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Sufjan Stevens new album Javelin
Courtesy of Asthmatic Kitty

Exclusive: Read 10 Heart-Rending Essays About Love by Sufjan Stevens

As the elusive singer and songwriter releases his new album Javelin, he shares ten poetic, profound and highly personal mini essays that he wrote for a booklet that accompanies the record

Lead ImageCourtesy of Asthmatic Kitty

These words are taken from a 48-page booklet of original art and essays by Sufjan Stevens, which comes with the vinyl of his new album Javelin, out October 6:


My first love was an involuntary sound – the music of the spheres – a subdued, white-noise shuddering of my heart, a fluster of hummingbird vibrations that I could taste in the prenatal hemispheres of my mouth, body against body and brain against brain, two conjoined selves conjuring an off-shore thunderstorm in the horizontal distance, dazzling with flashes of metallic music and elemental chaos in the safe harbor of my mother’s womb. There was no light and no dark, no semblance of simile or semaphore. There was only the blurred and audible presence of a distant and divine voice hovering above the waters where I balanced between the prism of absence and presence on an inflatable dirigible of sea foam, wandering into the oleaginous abyss with a half-smile of hazardry and wizardry – my maiden voyage into the “unbeknownst” of oblivion. For what did I really know at this point in my primordial mindlessness? Nothing at all. I was struck dumb, created from ignorance and ether, first without function or features, then without order or form. I was sensation and consciousness postponed, a wet and placid portion of monotonous fruit cut in quarters awaiting heaven’s blessing. My only occupation at this point was to occupy, be occupied, preoccupy, and prevail nature in a womb-world of benevolence and buoyancy. The music of the heartbeat of the universe danced me to sleep. Within this realm, I was love and life supreme, undivided by thought, word and deed, a small promise kept until the act of doing would undo me for good. My birth was my undoing. And then I was born into oblivion.

2. IS

I remember in college, falling in love for the first time, two spring months of rapture, residing on the tail end of a helium balloon. I was so giddy about everything: washing the dishes, tying my shoes, scrambling eggs, binding books, pulling berries off juniper trees. My infatuation had such an arrogant persuasion on the world around me. Everything as metaphor ascribed with romance. I remember, while mowing lawns on the college campus, finding an injured fledgling crow by the dining hall. I carried it to the biology lab, where we called a woman who ran an animal sanctuary from her home. She met us on a bike with a wicker basket. “You are doing the universe a great favor,” she said, holding the bird to her breast, like Mother Goose. The event provided endless fodder: for prose poems and folk songs and long conversations on the roof of the aspirin factory, where we got drunk on Boone’s Farm sangria, speculating on cosmic intentions and the order of the universe. So much meaning, so little time. I was young and dumb and in love. Guided by a perverse curiosity and a voracious sensation-of-the-imagination pivoting at the tip of my tongue, I marveled at the mysteries of life laid out before me, awaiting in the calm commotion between innocence and experience.


And then experience pummeled me. Many years later, after the long-suffering exhaustion of life had driven me into the bleak underbelly of realism, my most profound thought was sad and static: that nothing really matters, nobody loves me, and loneliness would always be my most devoted companion. In my new sobering worldview, absent of love, I began to encounter everything as an object without meaning, without modifier. The homeless man selling day-old newspapers on the subway was just a homeless man selling day-old newspapers on the subway. There was no metaphor, no rapture, no cosmic intentions. I had to ask myself: does this make the man, the newspaper, the subway, or myself any less meaningful? No. Quite the opposite. For what resided in that substantial vacancy where I was always prone to symbolize the world to death is exactly what I needed right then: Opportunity. Presence of Mind. Peace On Earth. Stable Stoicism. Absence of Metaphor. Responsibility. And Hard Facts. That was my prayer: to shake off the doting artistry of an over-eager poet with a proclivity to create dreams from doldrums; to approach the world as a concrete object, a thing to be held, not a thing to behold, or allegorized; to remain at peace and in careful jurisprudence in spite of the resentful intonation of my overarching loneliness that devastated innocent bystanders with all the magic castles of the imagination. I told myself: I must snuff out the candle of candy-corn dreams. I must soldier on like a dead-end daydream undeterred. I must be steadfast in the stolid presence and essence of common sense and survival. I must be true to life internal and reside in resignation at last.


