Thursday, October 27, 2016

Bracketing the world / Reading poetry through neuroscience



James Wilkes

March 2013

THE ANECHOIC CHAMBER AT UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON HAS THE CLUTTER of a space shared by many people: styrofoam cups, defunct pieces of equipment in the long purgatory between the days of their use and their removal to the skip, and an accretion of still-living technical apparatus – amps, speakers and laptops – perched on narrow shelves. The inner, soundproof room is sparser, with a long-barrelled microphone and wedges of foam jagging out from every wall; these severe surfaces are counterpoised by an old wingback chair that sags as you sit in it. When the experimenter settles you and leaves, shutting the double doors firmly behind her, a feeling of numbness grows with the silence. When the lights are turned out, a thick skin of darkness settles.

The chamber has a wholly pragmatic function for psychologists and language researchers, as a place to record stimuli free from contaminating noise; my visit, however, was for a different purpose. I was poet-in-residence with the Speech Communication Laboratory at UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and in June 2012 I spent an hour in the anechoic room. I had come for the silence, wanting to experience one of the quietest places in the city, but Nadine, one of the lab members, had said that plunging me into darkness for twenty minutes might help me to focus. And so she shut the double doors, and as I sat in the pitch black, trying to quieten my breathing, a world of sound flowered between my ears.


I have the recording I made inside the chamber when the twenty minutes was up. It’s a rambling monologue flecked with slip-ups, corrections and silences, as I try to gather up more scraps of the vanishing experience I’m trying to describe, caught by the way speech forces the silence it aims to document back into the realm of memory.



I know, because I can hear myself saying it, that I thought I heard a sound ‘like sand being thrown onto something metallic’ phasing in and out in my right ear; something like a persistent, twittering birdcall above me and to the right; and a dull sense of pressure encroaching from the left. There were other bodily failings: stomach creaks and gurgles, the wet crackle, ‘almost a crumpling tin foil’, of what I guessed were my Eustachian tubes, and the refrains of Neil Young and Take That songs that bobbed into my consciousness like bloated corpses.


The link between this mildly disconcerting experience and the making of poetry is perhaps not obvious, but this unusual acoustic space also resonates with legend. Just as the Castalian Spring at Delphi has been a mineral source for poets from Ovid and Shakespeare to Denise Riley, for whom it gets lyricists ‘gorgeous and pneumatic in the throat’, so the anechoic chamber is a kindred space, a kind of modernist cave of the oracle. It was at Harvard’s anechoic room, in the late forties or early fifties, that John Cage heard ‘one high and one low’ sound: his nervous system and his circulating blood, as the engineer supposedly told him. From this auricular experience, as Cage suggested in his lecture ‘Experimental Music’, two interpretations follow: one recognises the impossibility of subjective silence, and acknowledges the fundamental bruit that a living creature carries; the second, more contentious, demands that the composer attend to this unintended noise, and open ‘the doors of music to the sounds that happen to be in the environment’. The poetry I’m interested in making also turns to an expanded environment, taking its materials from the infelicities of speech, the accidental rough music which can be found in rhyme or in puns, or equally in the phatic melodies of ‘hmm’ and ‘err’. Unstructured noise is an important part of this: it may be obvious to say that poetry is torn between language as turbulent surface and language as vehicle of communication, but even if you let go of signification and dive into sound, meaning will bubble up again from next to nothing. People will extract sense from the most unpromising sources, and this can be the basis of a shared experience. This way of making is a tradition, too; one that presses the membrane of ‘poetry’ so close to those of composition, conceptual art, performance, lived speech or comedy, that with any luck they’ll merge.


But stepping into the anechoic chamber evokes another movement too: a displacement of poetry into the spaces of science. This was motivated by my long-term disciplinary kleptomania, born from a sense that there must be more to poetry than the endless recycling of ‘literary’ models or personal experience, and that poetry can only be kept new by a piratical plundering of other disciplines. But if this act of transport is to be more than a gimmick, the scientific cargo has to crack apart the poetry that tries to carry it so completely that you start to doubt anything useful will be salvaged. Only a thoroughgoing wreckage of the idea of the poem can disperse the ghost of tedium; a spectre which should haunt anyone who’s read the kind of poem that uses an fMRI scan or the idea of entropy as convenient figuration, an unexamined mass of science locked stolidly in the hold of a cast-iron personal lyric.


