Phosphorescent’s Song for Zula as Duende, the Roem, & Dark Sounds I’d Creep With by Katherine Factor
Just as last spring’s Eliotic cruelty surged, Pablo Neruda’s exhumation punctured air, colliding with Phosphorescent’s “Song for Zula” as a soundtrack for upheaval. I’m turned on by it as the deep song of its album, Muchacho. Love is personified here foremost as Lorca’s duende, riveting frontman Matthew Houck.
In my work, I am tracking the feminine. For instance, I covet songs involving womens’ names, usually statements of sperm madness. I’m sure to bookmark the muse, order her holidays, her phantasm in the media, how She becomes a reference or object of reverence. But the dark woman is harder to locate, to palpitate for, even though her pulse is the pulse. Society refuses to swallow the aberrant unruly She, seen in the egregious emotions we shove shoulder-width. Easier it is to casually demonize or disregard. It had been awhile for me to detect her kind, until Zula.
The title is an apostrophe written to a Zula seemingly no longer present. A “song for” can also indicate dedication, or an attempt to capture her voice in personae. For certain, Zula is an energy to summon. Even the rarified sound “Zu” enchants, the name owning the feel of a creation myth progenitor.
Houck’s territory here is the terror of Love, the only death that traumatizes without an actual dead body. For a disintegrating relationship — at its best — is a walking death, one that actualizes ache, trespassing depths. As Lorca suggests: Angels are surely flippant, abandoning guidance toward a shared future; Muses leave us utterly bound to the fading laugh, pit fragrance, apparition of memory. But duende will bubble up with the Now, wrought via the vehicle of pain. Break-ups shackle a fumbled heart to a failed body of hope. Suffering, we’re chained between an assessment of self-worth and a prickly adhesion to the material plane.
I absorbed this album driving to the dive-y Casbah to see Phosphorescent, choosing overlooked Southern California for a joyride. Nearby lies the Anza-Borrego desert, but the 79 -> 78 -> San Diego -> 76 -> 371 is a not-yet-burning swath of fleeting winter greens, gnarly black oaks, lost hikers, beavertail cacti, misunderstood woods, crippled creeks, wildflowers, and strange signs. Turns out the turning roads are synonymous with a heavy rotation of Muchaho (titled after a Neruda line), loaded with inventive sounds and images that wring and slap at once. Composing while driving lends itself to found poetry, words offered by the road are indicators congruent with the mind. Perhaps it was my mood, but each song, along with any signage or abandoned ad I saw, punctuated aspects of the landscape. Consistently, Zula was clocking in, making the unexplainable evident.
The album’s opening, “Sun Arise, an Invocation/ An Introduction,” has a key line,“As dark as I been, well.” This establishes the speaker’s tenacious state, but the drawn out “Easy Oh. Ease Oh” suggests a rejuvenator. So when SFZ’s initial synths corkscrew, we are soothed but scooped into fiddle overdrives — a lift-off that then sears into a ceiling for rupturing drums and vocals. Pop the tent! Sound that syntony! A container for the fucking pain. She’s in skirts that twirl but drag dirt to hurl at us, in hopes we’ll get naked. A chthonic spirit set to destabilize through growing pains.
Though opening lines harken a Cash/Carter allusion, I offer another one — Leonard Cohen’s “Love is a Fire”:
It burns everyone
It disfigures everyone
It is the world’s excuse
For being ugly
As the familiar wears off, we’re carouseled into a song that churns Lady Love upside down; we are unsure who is more spurned — the speaker or the addressee. But hell yes, we have fallen off, warping and wrapped around the plaything’s tethering cement, which is a mother continent. The phrase “You see” is abundant. Is the song an explanation? An apology?
