Songs of Our Lives: Look Blue Go Purple’s “Circumspect Penelope”


My youthful travels—bounded by the meager means I possessed for escape: junker cars, slender bank accounts, impoverished imagination—never took me as far as I desired or dreamed. In our junior year of high school, a friend and I concluded one night that instead of doing homework we needed to see the ocean, so we lit out for Rhode Island in his parents’ Ford Country Squire. Forty-five minutes later, we bypassed the faint lights of Providence—another world entire, it seemed—and continued south, but lost our nerve someplace well before Point Judith or whichever beach we fantasized we’d stand upon while wild waves soaked us, and turned back.

A year later, a different friend—a manic-depressive who wore her hair in a red-dyed quiff and broke the hearts of boys and girls at Coffee Kingdom—moved out from her parents’ place but kept a house key and, though she didn’t drive, a car key. Occasionally, on school nights, we’d wait until after her parents’ windows went dark and then sneak into their garage, and I’d drive—hands at two and ten o’clock until we’d slipped through the Mass Pike tollbooth, when I’d test the accelerator, since, unlike my 1980 Mercury Bobcat station wagon, this car didn’t rattle my teeth if I pushed it over seventy. We’d zip into Boston, shoot out of the Copley Square exit, and park. Neon-lit city before us, we might’ve done almost anything, but usually we went to get a deep-dish pizza at a chain restaurant, and ate it while complaining about whatever bistro-punk injustices and misfortunes we felt we’d suffered that week. On the way home, we’d refill the tank to its previous level, readjust the rearview mirror, and ease the car into her parents’ garage as if returning a rental.

Distance always seduced me—distance from whatever was most familiar, especially myself—but the difficulties in achieving such remove vexed me. Records by British bands and place names like Macclesfield and Ladbroke Grove offered me one form of cultural tourism, but the New Zealand music scene I discovered in college afforded an even further flight, maybe because the music sounded so near to what I loved already. Everyone knows the Clean and the Chills, the Verlaines and the Bats, Toy Love and the Tall Dwarfs—and should know the Pin Group and the Renderers and Dadamah and the Terminals and the Dead C—but Look Blue Go Purple, who put out only three EPs over the course of four years, are, song for song, among my favorite bands of any country.

“Circumspect Penelope” describes departure and return, and sounds urgent enough to make you jump out of your chair and run as soon as Kath Webster and Denise Roughan start speed-strumming their guitars, Norma O’Malley chips in a wheezing Sixties-style organ, and Kathy Bull’s bass joins Lesley Paris’s terse snare-ride-cymbal-and-kick-drum beat. The song’s lyrics may seem cribbed from an English-class lecture on The Odyssey in their thumbnail version of that epic’s events, but the five women in Look Blue Go Purple clearly sympathize less with Odysseus’s exploits than with Penelope’s endurance: “She’s been waiting twenty years / and you just walk in / telling stories of the sea. / She should hate you, your Penelope.”

Before my girlfriend moved out of our trout farm apartment, but when our split already seemed inevitable, I vanished from that basement as often as I could. One cloudy night my car’s alternator fizzled out in front of the dirt-road workshop of an artisan who, on hand-carved signs hung from tree limbs, advertised “Wooden Toys, Dawn ’til Dusk.” My dashboard lights dimmed and then winked off, and October-bare branches reeled in the winds. I cranked the ignition: the starter only clicked. I abandoned my car there until daylight and scurried home in the dark, glancing over my shoulder every few paces for axe-wielding toy-makers. Later that week, the car still in the shop and my girlfriend sitting in our windowless kitchen squinting at The Mill on the Floss for class the next day, I roamed uphill to campus on foot.

Our minuscule college had no ivy, no brick, no columns, no quad, only some drafty old farmhouses where we held classes and a barn-turned-dining hall, all built upon the steep slopes atop a hill, with newer dorms and cottages half-hidden amid the trees behind. The white clapboards and twelve-over-twelve windows looked glorious against green grass, yellow leaves, or two feet of snow, but at night we could see only the moon, the stars, and a bright security light above the maintenance garage. I drifted into the campus center—nearly deserted until the rush downhill from the library at ten minutes before close, when the work-study kids shouted “FREE COFFEE!” to all comers instead of dumping whatever unsold brew remained in the pots—and down through the mailroom, where a few kids played pool and smoked, then out into the brisk Vermont air and back down past the dining hall, thinking I’d head to a friend’s cabin. Instead, two figures approached. We were always squinting into the dark and asking each other, “Who’s that?”—or else tucking our heads and hoping to pass unnoticed. But I recognized the laugh of a woman who’d transferred here that fall. We shared none of the same classes, but I’d noticed her short dark hair, big dark eyes, and Charlie Brown striped sweaters. She and her roommate were carrying a bottle of cheap mezcal to their cottage. “Come with us,” she said, hooking her arm around mine, and I did.

