Sufjan Day #2: Casimir Pulaski Day
I wanted to devote one day to writing about Sufjan's sad songs. I think that Michigan is, overall, a far sadder CD than Illinois and Seven Swans. No doubt this is representative of both the geographical location he is describing (there's a lot of sadness in michigan...), but it seems as though Sufjan was working toward a theme of redemption and resurrection, thus requiring a more palpable sense of suffering and sadness. This will be addressed later in the week regarding the finale of Michigan. For the time being, I wish to make note of those songs that received consideration for today, mainly Romulus and The Upper Peninsula.
So it is to Illinois that we turn, finding Casimir Pulaski Day. A bit of background for those of you who do not live in Illinois, are not revolutionary war buffs, or are not well versed in Polish history. Casimir Pulaski was a Polish hero for fighting off the Russians in 1771 but was eventually wrongfully associated with a plot to kill the king and was banished from Poland. While in France, Pulaski heard about the American revolution and wrote Ben Franklin offering his services. Pulaski was a master cavalier, and his services were received in America where he swiftly tought the arts of cavalry with success. Racism was rampent, however, and Pulaski and his men were frequently left out of significant battles. Far from home and anxious for something to validate his existence, he petitioned Congress to grant him the right to establish his own cavalry to fight the British. Eventually his request was granted, he established the first official cavalry and fought the British until he was mortally wounded by a cannon. He died on the battlefield of a foreign land, establishing the independence of a people who were reluctant to accept him, far from family and no doubt alone except for the Americans he had trained. Because there were so many Polish immigrants in and around Chicago, Casimir Pulaski day is celebrated on the first Monday of March and there is no school on this day.
Unlike many of Sufjan's Illinois tracks, this song is not about Casimir, but instead about Casimir Pulaski Day. I first heard of this day from the kids in my afterschool club when I was trying to figure out why they had a day off from school on a Monday in March. They all knew it was Pulaski day but no one knows who he is, etc. For kids in Illinois it is another day off. For Sufjan's song, it is the funeral day of an intimate friend. While not about Pulaski, perhaps the tragic nature of Pulaski's life served as some inspiration for this song.
I guess what I find so overwhelmingly beautiful in this song is the linking of the profound with the relational, specifically showing how through love, suffering, and death we come to know the deepest truths about the world. Perhaps the best word to describe this notion of the profound in this song is "glory." If you look at the stanzas where he says "all the glory" they show the links. "All the glory that the Lord has made and the complications you could do without, when I kissed you on the mouth." Here the complications of life and love are an expression of the glory of creation. Next, however, "All the glory" is associated with her running outside upset. Then, after the death, "All the glory" is, presumably, the difficulty of facing an image of Christ or maybe just a spiritual seeing of God in the window of the church at the funeral. Ultimately this is summed up on the glory of Christ giving himself over for us. Yet this is not all and only a happy story. In addition to the costly price of this glory for Christ, there is also the costly glory for those of us whom follow. Specifically, there is the demand that God puts on our life. While here Sufjan is dealing with the pop theological assumption that God "takes" people when they die, broader notions of God taking from us all is wrapped up in "all the glory" and the consequences of following the costly way of Christ.
Again the theme of the relationship between our lives, God, and the world are set out. Notice that it is a plant and a rock that is brought to the one who is sick. These are the comforts that are available, as the prayers offered for healing go unanswered. Also, the love that is shared between the two is not an abstract love but a poignantly physical love, no doubt accentuated by the cancer within the body. Finally, there is the line about the cardinal flying into the window at the hospital.
Ultimately, it is in the relationships we have with each other, in this case paternal, lover, friend, caretaker, and nature, that we discover the deepest truths that are to be known. Our relationship with God is just as trying. Filled with "all the glory," there is also the difficulty of loss, seperation, and pain. This is a lesson learned on the first Monday of March through the story of Casimir Pulaski slain in a foreign land and the one who dies too soon from cancer in this song.
Goldenrod and the 4H stone,
the things I brought you,
when I found out you had cancer of the bone
Your father cried on the telephone,
and he drove his car into the navy yard,
just to prove that he was sorry
In the morning, through the window shade,
when the light pressed up against your shoulderblade,
I could see what you were reading.
All the glory that the Lord has made,
and the complications you could do without,
when I kissed you on the mouth.
Tuesday night at the Bible study,
we lift our hands and pray over your body,
but nothing ever happens.
I remember at Michael's house,
in the living room when you kissed my neck,
and I almost touched your blouse.
In the morning at the top of the stairs,
when your father found out what we did that night,
and you told me you were scared.
All the glory when you ran outside,
with your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied,
and you told me not to follow you.
Sunday night when I cleaned the house,
I find the card where you wrote it out,
with the pictures of you mother.
On the floor at the great divide,
with my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied,
I am crying in the bathroom.
In the morning when you finally go,
and the nurse runs in with her head hung low,
and the cardinal hits the window.
In the morning in the winter shade,
on the 1st of March on the holiday,
I thought I saw you breathing.
All the glory that the Lord has made,
and the complications when I see His face,
in the morning in the window.
All the glory when he took our place,
but he took my shoulders and he shook my face,
and he takes and he takes and he takes.