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July 13, 2006

Sufjan Stevens: "Casimir Pulaski Day"

I'm still trying to figure out why Sufjan Stevens' Casimir Pulaski Day hits me like a ton of bricks every time I hear it.

Just watch, you'll see what I mean.

Here are the lyrics.

The song is about a guy whose girlfriend died of bone cancer. Actually, it's not clear whether the dead girl, to whom the song is addressed, was really the singer's girlfriend, or just someone he tentatively felt up and obsessed about thereafter. (As commenters have pointed out below, it's clear that there was a lot of mutual affection between the two of them, it's just not clear whether exactly what kind of relationship they had.)

Casimir Pulaski Day is the first Monday in March, an American regional holiday to honor a hero of the Revolutionary War known as "The Father of American Cavalry." In today's parlance, the revered CP would probably be described as a "foreign fighter," but that's almost certainly irrelevant to Sujan's song.

Anyway, I think I like the song because it's about someone who believes in God trying to reconcile his faith with reality. The singer is confused about why his God is taking his girlfriend away, even though he and his friends are praying for her.

There's a complementary minor theme about the dead girl's father freaking out about her interest in the singer ("when your father found out what we did that night"). It's almost as if her father has, as an article of faith, the notion that his little girl is a pure, asexual being. Really as the narrator seems to makes clear, she's a normal young woman dying of cancer who, who might well know that she doesn't have much time. Yet this fact doesn't make her father any more reasonable.

To me, the last four stanzas of the song are the most interesting:

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 first of March on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window

Oh 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

The narrator is describing how, on the morning of his girlfriend's death, a cardinal hits the window. In the last two stanzas, the singer is is seeing God in the bird's blood spattered on the window, but he can't accept that this God he sees on the spattered pane is a god of love or mercy.

[x-posted chez Berube]


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» And he takes and he takes and he takes from Scott Paeth's Semi-Daily Blog
Lindsay reflects on Casimir Pulaski Day, (the video linked above) a song by Sufjan Stevens, writing:Anyway, I think I like the song because it's about someone who believes in God trying to reconcile his faith with reality. The singer is [Read More]


Like you I liked that bit about the cardinal hitting the window: perhaps symbolic of the narrator's own desire for some kind of communion with god, even though his rational self, like the bird, cannot penetrate the glass to touch god's "face in the morning in the window." Also reminded me of the opening lines of Nabokov's Pale Fire:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
by the false azure of the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff---and I
lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

I always took the mournfulness in the song as being about the boy's regret at "ruining" her purity during said feel-up session. Father exists as a catalyst for this part of the story.

The greater message, I think, is what you pointed out about the speaker confused as to whether his god is a god of mercy.

You know, thanks to Stevens I've found a slew of wonderful folky Christian artists. Check out the free downloads at, and make sure to get the Dan Zimmerman and Lenny Smith songs. If you're into some uber-quirky avant garde, see the Danielsons, esp. Cutest Little Dragon.

Also, kill the first half of my first sentence there. I make no sense.

That's a beautiful song. To me it doesn't matter whether the dying girl is his actual girlfriend or one he just tried to feel up. The lyrics convey that the narrator is a sensitive soul, so even if he didn't get past first base the warm feelings toward her are genuine. He is a young man, so there might be some immaturity in his feelings toward her and his view of his brief interactions with the girl. He may be assigning the emotion "love" to nothing more than a crush. Still, her death has deeply impacted him, and his sad young heart is trying desperately to make sense of it all.

Anyway, that's what this not-so-young heart makes of this song. Thanks for sharing it, Lindsay.

I have a few patients with some fairly end-stage cancer, and whenever I see them, these lines come back to me:

In the morning through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading

It really does seem that way when people get to that point--it's like you can see right through them.

Something new hits me about that album every time I listen to it. I just downloaded (from eMusic) the follow-up album (The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album), but I haven't had a chance to dig into it yet.

Just downloaded the song from the iTunes music store.

