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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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Comments

Xavier,

It's not directly stated, but there's a lot of suggestion going on.

Okay, you've got the choice of "cardinal" as the bird -- which brings to mind not just the blood-red plumage, but the Catholic office. Then, the reference to seeing god's face in the window (that the cardinal just hit) is at least somewhat suggestive of the recent tendency to see the outline of Jesus/Mary/Elvis/etc frickin' everywhere -- and seeing some perceived representation of Jesus in blood would be especially powerful for our young narrator. Also, there's the line about how God "took my shoulders and shook my face" which suggests an experience more violent and immediate than even the expiration of a terminal loved one.

It's not something I would have noticed before Lindsay pointed it out, but I think it's a good reading of the song.

Well, I shouldn'tve watched that. Thanks for posting it, though.

well, alright then .... if you see a bloody stain
that looks like Elvis/Jeeezus, I guess you do;
but I think your support for it comes from
outside the text.

As to dragging the visual image of an old
guy in a red robe crashing into the window,
that would seem to add a rather slapstick,
comic note to an obviously oh-so-sad-
and-serious-and-sensitive po-em.


sorry. .... one more thing :

I remember at Michael's house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

........

I notice the singer "almost" touches the dying girl's blouse;
he does not say he "almost" touches her breast .... so --
how do we get to a jr. high "feel-up" ?

it seems more a "lust in the heart" sort of sin


oh, shoot -- one more question (really, just one more)

the misspelling of Count Pulaski's first-name ...

is that the writer's "error" or a typo on the post ?
if it's the writer's, do you suppose it was intentional,
to convey local pronunciation? or ??

Can any serious Sufjan-heads help me out here?

He's playing Town Hall in NYC on 9/29 and 9/30. His fan site suggests that all tickets for all shows on his tour are going on sale tomorrow, but there's no mention of these shows on the Town Hall website, nor on Ticketmaster. And Town Hall's box office is "closed" for the summer so no one's answering the phone there.

If tix are on sale tomorrow I'm going to want to pounce, but I can't seem to get any confirmation that this is the case. Anybody know the deal?

Merci mille fois.

Kvetch -- tickets on sale via Ticketbastard at noon tomorrow.

Many thanks, DJA. Just out of curiosity, may I ask how you know that?

Oh, and tickets are already on sale (and still available) for this show, too.

UK,

Might not be gospel, but that's what the internets are saying. You're right that it's not up on Ticketbastard's website yet... why don't you call them to find out?

I just took your advice, DJA: TicketBastard phone rep says they have no information whatsoever about Sufjan @ Town Hall on the dates in question.

WTF??

What do you guys think the reference to the Navy yard in the second stanza means?

Your father cried on the telephone>
And he drove his car to the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

Does anyone else get the impression that the girl's father is a somewhat shady character? At times, the singer seems to imply that the girl's father has something to be guilty about. Why does he need to prove that he's sorry?

And then there's this verse:

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

It's unclear what the girl is scared about. Obviously, she's scared about her disease, but the lyrics leave open the possibility that she's also scared of her dad.

The boy is preoccupied with the girl's purity having been compromised. At first, I assumed that he was just talking about his own role in the "corruption" of the girl. Then I started wondering if he might be considering her father's sins as well as his own.

And in the final stanza, there's the allusion to Jesus dying for our sins:

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

This comes after the description of the scarlet red bird hitting the window and, presumably, dying. The bird/God juxtaposition reminded me of the saying that God sees each little sparrow fall.

Jesus allegedly took everyone's place on the cross so that his blood could wash away our sins. The singer seems to be trying to reconcile that idea with the miserable fate of his girlfriend under God's watch. Maybe he's toying with the idea that his girlfriend also died for the sins of others.


As this piece seems to be in the "diary style,"
perhaps the Navy Yard is just where the
father went, with no 'symbolic' significance.

and I'm not sure if standard-issue 'shady characters'
cry. Although, it would be natural for a young girl
to fear a father's disapproval, particularly if she
has been raised in the God-fearing, I'm-a-worthless-sinner
milieu

UK,

The tickets did in fact go on sale at Ticketbastard at noon today. There are still seats available, but I'd counsel speed.

I got 'em, DJA, thanks. Can't wait for the show.