If the conjunction of poetry and science is to produce more than a wasted opportunity, in the sense of a meeting that changes nothing and leaves both parties mouthing platitudes about the importance of each other’s work, the place to start, from the poetic side, might not be with scientific products but with processes, languages, techniques and equations; the messy, contested and uncertain couriers of knowledge. The brain scan might present itself as a rebus of truth-telling, of mind-reading – but this self-contained image is produced through a tangled web of procedures and principles, which range from the behaviour of nuclei within magnetic fields and the relationship between brain activity and blood-flow to the statistical procedures used to reduce noisy ‘artefacts’ and the design of the experiments themselves.


The kind of approach I’m interested in developing has grown through discussing or reading the work of friends and peers, such as Sandra Huber’s residency with a sleep lab in Lausanne or James Harvey’s poems exploring scientific formulae. The work that Sandra made for her residency focused on the experiment as performance, or used the graph of her sleep patterns as a formal constraint for writing, whereas James, who died last year, was a biologist by training who produced fascinating pared-down forms for textual and visual poetry from a close engagement with mathematical equations or the principles of objective description.


To my mind though, one of the most conceptually complete attempts to rethink poetry with and through the life sciences has been Christian Bök’s XENOTEXT project, which is now entering its final stages. For this, the poet designed a text which he has encrypted into a bacterium’s DNA as a sequence of codons, or triplets of DNA. This sequence is then used by the bacterium to produce a viable protein which, when translated back from its amino acids to letters via Bök’s encoding, forms a second meaningful poem produced in ‘response’. The skill and time required to select the pairing of letters to codons, and to produce two meaningful poems through the double-translation of letter to codon, to amino-acid, to new letter, is mind-boggling. On top of this, Bök has had to teach himself the necessary molecular biochemistry and genetic engineering techniques, claiming that learning these skills was ‘part of the artistic exercise’. It’s impossible not to admire the poem’s virtuoso feat of composition, and the project’s deep engagement with the material and practice of biology to produce new forms for poetry. And yet when I saw Bök give a lecture in London in 2011, I was surprised to hear him professing the immortal value of literature: the only markers of human life that will outlast us, he said, are the indices of globally altered temperatures and permanently increased radiation levels; what if poetry could be added to that? It seems strange that such a deeply romantic idea has survived its immersion in biology, but I suppose any engagement between poetry and science walks a tightrope between two strong gravitational forces, whirlpools formed from the expectations, values and historical inertias of the two communities which it attempts to balance.


The anechoic chamber is one of the many spaces that the Speech Communication Lab uses in the complex process of producing scientific knowledge: entering that space meant I could borrow more than language or metaphor from their work. The physical context of the soundproof room, the inbuilt mikes which recorded my voice, the principle of ‘bracketing’ a subject off from outside influences, to control or at least dampen environmental inputs: all of these elements have been diverted from their original scientific use and turned towards making poetry. The outcome, though, is just a few minutes of speech. The challenge that I’m addressing now is how to work with this source material, and open out its potential, through a series of procedures that I consider to be experiments (in a literary rather than a scientific sense; I mean that the outcomes are not determined in advance, and that they carry the possibility of failure.)


My first attempt started from a poem that I wrote whilst I was still in the anechoic chamber, a close translation of the sounds I’d experienced in that state of aural deprivation.

starting with silence

which is not silence

as pressure and birdsong

this still noises

the system wobbles in its noise

well let’s call it ‘silence’

seeing as it really

scattered sand across

a metal sheet

a dawn chorus, a deep pressure,

wet crackling

spatialised, a volume for living in

punctured by belly creak

the voice from the speaker


shakes the metal frame

and to say birdsong top right

or phasing mid right

or pressure all across the left

how inner and outer

make little sense

in the dark, in the silence

proprioception gave me that

but the eyes still deep blue of noise

and no-sound moved straight

through the skull


The next step was suggested by Professor Sophie Scott’s description of the sounds from the anechoic chamber as acoustically ‘dry’, stripped of all the resonance and reverberations the fibreglass wedges absorb: as she put it, it’s as if you’re speaking in the middle of a desert. Would it be possible to give reverb back to this poem, to provide a kind of shack in the wilderness, a space conducive to its echoes? As I thought about this, I was reminded of ‘I am sitting in a room‘, the famous minimalist work by the composer Alvin Lucier.


