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The Arts

Life During Wartime

By Tom Scocca | Posted 9/26/2001

"Abigail/ can you feel my heart/ in the palm of your hand . . ." It's nine days since the World Trade Center fell, and I'm transfixed by a trifle of a song. This is the 45th of the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, an Irish-style war ballad, "Abigail, Belle of Kilronan." Like so many other parts of Stephen Merritt's 1999 exercise in bulk composition, it's hard to know how seriously to take it. The tone is straight from the maudlin Hibernian folk tradition, grave and sappy, but it's also one of the five dozen poses Merritt strikes; you are free to take its earnestness with a nudge and a wink.

Except: "Abigail /an evil wind is blowing/ through the land/ and they need every man/ to drive it away."

"I always liked World War II songs," Merritt writes in 69 Love Songs' liner notes, which take the form of an extended interview transcript. "I like over-the-top sentimentality if there is a justification for it, and war is a pretty good justification. As long as you say that there's a war going on, practically any emotion follows."

But now the evil is not an abstraction. It has a real chill. I stand still and listen, into the refrain: "When I come home/ if I come home/ you'll be a grown woman/ When I come home/ if I come home/ don't be alone,/ Abigail, belle of Kilronan."

If I come home. And I think of the Hibernian firefighters of New York, brothers and cousins, charging up the stairwells of the towers, following their courage into a vicious and ghastly trap. Later today, on the radio news, I will hear again the grotesque-upon-grotesque story of the New York Fire Department chaplain, the Rev. Mychal Judge, struck and killed by falling debris as he bent to give last rites to a firefighter, who had been struck and killed by a woman plummeting from the heights of the tower.

I'm listening to the song again. I will listen three times in a row, where I stand, already late for work. "Abigail/ 's gonna be the beauty of County Galway/ and she will live always/ in a world of love."

In the liner-notes interview, Merritt and his questioner don't linger on the emotions of wartime. Mostly, they speculate about whether the song could cause an epileptic seizure if you heard it through headphones. Having heard it mostly on a car stereo, I don't know what they're talking about; today, on the third pass, I touch my forehead to the center of the boom box in my living room, splitting the channels. The droning background chords become a pulsating flutter, bouncing back and forth between the speakers. A little studio trick, an extra punch line. The wobble is physically nauseating.

The nausea subsides, but the song keeps pounding in my head all day. "Abigail/ I'm off to the war/ but you can be sure/ I will know you're/ what I'm fighting for/ I'm off to the war . . ."

Because New York is New York, the thinkers and writers and commentators were on the scene, live, as the flaming blow landed on the Trade Center. There was no pause to reflect and interpret before the culture was yanked into new and frightening times. There was no distance. At the office I send a flip e-mail to a friend in New York, about his paper's coverage of the aftermath. He tersely and gently tells me to cut it out. It was "harrowing and awful up here," he says. "Sorry."

The old, reflexive habit of taking things on two levels doesn't work. We aren't taking things, anymore. Things have come, whether we chose them or not, and no amount of cleverness will shutter the wind out.

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