John, I agree, the guy totally loved the girl. As far as the emotional impact of the song, doesn't matter whether she was his "real" girlfriend, or even whether they were physically involved.

I think it's fascinating for Sufjan to raise questions about the nature of their relationship, though. As Lauren says, the character is obviously deeply concerned that he might have "ruined" her purity,. But I think part of the touching irony of the song is that the listener hears what a caring and innocent guy the narrator is.

The other song that always gets me is "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." Brilliant -- the comparison between the darkness and humanity of the speaker with the darkness and humanity of the killer, and it doesn't come off cheap or contrived in any way.

An apt comparison to "Casmir Pulaski," for any fans who are interested, is "Romulus" from the Michigan album. This song is about a grown speaker recalling his mother's absence, living with his grandfather, and longing for his mother.

When she had her last child, Once when she had some boyfriends, some wild.
She moved away quite far.
Our grandpa bought us a new VCR.
We watched it all night, but grew up in spite of it.
We watched it all night, but grew up in spite of it.

We saw her once last fall.
Our grandpa died in a hospital gown.
She didn't seem to care.
She smoked in her room and colored her hair.

I was ashamed, I was ashamed of her

Lyndsay, I hope you've realized that I'm going to hyper-monitor this thread. I'm a bit Sufjan-obsessed. :P

Man that is a good-ass song. Straight up.

Lauren, I'd never sean Sufjan before the YouTube video. I totally understand.

I'm looking forward to checking out the artists you mentioned. I'm betting I'll dig any work called "The Cutest Little Dragon." :)

DO you have the new outtakes thing yet?

Scott--I have it, but I've been saving it (and the new Johnny Cash) for this weekend, when I can turn off my pager and give it the proper "headphone time".

I'll post a full report over at my place.

It's the last line. I read the lyrics months before I ever heard the song and couldn't get that line out of my head.

A year from now you won't remember this song. It really isn't anything special, neither in lyrics nor musically. Sometimes things like this grab hold for no good reason. Just enjoy the faux emotion whilst it happens.

Don N.

Don, hate to disappoint but I've had 'Seven Swans' for a little over two years now and most of those songs are still stop-me-in-my-tracks breathless. It's not your bag but I find his music to be terribly beautiful, maybe because of its simplicity.

'Illinoise' is really getting close to how much I love 'Swans' though. I'm happy to see him getting more and more attention with each album.

I really, really, really need to get the new album. If you sign up for an emusic trial you can get 50 downloads for free, and they have the Michigan album, the Illinois album and the new album too, apparantly.

She's not someone he's just obsessing about. She cares about him:

"I remember at Michael's house
In the living room when you kissed my neck"


"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"

Casimir Pulaski is a Polish-American hero, and his holiday is their holiday. So we seem to be being told that these people are Catholic.

The Lord took our place when he died on the cross for our sins. But why does he take this girl? That is the question the singer can't answer.

This song, along with John Wayne Gacy Jr. is one of a few songs that still *do* something to me every time I listen to them. He really seems to capture the essential elements that are part of many christians around me.

I always imagined that the boy in the song would either live on, with a more realistic, complex but also more 'stable' faith in his God, or live in denial and (probably) eventually grow to hate God, or become a religious fanatic (strange how both are actually so close together).

I've seen both happen to people that were close to me, and each situation was heart-wrenching. One the one hand you wish they could just keep their simple, pure, naive faith in a loving, compassionate God, but on the other hand you want them to doubt, to face the complexity of a God (assuming he exists, even).

The fact that this song brings back those feelings amazes me. He ended his Illinois tour in Holland, and sang this song at the concert. It brought tears to both me and my little brother's eyes.

Lindsey, I seriously suggest you check out the Seven Swans album if you like what you hear. The boyfriend and I have spent a good deal of time talking about this album and believe that it is most surely his masterpiece to date. To make it more interesting, it is the album on which he went from a regular indie artist to a christian indie artist. It doesn't disappoint -- and we're staunch atheists.

Also, I plan on spelling your name at least ten different ways on one thread. Take comfort in knowing this is intentional.