To make his piece, Lucier set up a feedback loop, reciting a text – which was also a description of what he was going to do – in a room, recording the result, and then replaying the tape in the same room while recording this second performance. As he repeated this process, over many iterations, in Lucier’s words, ‘the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed.’ What emerged instead, as Lucier puts it, were ‘the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech’. And yet, knowing this is speech, and with Lucier’s pacing and characteristic stammer resonating in our ears, the sense persists through the degradation, even as the sounds turn into deep bottle tones and high glass rubbings. Eventually though, a border is crossed, meaning finally shakes itself apart, and you’re left with just a whistle and throb that sounds like water in the pipes, as Lucier’s formants disappear into the room’s.


Thinking about how to respond to such an example, on the semantic rather than the sonic level, I started making new versions of the original poem, allowing free associations to creep into the text, so it was eventually populated by mudflats, mainframes, linseeds, magnesium and finches.


starting from cobalt

from mid left to top right

the volume

pressured, spatialised,

turning birdsong from

wet sand to mudflat

through the bulbs

metal and sheeting

the wobbles crystallized

shaking the framerate

makes little sensations

crackling in the dark

the mainframe

and broadcast seeds

bounce on magnesium

corrugated in the cardboard sleeve

winding the pressure

and finally buckles

the finches gave me that

and linseed moved straight

through the air


This was too subjective though: the point of Lucier’s work is to gradually efface his choice of words, giving agency instead to the particular qualities of the space in which his voice is resonating. So I started playing with my computer’s inbuilt speech-to-text converter. I would read out my text to it, and the computer would translate it, with a number of errors, into a new text, which I would read out in turn, incorporating the errors and allowing them to propagate. As I refined this technique, sometimes introducing my own deviations to add to the computer’s, I returned to the original recording and started to use this as the basis for the distortions. Through the intercession of the audio recorder, my own voice sounded interestingly distant, disembodied; a found material like any other, to be treated with a mix of computer and human mishearings. I performed a version of this text at the Dana Centre in London last year.




While this particular series of poems is starting to settle into a fixed form, I’m still interested in the knotty concept of ‘bracketing’ that I found myself thinking about after the anechoic chamber experience. This essay’s title, ‘bracketing the world’, comes from an article by the artist Charles Stankievech in the LEONARDO MUSIC JOURNAL, where he describes how the invention of headphones made it possible to investigate an acoustic space apparently ‘inside’ the head. But this phrase has a broader application too: in the sense of a temporary isolation of a subject from its environment, ‘bracketing’ seems crucial to any scientific project, which has to produce controlled experiment paradigms that will work in a laboratory context. On the other hand, in the work of the Speech Communication Lab at least, there’s a tension between this need to isolate and a desire to approach the real life context of speaking, which might happen under very different circumstances. I’ve felt such a tension too: focusing on the formless minima of half-heard, half-imagined sounds has been productive, but I worry about what I might be screening out; am I losing the wider context, the voice in the world, socialised and political? I found an arresting image of bracketing in William Derham’s PHYSICO-THEOLOGY, a book published in 1713 as a ‘demonstration of the being and attributes of God’, but filled with experimental observations by the author and his Royal Society fellows. In a footnote to a chapter on the atmosphere, Derham writes about shutting up a sparrow and a titmouse in a ‘compressing engine’, otherwise known as an air pump, and watching them pant, vomit and eventually expire. The violence of the scene is striking, and a reminder of the potential damage in isolating subject from setting. And yet on the other hand, remembering the experience in the anechoic chamber, it seems that bracketing can only ever be partial, and that the vesicles we construct are always leaky, cold comfort though that may be to dead titmice. Despite the absence of external stimuli, the system roars to itself, and the noise of the body drags the world in through the vents of memory.


