full of love’
She fell down into this dirty mess
Some people see me laugh and tell us,
‘It’s wrong to make fun of me’
(Even they don’t give any more)
(Try, try to fall)
She fell down into this mess
(Even then they don’t give)
(Try, try to fall)
She fell down and he’s so sick of it all
And of me
This part not out of her saw fit to drop
Whispers might prove it all
(You’re just closer to me when you fall, but you broke)
This would prove it all
(You just closer to me, but you broke)
This would prove it all
You susur, try to talk
Reach out for that hand
Reach out for that hand
(And even they don’t give any more)
(Try, try to fall)
Even then they don’t give
(Try, try to fall)
You just closer to me at the fall
But you don’t want, want me hand
You’re just closer to me
But you don’t want, want my hand
Nova by Ana Božičević, Sommer Browning and Cindy King
All resting on a fabric, planets in plane–
I didn’t know that order could be revolution;
one fights in circles, the beginning of the beginning;
concentric and widening, eggshell anvil, liquid fist, till
what’s born is some kind of earth out of starry sky:
Who can resist, that blue-white weaving
infant auroras beneath me.
This isn’t air
but thoughts, solid and trimmed to universe;
stardust in our bones
in our lungs, but a new kind of
hour, beating against the white towers.
This isn’t rock
but an idea, galaxy far, the sun blazing its eye
down through ours.
Cynthia Arrieu-King is native of Louisville, Kentucky, a former Kundiman fellow and currently serves as an assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton College. Her books include People are Tiny in Paintings of China (Octopus Books, 2010), a collaborative chapbook with Ariana-Sophia Kartsonis–By a Year Lousy with Meteors (Dream Horse Press 2012) and Manifest (Switchback, 2013). She hosts a radio show The Last Word about writers in South Jersey and the Tri-State, their writing and the music they love: You can listen in wlfr.fm at 11AM on Sundays. Recently in a blind iPod experiment of all new music, she favored everything now produced by 4AD.
Sommer Browning is the author of Either Way I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC; 2011), a collection of poetry and drawings, and three chapbooks, most recently THE BOWLING (Greying Ghost, 2010) with Brandon Shimoda. Her work will appear in EOAGH, The Denver Quarterly, and EVENT. In 2008, she founded the hand-bound chapbook publisher, Flying Guillotine Press, with Tony Mancus. She lives in Denver where she and Julia Cohen curate The Bad Shadow Affair, a reading series.
Ana Božičević is the author of Stars of the Night Commute (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2009) and five chapbooks of poetry, most recently War on a Lunchbreak (Belladonna*, 2011). With Željko Mitić, she is the editor of The Day Lady Gaga Died: an Anthology of NYC Poetry of the 21st Century (in Serbian, Peti talas/The Fifth Wave, 2011). Her translation-in-progress of Zvonko Karanović’s It Was Easy to Set the Snow on Fire recently received a PEN American Center/NYSCA grant. With Amy King, Ana co-edits esque, and works and studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY.