The Poetry of Townes Van Zandt

I have a bad habit of listening closer to the melody of lyrics against the harmony of the song than the meaning behind the words, but listening to the song “Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel” by Townes Van Zandt was one of those instances where I can remember catching lyrics and thinking “wow, I should really be paying attention to this”. While the harmony may not be especially interesting, the lyrics are beautifully put in a way that I just have to appreciate and admire.

Even before really trying to understand the words there was something really profound about them that I couldn’t really explain with literary devices. If you’re going to listen to the song, I’d recommend doing so before reading this, as anything I say will likely not do it justice. I’m glad I had the opportunity to just appreciate it before trying to assign meaning to it.

That being said, I think the song is about a woman who has different men “go for a ride around the carousel” before discarding them and moving on to the next one, but more importantly, the different men who came after the protagonist. I promise it’s less cliche than it sounds.

Van Zandt begins with the line “Well the drunken clown’s still hanging round/but it’s plain the laughter’s all died down” He’s referring to a man, possibly himself, who stayed with with this woman for longer than was good for him. He’s not aware of whats best for him as he’s under her influence and he’s acting like a fool. The image of the drunken clown is also a powerfully disturbing juxtaposition illustrating the corruption of a childlike image. The laughter, something traditionally associated with clowns, has all died down as the good times ended and it’s become clear to everyone else that there is something wrong. There’s something especially haunting about this because it’s not a game anymore; the people around him are silent and concerned as he continues to suffer obliviously.

In the next stanza: “And a blind man with his knife in hand/Has convinced himself that he understands/I wish him well, Miss Carousel/But I got to be a-goin'”, a different man is reacting differently to the end of his relationship with her. The man’s “blindness” represents how he too has not yet figured out this woman’s game. However, any attempt to get him to realize her game makes him defensive, hence the knife in his hand. He thinks he understands her and will blindly lash out at anyone who tries to tell him otherwise. This desperate image is again deeply disturbing; he’s confused and attacking those who try to help him. While the protagonist wants him to wake up and realize whats happening, it’s simply not his job to convince the man who will eventually find out he was wrong.

In all honesty, I was a bit disappointed to come to the conclusion that this was another song about a “cruel woman who uses men”, but as I analyzed the lyrics further, I came to a far greater appreciation of them. Every single line is poetry in a way that I hadn’t anticipated it to be, beyond figurative language and descriptive imagery. This song reflects experience and does so in a way that is far greater than the sum of its incredible imagery, word choice and figurative language.

What it Means to be Native in Exit West

Something that Exit West has made me realize about myself is the way that I think of being a native. We’ve all heard before that no one is really a native anywhere, especially the United States. I’m very aware of this, however, when Hamid mentions that in Marin, there were “almost no natives, theses people having died out or been exterminated long ago” (197), I was shocked. I found myself thinking of the predominantly white European Americans “native” to California. If I had been thinking of the genocide of the actual Native Americans from the beginning of the passage, I would probably not have reacted in this way as my perspective is different from that of Saeed, Nadia, or the narrator.

Whether intentional or not, it reminded me of the way the narrator often sets things up one way, allowing the mind of the reader to run with what he’s implied, and then takes it back. The most notable example of this is perhaps the dark skinned man who comes out of the closet, only wishing to safely escape the room of the white woman. The passage about the natives effectively had a comparable effect on me as when his eyes rolled “terribly, or perhaps not so terribly”(9), the refugees were “stunned, maybe, or resting. Possibly dying” (26), and Nadia’s coworkers were either “looting” or receiving “payment-in-hardware” (70).

Hamid has many great passages in Exit West about what it means to be a native in a changing world, but this was one that could easily have gone unnoticed by a more conscious reader than I.

Guilty as Murderer, Convicted as an Existentialist

Throughout The Stranger, Meursault is attacked by society for not valuing family, love, kindness, religion, and friendship as highly as they think he should. Whether it was the death of his mother, his relationship with Marie, or his opinion of neighbors, Meursault’s indifference was, as best, met with scrutiny from the other characters and often from the reader.

This is taken to the extreme when he is on trial. He admits to having killed the arab, but this isn’t enough to sentence him to death. The Prosecutor consistently focuses the jury on Meursault’s reaction to the death of his mother rather than the murder he committed and is on trial for. The death of a close family member is supposed to be something that is important to people and there is an expectation of what the right way to react is.

The court is disturbed by his apparent lack of interest and more ready to find him guilty of murder. As he writes on page 92, it was “a crime made worse than sordid by the fact that they were dealing with an monster, a man without morals.” The murder itself is not what sentenced him to die, but his personal beliefs. Raymond, the only witness who had insight into to the actual murder, was only brought up to establish Meursault’s connection with an unsavory character in an attempt to further establish his character.

In some ways, the trial scene seemed to be a literal representation of the feelings that someone with existentialist beliefs would face everyday in society. People like Meursault make them uncomfortable because they don’t understand his perspective.

Flipping the Tlic/Terran Binary

Something that I noticed while reading “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler was that the T’ often preceding Tlic names seemed to function as a title.  The T’ in T’Khotgif changes to Ch’ after she produces offspring as evidenced by T’Gatoi’s reference to her shortly after the birth: “‘T’Khotgif—Ch’Khotgif now’”(173).  

This may imply that these titles carry a sort of respect and formality, similarly to the way we would address our superiors as Mr, Ms, and Mrs.  If this is the case, then the way that characters in “Bloodchild” use these titles would tell us more about their relationships with their Tlic and the power dynamics that are implied.  

Before Lomas is cut open, he calls out for his Tlic, T’Khotgif, by her full name.  Gan recalls this later: “‘He said ‘T’Khotgif.’ ’ Qui shuddered. ‘If she had done that to me, she’d be the last person I’d call for.’” (171)

Qui, who is clearly uncomfortable with the Tlic, also refers to their family’s Tlic by her full name while asking Gan how he viewed their relationship “‘while T’Gatoi was picking worms out of that guy’s guts’” (172)

However, we see this binary being broken towards the end of the story when Gan addresses his Tlic, without the prefix.  This has an effect similar to using a teacher’s first name and signifies a shift in their relationship.

I believe this was intentional as Gan, frustrated and emotional from the situation, does it repeatedly while he challenges her: “‘Ask me, Gatoi.’” (174) and “‘There is risk, Gatoi, in dealing with a partner.’” (175) While these quotes would have made sense without “Gatoi”, seeing this binary start to change as Gan begins to question her is quite powerful.