On the Poetry of Isaac Brock
by Stephanie Jimenez
When I was a freshman in high school, I had one of those rare things that stay with you forever: an extraordinary teacher. Ms. Casella was young and enthusiastic, taught English, and cared about keeping her students engaged in her class. To this aim, she gave us more time in class for creative writing than the Dean of Students would have likely deemed necessary, but since I went to one of the elite private schools that inspired Gossip Girl, she conducted her classroom however she liked. I liked her because of a note she left on one of my poems early in the year. It was the first time I’d ever been called talented, and I was insecure about my ability to do anything, even though—or maybe especially because—I was at the school on full scholarship. This is great, Stephanie, the note read. Have you considered submitting to writing contests?
By that point, I’d become a frequent visitor to a site called SongMeanings.net. In long chains of comments, anonymous users discussed the lyrics of their favorite songs, and wrote essay-like posts about what a single metaphor could mean, entire paragraphs dedicated to a single verse or chorus. I remember consulting SongMeanings.net the way I used to load Sparknotes—so poignant were the analyses I found there that I was always exhilarated, breathless to read them, and afterwards, I’d feel a tinge of disappointment for not solving the mystery myself.
But because anyone could register and contribute, I soon created an account, and began uploading my own interpretations of songs, and my entries, all too often, were on the lengthier side, sectioned into neat paragraphs with thesis statements, introductory sentences, and rounded out conclusions. When I should have been reading Huckleberry Finn or The Scarlet Letter, books that seemed to me as dated as Shakespeare, I was posting on SongMeanings.Net. I stopped reading The Scarlet Letter after the baffling ten-page description of something called a Custom House (What the hell is a wharf? Or a surveyor?) and by the time I got to Huckleberry Finn, I was convinced that I didn’t know how to speak English. The teachers instructed us to highlight words we didn’t know but it was more humiliating to open a book in class whose pages were sopping in yellow ink than to just give up on reading altogether.
I didn’t worry much about performing in class—it was on SongMeanings.net where I excelled. I followed lots of bands, but it was Modest Mouse that received most of my praise. I loved all their songs, especially the ones that appeared on their first EPs. These were their weirdest and least produced songs, the ones that even I, a fanatic, had to listen to a dozen times before I found a reason to like them. Most people I knew at school preferred Coldplay over Modest Mouse, and I attributed it to the fact that the band was like me—weird, different, rough around the edges. People didn’t get them, but I did. And whenever I felt insecure about who I was in the context of my elite private school, where girls wore ballet flats and carried textbooks around in Louis Vutton bags, I remembered how many bands out there that my classmates didn’t know, and it made me feel better.
But for all my snobbery, the truth was that I discovered the band the same way anyone did—by watching MTV. The same year I turned 14, Modest Mouse had just released their breakthrough single “Float On”, and I was hooked. I learned that their first album was released in 1996, and I ended up buying their entire discography. Before then, it never occurred to me that there were people out there making music since I was six, and it wasn’t the music they played on the radio, and it certainly wasn’t what my parents listened to, which alternated between Michael Jackson and Colombian folk. Every day, I slapped on my headphones for the hour-long train ride to school to make up for lost time. I was fourteen, and taking the subway alone. I had just started dating my first boyfriend, a skateboarding kid from my neighborhood who was the antithesis of all things prep school. My parents were religious, but I had recently stopped going to church and was fascinated by atheism. I was being told that I had talents I didn’t believe in, and every morning, with songs like “Building Nothing Out of Something” or “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset” as my anthem, I made my journey into the unforeseeable distance towards adulthood, and showed up for another day at school.
When Ms. Casella said that our end of year assignment would be a literary analysis of our favorite song, I couldn’t believe my luck. I knew the basics of literary devices, and could identify alliteration from allusion. I settled on “Third Planet”, the title track from Modest Mouse’s third studio album, The Moon and Antarctica. The words, rife with sardonic references to biblical text, were exactly the kind that were perfect for poring over, for dissecting like an animal, until the pretty abstractions were gone and all that was left was the residual meaning: “Outside, naked, shivering looking blue from the color of the light that reflected off the moon—that’s how the world began and that’s how the world will end.” I wrote that the song was about the Genesis creation narrative, about man and woman’s fatal mistake, their indelible rupture with God.
