This month I want to discuss a poem by Adam Zagajewski, a poet I admire very much who recently passed away. I discovered his poetry in my early twenties as an undergrad in the creative writing program at the University of Houston. I heard him read his poetry for the first time at a faculty reading and immediately went to Brazos bookstore to see if they had any of his books. They had an autographed copy of Without End: New and Selected Poems so I bought it and read through it pretty voraciously, marking poems I loved with little neon yellow post-it notes. His work reminded me a lot of Charles Bukowski, my favorite poet. His poems felt very voice-driven, full of poignant images and historical references. Zagajewski was Polish and I’m of Polish descent, so in a lot of ways his voice just sounded very familiar to me.
The poem I’m going to be talking about is a short one; Zagajewski’s short poems are just as masterful as his longer poems. This one is called “The Thirties” and here it is in its entirety:
I don’t exist yet
A girl eats strawberry ice cream
Someone listens to Schumann
I don’t exist yet
I can hear everything
This poem was originally published in Mysticism for Beginners, but I encountered it in Without End. What I love so much about this poem is its simplicity and compression: Zagajewski says a lot without having to say very much. In this poem, the speaker has not been born yet and is making observations: “Grass grows,” “A girl eats strawberry ice cream,” “Someone listens to Schumann.” These images seem ordinary, but they’re actually pointing to something much more complex: Germany prior to World War II. The speaker purposely chooses innocent images: grass, a girl eating ice cream, and classical music. The last line is incredibly heavy and poignant: “How fortunate / I can hear everything.” The speaker, in their pre-birth state, is making an important statement: Even though I’m not alive yet, I can see what’s happening.
This poem describes the image of Germany very well in the thirties: a picturesque environment that masks the reality of what is actually happening—the beginning stages of genocide on a major scale; destruction set in motion. I think that’s why the last line is so vital; the speaker wants to be clear that in their pre-birth state they are omniscient and they aren’t being fooled. I also think the reference to Schumann is interesting; it directly relates to Germany’s fascistic compulsion to place itself at the pinnacle of humanity during the thirties. Schumann was a Romantic German composer who died in the mid-19th century from pneumonia after committing himself to a mental asylum. He was diagnosed with something called psychotic melancholia—which is regarded now as a combination of bipolar disorder and possible mercury poisoning. I think Schumann is really important to the poem because the reference points to Germany in its pre-nationalist state, when Romanticism and Transcendentalism flourished through literature, music, art, and philosophy. Once nationalism, fascism, and Nazism took hold, those mystical notions of the self were cast aside in favor of toxic beliefs about race superiority and the obsessive desire to create a national consciousness. This is what I love so much about Adam Zagajewski’s work: he had a very clear understanding of fascist thinking and he used poetry to expose it in ways that were very intelligent and skillful: he would use image, reference, and perspective to paint a scene and then let the poem do its work. “The Thirties” is a perfect example of Zagajewski as a poetic genius.
The song I want to talk about this month is NOFX’s “Fuck Euphemism.” NOFX is one of my favorite punk bands. I first heard them when I was sixteen after a friend let me borrow White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean on cassette and I’ve been listening to them ever since. They are an incredibly important punk band lyrically and musically—to me, they are that band that embodies the punk ethos wholeheartedly, and I learned a lot about what it means to be punk from them. This song is from their newest album which just came out in February called Single Album. It was meant to be a double album, but many of the songs got cut, so they ended up amusingly calling it Single Album. The principal songwriter of the group is Mike Burkett (commonly known as Fat Mike) and as far as punk rock lyricists are concerned, he is at the top of my list. Fat Mike’s lyrics very much reflect who he is as a person: eccentric, brilliant, nonconformist, satirical, aggressive, and passionate.
“Fuck Euphemism” has an awesome opening riff; it’s simple and classically punk, but it’s also very smooth and rhythmic. NOFX is known for their slick riffs and catchy lyrics and this song contains both. Here’s the first verse:
I walked into The Eagle and someone called me cis
I said, I’m not a cis I’m a sissy, should I call you mister or miss
I said, I’m actually a transvest but before I got to tite
The place erupted into my first gender pronoun bar fight
NOFX’s songs are typically narrative-based, but what truly makes them catchy is the wordplay. Fat Mike is very good with language; whatever story he’s telling is always heightened by puns and a playful use of profanity punctuated by his affectionately sarcastic lyrical voice. The first two lines of the second verse characterize these qualities very well: “They said I was a Ross-Cross-Dress-For-Less wannabe queer / I said my gender isn’t fluid, but that’s how I like my beer.” Traditionally, NOFX’s primary goal is to poke fun at individuals who use trendy labels in order to categorize themselves and others. This song in particular focuses on people who use transgender issues as a way to set up an us versus them mentality which ends up creating more exclusivity in terms of who can be part of the community and who can’t. The rest of the second verse is especially interesting because it exposes the hypocrisy of identity politics movements—in truth, they are really more interested in attainting inclusion within the parameters of the dominant culture (by way of governmental support) rather than addressing the systemic roots of marginalization:
They thought I was just posing or on a publicity stunt
Until I did a line off Scarlett’s hundred thousand dollar cunt
She paid a hundred thousand clams for a single clam in front
A very pricey pussy paid for by the government
The chorus is especially catchy. When Fat Mike sings “Fuck euphemism,” he says “Fuck you / phemism”—another clever play on words that is a lot of fun to sing (and also very therapeutic), followed by “Cis butt fuck my cis clit.” He also sings phrases like “I identify as a grain of Saltpeter Panarchist / Or a poly rubber puppy switch brat slut dharmasochist,” “your words are neophyte,” and “I’m a single not a plural person so call me per for the night.” Fat Mike identifies with BDSM and kink culture and considers himself to be queer; his comments are always directed at those who focus on labels and terminology instead of systemic oppression—which encompasses a wide range of marginalized groups. I appreciate this song because it’s not just a well-written punk song, it cleverly engages with larger anarchic thought in its desire to deconstruct artificial constructs put in place by those who claim to be proponents of social equality.
When I chose this poem and song to talk about, at first I thought there were more differences than similarities, but I knew they spoke to each other in some way. That’s one of the goals of this project: to put a poem and a song side by side and see what develops between them. What I ended up realizing was that they had a lot in common. Zagajewski was writing about World War II in a deceptively simple way; the NOFX song is a bit more straightforward in its criticism of identity politics, but it’s being done through the punk music form, which is also deceptively simple musically. I also think Zagajewski and Fat Mike operate from a similar poetic style—they both use clever lyrical astuteness to express deeper ideas about political issues. They also have very distinct identities: Zagajewski was a politically-engaged Polish poet whose work was banned by the communist authorities in Poland in the seventies and Fat Mike is a punk rock cross-dressing submissive male with Jewish roots who is based in the San Francisco area—and I am grateful for and influenced by them both.
April 5, 2021