JR, I'm not sure that the Pulaski Day reference should be read to imply that the characters are Catholic. For one thing, part of the song takes place at a Tuesday night Bible Study at which the girl's body is prayed over. This seems to me to be more evangelical/charismatic Protestant than Catholic.

Pulaski Day is kind of a big deal in Illinois, at least in the Chicago area, and at least when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s. We always got the day off of school. I've mentioned Pulaski Day to a lot of friends from different states, and none of them have ever heard of it, which leads me to believe that the song actually does take place in Illinois.

Wow -- I really enjoyed the threads. I was wondering about the importance of the girl's father driving down to the "navy yard" myself and that's how I wandered over to this site. About the cardinal hitting the window, though, I thought of maybe a reference to a cardinal in the Roman Catholic church, but I didn't think that there was blood left behind on the window. I think that's a plausible interpretation though -- just that fact that cardinals are red could suggest blood. I was also reminded of this story that has circled evangelical/charismatic Protestant groups; I wonder if Sufjan had heard it before he wrote his song:

"Nationally known radio commentator Paul Harvey shares the following
modern parable with his listeners each year at Christmas.

"A Modern Christmas Parable
Unable to trace its proper parentage, I have designated this as my
Christmas Story of the Man and the Birds. You know, THE Christmas
Story, the God-born-in-a-manger and all that escapes some moderns,
mostly, I think, because they seek complex answers to their questions
and this one is so utterly simple. So for the cynics and the
skeptics and the unconvinced I submit a modern parable.

"Now the man to whom I'm going to introduce you was not a scrooge, he
was a kind, decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright
in his dealings with other men. But he just didn't believe all that
incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas time. It
just didn't make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise.
He just couldn't swallow the Jesus story, about God coming to Earth
as a man. "I'm truly sorry to distress you," he told his wife, "but
I'm not going with you to church this Christmas Eve." He said he'd
feel like a hypocrite. That he'd much rather just stay at home, but
that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed and they went to
the midnight service.

"Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall.
He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and
heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read
his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound.
Then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud. At
first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his
living room window. But when he went to the front door to
investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow.
They'd been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for
shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window.

"Well, he couldn't let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he
remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That
would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it.
Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening
snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light,
but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them
in. So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled
them on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted wide open
doorway of the stable.

"But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued
to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them. He
tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his
arms. Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the
warm, lighted barn.

"And then, he realized, that they were afraid of him. To them, he
reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could
think of some way to let them know that they can trust me. That I am
not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any
move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would
not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared
him. 'If only I could be a bird,' he thought to himself, 'and mingle
with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be
afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe, warm ...to the
safe, warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could
see, and hear and understand.'

"At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his
ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to
the bells - Adeste Fidelis - listening to the bells pealing the glad
tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow."

It may be either one more sign of the Apocalypse
or irrefutable proof that a conversation has gone
completely off the rails, but an extensive quote
from Paul Harvey does it for me.

"And now you know the rest of the story.
Paul Harvey -- Good DAY."

In response to the questions concerning the stanza about the navy yard, I believe it has some relevance to the name of the song. The navy yard could possibly represent some connection with the Revolutionary War, which also might have some connection to the cause of the mysterious girl's cancer

He dressed up like a clown for them
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed he kissed them all
He'd kill ten thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast to the dead
He took of all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips
Quiet hands, quiet kiss
On the mouth

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

Wow, I can finally listen to this song without crying after about 20 times. I think the power is, more than the tradgedy of the loss, that it reveals such beauty in the seemingly mundane.

The song has an effect on me as well. I think part of it is based on the whole juxtaposition of "lost innocence" against "loss of life". The narrator remembers the small details ("top of the stairs"; "shoes untied"; "almost touched your blouse". These are the things we remember about our early moments with the opposite sex. Things that get lost when we get older, but they are so intense when we are young and innocent. So to be reminded of these times right along with the sad story of a young girl dying of cancer evokes some major emotion for me.

It's a beautiful song. I venture to say a classic, at least in my eyes.

