Sufjan Stevens: Casimir Pulaski Day

I first came across Sufjan Stevens a few years ago. His That Was the Worst Christmas Ever is something I can listen to year round. It just strikes a nerve with me that I can’t quite articulate, but it fascinates me all the same. Recently I’ve gone looking into his discography, and I’ve come across another song of his that really sticks with me. I’ve been listening to it over and over again, and there’s something haunting there. Here’s the video:

I know a lot of song writing is taking something true and setting it to music with enough of the details blurred out that it speaks to everyone on an individual level, and I think Casimir Pulaski Day is an incredible example of that. The title is in reference to a holiday in the Midwest. Everything off this album, Sufjan Stevens invites you to: Come on feel the Illinoise, makes some reference to the state of Illinois, but this song makes only a passing mention. The narrator loved someone in his youth who died of Leukemia on Casimir Pulaski Day. The rest is… Well, it’s spiritual, and muddled, and there’s an adolescent awkwardness to it wrapped up in Christian morality that is both adorable and heart-breaking. Young love is complicated enough without death and a family’s grief getting in the way.

Here are the lyrics:

Golden rod and the 4-H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car to the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading

Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I remember at Michael’s house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

Oh the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I find the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother

On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window

Oh the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes

There’s something very deep there. Raw. I have no details as to how much of this is based on Sufjan’s childhood, but, based on the rest of his songs, I’d imagine a fair bit. There’s a repeated line about having your shirt tucked in but forgetting to tie up your shoes that paints a picture of someone’s mental state in a way that just can’t be said straight out. It needs to be an oblique reference for you to understand the emotional devastation involved. There’s also several references to God, his Glory, and how faith is about acceptance as much as hope that I find a little awe inspiring.

It’s a sad song, but there’s beauty and brilliance there too. I’m happy to share it. Thanks!


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