At their place, we shook salt on our hands, chugged shots, bit down on lime slices. Charlie Brown sweater girl told me that Codeine and Galaxie 500 and the Pale Saints and the Swirlies—or whoever else I mentioned listening to—were pretentious. “It’s all so whiny,” she said, and slid a Jesus Lizard tape into her boombox. There was no clock on the wall, no watch on my wrist, nothing but dark night beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows and the bottle on the table we sat around. Her roommate slurped one more mezcal and slouched down the hallway to her bed. I understood the evening’s probable end point, and however eager I might have been for such an outcome, I thought about my still-sort-of-girlfriend at home, halfway through the tiny type of a five-hundred-page novel I would never read. Was she awake, reading about Maggie Tulliver—and, like her, withdrawn from the outside world—or had she gone to sleep early? I can’t remember if we’d even said anything to each other when I left that night. A month and a half into our nine-month lease, we’d already realized the profundity of our mistake in living together, and I spent long days away from the trout farm, planning my exit, though those plans didn’t involve Charlie Brown sweater girl or anyone else. “I’m a fool to believe in love and its channels, / I’m a fool to believe in it at all,” Norma O’Malley of Look Blue Go Purple sings on the band’s last record, two years after “Circumspect Penelope.” I was such a fool, then, wanting both the comforts of home and the excitement of travel, and believing them not incompatible. No siren songs seduced me save those I invented for myself to hear.

Dribbling mezcal across the tabletop, Charlie Brown sweater girl filled both of our shot glasses and pointed to the agave larva curled in the half-inch of alcohol still in the bottle. “Do you want to eat it?” she asked.

“You’d better,” I said, standing up and knocking my chair backwards.

She laughed, she swallowed the worm, we drained the bottle, we briefly made out with lime-sticky lips on her couch, and then somehow I was stumbling uphill toward campus, then back downhill along Moss Hollow Road toward the trout farm. Every winter a few students drove their cars into the ditch along this steep gravel curve. The boozy blood rushing in my head rolled and swirled like the guitar chords of the whiny and pretentious bands I liked. The woods along Moss Hollow sheltered only a few houses, and even the ramshackle one called J.K.’s—which half a dozen or so students rented in ever-changing combinations—was unlit. A mile farther, the trees opened to a pasture where three Clydesdales freaked me out every time I walked past: first all three would turn and stare, then they’d slowly trot toward me, soundless but for their hoofbeats. Were they standing in the dark, watching me now? I wanted to stop and sit on a leaf-banked stone wall, but kept blundering through the night, catching my toes in potholes I couldn’t see.

At last I crossed Green River Road, then a small bridge over the Green River itself, and trudged up the rutted driveway to the trout farm. From the one side of the apartment with windows, lights glowed. I opened the door, lurched into the jamb, and stepped inside. That dank and dismal space, now warm and bright, bore some magical-but-familiar scent I couldn’t quite name. A chair scraped linoleum and my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend stood in the doorway to the kitchen, wearing pajamas and glasses instead of contacts, holding her half-open novel.

“Where the hell have you been?” she said, almost whispering. “I’ve been baking cookies since two a.m.!”

I stepped closer: she’d heaped chocolate chip cookies on a plate on the kitchen table. I stared at them, at her, at my feet, but could think of nothing to say, so I staggered into bed.

The poet we know as Homer wrote, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation of The Odyssey:

Circumspect Penelope said to him in answer: ‘If, my friend, you were willing to sit by me in my palace and entertain me, no sleep would be drifted over my eyelids. But it is in no way possible for people forever to go without sleep; and the immortals have given to mortals each his own due share all over the grain-giving corn land. So I shall now go back again to my upper chamber, and lie on my bed, which is made a sorrowful thing now, always disordered with the tears I have wept, ever since Odysseus went away…’

“She should hate you,” Kath Webster sings to the Odysseus figure in “Circumspect Penelope,” perhaps thinking of such passages, but Penelope doesn’t hate him. Maybe my almost-not-girlfriend hated me, or should have, but I didn’t hate her, not even after she’d cheated on me that summer. We’d reconciled just long enough to move in together, and then I’d turned aloof and withdrawn: by that October night, I was no longer willing to sit by her in the trout farm and entertain her. My girlfriend’s eyes may or may not have been tear-reddened behind her glasses. Was she waiting for me to return home, or, finally, to leave? Did she truly believe—as she told a mutual friend that year, who then told me—that she and I had been destined to be together, but evil forces were driving us apart, just as Poseidon kept Odysseus from returning to Penelope?

In the Lattimore translation, following the consistencies of The Odyssey’s oral origins, Penelope is always circumspect; Odysseus is always resourceful; the young Dawn always shows again with her rosy fingers. At twenty-one, I found everything about my life worth dramatizing in similarly simple and repetitive terms: a friend would tell me a story, or something mildly interesting might happen to me, and a week later I’d have written a faintly altered version of it for my fiction workshop. Life seemed to exist for me mostly so it could appear in my own retellings of it, versions in which I controlled when scenes began and ended, which details received description, which points of view were privileged and which silenced. But there was nothing worth mythologizing, nothing remotely epic about the sorry, slow-motion undergrad break-up between my girlfriend and me, and in any case I used none of my scanty resources as I wandered the gravel roads and woods-trails of my campus, delayed only by obstacles of my own making. She saw and understood far less of me than she thought she did, though when I returned home it required neither Penelope’s circumspection nor Athene’s gray eyes to discern that I’d been drinking all night and kissing another woman.

Dawn may have shown again with her rosy fingers through the windows of the trout farm, but, hungover in my bed, I didn’t notice. When I awakened, my girlfriend had gone to class. I ate one of her cookies, then another, and looked out the window at low gray clouds, bare trees, aboveground swimming pool teeming with trout. Amid the steep hillsides and narrow valleys of southern Vermont, where dawn arrived late and sunset came early, it was always hard—even for those of us not blinded by selfishness—to see very far.

Joshua Harmon is the author of five books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including most recently The Annotated Mixtape and History of Cold Seasons. He will publish two chapbooks in the next year: Usonian Vistas and Outtakes, B-Sides, & Demos, in which this essay appears. More from this author →