October 2022: John Murillo’s “On Confessionalism” & Deftones’ “Knife Prty”

This month I want to talk about a poem from John Murillo’s second book Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry—which is a book I admire very much. It came out in 2020 and I reviewed it; reading through it again, I found myself just as impressed with it as I was two years ago. What I love so much about Murillo’s work is that it explores oppression, masculinity, and desire simultaneously. Murillo is one of the rare political poets who is able to fuse all of those subjects together which in turn gives his poems more depth and range. I want to talk about the opening poem, “On Confessionalism.” It is a long poem, so I’m going to talk about a few key moments.

The reason why I chose this particular poem to talk about is because it does all the things Murillo does well: narrative lyric, personal voice, image, but most importantly, creating a mood. Murillo is very gifted at immersing the reader in the experience of the moment. Here is the opening of the poem:

Not sleepwalking, but waking still,
with my hand on a gun, and the gun
in a mouth, and the mouth
on the face of a man on his knees.
Autumn of ’89, and I’m standing
in a Section 8 apartment parking lot,
pistol cocked, and staring down
at this man, then up into the mug
of an old woman staring, watering
the single sad flower to the left
of her stoop, the flower also staring.

This opening sets up the scene for the entire poem, but only uses a few key images, which is the speaker, a gun, another man with the gun in his mouth, a Section 8 apartment parking lot, and an old woman watering a single flower. These images set the scene for what follows: readers discover that the speaker had an emotional breakdown after the woman he loved left him because the man with the gun in his mouth “may or may not have“ told her secrets about the speaker that caused her to leave. The speaker states a blunt truth—“someone’s brokenhearted”—and that someone is him. Here is the next key moment in the poem:

…And because
I loved the girl, I actually paused
before I pulled the trigger—once,
twice, three times—then panicked
not just because the gun jammed,
but because what if it hadn’t,
because who did I almost become,
there, that afternoon, in a Section 8
apartment parking lot, pistol cocked,
with the sad flower staring, because
I knew the girl I loved—no matter
how this all played out—would never
have me back.

In this particular part of the poem, masculinity, nature, poverty, violence, and desire all intertwine through image—“girl,” “trigger,” “section 8,” and “sad flower”—delivered in the style of a confession that is more personal than religious. I want to point to a brief section that follows this one because it very much embodies something Terrance Hayes calls Lyric Time, a moment in the poem where the speaker turns away from the narrative and communicates feeling through pure lyrical emotion: “Day of damaged ammo, / or grime that clogged the chamber. / Day of faulty rods, or springs come / loose in my fist. Day nobody died, / so why not Hallelujah? Say Amen or / Thank you?” These lines are incredibly powerful because they communicate intense passion and sorrow, something the narrative form itself isn’t suited to properly convey. Here is the final key point of the poem, which is the ending:

I tucked my tool like the movie gangsters
do, and jumped back in my bucket.
Cold enough day to make a young man
weep, afternoon when everything,
or nothing, changed forever. The dead
rapper grunted, the bassline faded,
my spirits whispered something
from the trees. I left, then lost the pistol
in a storm drain, somewhere between
that life and this. Left the pistol in
a storm drain, but never got around
to wiping away the prints.

The end, for me, is an accumulation of a deeper emotion that has been building throughout the entire poem: vulnerability. The speaker, poor and in love and mourning the end of that love, is saved from committing murder by a damaged weapon, but is forever changed. In this poem, what he is actually confessing is his vulnerability: how his ability to love turned into an ability to kill and how he was never able to fully achieve both. He could not keep loving the woman who left him and he could not kill the man who caused her to leave. The final lines of the poem solidify his openness through his confession: “Left the pistol in / a storm drain, but never got around / to wiping away the prints.” The speaker wants to be “implicated” not just through the act of confession, but through the literal fingerprints on the gun that he threw away. This is truly a masterful move in the poem because it also brings together the other thread of the poem: crime and oppression. The entire poem takes place in a Section 8 apartment parking lot; the speaker is easily able to get a gun, and all of this happened in broad daylight. The old woman who waters her single flower does nothing but stare. No one is inclined to call the police. The speaker is literally free to kill this man, maybe even justified to kill him, because he caused the speaker to lose his love. All of these elements are what make the poem complex and intense; what I admire the most about this poem is that Murillo gives the speaker, who is oppressed, depth. He is imperfect, he is prone to violence, but he is also capable of a love so strong that he would kill for it, and he did try to kill, and failed, and wholeheartedly owns up to it, which makes him not only vulnerable, but human.

The song I want to talk about this month is Deftones’ “Knife Prty,” which is off of their third album White Pony (2000). I owned this album along with the group’s first two albums: Adrenaline and Around the Fur and listened to them frequently. They were probably the heaviest band I listened to at that time; I liked them because I felt like their music hit a deeper emotional register that felt rare to me. Deftones are a metal band, but they are also an emotional band and I think the big theme of their music deals with masculinity and desire. “Knife Prty” is the song that I feel best encapsulates what Deftones are about musically and lyrically. Chino Moreno is a brilliant vocalist and lyricist; he wrote the song after the band was dancing around with knives from drummer Abe Cunningham’s knife collection while on tour. The song is an imaginative interpretation of a secret knife society made up of individuals who explore the riskier, darker side of sex, but it is also a love song, so it has a personal tone to it. The song also includes a vocal interlude by Rodleen Getsic who was working in the studio next to theirs when they were recording the album.

