My favorite abbess

It’s the feast day of Hildegard of Bingen: Benedictine, theologian, composer, healer, preacher, visionary, political figure, doctor of the church. For my money, Emma Kirkby is still the perfect soprano, and A Feather on the Breath of God, originally released in 1985, is still the perfect recording of Hildegard’s music.

Commentary on Hymn XIV: To Antinous-Hermes, Lover

You are not known for your loves, Antinous Hermes,
but you have not lacked them. Among the goddesses
you dallied with Aphrodite, Brimo, and Daeira,
sought Persephone, and called Peitho your wife.
Amongst the nymphs Penelopeia bore you
the great god Pan, and Carmentis went to Latium
with Evander, her son, the seed of a future empire.
Many were the mortal women whom you found desirable,
and there were men, too, especially Krokos, flower-lad.
You are he who woos with wit, who persuades with suasion,
who seduces with banter, who charms with speech,
lover of the mind and the mind’s lover, who shows us
how to join sense, sensibility, and sensuality, and
for this we praise you, Antinous Hermes.

The Antinoopolitan Lovers

Hermes, like his brother Apollon and others of the younger Olympians, is a deity who remained unmarried and dallied with a good many lovers, both males and females, deities and mortals. He was sometimes called the husband of Peitho, a goddess whose name means “persuasion” or even “seduction”, but who seems to have been worshiped in conjunction with Aphrodite or with the Charites (the Graces) more often than with the messenger god.

In writing this hymn I ran with the idea of the god as a lover of the mind, as someone who could find a way to one’s heart (and/or one’s loins) through the head. While there is not much hint of this in the myths, it is certainly a way of courting that works for me. I am not alone in being a fan of fictional couples who woo and wed with witty banter; it’s a trope that’s been popular at least since Shakespeare gave us Much Ado about Nothing and has fueled such diverse tv shows as Moonlighting, The X-Files, and (a personal favorite) Remington Steele. As it happens, my still-favorite musician, Hozier, included a song on his last album that perfectly embodies what I had in mind, and the lyrics are complete with mythological references.

Folklore

When I was around thirteen years old, I went downtown on the bus to a record store and bought a couple of albums of medieval music. You can maybe guess how long ago that was by the existence of a record store and a 13-year-old girl being allowed to go shopping on her own in the city. I listened to that unfamiliar music from the age that gave us monks and abbesses, knights and troubadours, and spent the rest of my teen years and into my early twenties ignoring everything I heard on the radio and exploring medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music, and the large and glorious repertoire written over five centuries of music for English cathedral choirs.

Notwithstanding preferring countertenors to Duran Duran, I did pick up a lot of the popular tunes of the day. But for the last thirty years, give or take, all the mainstream, popular, rock, or even alternative music I’ve listened to has been stuff that specific people turned me on to.

In my twenties, I sang in a small choir directed by my fiance/husband. My two closest friends in the group turned me on to Tori Amos, Loreena McKennitt, and Dead Can Dance. My husband introduced me to European jazz artists like Jan Garbarek and all the other folks on the ECM label. Back in 2014, a friend who works at a college radio station recommended I listen to this Irish dude playing live on their station, a fellow named Hozier. I went to see him in concert twice last year, and the last concert I heard before that was Dead Can Dance’s tour in 1996.

So when people on Twitter that I respect started talking about how good Taylor Swift’s new album was, I said, “… Okay. I’ll bite.” I went to Amazon Music, clicked a couple of times, and started listening.

And I loved it.

No disrespect to Ms Swift, but I just don’t listen to pop. My Amazon listening history is 90% Hozier and 10% Jade Bird, Dead Can Dance, and bassoon quintets. (I like the bassoon very much.) But Folklore is a collection of songs. Words and music twined together to be listened to, to be sung. Swift’s voice reminds me of Suzanne Vega on this album, a bit higher, a bit sweeter, but thoughtful, introspective, a little wry in a way that’s very like Vega, although their songs are quite different. These are songs about being human, being a woman, loving, hurting, thinking, observing.

I understand that Folklore was created while the coronavirus quarantine was at its strictest, and it sounds, to borrow a phrase from Hozier, homemade and handmade, in the best possible way. I say from now on, we just leave Taylor Swift alone and let her write songs and make albums. She’s good at it.


Empty space

I set out to blog this month about my spiritual journey, about memories of church and religion and how I wound up a pagan and polytheist. On the one hand, I have unexpectedly found myself drawing wisdom from the wells of the Church again, without giving up my devotion to gods other than Jesus. On the other hand, I have run up against how much of my journey I’m not ready to blog about yet, intertwined as it is with my marriage, which ended in divorce after twenty years and then ended a second time with my ex-husband’s death from cancer.