This is an exciting time for experimental writing. I can only speak from my own experience, but in the last five years, in London, I’ve seen a proliferation of popular reading series, publications, collaborations, and exchanges between different art forms. Performance writing and art writing have created more spaces where experiments can find an audience: there are regular nights in galleries like Parasol Unit and arts centres like Rich Mix, and occasionally in larger institutions like the Southbank, Serpentine, Whitechapel and Tate. The visibility of conceptual writing in the United States, where poets, anthologists and critics like Kenneth Goldsmith, Marjorie Perloff, Craig Dworkin and Vanessa Place have helped to bring the overlaps between poetry and conceptual art to wider attention, has added to a sense of possibility, and a determination that to be adequate to contemporary life, poetry needs to take up the multiple cultures and technologies that inflect that life. Take the database, for example: from a staple tool for scientific investigation, the growth of the web has turned it into a key form of contemporary culture (as Lev Manovich identified as early as 1998 in his article on ‘Database as a Symbolic Form’). Mining or remixing data is now a common practice across many fields, and works such as Thomas Claburn’s I FEEL BETTER AFTER I TYPE TO YOU, which makes poetry from the leaked internet search terms of anonymous third parties, respond to this new vernacular.


This is the context which informs this residency, and makes me frame it as an attempt to think seriously about what one laboratory’s approach might offer to the idea of speech as material for poetry. In doing so, I’ve tried to make texts which are able to hold a conversation with one strain of a pervasive scientific and technological culture. Perhaps this method requires a kind of submission, and it could be argued that art approaches science in the guise of a supplicant today (a comparison of the relative number of scientists-in-residence to artists-in-residence would seem to suggest this). These questions of status don’t really interest me though: it’s true that the scientific research I’ve encountered seems complete and self-sufficient, attuned to its own networks and rhythms of grant-writing, lecturing, experiment, presentation, processing, submission, rewriting and publication – but seen from the outside, poetry probably seems self-sufficient too. Both forms have their legitimising structures, and translating material from one context to another does risk denaturing it, just as a protein might unfurl into a useless object in the wrong environment. The point about uselessness, though, is that a lack of apparent function can release other possibilities, as anyone who has admired the sculptural forms of the string surface models in a science museum will know. If the poems I make are twisted by their scientific freight, they simultaneously deform the research they are based on. Both elements are made strange, and I hope productively so.


 ’s poetry residency at UCL’s Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience is supported by the Wellcome Trust. His research blog is

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Philip Larkin / The Auto-Erotic Portrait Photographer Incapable Of Love

Philip Larkin, the Auto-Erotic Portrait Photographer Incapable Of Love

Written by Sarah Freeman

All images from The Importance of Elsewhere: Philip Larkin’s Photographs, courtesy Frances Lincoln/Estate of Philip Larkin

A new photobook explores the iconic poet Philip Larkin’s life as a photographer, the portraits of himself and the various women in his life revealing a man equally capable of care and romance, calculation and misanthropy.

In a re-write of a letter titled Letter to a Friend About Girls, addressed to his long-term friend and Oxford contemporary Kingsley Amis, the poet Philip Larkin wrote:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Czeslaw Milosz / The Captive Mind

Czeslaw Milosz
Poster de T.A.
The Captive Mind
by Czeslaw Milosz

I wonder how many books got sold or thrown out the year after the Soviet Union collapsed. My friend told me that his public library had shelves and shelves of books for sale written by political scientists during the Cold War, all trying to puzzle out what the Soviets were thinking. Most of them are temporary in the way that all such books are temporary, but I’m sure there is a great deal of intelligence there that is perhaps never going to see the light of day again, except by the occasional historian.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Bob Dylan is not the first songwriter to win the Nobel prize for literature

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is not the first songwriter to win the Nobel prize for literature

Amit Chaudhuri
Friday 21 October 2016 11.00 BST

The 1913 Nobel prize for literature was awarded to the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. His work, like Dylan’s, recreates tradition and crosses genres

mid the raucous cheering, disbelieving emojis and graceless carping that accompanied the awarding of the latest Nobel prize for literature, an unexamined claim was made several times: that this was the first time the prize had gone to a songwriter. A couple of newsreaders used the word “musician”, others the historical and more precise “singer-songwriter”; but mainly they stuck to “songwriter”. It struck me that the claim was wrong. The first (and the only other) songwriter the prize went to was the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, in 1913. It was given to him “because”, according to the citation, “of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the west”. The citation for Bob Dylan, which acknowledges him for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, is different from but oddly reminiscent of the one from 1913, when honouring an Indian – someone located in the world of gurus and séances – must have seemed as puzzling as giving a “serious” prize to a pop musician. Little was known outside Bengal about Tagore, just as little, really, is known about Dylan. The citation from 1913 is already engaged in invention, making no mention of the fact that the “verse” is actually songs, or that they’re translations from Bengali. But Tagore translated the title of the book that got him the prize, Gitanjali, almost literally, as “Song Offerings” and it’s a compendium of lyrics turned by him into strange English prose poems, selected from three slim Bengali collections of songs – songs that are not only performed today day in Bengal, but performed ad nauseam.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Cesare Pavese / The Cats Will Know

