Pagan Poetry

May 29, 2007 at 8:33 pm 13 comments

I remember where I was when I first heard “Pagan Poetry.” I was sitting on a futon in my crappy sunroom-cum-bedroom with my boyfriend, and we were listening to Vespertine for the first time, and we were both confused and uncertain about what we felt about it. The summer sun was setting through the sunroom’s windows as we listened, and the arctic chill of the tinkling melodies didn’t mesh with our mood at all.

“Pagan Poetry” caused some initial humour, too. I asked my boyfriend if he thought the opening music box melody sounded like one of those oh-no-the-killer-is-around-the-corner! soundtrack motifs, and he laughingly agreed. I still think it does, actually, and I have to will my brain to move past that when I re-listen to it.

Aside from that, “Pagan Poetry” has everything that makes Vespertine slightly irksome to me: child-like singing, dense, over-thought out melodies, fizzing rhythms and too many chiming sounds. But the song has since become one of my favourite Bjork songs – it is, as a commenter suggested, definitely one of her sleeper songs for me – entirely because of the spectacular video.

The video starts out okay enough. It mixes ideas of sex, femininity and aesthetic self-mutilation, and it generally works quite powerfully, even if we are spending most of the time trying to figure stuff out (Is that a penis? No, wait, that’s a penis!) rather than visually appreciating it. There is that quick shot of Bjork in what looks like sexual ecstasy (it’s probably actually pain). It looks very authentic, and for that reason, it always shocks me a little. Britney has never worn an outfit she couldn’t bust out of, and she loves the O-face, but she’s never shown anything approaching the sexual authenticity of Bjork’s single expression in this video.

Anyhoo, the video happily trundles along, cheerfully deconstructing our views of hetrosexual intercourse, and then there’s some Miro-like abstractions halfway through, but the real excitement comes, for me, when the camera focuses almost entirely on Bjork for the second half of the song.

The first thing you notice is that Bjork is topless. Bjork has fine boobs, but they are, surprisingly enough, not particularly shocking in this video. I don’t think I’m being a stupid gay man here – I doubt this video is circulating on Limewire under the title “POP SLUT CUM TOPLESS HOT XXX.” It’s an odd thing to wonder how this effect was achieved – it’s probably the high fashion feel of the video – but I think it also has to do with Bjork’s nature as a performer.

Now us Bjork-fans have to admit it: Bjork is not a particularly beautiful woman. She’s “beautiful” in the way that we all are, I guess. For instance, we are all “beautiful” when we are photographed for a Benetton ad or a Dove commercial. In other words, she’s averagely pretty, and she can be cleaned up well for the benefit of a video or an album cover, but she’ll never make any Maxim top 10.

At the same time, averagely pretty people can, through an explosively dynamic personality, turn their appearance into something much more fascinating than a cameo by Jessica Alba or Jake Gyllenhaal. I’ve watched and re-watched Bjork sing these last verses hundreds of times, and I am continually re-excited by it. She’s kind of acting like a big drama queen – crying one moment, ecstatic the next – but what saves it is the way you can see her exploring her way from one emotion to the next, and the emotional sequence is both counterintuitive and yet immediately understandable. There’s nothing wrong with being dramatic as long as you make it seem organic, as long as it feels that you aren’t doing it to manipulate, but instead, are following some logic you are discovering from moment to moment.

And this, I think, is the key to Bjork’s ability to pop out boobies and not faze anyone. Bjork’s sexuality is in her face, and her expressiveness, and it’s something that anyone can potentially find absorbing. It is the nakedness of her emotions that excites us more than her physical nakedness, and I think it aligns well with what is the enormous peak of this song.

Up until the moment that the majority of the music dies away, the song has been at cross-purposes with the lyrics. The lyrics are about how simplicity in art often aligns itself best with the simplest, deepest part of your being. “On the surface simplicity … But the darkest pit in me” – it doesn’t fit well with the overly fussy melody. But when the music dies away, and we hear Bjork only repeating, “I love him”, we suddenly understand what she has been meaning. (Of course, the contrast wouldn’t have been there without the initial fussy music.)

And then there’s the next line: “And he makes me want to hurt myself again.” (edit: This is getting folks into a twist. See the comments for discussion.) Sung with a sneer or self-pity, this would have been an awful line. However, when Bjork sings it with her trademark confidence, its a terrifying lyric – it tends to make me shiver. She’s not espousing some anti-feminist ideal (although the whole video has been basically a dramatization of some Andrea Dworkin-level themes), but a yearning to lose yourself in someone so much that it can only hurt.

And finally, and most importantly, it crystallizes the song’s themes of the lover as an artist, and the artist as a lover. Good art can give you that horrible feeling – that awful shiver – that its beauty is so powerful it hurts. True beauty is horrendously un-useful, and if you’ve ever truly contemplated it, you know that it can be painful to think about, because in the end, beauty doesn’t give a fuck about you. The beauty of true love is like this as well – you are astounded by it, but completely unable to comprehensively react to it, to provide a response that matches the original beautiful thing.

And this is why this video was so effective at changing my opinion of the song. Watching Bjork is mesmerizing because not only is she expressing this idea of being destroyed in the presence of beauty, she’s doing it in a beautiful way. She is, quite nakedly, and with a minimum of necessary ornament, expressing very clearly what art should be: it should be a terrifyingly beautiful response to the terror of love. And since love is a simple and powerful emotion, your response should be a simple and powerful thing. It should, in other words, be a form of Pagan Poetry.