If we were not at the mercy of this pandemic, my workplace would have been closed for the Christian holy day, and I might have gone to church for the first time in several years. If I had gone, I might feel just as empty and speechless as I do right now. What do you talk about, what do you write about, when you have seen your god die and have buried him, in a tomb that didn’t even belong to him? The liturgies of Good Friday are a slow wringer that leaves you dry and flat, but I feel like that so much of the time right now.

I will leave you tonight with a gem of English church music proper to this time of year, the Lamentations of Jeremiah as set by Thomas Tallis.

POEM: The man comes around

Old man, I never listened to you
until you were already gone from us
and your voice drifted out of the radio
as if down from heaven, old and broken
and full of power, still. As a child
I hid when you came on tv, man in black
with your big guitar, but later in life I heard you sing
when I needed a voice that was older than mine,
wiser, sadder, more grateful, more humble.
All your addictions, recoveries, marriages,
crimes, conversions, your darkness and brightness,
you crushed in your hands and made into a song,
distilled through your heart into bittersweet droplets
that I taste one by one as I grow older myself.
Here I am now with my joints giving out,
wiser and stronger than I ever imagined.
Old man in black with snow-white hair,
with weathered face, no longer nimble fingers,
mention me to Jesus, you two were always close.

(For Johnny Cash on his birthday)

Fuck subtlety: A look at Hozier’s “Jack Boot Jump”

First of all, this is a jack boot.

Image result for jackboot

Second, this is a jump.

Third, this is a jack boot on your face.

(Content warning for violence/brutality)

I was privileged to see Hozier live in Washington, D.C., and to hear “Jack Boot Jump” two days before it was released. Introducing the song, he talked about Woody Guthrie, protest songs, and deciding to “fuck subtlety” and write the song that wanted to be written.

As lyrics go, “Jack Boot Jump” is about as sophisticated as a jump-rope rhyme. That doesn’t matter; “We Shall Overcome” is not a masterpiece of poetic complexity, either, but it carried people through a lot of trials during the Civil Rights Movement. I think “Jack Boot Jump” is here to carry us through our civil rights movements, our climate change protests, our resistance to oppressive governments, and I think it’ll do the job well.

The lyrics name Standing Rock here in the United States, Moscow, and Hong Kong as places of resistance, places where the jack boot jump is also taking place. It’s the stomping of capitalist and governmental forces on resistance to oppression, the increase of police and military brutality against “people standing up”. Hozier also quoted the famous and not at all outdated line from Orwell’s 1984, about the future imagined as a boot stepping on a human face. The Beijing government, the Putin regime in Russia, the Trump administration are all alike pushing back against demands for freedom, justice, equality, a response to the catastrophic climate changes taking place.

The most important verse is the last:
All around the world
You’d think that things were looking rough
But the jackboot only jumps down
On people standing up
So you know good things are happening
When the jackboot needs to jump
Here’s the good news Hozier is trying to give us: Repressive governments only crack down when there’s resistance. Cops beating up protestors means the protestors are right. It’s the same principle that there were no laws against same-sex marriage until same-sex couples began demanding marriage for themselves; it was so unimaginable to most people that there was no need to forbid it, until it became imaginable and therefore possible.

What makes this song so good is the music. Hozier looked at his influences, at the history of protest music, and made an unusual choice: He grabbed the blues. Not spirituals, not white folk, but blues, and dirty blues at that. Seen live, “Jack Boot Jump” is electrifying, a virtuoso dialogue between Hozier’s guitar (and he really does underplay his guitar skills) and Rory Doyle’s consummate drumming. It’s a song that’s not for marching in the streets so much as running, dancing, and possibly fucking, because standing up and dancing is a perfectly legit way to fight back against the jack boot jump.

Prayer and contemplation: Hozier’s “Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)”

“Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)” is an unabashedly raunchy song. (Do people still use the word “raunchy”? It’s the word that comes to mind when I think about these lyrics.) In case anyone missed it, Hozier himself has kindly informed us that it is, indeed, a song about oral sex (and you can watch this and treat yourselves to the sight and sound of Hozier saying “oral sex”). It is, specifically, a song sung by a man about receiving oral sex–to put it bluntly, it’s about getting a blowjob. It’s also an elaborately worded, punning plea to consider the possibility of equality in sexual dynamics.

Hozier begins with an oblique evocation of a world in turmoil:

When stunted hand earns place with man by mere monstrosity

Alarms are struck and shore is shook by sheer atrocity

(Is it stretching a point to think that the “stunted hand” refers to a certain American President and the mockery of his small and pudgy hands?) The next two lines detail the singer’s response to a world of monstrosity and atrocity:

A cure I know that soothes the soul, does so impossibly

A moment’s silence when my baby puts the mouth on

Hozier teasingly trails off here, letting his voice slide immediately into the next line, but the meaning is clear enough: When the world is too much with us, oral intimacy is the cure. Note that, yes, “the mouth” is what the official lyrics say (although he has clearly sung it as “their mouth” in concerts), and that the soothing of the soul comes through something that happens *to the body*.

