Thursday, June 5, 2008

Over the Rhine's Poetry in Song

Someone recently requested posts about poetry, and I cast my mind back to some savored phrases and bits: "Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds..." (Shakespeare sonnet), or Susanna Childress' words that hang like ornaments in your mind long after you've put her work down (see, when I write about poetry, I start writing like poetry). Billy Collins, former poet laureate, crafts phrases which are still embedded in the depths of one of my soft, gooey brain folds that hold memories - maybe it's filed somewhere between multiplication tables and that song from my beginner's piano book, which I found myself humming the other day:

"Pit-ter pat-ter go the raindrops
On the tin roof fal-ling
I can hear their tin-y voices
Calling, calling, cal-ling."

Hardly going to skyrocket to the zenith of the New York Times bestseller's list, that.

But I rather get the impression that some of the most profound poetry that has etched my soul these last few years I haven't read - I've listened to.

Over the Rhine is my favorite band. Based in Cincinnati, and named for a neighborhood that raised my cousins' eyebrows when I mentioned it, Over the Rhine never moved to L.A. or New York or Nashville to pursue their music - and that has preserved its just-found-in-the-corner-of-the-attic feel.

People who like to categorize things always ask if it's a Christian band. Well, you won't hear them on K-Love, or Air One, the Christian radio stations that play music that - slight embarrassed cough - often sounds a lot alike. Sometimes you hear them on an NPR station that plays indie music rather than Brahms. They often are slated to appear at Christian music festivals, like Cornerstone, or hold songwriting workshops at places like Calvin College, noted for its interest in exploring faith and the arts. They're big in Europe. Sometimes you find them on a Starbucks mix. And they actually had characters in an X-Files episode named after Karin and Linford.

Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler, the married couple who embodies the nucleus of Over the Rhine - celloists, violinists, drummers, and additional guitarists come and go - are people of faith. Just as they were getting settled into their tour to promote a double album called "Ohio" a few years ago, they did what musicians never do - they called it off. To work on their marriage. And they told their fans this. Now, Amy Winehouse might cancel shows because she's in rehab for heroine addiction, but musicians never cancel tours to promote a giant new release to actually work on their marriages. Except for Over the Rhine.

So that's about them.

But what about me?

I remember feeling the rough texture of living room carpet under my head as I listened to one song, on repeat, tears sliding down my cheeks. It was one of those coping-with-life songs that defined my college years. And this is what it said:

Don’t speak.

Words come out your eyes.

You’re wet with this nightmare.

Like thorns you hold these secrets to your breast,your slender fingers closing into fists.
Trace your bruiselike a guilty streak.

Hold the pain.

You’re a connoisseur.

You think you have no other gift to give,

but we have so much left to live.

We don’t need a lot of money.

We’ll be sleeping on the beach,keeping oceans within reach.

(Whatever private oceans we can conjure up for free.)

I will stumble there with you and you’ll be laughing close with me,

trying not to make a scene, etcetera. Whatever. I guess all I really mean is
we’re gonna be alright.Yeah, we’re gonna be alright.

You can close your eyes tonight,‘cause we’re gonna be alright.

So come on now,I can almost see that placeon a distant shore.

And courage is a weapon we must use

to find some life you can’t refuse.

We don’t need a lot of money.

We’ll be sleeping on the beach,keeping oceans within reach.

(Whatever private oceans we can conjure up for free.)

I will stumble there with you and you’ll be laughing close with me,

trying not to make a scene, etcetera. Whatever. I guess all I really mean is
we’re gonna be alright.Yeah, we’re gonna be alright.

You can close your eyes tonight,‘cause we’re gonna be alright.

All that I can see is your eyes. Close your eyes. Close your eyes.

"Etcetera Whatever" lilts like a lullaby. When my heart was broken, when I felt I was never, ever going to find someone to love me, who loved the same things I did, or when I'd just had a bad day, I listened to this. Somehow, with the talk of beaches, and shores, and threadbare wallets, a C.S. Lewis-esque sense often stole over the music and words. Maybe it's because an early album borrowed the Lewis title "Til We Have Faces."

But the hard stuff of faith often took more struggling, melancholy tones, like these words...


When I try to pray

It's like a game of Red Rover

Take a real good run at it, yes I do,

But I can't break through

Ever felt like your prayers were hitting the ceiling and bouncing right back down? In tune with God's distance rather than God's nearness? What a profound image, the childhood game of interlinked arms blocking your passage no matter how vigorously you run.

And - balm to my sacramental heart - this creation that emerged from Over the Rhine's own dark night of the soul - a song which also named the album that came floating up from the wreckage of the year they cancelled the tour but saved their marriage, "Drunkard's Prayer".


You're my water

You're my wine

You're my whiskey

From time to time


You're the hunger on my bones

Every night I sleep alone


Sweet intoxication

When your words

Wash over me

Whether or not your lips move
You speak to me


Like an ocean

Without waves

You're the movement

That I crave

And in that motion

I long to drown
And be lost not to be found


You're my water

You're my wine

You're my whiskey

From time to time


A multivocal symbol is one that speaks on many different levels - something pertinent to studies of other cultures. And of course these words work in a similar way. Calling on the picture of Jesus turning the water into wine, and meeting people's needs with it. Conjuring the image of the woman at the well, longing for living water. And bringing forward the helplessness of the drunk, elbows on the bar, desperate for something to sustain him. And so, God is called my water, my wine, and when it gets rough, my whiskey. I've often wondered what comfort these words must give to a recovering alcoholic, just as much as they soothe the troubled heart grappling, Jimmy Stewart-like, with the heartbreak of the world.

I don't go to poetry readings to hear some of my favorite words, strung together and looped around my mind, my soul, my hopes. I slip in a disc, or stop by a website, or hum in my solitude. And images that evoke troubled people searching, and happy people finding, quiets my mind and restores my soul.

Oh. And did I mention they're romantics?




3 comments:

Carrie said...

Ok, since I love Cincinnati and walked the Over the Rhine area MANY a time, I must now head over to YouTube and take a listen!

Jeff Rudy said...

Never heard of them...but really like what you shared from them here. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I wonder about "Christian" bands that don't promote Christianity. I am sure it doesn't bother lots of folks. But, I like know where people are coming from. I am not so big on wishy-washy even if it sounds groovy.