Entry filed under: Vespertine.

There’s More To Life Than This Midvikudags

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gary  |  May 29, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    are you sure that’s the correct lyric?

    i could be wrong but has the lyric as “But he makes me want to hand myself over”.

    i always thought it was “hurt myself” but i could never make out the last word. it doesn’t sound like “again” to my ears.

    great blog. i’m enjoying it immensely as i rot away at work.

  • 2. Ian Mathers  |  May 29, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    Wow – I knew the song but not the video, and both it and this post are amazing.

  • 3. Matthew  |  May 29, 2007 at 9:55 pm

    Gary, the site does list the lyric as you write it, but it’s not what I and other people hear Bjork singing. Look on other lyric sites and they list the lyrics as “But he makes me want to hurt myself again/over” and then “But he makes me want to hand myself over.” Bjork lyrics tend to be in slight flux, so I take “official” lyrics with a grain of salt and trust my hearing. I think the fact that there is a shot of piercings immediately after this indicates that at the very least, the video implies that “hand over” and “hurt over” are equivalent.

  • 4. Liam  |  May 29, 2007 at 10:23 pm

    Matthew, the lyrics ARE ” But he makes me want to hand myself over”. I’ve listened to the album countless times and have seen her perform it live three times.

    You do know that she actually was in sexual ecstasy for the video, right? Nick Knight gave her a cam corder and asked her to record her intimate moments. The penis in the video is Matthew Barney’s. Oh, and all of the piercings were done by body doubles. The only piercing filmed that was actually Bjork were the ears.

    I’ve heard people call Bjork unattractive, but I’ve never heard anyone call her looks average…

  • 5. Matthew  |  May 29, 2007 at 10:42 pm

    I wondered when you were going to bitch at me, Liam. 🙂

    Yeah, yeah. Dood, whether or not the line is “actually” “hand” doesn’t matter. The implication is fairly obvious from the video that love is about self-mutilation. (And I’m not sure I trust your lyric-hearing ability since you’ve heard her sing “Bachelorette” many times and you thought that she was saying “world”…) 😉

    As for the video – I suspected that it was actually the big-O face, but I wasn’t certain. Once again, the ambiguity is sufficient for me to not care about the “facts.”

    Since these issues will come up over and over again, I will say this: the “actual”, researched details do not much matter to me. I like Bjork, but I have no interest in finding out what she feels about her music, or what she intended to do. My writing, instead, is about my experience of her music. As such, it will be personal, and will not always be relevent to other people. I realize this raises the hackles of some Bjork-fans, but that’s tough. I am definitely standing on firm critical ground, since we all gave up on the intentional fallacy long ago, and the intentions of an artist can be safely ignored.

    In other words, the fact that it sounds like “hurt” – and that other people agree with me – is more interesting to me than the fact that someone “officially” (even Bjork!) says it’s “hand”.

    And finally: well, now you’ve heard someone say she looks average. 🙂

  • 6. Professor Batty  |  May 29, 2007 at 11:14 pm

    … it’s hard to imagine any other performer pulling this off (the video), much less conceiving the whole concept of the song and creating the music. This song shows the genius and the problem of all of Vespertine, it is always on the line of being too close to an awareness of our primal nature, it requires one to drop his or her “cultured” mind-set and forces one to accept it or reject it, there is no “safe middle” in pagan poetry.

  • 7. stingo  |  May 31, 2007 at 4:24 am

    Hey, Björk fan here. Great stuff I’m reading. I added your blog to my links, hope that’s OK.

    – stingo

  • 8. Jon Martin  |  June 1, 2007 at 7:35 am

    What an exciting entry – thanks for this! I’ve just started a similar blog on Cure songs, and I can only hope to learn to do so well.

    One thing that really jumps out at me is this sentence: “Good art can give you that horrible feeling – that awful shiver – that its beauty is so powerful it hurts.” I’ve written a lot about the idea that “true beauty should kill you, just a bit” and it’s comforting to know that someone else understands that.

    I’m really looking forward to future entries! If it’s all right with you, I’m going to add a link back here… keep up the great work!

  • 9. Nicholas  |  June 5, 2007 at 9:32 am

    This is actually one of my favorite Bjork songs, but I think everything you’re talking about is being done by the music itself so forcefully that the lyrics–until the very end–don’t matter much.

    What always gives me the chills/makes my heart flutter is the ending, the whole point of the song: I’ve never heard anyone sing something as simple as “I love him” and make it sound so complex. Loud/soft is an old trick, but she makes it pretty unforgettable.

  • 10. killabee  |  June 9, 2007 at 12:24 am

    didn’t vespertine come out in winter? i was hanging out a lot with a girl named vesper at the time, and i think it was winter then? anyways, i’m doing the songs of the magnetic fields (all of them), so maybe consider me for your blogroll? all my little words

  • 11. Heath  |  June 9, 2007 at 8:44 am

    This boyfriend that you’re talking about sounds really amazing. (I’d go out with him.)

  • 12. Heath  |  June 9, 2007 at 8:44 am

    This boyfriend you’re talking about sounds really amazing. You should write more entries about him.

  • 13. Heath  |  June 9, 2007 at 8:46 am

    This boyfriend you’re talking about is a really cool guy. I think I heard him talking about Bjork at some bar recently. Was that you with him? You are very hawt. Will you go out with me to a bar to discuss Bjork?


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