A Constellation Twinned With Mine: Music as an Inroad to Personal History

by Sarah Browning

    I’m drawn to Whitney like a cardinal on a branch
in winter            Beauty too bright for camouflage                 Her story
a constellation twinned with mine. I love myself 

          because of her. Our sweet lip sweat sparkling in the flame

–From “When I See the Stars in the Night Sky” by Joy Priest

This spring, I brought Joy Priest’s gorgeous full poem to my Writers in Progress poetry workshop, Writing Down the Moon, and suggested that participants write about a favorite music or musician of their own and how that musician spoke to them at a particular time in their lives. I had no idea what the exercise would spark in my own writing, but Joni Mitchell was having a cultural moment, and so my head was full of her songs, as it has been for at least the past four decades.

Most of the tributes to Joni this year focused on her best-selling album, Blue, which is brilliant and beautiful, of course. But I love the late-70s, jazz-inflected, talky albums, Hejira and Don Juan’s Restless Daughter in particular. Hejira means journey, or as Merriam-Webster describes it, “a journey especially when undertaken to escape from a dangerous or undesirable situation.”

When I was 19, in 1982, I dropped out of Harvard, unable to locate myself in the machine for pleasing grownups that I was, and embarked on my own hejira, crossing the country on the cut-rate hippie bus The Gray Rabbit, Joni’s “Refuge of the Roads,” “Amelia,” “Black Crow,” and the title song, “Hejira,” jangling in my body. Moved by her words, I hoped that a woman alone might undertake an epic journey, though I’d not have put it that way to myself at the time, except perhaps with an ironic, self-mocking tone.

My epic journey was one of self-discovery as much as of flight. In response to Joy’s marvelous poem I wrote a first draft of what has become an opening poem in a sequence of poems about that year of search and solitude, all of which open with lyrics from Hejira as epigraphs. I’m still at work on the poems, but I’m so thrilled that I found – stumbled on, really – a window into these stories that I’ve told but never written for 40 years now.

Another writer in the group wrote about parents playing Willie Nelson in the family van, another about street musicians whap-whapping on plastic buckets, another about how music helped a friend understand and claim their queerness. Because music takes up residence in our bodies, it has this power – to name us, to bring to life the exact moment in which that particular alchemy of words, sound, and rhythm was most meaningful.

If you’re struggling to write about – or even just to think deeply about – a difficult time in your life, hum the music that evokes that time. Let it sink into your pores and see where it takes you. For me, it was on “a journey away from, toward/away from, toward.”

Join Sarah this fall in her generative/craft poetry workshop, Writing Down the Moon. A few spaces left! 

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