Songs are not poems in fancy clothing

Mairead Case

February 10, 2016

I love Simon Joyner’s music already — I don’t listen to it all the time, or even every year, though I always come back — but I was unsure about this collection. Lyrics are not, I think, “poems without their clothing,” as Dennis Callaci writes in his introduction to Only Love Can Bring You Peace, Joyner's first book. Dudes: poems are not naked songs. Not everything is purer, more vulnerable when stripped. If anything, binding these songs in text and page makes them less tethered — no guitar, no General American accent, no fuzz. In this sense Only Love is an act of generosity and separation. An act of growing-lighter, not loss. Lyrics are intimate, portable things — think of whatever you wrote on whatever notebooks you had as a teenager — and reading a song instead of hearing it is another opportunity to let it hook ever-more relevantly into daily life. This is listening over time, not alchemy.

Still it would feel strange to write about Simon Joyner from a distance, so I am not going to do it. I am not interested in thinking about his writing impersonally, because it is not impersonal work — for me, who sometimes is and definitely loves the kinds of people he writes about, but more importantly because Joyner’s writing works to connect. Particularly for Nebraska people — where I was born, where Joyner lives now — these songs are powerful because they are about the world as it is.

And because Joyner rarely writes about a road, or a taking-leave, his songs exist around people where they are, instead of tempting them to go elsewhere — even in “Come a Yellow Bird,” a song later covered by Conor Oberst and consequently permanently inked onto people’s shoulders and wrists and thighs in words and sunny feathers — the protagonist’s wish for death is personified outside his body: in a bird. Joyner asks his audience to talk and to listen, not to become someone else, creating an intimacy that asks for empathy but rejects pity. Also he keeps his heart on his sleeve real hard, in a way that makes me uncomfortable when people put his songs onto mixes but seems brave otherwise — brave like a tightrope walker or the third shift, not a naïve kid.

“Little bits of several folks that I like in what Simon does,” said John Peel — and it’s true, Joyner is a white guy who sings a blues so there’s Dylan, Cohen, Ochs — “but he ends up being his own man, no question.” Little bits of several folks (Ochs’s influence is especially clear in this book, which rules), including Robin Hood and tired waitresses on South O Street and especially Icarus, who Joyner says “paid the price for that kind of freedom and went down singing ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles.’” If pinned I’d say what makes Joyner “his own man” — and this is a tricky thing; white singer-songwriters don’t exactly need visibility — is that he sincerely seems to long not for fame but to be left alone. “Wouldn’t it be nice?” Joyner writes in the introduction, the “wouldn’t it” not “wouldn’t that” a particularly Midwestern click. “That’s when you know you’ve made it. But America doesn’t banish, it leaves us instead.”

Here I think of Joyner’s version of Robin Hood, a song about an ordinary man asking the epic outlaw for help. This man has a family, and he’s a good guy. He’d plant a garden but the kids need to eat now. Robin Hood never speaks — the voice is just this guy who needs to feed his kids. Feed us. We are here right now. We are not moving. Joyner’s characters usually speak in three chords, and movement happens while sleeping or daydreaming. In a crowd. “It’s anomie, lonely boy / Why don’t you go see a show?” he sings on “Double Joe.” “It’s a sure-fire cure, / pretend the drumbeat is your heart.” I still put my hand on my heart at shows.

So what is Only Love Can Bring You Peace if not a book of poetry? First it is a gorgeous object: bright bird-yellow printed with symbols — leaves, keys, a skull, arrows, designed by Allyson Gibbs — and bold text on sexy-weight paper with French flaps, all echoing classic Black Sparrow. There are rich gray and black (and once, purple) illustrations of songs, made by people who live in Omaha and people connected to Joyner and his heart and work, most significantly through Grapefruit Records. It is a beautiful question for Mike Young and Magic Helicopter Press to ask themselves: how do you publish songs on paper?

In many ways too it is a valentine to Sara, Joyner’s wife, who helped edit the book (and gracefully, as focused on the stranger-reader not the past: for example, the title fits, but the song it’s from isn’t included because it wouldn’t look “right” on the page). Sara is present in many songs as well: sometimes reading in the bathtub behind a closed door, sometimes on her birthday, sometimes not yet present.

And Only Love Can Bring You Peace is, frequently, a study of internal rhyme and meter and repetition, and condensed narrative, and it is so cool to see all this happen in a book that marks a continuing career not a specific moment within it. As Joyner sings to his dear Ochs in “Four Vignettes on the Eve of the Expiration of the Mayan Calendar,” “And your memory is cotton cloudy and brief / (there is no love song finer).” This is a book to read in dips, and different places, and sometimes while playing the songs. I am grateful for this work and excited for what it will spark next. Hopefully as we go we’ll all fly a little closer to the sun.

Books in this review:
  • Only Love Can Bring You Peace
    by Simon Joyner

    October 31, 2015
    304 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Mairead Case is a working writer in Colorado. Her novel See You In the Morning is newly out from featherproof, and a poetry chapbook, Tenderness, is forthcoming from Meekling Press

Follow Mairead Case on Twitter: @maireadcase

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