Navy Yard - Chicago has a Naval presence (used to be more significant)

Re: Cas. Pulaski Day- the old rumor is that Chicago's Mayor Daley needed the Polish vote so he instituted Pulaski day. He was elected. When I think Pulaski Day, I think Patronization from an authority and gulable acceptance from a mass of people (the Polish in Chicago). We afterall are happy to have the day off. Is this all Christianity is? - the narrator wonders.

The girl's father is another potentially aloof authority figure. Will he be angry? Is he sorry? I don't understand him... Again, is God real and is he really good?

Tuesday night at the Bible study we lift our hands and pray over your body... We did what the Bible says to do (James 5:14-15) - but nothing happened. Is this stuff real or isn't it?

The cardinal hit the window - Am I simply seeing my own reflection (as the Atheist suggests) or is God real? Did the cardinal hit the window because he saw himself and thought it another or because he saw another world and wanted to venture in? Either way, the result is a collision. I fly into a reality I see (through a glass darkly - 1 Cor 13) but it turns out to be shut and while this girl I love passes through, the window is shut for me and I cannot follow.

Is she breathing in her casket? Hope? No...no hope, she's dead.

I think I see God's face in the window but is it just my face? This is so complicated!

Oh the glory when he took our place... Against great evidence, the young man chooses faith in the gospel (that Christ took the place of sinners and bore God's wrath against sin on the cross).

He took my shoulders and he shook my face - SNAP OUT OF IT! Of course God is real.

And He takes X 3 - Trinitarian mystery - read Job... after he looses everything because God deemed it so Job says, And he said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD." (Job 1:21)

I love this song. As a Christian I can see why an Atheist for instance would toss this whole struggle for a measure of certainty. This kind of experience is universal among Christians and yet people still believe. I can't say I understand why and I can't say I need to understand why. It says something about the person of Christ as revealed in the Bible - that so many put up with so much crap and yet continue to pursue Him.

Beautiful song! Here goes a slew of thoughts, many redundant to other posts:
***

Goldenrod is a flower and the 4H stone is the actual symbol of the 4H club, a youth organization. He brings these simple gifts to the girl, a sweet and innocent act of care and affection.

"Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car to the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry"

Casimir Pulaski (Casimir spelled with a K in history... the C is used in the American spelling of his name often) was a Polish American Revolutionary War hero whom they named a holiday after in Illinois called Casimir Pulaski Day: March 1. The USS Kasimir Pulaski (original spelling) was a submarine named after the man. Sufjan, I think, is dancing lyrical around this web of Casimir Pulaski, the man, in creating an incredibly subtle allusion... perhaps. Thus the navy yard--relating to the submarine--weaves in with the holiday in being about the man (who died by grape shot--a really old shotgun-like discharge-- to the groin!). The allusion adds no real meaning, but rather is a sort of lyrical dance Sufjan likes to do with historical details and things of this sort within his lyrics. He likes to weave together connections.

The father in the song seems unable to be a very "good dad." He struggles to know how to respond to situations and his emotions. The girl is dying and yet is afraid of her father's knowledge "of what we did that night" and he does strange things to prove his sorrow such as driving his car into a navy yard (into the water?). It seems he is portrayed as a man helpless emotionally and as a father dealing with this reality of his daughter's fragility and mortality.

"window shade... shoulder blade... reading."

He, in an innocent way, falls in love with this girl that he already knows, in the midst of her sickness and beauty (whether he falls in love before the diagnosis or during the song's narrative after it)... he sees her reading at the window upon coming up to her house... perhaps to bring her flowers and a 4h stone? The next line describes her as the glory that the Lord has made. In her he finds beauty and a glimpse of the glory of God's creation. These are incredibly touching lines.

The Bible study: God does not hear their plea. Straightforward, tragic. Why?

"Michael's house...kissed my neck...almost touched blouse."
I think this is both suggestive and betraying of their innocence. Did something happen or not (other than a kiss on the neck). Taken literally, it seems not. However, it appears *intentionally* suggestive. The next lines are even more suggestive, though:

"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*"

Okay, so it was in the morning. The too kiddos are together, at the top of the stairs (aka: not near the living room or kitchen, but the bedroom for most any house). The father--who we already find out isn't emotionally together--found out what the two kids did the night before. Why is the girl scared? Why are her shoes untied and shirt tucked in? She is out of sorts the phrase seems to mean each time it is used. Did they simply fall asleep together? Did something more happen? It certainly seems they were together over the night. Is Sufjan leaving it open-ended? Why does the girl not want him to follow as she runs out after being confronted by her father about whatever this business is that happened the night before? My thought is that is intended to be suggestive... sort of a strange blending of themes of innocence, youth, coming of age and discovery of sexuality, love, faith, etc.