My second love was less ecstatic, but more tragic: the “gift” of sight – an elemental flash of lightning, which struck me like a bag of metal shavings thrown out onto ice reflecting back at the centerpiece of my sternum. A sucker punch to the chest. My cold consciousness came into sharp focus, rattled by illuminating waves invading everything around me. The light was loud and extraordinary. And even with my eyes closed, my pupils began pontificating at the pornography of sight, and I was momentarily carved into madness. Seeing is believing is birth. I shuddered and shirked at the tangible evidence of something else – the others – the imposition of a sensation outside myself, in which everything was separated into opposable armies: the land from the waters, the air from the earth, the seasons from the doldrums, the seen from the unseen, sin from sainthood, light from dark, good from evil. Everything was put in its place by the curse of namesake. The world was now before me, beneath me, above me, and ultimately against me, a pressure foot pressed down on all sides. I felt a cold claustrophobia, empty and alone, trans-natal and tragic, baffled by the violence of this new environmental context. And to think I was just a silly beansprout of a thing shivering under the medical lights, squirming like an open earthworm, now tasked with this terrible act of naming. God gave me a pen and a pad of parchment paper. “Transcribe your feelings and your findings,” she said. “Do your thing. First thought, best thought.” I did as I was commanded, a dutiful sea urchin inching its way to the possibility of words and wisdom.


A world without language was once the indication of certain death. Soundless, voiceless, nameless vapor. A typography of empty vessels. The void! But now, what of the tragedy of names, spoken into existence with the demystification of words? I was culprit and complicit, identifying all the divergences, differentiations, variations, permutations, diversities, dichotomies and double entendres. Categorizing the animals, cutting them down to size, organizing the parts of the body with the parts of speech, a fanatical grammar-game of possession, domination and death. I had to ask myself: Is this manner of identification in the name of higher knowledge even if it disregards purpose, analysis, and compassion (observation absent of intention)? And how could it be undertaken without idolatry and ulterior motive? I desired the objectivity of the photography of the baby-brain, whose fuzzy visionary reception was a delightful nebula of perfumed consciousness and joy. I wanted to see the world coherently and without discretion, discernment, reduction, and deduction – unintelligible intelligence. Instead I began to perceive how intimate knowledge generates prosperity (fullness) and progeny (fruitfulness) – of ideas and offspring. To be “made known” was to be consummated: “Adam knew Eve” – intercourse as discourse (knowledge as physical/sexual engagement). To know someone was to take possession (to gain access, in confidence and with confidentiality). The exchange would potentially unveil the secret knowledge between lovers (the nominative ordinances of arousal) – wherein posterity would become the observable antecedents of this sacred wisdom, and pleasure would be its misfortune (of infatuation and love, of chaos and order). My sexual discourse began to die a slow death of observation and objectification, a nonsense category of substances seen and deemed believable, predicating a cosmic break from the universe: a psychic rebirth, from which invisible things transformed into figures of speech, wherein figures of speech were left dead in the wake of rivulets and rivers, drowning in a molten waterfall of dread, where they would meet their maker in linguistic whimsy. My death was now new life. My reincarnation, a reverse sublimation. I was made known; therefore, I knew nothing.

6. THE

For a short time, my pet peeves were my shortcomings: dry skin in the morning – brushing off the bed sheets with bits of outer insulation from my body. Was I molting? I needed to drink more bitter herbs, I thought. I had chronic stomach pain, below the clavicle, a small fist of air. Sweet antacid, mint leaves, fennel seed tea. Invisible Anxiety. The pain in my leg: a hypochondriac’s dream. Soothing myself with palm oil and camphor. Small applications on the surface. At dinner with guests, supplementing aspirin with ice-water, saying very little otherwise, a friend agreed with everyone’s assessment: “Yes, sometimes you are cold and unfeeling. You could warm it up a little.” My apparent coolness – was it a matter of objective safety? That remote vacancy which I brought to every engagement, keeping the world at arm’s length, the anthropologist’s vantage point, sustaining the presumptive: was that my vocation – the judicious spectator, an odd outlier outlining all this activity while staying behind the line of sight? As the youngest sibling, I was always evaluating my older sisters with fierce judgment from the corner of the room, just out of reach: eavesdropping on phone conversations, catching glimpses of padded bras, curling irons, and maxi pads passed between casual doorways. Taking stock of the panoply of premature adulthood (teenage pregnancy), unruly rebellion (sneaking out at night), clumsy and combative excursions with our wicked step-mother (cat fights with elegantly finger-nailed fisticuffs). I watched from a dutiful distance, careful not to engage, harboring a catalog of tragicomic events and all their moral assessments in order to avoid the worst-case scenario for myself. I was in the world, but not of it. I learned from the mistakes of others: that I was nothing more than a mistake waiting to happen, potential energy. I learned from the mistletoe to keep watch overhead so as to avoid the dangling modifier of accidental affection. I learned from the stone in my shoe to keep walking through the pain with a staggering refrain in my step, a constant reminder of the brokenness of my body and the indefatigable self-loathing of my own self-consciousness.


