top of page
  • Aarik Danielsen

Listing the Night Away

What about the rainbow eucalyptus?

What about the instruments?

What about the Cowboy Junkies?

What about the Afghan Whigs?

What about the Mountain Valley Spring?

What about the ornaments?

What if I reinvented again?

What about the moon drop light?


— The National, “Eucalyptus”


Jack Kerouac’s ghost keeps throwing an arm around my shoulder and pulling me into his pages.


Among the four, maybe five, ideas I hold with confidence: an order of operations regarding Kerouac and Wendell Berry, two great but constitutionally different American writers.


Berry goes first. Trust The Mad Farmer in your 20s, and you naturally tether yourself to something—a place, a people, common ideals. As Berry prevents you from chasing the most illusory, beyond-reach pleasures, he tills staying into an active verb, keeps settling from becoming a dirty word.


More and more, my magnet heart attracts art that follows list-making—or lists that look, sound and feel like art.

Then Kerouac, who shows you how to fall apart at all the right seams, and tempers Berry’s rooting with just enough seeking and chasing to stay alive. Plumbing Kerouac’s prose in my late 30s helped me come unstuck, as I read him with eyes to see all the cosmic curiosity—and sharp emptiness—permeating his work.


Kerouac also harbors a deep gratitude. So many passages—especially in the more fragmentary Book of Sketches—read like strange lists, pressing detail against detail until we notice all the matter that makes up a life, the things which compose a whole damn country.


Some moments resemble conventional records. Kerouac keeps track of what he needs in Santa Barbara: new notebook, spoon, Doestoevsky, matches for lamps, so forth, so on.


Other stanzas unspool into their own rhythm, detailing winter domesticity: “the oranges & walnuts in a bowl, the heat of the house, the Xmas tinsel on the tree, the boys of the Club throwing snowballs below corner Gershom.”


The most enduring try, brave and vain, to wrap their arms around color and weather and nature’s unbidden characters. Read this, if you will, as a list of glories:


“August senses September in the deeper light of its afternoons—senses Autumn in the brown burn of the corn, the stripped tobacco—the faint singe appearing on the incomprehensible horizons—the tanned tiredness of gardens, the cooler, brisker breeze—above all the cool mysterious nights—Night—& when the great rains of the night boom & thunder in the South, when the woods are blackened, made wet, mudded, shrouded, impossibled.”


More and more, my magnet heart attracts art that follows list-making—or lists that look, sound and feel like art. Pages of Kerouac pile up, paying surprise dividends; waves of feeling my own good luck at being alive. Songs by The National keep me asking the right questions about what is truly precious, what stays and what goes.


“Eucalyptus,” off the band’s latest, catches singer Matt Berninger occupying the space between guitar notes with what-abouts. The refrain always comes around, casting light on each list: “You should take it / Cause I’m not gonna take it.”


It’s as though Berninger is divvying up the spoils of a divorce or gathering the true essentials of existence: trees and art-rock bands, the great spiritual questions themselves.


Lists seem like the antithesis of art, at least in the typical way we talk about each. Lists live on yellow legal pads, in apps with obviously clever names. They serve the province of productivity, of earning and doing.


Art lives on breath and vibration, pools at the feet of cracked city streetlights. We assign it to the class of luxury—albeit a necessary one. Art rejects doing in favor of being.


But tracing Kerouac’s sentence fragments, steeping in Berninger’s baritone, means revisiting something quite creative and as innate as Adam’s God-given impulse to name and catalog, to make out the shape of this wondrous chaos. Even when Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder created a true “Wishlist,” he scrawled out desire: to live as the star atop a Christmas tree, to fulfill “the verb 'to trust' and never let you down.”


Maybe this artful listing becomes the way of true reckoning with our living: naming and facing what terrifies us, seeking language for the mysteries which lead one day into the next, braiding rope out of all the people, places and things that give us hope—then slipping that rope around our strongest ankle.

A New York Times critic once mused that we make lists to fend off death. Of course, lists cannot close the darkness’ yawning jaws; but they ease death’s effects: the fear of forgetting or being forgotten, of losing even the most tenuous connection with what makes us human. Lists present a chance to carve “I was here” into park benches and barn rafters.


Maybe this artful listing becomes the way of true reckoning with our living: naming and facing what terrifies us, seeking language for the mysteries which lead one day into the next, braiding rope out of all the people, places and things that give us hope—then slipping that rope around our strongest ankle.


Allow me to start with something small, to sift the most stirring opening lyrics I know, then tuck them away deep inside—saved for when I need a way into a moment or emotion. There’s Tears for Fears singing, “I wanted to be with you alone / And talk about the weather,” perhaps the most romantic line I’ve ever heard.


Robert Smith spins like a top through the first measures of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” and over a spiral groove, recalls his lover’s entreaty: “‘Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick / The one that makes me scream,’ she said. ‘The one that makes me laugh, she said / And threw her arms around my neck.” The second-most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.


And there’s room enough for Paul Simon and the beginnings of “Graceland”; “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar,” as American a phrase as has ever been penned.


With practice, something in me shakes free enough to cast my cares in language, every fear wearing its name, known well enough to be met.

Into the record I enter the most remarkable arguments my wife and I have endured; these situations slivered the soul, forming a haunting, necessary means of knowing another person. Number five started over a Nirvana song. That’s all I’ll give you.


Learning to list, I reenter my house around 9:30 on a Midwestern night and take inventory. Note the cool air which seemed to part upon my arrival, folding me into its deep; the trace elements of rain whispering in the grass; and the sky, unsure whether to become the deepest blue shy of black or remain a curtain of cloud.


With practice, something in me shakes free enough to cast my cares in language, every fear wearing its name, known well enough to be met. Something like Kerouac’s ghost tugs me around every corner of my neighborhood to notice its warmest lights and worn-out miracles.


And somewhere else, a new list begins—of what-abouts so beautiful, sad and curious they deserve to stay and see the future.



Comments


Don't miss a thing.

Sign up below to stay up-to-date on Fathom columns.

Where to find more from Aarik

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
Discontent POST Header_updated-01.png
bottom of page