“Knife Prty” has a simple song structure: two verses, a repeating chorus, and a bridge. It begins with a rhythmic guitar opening that is both low and melodic and sets the tone for the rest of the song, which is both moody and romantic. Once the music kicks in, it brings a strong energetic charge to the song that sets Moreno up to sing the first verse:

My knife, it’s sharp and chrome
Come see inside my bones
All the fiends are on the block
I’m the new king, I’ll take the queen
‘Cause in here, we’re all anemic
In here, anemic and sweet, so

A few things to note about this first verse is that for the first few lines, the rhythm guitar returns as Moreno is given center stage to sing, then the music picks back up once the rhythm of his vocals are established. Moreno’s singing style is not necessarily slow, but drawn out, which makes it feel more erotic. Moreno generally has an erotic undertone to his singing, but here, it is magnified to great effect as he draws out a good portion of the words. Another thing to note about the vocals is how Moreno operates on the “less is more” philosophy. The lyrics are stripped down, but contain a lot of emotive power within them: “Come see inside my bones” highlight vulnerability and intimacy, “All the fiends are on the block / I’m the new king, I’ll take the queen” hint at a loose narrative thread that establishes the setting, a place of poverty and crime where different rules have been established in contrast to societal rules. I also like how the verse flows right into the chorus:

Go get your knife, go get your knife
And come in
Go get your knife, go get your knife
And lay down
Go get your knife, go get your knife
Now kiss me

The repeating phrase “Go get your knife, go get your knife” is sang quickly, in the spirit of a chant, and the lines “And come in,” “And lay down,” and “Now kiss me,” are sung slowly and contain romantic/erotic feeling so there is a nice contrast between violence and love. The song takes a brief pause—acting as a breather—before Getsic’s vocals slide in momentarily and Moreno sings the second verse:

I can float here forever in this room
We can’t touch the floor
In here, we’re all anemic
In here, anemic and sweet, so

In this verse, Moreno croons a little bit more and his voice is very smooth and affectionate. It almost feels like what he is singing is secondary to what he is conveying through vocal tone. To me, this song is all about the sound of his voice paired with the erotic rhythm of the music and the idea of knives playing a mysterious but captivating role in act of sex. Even though “we” is employed in such a way that feels communal, the song still has that personal vibe to it. It feels like two lovers are connecting in a room of likeminded people, but what is happening between them is so private it can’t be detected. This serves as the underlying narrative of the song: our love is so deep only we can feel it even if we’re in a room where others can see us and know what’s happening; they can’t feel what we feel. It’s deeply erotic and intimate.

After the repeating chorus, Getsic’s vocal interlude emerges. The music becomes sparse; the guitar strumming is gentle but powerful, and the drums come in more prominently as they interact with Getsic’s vocals, which sound very much like a guitar solo. She sings no words; her voice is pure sound. In a sense, Getsic’s vocals also perform the deeper erotic connection between the lyricist and his beloved that can’t be communicated through words. It is also interesting that the female voice is used here to express that nuanced intimate connection. It gives the moment—and the song—more depth and intensity. As the song builds back up and Getsic continues to sing, Moreno comes in with the bridge: “I could float here forever / Anemic and sweet” repeated twice. The chorus is sung once more as Getsic’s vocals slowly fade; a phrase is added to the chorus: “Get filthy.” This opens up the song even more as the intimate connection between the lyricist and the beloved become more intense due to Getsic’s vocal interpretation of their lovemaking. The lyricist now wants love, violence, and filth.

What make John Murillo and the Deftones compatible is how the poet and the band are primarily concerned with masculine desire and personal experience. Although it is unclear how much of the speaker’s life in “On Confessionalism” reflects Murillo’s actual life, his ability to know himself on a personal level allowed him to bring his energy to the poem in such a way that feels very authentic and experiential. Moreno’s imaginative interpretation of an experience he shared with his bandmates on tour led to a deeply intimate and erotic song that contains a powerful energetic charge that can only come from lived experience. I also think the poet and the band understand poverty and oppression from nuanced perspectives that play out narrative-wise and lyrically so that these topics resonate with readers on a personal level. An interesting contrast between the poet and the band is that Murillo’s poem operates specifically from the “I” perspective whereas in “Knife Prty” Moreno employs “I,” “you,” and “we” so that the song includes personal and communal representations of love. The song is both public and private, which is what helps give it more complexity. Both the poem and the song are confessional in nature: in “On Confessionalism” the speaker is confessing to a sympathetic ear; in “Knife Prty” the lyricist is confessing primarily to his beloved in a cryptic, but deeply intimate way. In the end, Murillo and the Deftones are about something much deeper than masculine desire—they are about what it means to be vulnerable and to communicate that vulnerability through love, through violence, through oppression. The poet and the band are important because they effectively communicate an experience that is often seen as one-dimensional and without emotional depth: they humanize oppressed men.

October 3, 2022