The Cats Will Know
By Cesare Pavese
Translated By Geoffrey Brock

Rain will fall again
on your smooth pavement,
a light rain like
a breath or a step.
The breeze and the dawn
will flourish again
when you return,
as if beneath your step.
Between flowers and sills
the cats will know.

There will be other days,
there will be other voices.
You will smile alone.
The cats will know.
You will hear words
old and spent and useless
like costumes left over
from yesterday’s parties.

You too will make gestures.
You’ll answer with words—
face of springtime,
you too will make gestures.

The cats will know,
face of springtime;
and the light rain
and the hyacinth dawn
that wrench the heart of him
who hopes no more for you—
they are the sad smile
you smile by yourself.

There will be other days,
other voices and renewals.
Face of springtime,
We will suffer at daybreak.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bob Dylan / Nine Songs

by Bob Dylan

The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1963)

Come gather ‘round people where ever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone,
For the times they are a’ changin’!
Come writers and critics who prophesy with your pen
And keep your eyes wide the chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a’ changin’!
Come senators, congressmen please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a’ changin’!
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a’ changin’!

The line it is drawn the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a’ changin’!

Like a Rolling Stone 

(Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People call say ‘beware doll, you’re bound to fall’
You thought they were all kidding you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hanging out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal
How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone
Ahh you’ve gone to the finest schools, alright Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street
And now you’re gonna have to get used to it
You say you never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say do you want to make a deal?
How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
A complete unknown, like a rolling stone
Ah you never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discovered that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal
How does it feel, how does it feel?
To have on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone
Ahh princess on a steeple and all the pretty people
They’re all drinking, thinking that they’ve got it made
Exchanging all precious gifts
But you better take your diamond ring, you better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal
How does it feel, ah how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

Mr. Tambourine Man 

(Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you
Though I know that evenings empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you
Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship
My senses have been stripped
My hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step
Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade
Cast your dancing spell my way, I promise to go under it
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you
Though you might hear laughing, spinning, swinging madly through the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone
It’s just escaping on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facing
And if you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time
It’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind
It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you
Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy bench
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you


Just Like a Woman 

(Blonde on Blonde, 1966)

Nobody feels any pain
Tonight as I stand inside the rain
Ev’rybody knows
That Baby’s got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
Have fallen from her curls
She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl
Queen Mary
She’s my friend
Yes, I believe I’ll go see her again
Nobody has to guess
That Baby can’t be blessed
Till she sees finally that she’s like all the rest
With her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls
She takes just like a woman, yes
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl
It was raining from the first
And I was dying there of thirst
So I came in here
And your long-time curse hurts
But what’s worse
Is this pain in here
I can’t stay in here
Ain’t it clear that
I just can’t fit
Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit
But when we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I was hungry and it was your world
Ah, you fake just like a woman, yes, you do
You make love just like a woman, yes, you do
Then you ache just like a woman
But you break just like a little girl

Visions of Johanna 

(Blonde on Blonde, 1966)

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet ?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, tempting you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind.
In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman’s bluff with the key chain
And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the D-train
We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight
Ask himself if it’s him or them that’s really insane
Louise she’s all right she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.
Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall
Oh, how can I explain ?
It’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna they kept me up past the dawn.
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower frieze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze
I can’t find my knees.”
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel.
The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him
Saying, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him.”
But like Louise always says
“Ya can’t look at much, can ya man.”
As she, herself prepares for him
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes everything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.

I Want You 

(Blonde on Blonde, 1966)

The guilty undertaker sighs,
The lonesome organ grinder cries,
The silver saxophones say I should refuse you.
The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn,
But it’s not that way,
I wasn’t born to lose you,
I want you, I want you,
I want you so bad,
Honey, I want you.