My third love was a surprise affection – ticklish touching and tender swaddles of terry towels and cotton cloth wrapped in armfuls of goose down feathers transfixed in the careful undertaking of childcare. A sensual delight! I was an object to be objectified, a thing to squeeze and prickle, caress and carry about in a breadbasket. I grew from a pinecone to a pine tree, from a newt to a dinosaur, from a poppy-seed to a poppy flower bursting with fireworks. This love then transferred its fornications onto something wet, wild and ornithological – a flying, feathery python ascending to its countenance as a bastion of bridegrooms in a flaming aviary chariot of leathery kisses all aimed at my elbows. Hope is a thing with bird feeders. So I watched the feathered fowl crowd around the seeds and suet, grubs and grains with dinosaur intensity, beaks and claws doing their vast prehistoric business with messy execution. My lovers cawed at their community of plumy mishaps like transcendental mother hens: nuthatch and creeper, tanager and titmouse, blue jay and junco gallivanting together like an armful of woolen throw blankets clapping the dust from their ornamental features. Our fairy dance of foreplay lasted for days. Cat calls as birdsong with balloons, iambic pentameter poems, chimes that rhymed with clanging crystals hung on fishing line, and all the fanciful costumes with sequins and fringe, flowered bell bottoms, metallic body suits, reggae music, ballroom dancing, charm bracelets, diamond rings, glimmering little earrings with fly-fishing ornaments, and, on the last day, a very long and serious monologue about global warming. Our lovemaking was quick and witty, a little slutty and clumsy – nothing more than a jaunt, a quick choreography of slaps and body slams, two pigeons in a mosh pit, working things out in juvenilia. Nature had done its work. Afterward we lounged together in the afterglow with soft pillow talk and dreams of nest eggs and parenting, protecting, foraging, feeding, and changing diapers, all the domestic labors of love. But for now, in a warm bird bath, sunning ourselves with a glistening glow, I could only think of the sweet bliss of here and now, the wetness of loving kisses on my nape, my neck, my back, my rump, my foreshortened wings and a sweet nectar nightcap. Hope is a thing deferred, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life.

8. OF

My fourth love was peripatetic: a suitcase stored in an overhead bin on an airplane. Things beget things beget responsibilities. I procrastinated my life by traveling far from it. A day before the voyage, I stayed up late in the polar forces of the night, diligently packing the baggage on the couch, opened up like can of tuna fish, a glass of lemon juice on the nightstand (master cleanse), the Siamese cat washing itself, the dollar store dishes in the sink, my dirty clothes in a paper bag. The last time I had left for this kind of trip, my things were in boxes in one room on the second floor of a gated town house in God-knows-where, New York. Now everything had been transferred as in a swap meet, boxes upon boxes, things upon things, other voices, other rooms. The living room was a labyrinth of speculative journeys, a crossword puzzle of travel prompts. Outside, gale force winds rose to the occasion, knocking on the windows like unwanted guests. I imagined the weather overtaking everything in an apocalyptic frenzy: cups and saucers trembling in tongues, plastic wrap coming undone in a transparent wedding train, pillowcases falling over our heads like hard hats, ceiling fans circumnavigating the neighborhood like helicopter rides, the colored crayons on the kitchen shelf thrown asunder to make slapdash hieroglyphs all over the window panes, the mysterious penmanship of the gods! My mind was preoccupied by disaster, a force majeure, an act of God, a ball of yarn, and the four horses of the Apocalypse. I wanted nothing of it: this origami suitcase lifestyle of travel and transition. I wanted to be here and now. I wanted silence, solace, and stillness. I wanted the simplest of things: a bowl of vanilla ice cream, a warm bath, and a quiet place to sit and stitch my hand-crafted cross-stitch of rainbows and sailboats framing a sexy cartoon portrait of Dionne Warwick diligently working the lines for the Psychic Friends Network from way back in the 1990s, when every solution to every problem was just a phone call away.