Love’s tendency to beastliness is exposed by the first verse’s end, “Yeah then I saw love disfigure me/Into something I am not recognizing.” We have reeled into a fun house, where the duende holds up the mirror: Lorca’s famous face-to face. We molt in an eager monstering to outlaw our insides. We are lame freaks; our amorous limbs part godhead, part rot, part omophagos. Boy Dionysos is de-limbed from the mirror incident with the Titans. In seeing, essentially, we are left mutilated. The heightened use of “disfigure” here is an accurate annunciation. As a word, it botches up our mouths. It engrosses and echoes the sting of the album, one rife with lines extended from a maenad’s grasp. Claws welt us, remorse and that flirt redemption flog us through subsequent songs:
“Right On/Ride On” offers sexualized homonyms, as well as Hock’s inventive “hej” acting as a hinge (a “hello” he exchanges for dear/lover/other/self). We glimpse a catalytic Beloved, “Take your greedy hands, lay ‘em on me,” the speaker pleas and repeats. Then a rose appears, winking Lorca, “The arrival of the duende presupposes a radical change to all the old kinds of form, brings totally unknown and fresh sensations, with the qualities of a newly created rose, miraculous, generating an almost religious enthusiasm.” Indeed, the pairing of “ride” with “right” is a righting through sexual rebound, an uptempo bounce testament to dissolving thorns.
Then, “Terror in the Canyons” clarifies this psycho-geography we’re sifting — one that is wavering with the parenthetical Wounded Master, muted trumpet, slide, bass drum, and the binding thrust of “could.” The refrain, “See I was the wounded master, oh then I was the slave,” allows an apologetic self-awareness. “The new terror in the canyons/ the new terror in our chest” suggests a catalyst creviced and slotted whereby the creative act takes place. Duende doesn’t budge but badgers. With her multitude of hands, She can deliver a hero’s journey.
The next song speculates naming objects as obstacles. “A Charm/ A Blade” is a double-blade, magnified by the line, “Hej cut my heart but do it fast, we don’t want that hurt to last.” Such invitation accentuates possibility or poison inherent in assessing the mundane. Pablo Neruda, present for Lorca’s 1933 “Play and Theory of the Duende” lecture, asks us to engage in Impure Poetry, in “the abiding presence of the human engulfing all artifacts, inside and out.” Though the mundane may seem to block beauty, it is in the acids, worn streets, the damned and the daily that we find spiritual correlatives.
The penultimate “Muchacho’s Tune” is a tequila-soaked repentant croon that blows so slow we’re in the lilt of proverbial simile. Redemption is rich in the river lines referencing renewal as Lady Dark enters and re-enters. I can finally hear what exes of mine were bumbling about.
What follows in “A New Anhedonia” is the speaker’s inability to feel at all, a well-placed reminder of love’s numbness. This sense-deprived state is communicated in a scrubbed out, soul-scouring manner. Nothing feels new in this draining, a snaking away of senses. Resistance to the real of duende threatens annihilation. How to answer this? Hint: Best to know your beast. To let her in.
Zula, I think, fruits in the haunting “Quotidian Beasts,” a gorgeous exegesis of duende. As an ambivalent but expectant speaker draws a bath, enacts the daily, the impending maenad pays a visit. Here, here! her irrevocable sexuality and enchantments: “Her ancient eyes were upon me. They were familiar and black/ She laid her claws all up on me. She had found me at last/ I guess it wasn’t so bad.” And the animal has crawled on top, sublimating the day with sexual electrocution. Indeed, we are gnawing vowels when we sing along. To accept her as a “familiar attendant” (as the subtitle insists), is witchy, is repeat visits to the ravenous depths. Like detour sex on the Elysian Field, Keats’s erotic wish to merge, and Stan Rice’s last poems. The line, “We’ve been playing like children/Now we’re playing like men,” reminds us we’re in the neighborhood of lost boys, the duende seducing radical change.
As does the song “Down to Go,” where the speaker bids forced but groggy farewells. An exit song about exits. Death opens the curtains, according to Lorca. Alas, we’ve circled back to an earlier promise: “Sun’s Arising (A Koan, an Exit)” bookends the album. Sound layers strain in their reach skyward. All Houck, a single but fractured voice accordions in the folds of a koan, refusing closure.