The drunken politician leaps
Upon the street where mothers weep
And the saviors who are fast asleep,
They wait for you.
And I wait for them to interrupt
Me drinkin’ from my broken cup,
And ask me to
Open up the gate for you
I want you, I want you,
I want you so bad,
Honey, I want you.

Now all my fathers, they’ve gone down
True love they’ve been without it.
But all their daughters put me down
‘Cause I don’t think about it.

Well, I return to the queen of spades 
And talk with my chambermaid.
She knows that I’m not afraid
To look at her.
She is good to me
And there’s nothing she doesn’t see.
She knows where I’d like to be
But it doesn’t matter.
I want you, I want you,
I want you so bad,
Honey, I want you.

Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit,
He spoke to me, I took his flute.
No, I wasn’t very cute to him,
Was I?
But I did it, though, because he lied
Because he took you for a ride
And because time was on his side
And because I…
I want you, I want you,
I want you so bad,
Honey, I want you

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door 

(Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, 1973)

Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it anymore.
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see
I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.

Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That long black cloud is comin’ down
I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door


(Desire, 1976)

Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees a bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out my God, they killed them all
Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world
Three bodies lyin’ there does Patty see
And another man named Bello, movin’ around mysteriously
I didn’t do it, he says, and he throws up his hands
I was only robbin’ the register, I hope you understand
I saw them leavin’, he says, and he stops
One of us had better call up the cops
And so Patty calls the cops
And they arrive on the scene with their red lights flashin’
In the hot New Jersey night
Meanwhile, far away in another part of town
Rubin Carter and a couple of friends are drivin’ around
Number one contender for the middleweight crown
Had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down
When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road
Just like the time before and the time before that
In Paterson that’s just the way things go
If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street
‘Less you want to draw the heat
Alfred Bello had a partner and he had a rap for the cops
Him and Arthur Dexter Bradley were just out prowlin’ around
He said, I saw two men runnin’ out, they looked like middleweights
They jumped into a white car with out-of-state plates
And Miss Patty Valentine just nodded her head
Cop said, wait a minute, boys, this one’s not dead
So they took him to the infirmary
And though this man could hardly see
They told him that he could identify the guilty men
Four in the mornin’ and they haul Rubin in
They took him to the hospital and they brought him upstairs
The wounded man looks up through his one dyin’ eye
Says, wha’d you bring him in here for? He ain’t the guy!
Here’s the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world
Four months later, the ghettos are in flame
Rubin’s in South America, fightin’ for his name
While Arthur Dexter Bradley’s still in the robbery game
And the cops are puttin’ the screws to him, lookin’ for somebody to blame
Remember that murder that happened in a bar
Remember you said you saw the getaway car
You think you’d like to play ball with the law
Think it might-a been that fighter that you saw runnin’ that night
Don’t forget that you are white
Arthur Dexter Bradley said I’m really not sure
The cops said a poor boy like you could use a break
We got you for the motel job and we’re talkin’ to your friend Bello
You don’t wanta have to go back to jail, be a nice fellow
You’ll be doin’ society a favor
That sonofabitch is brave and gettin’ braver
We want to put his ass in stir
We want to pin this triple murder on him
He ain’t no Gentleman Jim
Rubin could take a man out with just one punch
But he never did like to talk about it all that much
It’s my work, he’d say, and I do it for pay
And when it’s over I’d just as soon go on my way
Up to some paradise
Where the trout streams flow and the air is nice
And ride a horse along a trail
But then they took him to the jailhouse
Where they try to turn a man into a mouse
All of Rubin’s cards were marked in advance
The trial was a pig-circus, he never had a chance
The judge made Rubin’s witnesses drunkards from the slums
To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum
And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger
No one doubted that he pulled the trigger
And though they could not produce the gun
The D.A. said he was the one who did the deed
And the all-white jury agreed
Rubin Carter was falsely tried
The crime was murder one, guess who testified
Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied
And the newspapers, they all went along for the ride
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game
Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell
That’s the story of the Hurricane
But it won’t be over till they clear his name
And give him back the time he’s done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world

Not Dark Yet (Time Out of Mind, 1997)

Shadows are fallin’ and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep and time is runnin’ away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin’ what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.