Jessica Burnquist on The Sundays’ Reading Writing & Arithmetic

Do You Feel the Words Too?

My love affair with The Sundays is not deep, but it is lasting. I admit that I don’t know the names of the band members. I admit that I wouldn’t recognize them on the street, and here’s the clincher—I admit that I don’t know every word to any given song on their album, Reading Writing &Arithmetic. I would recognize every song though—because I listened to that album repeatedly for an entire year. I listened beyond the lyrics and made up the words I couldn’t understand.

The beginning of 1990 was marked by the death of a dear friend. Crystal Donaldson succumbed to cancer the year she should have been beginning her second semester at St. John’s University. Due to cancer, she never attended the first semester either. She did make a trip from Tempe to Tucson to visit me for a weekend. The last time I saw her, she was dancing to the Meat Puppets without the wig she’d purchased post chemo. Punk boys noticed her. Probably everyone noticed her. We spoke about her dreams of becoming a writer, we spoke about sex, and as always, we spoke about music. She smoked a cigarette and said, What’s the worst that could happen, I’ll get cancer?

On the last night of our visit, I pointedly asked her how she was doing. She said she was tired of getting transfusions. I felt her leaving, but couldn’t articulate it. The day my mother called to tell me that Crystal died, I stopped listening to music. There was no song left un-haunted by her. Bands that we cherished were absolutely off limits. If R.E.M. snuck into a soundtrack of a film, or The Smiths were heard through a dorm room window, I became immobilized.

Several months after her death, I heard Here’s Where the Story Ends. I don’t remember buying the album. I just know it became background music that didn’t cause grief—somehow it propelled me forward. This was the year of astronomy before math ruined it; star gazing, and discussions of the mysteries of the universe. (For example, how is it that a nineteen-year-old should die of cancer?) This was the year of outright rebellion with adults in my life. Whether it was informing my father that I did not want to be a lawyer, or telling an algebra teacher to fuck off, I was asserting myself in ways my friend surely would have if she’d been alive. The Sundays’ lyrics ran round my head in snippets that made sense:

The words came stumbling out my mouth, and I went tumbling out…

And I’ve been wondering lately, just whose gonna save me?

I could have been wrong but I don’t think I was…

I’d like to be in history.

The album seemed deeply feminine, and woven with rhythms that swelled beyond language. Quite frankly, I couldn’t make sense of all the lyrics. I blame that on strong English accents and impatience on my part to really learn them. I was more interested in feeling them. Reading Writing & Arithmetic welcomed a sensory experience. I could sing parts of a greater whole, and fill in any indistinguishable sections with my newfound narrative. This was the year of my first poetry class, and I was becoming aware of lyrics that belonged to me. I’m certain that had I spent more time learning the words, I would not have heard my inner voice as clearly. The voice that gave approval of me pursuing Crystal’s writing dreams. The voice that screamed yes when I met the man I would marry. The voice that names stars without understanding their science.

Jess Burnquist grew up in Arizona. Her poetry has appeared in a variety of journals including Oranges & Sardines, 42 Opus, Locuspoint, and Syntax. She teaches high school English and Creative Writing in San Tan Valley, and is a teaching artist for Arizona State University’s Young Writer’s Program. She resides in the East Valley of the Greater Phoenix Metropolitan area with her husband, son and daughter.

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