That Feeling by Mathias Svalina


For about a week my second year of college I locked myself in my room, played tetris, ate saltines & listened to the first side of Hunky Dory over & over again, skipping classes, band practices, not answering the door.

hunky dory

I wasn’t depressed. It wasn’t only sloth. Something happened at the swelling moment in the chorus of “Life on Mars” that was necessary. It felt like the world could only keep turning if that song continued. It felt that my breath was a field of rain, like all my senses were drawn out of me by a thousand invisible wires & into the aether, like the black holes inside each bone were inverting themselves. It felt like all of those things that are indescribable about music, all those things that lead to terrible similes in music-writing. That is, it kept giving me that feeling. And I had to keep listening until it stopped.

That feeling is what I look for in music, that aesthetic event of stumbling upon the oasis, that feeling that makes something so commonplace, so obviously disposable as a single song, feel crucial.

That feeling is fundamentally fleeting. Perhaps I am missing something. Something that I believe only art can fill in. Or perhaps the form of middle class suburban capitalist desire that I have internalized is that there is an actual experience of “missing something.” Then the fleeting nature of that feeling is the planned obsolescence of cultural commodity. That’s plausible, yet it’s the desire for that feeling that drives me to scan the bins of cds at libraries, to enter record stores with hope.

I am a bit of a hoarder of music. I adore the next piece, the lost album, the demos, the cantatas. If I like one record from the Bloomington 70s afrocentric free jazz scene then I want to hear twenty more. It is a constant search for that feeling, never knowing where it may show up.

One of my favorite records is Incredible String Band’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. Something in the droning, searching voices of the opening of “A Very Cellular Song,” something about how the shambolic way other musicians seem to join in with the song, something about the sections of the song with their distinctly different emotional acts, all of this feels like a true haunt to me. Between the campy British folk tropes of “The Minotaur’s Song,” the kitchen sink approach to arrangement & the cheeseball ren-fest psychedelia of “Witches Hat” this album is incredibly charming & complex.

After I heard it I needed to hear every album by The Incredible String Band, despite the fact that none of them are as good as this one.  I had to hear the records of their contemporary bands who were ripping them off, like Heron & Forest. I began to listen to Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Anne Briggs, Vashti Bunyan, COB, Robin Williamson’s solo records, as much as I could from that sixties British folk-rock scene. To this day I will search out any band that gets compared to the Incredible String Band. I don’t think I particularly like many of those records. Yet I’d rather spend all day listening to & being disappointed by records I’ve never heard than listen to Blonde on Blonde for the hundred & second time.

Google leads from one page to another, one download & then three, & suddenly the day is noise. All of this is in search of that feeling. It is a desire for the new, for the unattainable chaos hinted at by the mask. I have records I’ve moved into dozens of apartments. I have hard drives full of music I’ve only heard once. It’s all a little embarrassing, in the way that all definitions are embarrassing.

Listening to music, for me, is a desire for alienation, for disturbance. I want to have to process a melody, rhythm & tone that I could not have without that piece of music. The first time I read that oft-quoted bit of Deleuze’s about the new I recognized that it was my thinking coming from another’s voice. It made me want to cry to read it so succinctly put:

“The new, with its power of beginning and beginning again, remains forever new, just as the established was always established from the outset even if a certain amount of empirical time was necessary for this to be recognized. What becomes established with the new is precisely not the new. For the new – in other words, difference – calls forth forces in thought which are not the forces of recognition, today or tomorrow, but the powers of a completely other model, from an unrecognized and unrecognizable terra incognita.”

I’m not sure if he means it to be an emotional experience, this recognition of the new, but it is.

Today I’ve listened to these albums for the first time: Pacifica Quartet’s recordings of Eliot Carter’s String Quartets 2, 3 & 4; Esbjörn Svensson’ s Leucocyte;

John Zorn’s Angelus Novus; John Cage’s Fontana Mix & Solo for Voice 2, performed by Eberhard Blum; and Jaill’s That’s How We Burn.

The Jaill sucks. The Cage is an intriguing, but not a pleasurable experience for me. The Zorn & the Svensson are great. The Carter quartets require more of my attention to really understand. It’s possible that I will never listen to any of these albums again. I always look forward to the next unknown.

It’s easy to love the music of one’s youth. It’s easy to collect the souvenirs: first purchase; first love; first elbow to the face; the tape that played all night, clicking into auto-reverse, while the breath of the person next to you swayed deep & slow & even. It’s easy to love & adopt what has already been categorized, just as I can look in the mirror & tilt my head just so & believe that I actually look like that.

Just now, I put Hunky Dory on the record player & “Life on Mars” played. It’s pretty good; a fine record & a great song, despite the terrible lyrics. It does not, however, give me that feeling any more. It feels now like an old shirt I once thought was stylish: now it’s only music. Most experiences simply fade away & this is fine. Music is simply a disturbance of space. I’m not sure why I want music to be a difficult experience. Often I’m not sure what I am loving when I love a song, other times I know I’m loving nothing.


Against Pain

Traintracks created heaven.
Heaven created earth.

Earth created the poverty of words.
The poverty of words created rivers.

Rivers created the togetherness of many heres.
The togetherness of many heres created watersheds.

Watersheds created the balance.
The balance created marshlands.

Marshlands created the worm.
The worm came crying into the mouth.
The worm arrived after midnight crying.

The worm opened its mouth & all its words fell out.
All the words were heres.

“What will you give me, that I may eat?”
“What will you give me, that I may suck?”

I will give you an apple & a black banana.
I will give you a bucket of marshwater
& the fire that burns beneath rivers.

“Set me to dwell between the tongue & the teeth.”
“I must suck the blood of the jaw.”
“I must feed on the words that are stuck in the mouth.”


Mathias Svalina is the author & collaborative co-author of numerous chapbooks, most recently Sugar Means Yes (Greying Ghost Press), written with Julia Cohen. He is the author of the books Destruction Myth (Cleveland State University Poetry Center) & the forthcoming I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur (Mud Luscious Press). With Zachary Schomburg he co-edits the online poetry journal Octopus Magazine & the small press Octopus Books. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

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