SFZ’s power is for muchachos everywhere — concussed boyish behavior gangly toward a larger grace, soundtracking what to do once touched by real feminine, having visited the psychic in the black velvet tent. Pleasure’s ability to disarm, pus up on us, enact Kali animalizes us. But don’t forget, thanks to the mother, a young Dionysos is put back together in time to mature in the pantheon.
Reaches of emotions coil the second stanza, making it unclear if the cage is entered or eaten. After several listens, a resilience starts to glow, the speaker defines what the “I” is not. Then, the speaker accepts duende, for it needs a “living body-interpreter” (Lorca). In an imagistic third verse, a reconfiguration occurs. Light shifts in shades here, the shadow celebrated. A lyrical noose forms, alchemical. We are told no foul play — “My feet are gold. My heart is white,” but three lines later, we learn instead, “No my heart is gold. My feet are light.” This revision is an added Mobius, proof of a heart flexing as duende rallies up the gut. We are privy to it, for the poem is taking place, gilded as the impetus shifts.
Chains unhitch. A desert escape route is realized and the speaker runs in ecstatic defiance. Desert alpine creature that I am, roaming odd bioregions for gestures, I get it. Nature naked sends signals, manifesting as actual signs, signs that speak. When recorded, enough semiotic fluency forms a living poem, a Roem. This time charged by an album doling out a fantastic speech event (emphasis mine):
Hers: Queensbridge. Red Gate Rd. Turn on Head Lights. Cle(a)ve Land. Her “Den” left aglow from a busted Denny’s. DANGE everywhere. Loops. Water well Pump Service. The Source Real Estate. Apple Canyon. Love Acres. May flower. Paradise Valley.
His: Wild wood Lane. Foolish Pleasure. Sunshine Summit. Rey River Ranch. Lizard Lane. Orion Construction. Outlaw Grain & Gas. Devil’s Ladder. Chapel in the Pines. Pine Springs. Pine everything! Brothers Nursery. Stetson St. Big Blows Smoke Shop. Lost Coyotes.
Correlations abound, creating intercourse. Before SFZ’s last verse, an interlude by strings reaps assurance. But wait. Freedom is not a guarantee here, there’s further uglification. More dismantling arrives with end lines that eviscerate:
O and all you folks, you come to see
You just stand there in the glass looking at me
But my heart is wild. And my bones are steam
And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free
While an apostrophe’s rhetorical device is the speaker turning away from the audience, we still end up included in the event. Implications abound — the “you” becomes an “all you folks” — we as viewers (particularly evident in the Houck/Djuna Wahlrab made video), are incriminated, gnosticly super-stuck in the cave/cage. Pushed around pronouns cause productive confusion: The “I” surpasses an assumed male speaker, as well the possible female personae. Through murderous tone, we identify the universal of love’s horrifying stomp, the damning hold of our materialism. Thus, in the depths of this song, we transgress the I, the you, the caging thing; We are all Zula.
you who Zula
she’ll split if you wait
no face but the gaze finale
her address chaparral
near Plato’s pad near
urine & lilies
coal bin body
her clothes barrels doulas
wrinkles vigil-stained dreams
learn to ride a sign says
i’m a driving child
foreplay in the vile
she animal me animal
the nurse at work mashing molecules
not to maim mother blemish ish
damaged bed of leaves
other places doubt palaces
but donning bull hide
then she pigeon claw
she friend to wind
kernels of the tactile
whose screen are we
still we stare engines do start
fey light & digits
look of blood under her
she’ll spit if you wait
see chain hear strings
syncing o i’m a pump
of impurities quake ready
are those buds or nipples
pushing up pastures
her vandalized eyes
if you won’t dance with me
why are you here
Katherine Factor is a poet & assistant editor at inter|rupture. Her work can be found in The Conversant, textsound.org, the Colorado Review, Quarterly West, H_ngm_n, thermos, DIAGRAM, tight, & forthcoming in Interim. She lives in the San Jacinto mountains & online at katherinefactor.com.
Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints?
Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.
Read more Poets off Poetry here.
Follow Poets off Poetry on Twitter: @nohelpforthat