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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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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]


uh yeah theres no blood from the cardinal. thats pretty far fetched...

also I think this song is ironic, especialy the God bit. Its superficialy a song about reconciling death with god but if you look deeper its really sufjan mocking faith and the very idea that one needs to look to god wen someone dies. Hes singing from the perspective of a younger self or character hes created to make a point. (think Arcade Fire - Antichrist Television Blues)

just goes to show what different people get out of a song huh.

Interesting thread. Chris, awesome post! I'm also a minister and totally agree with your take.

A couple things to consider, the Cardinal is the state bird of Illinois, which I recognized pretty quick with the song (being from Chicago). Also, one of my thoughts on the reference to "the great divide" is that maybe this meant the time of the girl's passing - the divide between this world and the next. Just a thought. I totally do not see Sufjan as mocking faith. Why would he be mentioning this if he was mocking faith: "Oh the glory when he took our place"?? He's struggling with faith through this song, not mocking it. I can recognize, because I've been there a few times.

oops, my bad. I meant, awesome post, Josh! Got confused.

Ms. Beyerstein, I agree completely with most of your analysis of this song. It is certainly about the trying of one's faith in God, especially the faith that God is a God of love and compassion. However, I think it was unfair of you to jump the gun and say that the protagonist (I use that term because, to me, this song, like many of Sufjan's story-songs, is very literate) "can't accept that this God he sees on the spattered pane is a god of love or mercy". First of all, I don't know that the cardinal actually flies into the window and splatters, the tone of Sufjan's diction in that stanza doesn't seem to indicate such. More importantly, though, I don't think that the protagonist has lost his faith in God at the end. I think this is simply an instance in a young man's life that Sufjan points to as a great example of one's faith being tested to the very limit. That does not mean that the protagonist has LOST his faith, only that it has been tested. His faith may have been strengthened through this harrowing loss. Growth comes only through trial and tribulation. I don't say this because of Sufjan's faith, my point is simply that he leaves it open for interpretation. I don't think it would be fair of an atheist to claim this song as a case for their argument, or for a devout Christian to claim it as a case for their beliefs. Sufjan is just showing you what is going on in the protagonist's conscience, how the process goes when your faith is pushed, and allowing you to discuss. There is no finality at the end.

Also, un an unrelated note-Sufjan never states that the individual who dies of cancer is female, although he makes it clear that there is some sort of romantic history between the narrator and the terminal individual. The narrator could be gay.

True, the narrator could be gay. I hadn't considered that possibility. There's only one line that hints that the sick person is female--when the narrator says "and I almost touched your blouse." Then again, the lyrics don't establish that the narrator is a guy. I envision the narrator as male because it's a first-person song written and performed by a male artist.

I don't think the narrator has stopped believing in God by the end of the song. I think the narrator is struggling with the problem of evil: How could a loving God allow the person I love to die so young?

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 seeing God's face in the window that the cardinal hit, in the hospital room where his friend died. Like the girl (boy?) with cancer, its death is ugly and outwardly pointless. I think the narrator is wondering not whether God exists, but what kind of god would allow such a thing to happen.

First off, I think that this is an amazing thread. I have greatly admired this song for several years now, but this is the first time I have seen anyone deeply discussing it's meanings and symbolism.

For my part, I had always thought that the stanzas

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

Oh the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

...that in these stanzas he is recalling memories, perhaps even years earlier, of when they were younger and before she was sick. I believe we have an adult or a young adult, who has learned of the grave illness of an old, dear, friend - a friend with whom he undoubtedly shared some sort of romantic involvement, but to what extent is unclear.

That is I think why when he visits her after he has learned about her cancer, and kisses her on the mouth, it causes complications she could do without. Whatever romantic attachment they once had is now in the past, but in his grief over her illness, all these old feelings are brought to the fore. It also explains why, by the time that he learns that she has cancer of the bone, her illness has already progressed to the point that he feels he can see through her wasted frame in the morning light.

The goldenrod and 4-H stone I do not believe are necessarily symbolic, and I do not think that they represent an adolescent's clumsy attempt at a gift either. These are items that have emotional relevance to the past they shared together. What relevance that may be, however, Stevens leaves to our imagination.

Once again, this is an amazing thread, and I have thoroughly enjoyed all the comments.

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