I listened to a lot of Modest Mouse at the beginning and all throughout high school. One of my favorites was a song called “I Came as a Rat” and one of my favorite lyrics to sing out loud in the school cafeteria went like this: “It takes a long time but God dies too, but not before he sticks it to you.” Another one of my favorite sing-alongs in the cafeteria line, as we waited for pancakes on Breakfast for Lunch Day, was “Paper Thin Walls”: “It’s been agreed the whole world stinks, so no one’s taking showers anymore.” That year, in 9th grade biology, they handed out knives and at the center of our tables, laid down dead baby pigs. I remember slicing into the insides, and then inserting something that looked like a miniature Turkey baster into the asshole. I smudged what I found on a napkin, so that everyone in my class could see what was inside the tiny dead animal. “You will come down soon too,” I said, echoing Isaac Brock’s words in “Out of Gas,” as if implying that from my Upper East Side classmates, I could just as easily pull out a tiny dropper full of shit. “You’ll come down, come down.”
In college, I was still listening to Modest Mouse, but not nearly as much as I used to. I still didn’t find Isaac Brock’s lispy, yelpy vocals annoying, or the eerie distortions redundant, and as a despondent young adult, I still loved his hopeless, blasphemous lyrics. But even though I was listening, I was no longer poring, analyzing, and I definitely wasn’t visiting SongMeanings.net anymore. Music became less important in general—my GPA had taken its place.
I had chosen a liberal arts college in California because I so badly wanted to go somewhere different, and distance seemed like the surest way to escape the confines of my private school in New York. Modest Mouse’s “Head South” captured the bleakness of my surroundings, months of endless winter and torturous formal school dances: “here things go from grey to grey and back to grey again.” But college in the idealized West unfurled quickly like a rug, and a pattern of successive disillusionments began as soon as I started my first year.
I had always been an outsider in high school, but as a city kid, I wasn’t prepared for how trapped I would feel in my suburban college town. Again, I found that I was much less wealthy and more brown than most, and I stuck out on campus if not for being quick to criticism, then for my utter lack of confidence, which, when paired together, made me really boring to be around. I had a hard time making friends, and for the better part of a year, I wandered around campus going to parties by myself, getting drunk with random boys. Instead of passing out, I insulted them until they left my dorm, or more often, until they kicked me out of theirs at 3 in the morning once they realized I had no intention of kissing them, just berating them with angry, incoherent words.
But feeling like I didn’t belong wasn’t new to me—what was new was being told that I didn’t. As an eager freshman, I enrolled in a poetry workshop where most of the students were English majors and I hadn’t realized how awful it’d be when I was the only one in the room who could not get the most basic literary references. Halfway through the course, I started bringing my laptop to class so I could Google all the books I’d never heard of (who is Frank O’Hara? Didn’t Raymond Carver write Fahrenheit 451?), but by then the professor and the rest of the class had stopped anticipating contributions from me, and I became so silent that at the end of the course, the professor teased me. He referred to me as: The Freshman Whose Name Nobody Knows.
In college, insecurities that I carried over from high school became so pronounced they became debilitating. Ms. Casella one day said that “readers are writers, and writers are readers,” and it stuck with me longer than any praise she’d ever given me. If she was right, how could I justify to myself that I actually hated reading? I never read any of the books assigned in English, with the exception of two that I loved so much I read them twice: Wuthering Heights and The House on Mango Street. But despite the fact that I never read, Ms. Casella had called me a “poetry guru”. I won two contests that she helped me apply to. I went to a teen-version of the Breadloaf Conference, held at Middlebury in the lush Vermont hills. In college, it turned out that I actually knew nothing. I was equally ignorant of Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka as I was ignorant of Woody Allen or Bill Murray. For me, the separation between low art and high art was nonexistent—I didn’t know art period.