History repeats itself, defeats itself, cheats itself, berates and beats itself. I am not historic. I am histrionics. I must hate my mother and my father. I must hate myself and take up the cross and be born again. In this way, my fifth love was an immutable shadow following me with sticky tricks and schemes, a cancerous contamination of the mind that could only be cured with the deadly venom of a cone snail. I couldn’t quite shake it, the cobalt-blue memory of a ghost haunting my sophistry, a prescient reminder that the knowledge of faith and the substance of hope were right behind me this entire time (and not something to pursue, or follow, like an ornamental object on the horizon, dazzling, elusive and alive in the distant future). The Divine Inside was a “previously known encounter.” I could never see it face to face, but only feel it in my shadow, the former patterns of an aura left behind, pushing forward, pursuing, persuading, steering and navigating my memory through the valley of the shadow of death. I wanted so desperately to “have and to hold” the real substance of things (evidence!), the physical, intimate engagement with the body and the blood, which I actively sought out in transcendental activity, prayer and supplication, the sacraments, the feasts of the saints, a metaphysical substance to salivate and sublimate within the natural order of things. But this was a false pretense. God is not natural, but supernatural. The real material of divinity is ineffable, unassailable, unknowable, unutterable, and unreal. The evidence of providence is not within our line of sight, nor within our grasp, but instead beyond and behind our physical kinesphere. It is unapproachable, unspeakable, unobservable, and ultimately “erstwhile”. And yet still we continue to feel it “under our skin” and “within the universe” of our own personal history: The Past/The Passed/The Repossessed. God is our delayed consciousness – the nameless, faceless dichotomy of our secret truth. And we are made in its indistinguishable appearance. Therefore our own true “image” is without a name or a face – a baseless, shapeless cloud hovering above the waters, a countenance of empty atmosphere (signifying nothing) – a gothic apparition, a vision of love, a dance of the eternal travesty of life, a burrowing beetle of impenetrating curiosity. Digging for the true grit of life in the eternal dirt of the universe. 

10. BODY 

My last love was a kind of science fiction. I was out running errands at the mall when I saw a fleet of lampshades falling like flying saucers from the sky. The alien robots came to me in an escalating beam of light and said: “We come in peace! The obverse seeks to make its face shine upon you, while the inverse hides in shame.” They did their thing with my body, prodding and poking around for some good news, but at first I would have none of it. I struggled and squirmed under nylon restraints strapped onto a stainless steel operating table. I was a basket case of curmudgeonly vitriol, pointing out everything that was wrong with the world around me: Fossil fuels. Cancer. Money. Greed. Sales Tax. Frozen Yoghurt. Religion. Varicose Veins. Junk Mail. But the alien robots were unflappable. They said, “We just need a little DNA, not a diatribe,” while swabbing the insides of my mouth with a cottony Q-tip. Then, after careful intubation and a slow drip of aesthesia, I eased into the abyss. They removed my clothes and covered my body with a marshmallowy spray foam. They swaddled me into a warm cocoon of maroon goo, where I remained in stasis to the end of the ages, slowly resuming into the soft, pillowy features of my former self – pre-natal, premature, pre-conceived – a slippery and succulent primordial membrane of soupy warmth and illuminating agency awaiting, once again, the cosmic journey laid out before me like a yellow-brick road of possibilities – the secret oblivion of love, the “unbeknownst!” Within this pinprick vision, I saw a tapestry of afterbirth in afterglow as an addendum to an immaculate after-thought of rapturous joy. I was born-again in fullness and truth. I was a peanut. I was a pretzel. I was a pan-fried shrimp. I was pandemonium personified. I was once again myself waiting to happen again and again and again and again and again … until the end.

Javelin by Sufjan Stevens is out on October 6.