So “my baby puts the mouth” on segues into:

Me and my babe relax and catch the manic rhapsody

All reason flown, as God looks on in abject apathy

“Manic rhapsody” is a delightful phrase just because of the internal rhyme; I am reminded of the line “electing strange perfections in any stranger I choose” from “Someone New” on his debut album. More important, however, is the declaration that “God looks on in abject apathy”. The singer and his baby are having sex, specifically non-reproductive sex, and God simply doesn’t care. In a Catholic culture like Ireland’s, sex that doesn’t lead to babies, even or perhaps especially between a man and a woman, is a definite no. Hozier carefully doesn’t specify his lover’s gender, but either way, they are defying churchly rules and God doesn’t care.

A squall, and all of me is a prayer in perfect piety

A moment’s silence when my baby puts the mouth on me

Hozier follows this utterly blasphemous statement with an unabashed blues wail that, heard live, will make your hair stand on end. (My hair remembers vividly.) His nonverbal outcry in response to receiving oral sex is called “a prayer in perfect piety”, which is also a “moment’s silence”. The silence, one supposes, is mutual: He’s nonverbal with “manic rhapsody”, and his baby can’t talk because their mouth is full. The lyrics hint that, as in his signature tune “Take Me to Church”, it is his lover he worships, no more, no less.

Internal rhymes and end-rhymes both veil the explicitness of these lyrics. The chorus offers us a deadpan pun:

When the meaning is gone

There is clarity

And the reason comes on the common tongue of your loving me

I am entirely certain that “common tongue” is a deliberate pun on “come on tongue”. Hozier did say the song was about oral sex, and I did warn my readers that it is raunchy. But it also evokes the act of oral sex as an act that all gender/sexuality combinations have in common. That brazen pun is coupled with a description of the act as love. Here’s where things begin to get really interesting. In a moment of silence that transcends meaning with clarity–which might be a description of contemplative prayer–the singer understands “the reason” through an act of sex that’s also an act of love. If “Take Me to Church” borrowed the imagery of formal worship for its lovers’ intimacy, “Moment’s Silence” is riffing on the idea of contemplation, of a silent kind of prayer motivated by adoration and love.

The second verse of the song is Hozier’s call out of people with a quite different approach to giving and receiving oral sex:

What yields the need for those who lead us oh so morally

Those that would view the same we do through their deformity

The moral leaders no doubt include politicians and other authority figures as well as authorities within the Church. What is the deformity to which he refers?

Who view the deed as power’s creed, as pure authority

This moment’s silence when my baby puts the mouth on me

Pardon me for being blunt here. Andrew Hozier-Byrne is a 29-year-old man living in the age of free porn on the Internet. It hardly seems possible to me that he has not seen oral sex scenes in porn, that he is not referring here to the kneeling woman servicing with her mouth the man looming over her, often gripping her hair or holding her head between his hands. And it hardly seems possible to conclude that the pleasure of receiving such sexual services is less in the physical sensations than in the emotional charge of using, even forcing another person to provide them, in a humiliating way.

These lyrics seem to me to be looking at that dynamic and rejecting it as a deformity, a distortion of what is a potentially loving and even contemplative act. The remainder of the lyrics reiterate the possibility of sex as an expression of love rather than power, while the music, a simple but powerful blues riff, increases in intensity. Hozier sings four couplets over the frenzied accompaniment:

Since it all begun

To its reckoning

There the reason comes on the common tongue of your loving me

First, he links reason to love: reason meaning the motivation or justification for the act of love.

Be thankful some know it lovingly

There the reason comes in the common tongue of your loving me

Here he insists the most forcefully and unambiguously that for some people, the act of oral sex is not about power but about love.

Like a heathen clung to the homily

Let the reason come on the common tongue of your loving me

At that point he shifts from the indicative “there” to the imperative “let”. In the simplest terms, he’s asking permission to orgasm, but I think there’s also a hint of “reason” as a synonym for “knowledge”. In Biblical Hebrew, “knowledge” is a synonym for sexual experience, and in Catholic theology, the fullness of knowledge can only be experienced through love.

So summon on the pearl rosary

Let the reason come on the common tongue of your loving me

Hozier ends with an image that is at once explicitly religious and explicitly erotic, even pornographic, as the pearls of the rosary are slang for drops of semen splashed on skin.

“Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)” is a fusion of the erotic, the religious, and the blasphemous even more explicit and potent than “Take Me to Church”, with an irresistible blues melody that can make the tiredest feet get up and dance (if those feet are mine, at any rate). If he keeps writing music like this, I will assuredly keep listening, dancing, singing along when I’m alone, and writing elaborate analyses like this one.