This is going to be a shorter post than usual, because it’s just about a small thing that I really love in a short song that I also really love. Specifically, the second verse of Francis Forever by Mitski.
I first listened to this two years ago as I was going through a really rough breakup, because as everyone knows Mitski is very good for articulating those feelings of desire, heartbreak, intimacy, and longing. I was also in the middle of a uni course on American literature, specifically in the week that we were studying Fredrick Douglass and his writings. One of the things that was mentioned by the TA was his use of parataxis, a word used to describe two juxtaposed clauses that aren’t linked by conjunctions. As it happens, the last couplet of Mitski’s second verse is one of the most effective examples of parataxis I’ve ever encountered.
The song opens with this verse:
I don’t know what to do without you
I don’t know where to put my hands
I’ve been trying to lay my head down
But I’m writing this at 3 AM
I’m not going to break the lyrics down too much because I’m really focusing on the second verse, but they set up a pattern over the course of these four lines. The first three reflect a helplessness, and then the fourth and active and cognisant engagement with the heartbreak on display. She may not be able to function with that pain inside of her, but while making art Mitski can channel her feelings into the end product.
And then comes the second verse that challenges this notion:
On sunny days, I go out walking
I end up on a tree-lined street
I look up at the gaps of sunlight
I miss you more than anything
Instead of a passive acceptance of the feelings of loss, this verse begins as a description of life. Instead of being paralysed with emotion she’s out engaging with the world, but even as she does in those three first bars she can’t avoid what’s coming in the third. The effectiveness of the parataxis here comes from the sudden change of subject and its ambiguity. Was she legitimately going for a walk and enjoying herself, or was it just an attempt to get out of the house and to stop thinking about this person who’s dumped her?
Was she legitimately getting over that person, and then was blindsided by a sudden wave of longing, or was she fooling herself by trying to pretend that she was over someone, and then being overcome with sudden emotion as she realises that she was not?
Honestly the specific emotion doesn’t matter here, the song is much more about a feeling of longing than a particular situation. What is evoked through the song’s use of parataxis isn’t a deeply understood psychological dynamic, but the feeling of rupture. As the lack of grammatical connection between the third and fourth line creates a jarring effect, it also reflects the feeling of an emotion intruding on a space that has been curated to exclude it. The technique embodies the way emotions work in real life, a chaotic and hard to pin down movement of life and subconscious. You can try to avoid them all you want, but they’ll catch up to you in the worst moments regardless.