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Music Theory as Chaos.com, or the
Magical Breasts of Britney Spears

Music Lesson Numero Uno (as told by my first-ever guitar
        teacher,
    Scott, whose self-proclaimed nickname was "The Party
           Train"):
If you fuck up a note, do it again and again, like you meant it.
        That's jazz.

    I've kept this thought over the years of trying to teach
           Whitman
to a pack of beaky, cheeky geeks who can't understand
        that their
    trajectory in the universe is one of their own making,
           fueled
not by sugary gimmicks or cool turtle bone shades, but
        curiosity,
    the type of self-challenge that comes from asking: Why
           did God
let us cover the 70s in faux fur, glorious shag? Or why
        hasn't some
    genius created an All-Nite Adult Video Store & Deli?

So when I squawked a wrong note in the middle of an
        explanation
    on Whitman and the social responsibility of the poet (the
           epicenter
of this boo-boo was a claim that the Parthenon was built in
        Rome—don't ask),
    a skimpy John Donne reference about it'd be better to
           have a cousin
in Rome than to bloat paragraphically about brothers in
        Vegas or whatever,
    and the girl—the one with soft vowels, monosyllabic
           clothes,
the one who waits her whole life for moments like these,
        you know her—
    stands up, lanky and nearly bosomless, saying The            Parthenon,
or the temple of Athene Parthenos (i.e. the maiden), was built
        on the Acropolis
    at Athens in mid-400 BC by Pericles to honor the city's
           patron goddess

and to commemorate the recent Greek victory over the
        Persians.
Remembering
    The Party Train's maxim, I said, "You sure? Why don't you
           look
that up and report to the class next week?" which is akin to
        asking
    a student to watch Gandhi three times in a row without
           liquor,
drugs, or munchies. But the great gas cloud of a smirk on
        her face told me
    she was going to do it. I wanted to Ctrl+Alt+Delete the
           whole
thing, reboot the damn class, when another kid who hadn't
        so much
    as coughed restlessly all semester, let alone speak, said
           It's a little
like the new Britney Spears album—she's "stronger than
        yesterday/now it's nothing
    by my way/My loneliness ain't killing me no more"
to which
           I ask

"What?" Another girl who I swear couldn't comprehend
        anything
    but a star-crossed system of dating, said Did you know
           you can email
her? It's Britney@Britney.com
and five people jotted that
        down inside
    the cover of their used copies of Leaves of Grass. "Just
           hold on,"
I said, feeling a mouse-click away from Chaos.com. "What
        does Britney
    Spears have in common with Walt Whitman, one of the
           real
benchmark names in the development of a truly American
        literature?"
    A chunky C+ kid said Her breasts give me vertigo. And then
it erupted. Someone else: She had a job, from A to C, man.
        Another kid:
    The reverse of my art history grades. Me: "Kill me now,
           Lord. Quick."

And I imagined myself, the Patron Saint of Classroom
        Disasters, going
    Gene Simmons right there, wagging a black-inked tongue
as I busted three guitars atop their heads like a human
        marimba.
    But it was Parthenon Girl who saved the day, saying
           Britney's
a perfect example of a distinctly American mentality, the poster
        child of hard
    bodies and soft music. She's the logical extension of
           Whitman, but also
the antithesis of him, inevitably.
We ended on the clang of
        that note, all
    hurrying home to ponder the elemental breakdown of an
           entire
class like an Alka-Seltzer in a giant glass of water. I cracked
        open two
    beers and flipped on the tube—there she was, Britney,
           hawking Pepsi

in a blue jumpsuit that covered her bosom like a liqueur
        dousing covers
    an angel food cake. Even my dog paused mid-scratch to
           eyeball
the screen, the way her abracadabra breasts defied gravity
        as if in an
    assertion that God himself was a lighter-than-air device,
           and I
realized that in the glitz-bomb grip of hands such as hers,
        Whitman
    & Donne didn't stand a chance, and neither, quite frankly,
           did I.
Later, as my thoughts thinned towards sleep, I could almost
        hear it, the torn
    flesh of stars opening like a mouth to say Oops!… I did it
           again.

Printed in the Fall/Winter 2003 issue of CLR

Ryan G. Van Cleave

Ryan G. Van Cleave has taught writing at Florida State University, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay; he currently works as a freelance writer and editor in Green Bay, WI.

His work is forthcoming in The Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, and Ontario Review. He is the author of twelve books, including most recently a poetry collection, Say Hello (Pecan Grove Press, 2001) and an anthology, Like Thunder, Poets Respond to Violence in America (University of Iowa Press, 2002).


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