Up to that point, I had always felt like a solid, and no matter what I looked like or how imperfect I was, I could go somewhere and take up space, and like water the world would bend around me. But on campus, I was dissolving, space wasn’t the infinite thing I thought it had been, and the forces around me were trying to make me disappear to make room for better things. I stopped getting up for breakfast, slept in until the dining hall almost closed until dinner. By the time freshman year ended, I spent all summer in New York seriously deliberating whether I should go back, whether I’d get on that plane in August.
I did go back, but this time, I knew my survival relied on finding people. I joined the Latino Student Union and for the first time in my life, I identified first and foremost not by sex, age, or where I lived – the ways I described myself in high school – but by ethnicity. I didn’t sign up for another poetry class, and decided to major in Political Science. With the help of some new friends, I discovered new music, like Colombian rap/rock group Bomba Estereo and synthy rock band Chicano Batman. Instead of picking apart the words, I let them wash over me, like a warm bath, like the rays of light that were always streaming over our sunny California campus. I still wore my headphones wherever I went, but I was on a new journey, and this time, it wasn’t about discovering who I was, or defining a life I felt good about living. Adulthood seemed to have already arrived, and regardless of how I wanted to live it, there it was erected in the horizon like the snow-capped mountains that overlooked our campus. I had no interest in summiting a mountain, and in my four years on campus, I never did. It was enough to try to make it on flat land.
It took three years in college before starting the first book I ever read for pleasure: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I don’t even remember why I liked it so much, only that it moved me so much that I couldn’t read it without keeping a pen on me to underline every beautiful sentence I read. She flew these like several kites at once. His mind was full of cupboards. It was a book that was recommended to me by my Texan-Indian-American roommate, a girl who spoke to her Amma in Malayalam as soon as she’d list the reasons why Dallas was the best place in the world. The year I graduated, after all my political science courses were fulfilled, I took a course on Third World Women Writers, a term borne from postcolonial feminism, and Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat along with This Bridge Called my Back by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga changed my life. In Rifaat’s “Bahiyya’s Eyes,” an old woman losing her eyesight reflects on aging: “Daughter, I’m not crying now because I’m fed up or regret that the Lord created me a woman… It’s just that I’m sad about my life and youth that have come and gone without my knowing how to live them really and truly as a woman.” I hardly thought about God since I stopped going to church in high school, but I wept as soon as I read it. I wanted so badly to know how to live—really and truly—as whoever I was.
On campus, I didn’t have any friends that I didn’t meet at the Latino Student Union, even though I had multiple jobs, was an active volunteer, and planned events for our college’s student life committee. Relating to white people, especially the loud white men in my classes, in the dining hall, at parties, everywhere, was always awkward. Relating to their literature was nearly impossible. My confidence in engaging with the literary arts was thus a slow process, a result of a few chance encounters: a book suggestion from a friend, a class on WoC writers, the serendipitous discovery of Junot Diaz. In an act of bravery or foolishness (I still can’t decide which) I applied for a job in publishing and got it, and today I know how to shop for books in a way that doesn’t make me feel like my identity is irrelevant to all history.
But race doesn’t dictate everything. Modest Mouse is more than just a favorite high school band—I still go somewhere else, somewhere far away, whenever I hear them play. Even today it seems perplexing: how did Isaac Brock, a white man decades older than me who spent time living in a trailer park in rural Washington become one of my early heroes, along with other bands like Built to Spill and the Pixies? Why was it that white literature excluded me, but I listened to white music with unflinching devotion? All works of art invite conversation, but only some ever get responses. Some worlds I am eager to step into, and others I’m not, but among the many things Modest Mouse has left me with is a lesson in leaving the door open for surprises, a lesson I’ve taken to heart as my reading list continues to grow. “I feel like this is way too long alreadyy, gah” writes one user as she wraps up her thoughts about “Third Planet” on SongMeanings.net, “Nooo one is going to read this.” I don’t know who she is or where she lives. I don’t know her age, or if she even is a she. I don’t know anything about her at all. But I know what she means.
Stephanie Jimenez is a New York City-based writer from Queens. Her work has appeared in Label Me Latino/a, Ravishly, and is forthcoming in YES! Magazine and O Magazine. In 2016, she completed a novel-writing intensive at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and is working on her first novel. You can find her at @estefsays.