"I find the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother"

I think Sufjan here too is being intentionally vague to allow for imagination. Did she write a goodbye note...? Who knows. Part of the effectiveness of the song is the vagueness at times, such as the navy yard.

On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

This is apparently in response to the card "where she wrote it out." He is crying in the bathroom as he reads the card. I picture it being in a hospital, if the scene here is tied to the scene in the next few lines when she dies. Maybe, maybe not? Why the picture of her mother though? My thought is it is supposed to be a goodbye letter written in love.

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

The cardinal is a crimson bird, symbolizing mortality and also beauty. I do not think he means to say the bird splattered on the window and he sees Jesus' face there in the blood or something like that suggested elsewhere here. Birds don't splatter when they hit windows and it is not described in the song. Sufjan is also a huge bird lover, so this line is not a surprise. A cardinal is a beautiful bird. In the song, it flies haphazardly into the window. This beautiful glory of God's creation (both the bird and the girl, that is) encounters its death. The bird is not a Catholic cardinal. That makes no sense to the storyline and is out of place. I must say, though, that I can't help but think of Sufjan's later song The Lord God Bird and his lyrical ties of birds to God shown in these two songs.

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

The boy struggles to deal with her death, both in his grief and in the death of an innocent and beautiful bird... God's own creation and handiwork. Somehow the bird's death is related to God. Is it because he implicates God in both tragedies or because both in the bird's death and the death of the girl, he sees Jesus' death and God's suffering? The latter makes sense in the complication of seeing God's face in the window where the bird died. The former makes sense more in light of the overall song in which he struggles with the reality of the Christian God in a sometimes senseless world containing suffering and death. He finds no answers. He only sees God's face in the tragedy of the bird's (and girl's) entirely meaningless death.

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

As a minister who has sat with many people who have died, were dying, or have lost loved ones... these last lines shake me to the core anew each time I hear them. The boy struggles with understanding... understanding and reconciling the God who died on our behalf and yet it did not save this girl. She still died. She flew into the window, and she was God's own. She was beautiful and this was senseless. Why? As one person wrote (loosely repeated), how is it that the God who gives all and died that we might live, "takes and takes and takes?'

What an amazing show of faith as the boy grapples with this God with empty hands and a shattered heart. He is almost too hurt at this point to be only angry or doubting or whatever else. He is simply broken deeply--deeper than words--and bewildered at this God whose glory, shown in this beautiful girl now dead--God's own daughter--is smashed against a window as a passive agent... beautiful yet unknowing.

Perhaps the most most brilliant thing about this song is that Sufjan does not offer trite answers or other throwaways, which I hear in my ministry so often from well-meaning people who misunderstand the character of the God who describes sin and death as senseless, tragic, and against his design ("it was his time," "it's all in God's plan," "God has bigger reasons," etc.). Instead of recognizing the senselessness of sin and suffering, we often try to make things make sense that are, in truth, horribly ugly. We try to reconcile the ugliness with God's will and heart. And in our calling that which is ugly beautiful, and that which is senseless as meaningful, we deny our world that is what Christians call "fallen" from God's intentions. Non-christians have a better phrase for this biblical, theological conviction: "Shit happens." In other words, we say during these times that this world makes sense always (that shit does not happen... or at least "not in this case. this happened for a reason!"). And yet by doing this we deny the very reason for God's coming in Jesus and the need for divine redemption from a senseless world of sin and meaningless suffering from which God came in Jesus to save us. Thus, what God calls tragic and ugly we sometimes call good in order to avoid the sometimes painful truths of our reality. Without such pain, and by accepting trite answers the call bad as good, we leave ourselves with nothing to hope for and nothing from which to be redeemed.

Perhaps Sufjan is offering a glimmer of hope in the imagery of God's shown in the scene of the tragic bird. God is there in the midst of the bird's dying in some way that Sufjan leaves the listener to grapple with.

Thank you, Josh. Great comment.

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