Im so glad I'm not the only one. I saw him in concert not to long ago, and cried my eyes out almost through his entire set. ...That song is so intense.

A lot of his songs are really fantastic, John Wayne Gacy is one of my absolute favorites by him. He's usually not as religious as that songs makes him out to be.

I found this one singer with Cancer named Bret and his site is

Great YouTube find, Lindsay, it's so odd that this song was affecting you as I have been obsessing about it to my wife recently. I love how the title seems so tangential to the rest of the song, but besides being a great local color from the fact that Casmir Pulaski day is observed in midwest states like Illinois and has special connections to sizable Polonia in the state, it's a great way of impressing the idea that the day off from school and work is extraordinarily precious when the center of your universe is dying of bone cancer (for some reason, his inversion "cancer of the bone" makes me feel on the verge of emotional breakdown everytime I hear it). I just downloaded "Avalanche" from emusic, and am very excited about it because I haven't been disappointed by anything else of stevens'. I second (or third) all the recommendations for "Seven Swans." It's good Christian folk, but emotionally attaches well for other purposes. Showtime's "Weeds" used "all the trees..." from seven swans to great effect.

But overall for sheer depth, "Illinoise" is definitely the best. I have been shocked by discovering so many tracks that I love, love, love. So far, I've wanted "Chicago," "John Wayne Gacy," "Casmir Pulaski Day," "The Man of Metropolis Steals our Hearts, "Palisades Wasps," and "Jacksonville" played at my funeral. Every day, a new song seems to spark for me. Thanks for the post

Okay, yes -- "Casmir Pulaski Day" sounds like a pretty straightforward unadorned folksy song, on first listen. Which is only right, given the personality of the narrator. But it hooks into the other songs on the record in interesting and subtle ways -- check the trumpet lines at 2:25 and 3:29 and compare them to the instrumental parts on the other tunes. Or check the abrupt dropout at 4:12, and compare how that's treated to the other sudden shifts on record. Or just check the development and layering on the minute-and-a-half long instrumental coda.

Anyway, Don betrays some pretty appalling ignorance if he's trying to make the case that Sufjan's musically unsophisticated. Sufjan? That's frankly like claiming David Mamet has a tin ear, or Martin Scorsese can't edit. The fact that Sufjan wrote all the arrangements himself, including the stunning Reich-inspired final instrumental track, puts him in pretty rarified territory already (along with Randy Newman and Jon Brion and... and... well, that's pretty much it, innit?), not to mention that he plays most of the woodwinds on the record -- including frikcin' oboe. That doesn't make him a genius, but there's far too much craft going on here for a casual dismissal.

Like all ambitious artists, Sufjan's vulnerable to charges of pretentiousness (and yeah, I'm still not sold on the lyrics to "Decatur") but calling a big fat concept record overstuffed with strings and woodwinds and mallet percussion and a bunch of odd-meter tunes interlinked with Wagenerian leitmotifs and minimalist motives, that nonetheless somehow manages to accrue massive critical acclaim and unimpeachable hipster cred "nothing special" is pretty fucking retarded. Sufan's success is, at the very least, unusual.

The narrator is describing how, on the morning of his girlfriend's death, a cardinal hits the window. I think the last two stanzas are about how the singer is trying to read divinity into a bird's blood spattered on the window


Perhaps I missed a bit somewhere ..... but I can't find the bloody glass
in the lyrics. And the several times I've seen birds mistakenly bump
into windows, there was a thud and a fall, but no carnage.

Interesting to hear the love for Seven Swans. Even though I liked it, it somehow seemed to be one of the 'lesser' albums, at least compared to Michigan and Illinoise.

Funny story: I'm an intern at a pretty big insurance company that recently launched a big marketing campaign. Imagine my surprise when I hear 'All the Trees...' as a track to the tv commercial!

Imagine my even greater surprise when I showed up at work one day, and there was a box set containing a cd with this commercial, a documentary AND the complete 'Seven Swans' album! They gave everyone in the company a Sufjan Stevens cd!

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