Sufjan Stevens “Casimir Pulaski Day” appears on his 2007 album, Come on and Feel the Illinoise. The meaning of the song is subtle yet profound dealing with topics of a childhood romance ending in a tragic death due to leukemia.
Steven’s emphasizes the verses “All the glory that the Lord has made” by adding vocal backings. While removing musical trappings at the climax when singing, “In the morning when you finally go and the nurse runs in with her head hung low and the cardinal hits the window (Stevens).” The song is serene, contemplative and worshipful at times, seemingly contradicting the surface story of teenage death in “Casimir Pulaski Day”.
Sufjan Stevens reveals in “Casimir Pulaski Day” the experience of his teenage friend/romance dying of leukemia. The song retrospectively shows his faith in God as he copes in his community. Repetition of the words of “All the glory that the Lord has made” is acknowledging God’s sovereignty and is perplexing in its location in a song about death (Stevens). It is very telling in how he copes with sickness, loss, and death. My theory is that Stevens’s ”grief pre-death” and his experience, spiritually, is abnormal, because of his Christian conception of a God that shapes and continues to shape his remembrance of his childhood friend (Tomarken et al.,105).
His thoughts and memories on her contraction of cancer and death are complex because of his romantic involvement with her. Multiple factors must be taken into account to properly assess how he reacts to her death such as his “social support…mental health access and use…demographic factors (e.g. relationship to patient, income level, race, education, gender)”, Sufjan’s support structures remain strong, yet his romantic relationship exacerbates the grief he experiences (Tomarken et. al, 109). The theme of intertwining relationships creates an important bond because it creates a deeper emotional bond and informs how he responds to God and societies preconceived notions of appropriate responses.
Sufjan’s response is not standard in that he does not blame God or run away from his community. He does not as Loomis explains react as the Jews did after the destruction of their kingdom, “engage in blaming and confronting God for God’s unjust punishment.” Instead of “confronting and blaming” he runs towards God in faith. The theme of running towards instead of away is present in the lyrics, especially within the reconciliation code. He thanks God instead of hurling “insults, blam[ing] God, yell[ing] at God to pay attention” as the Jews had in the biblical book of Lamentations (703). Normally a song would portray God as the bad unjust actor instead of a God who should be praised.
In L.A. Burke’s et al. research, they categorize how complicated grief informs responses to the death of someone close (272). Sufjan’s reaction to her death though does not fit their categories. Sufjan even in the moment of her death when the nurse comes in does not relate to God with, “negative perceptions and feelings in relation to God often emer[ing] in the form of anger, confusion, leaving the griever devastated and shocked” (273). Even more so Sufjan’s entrenchment in his religious community never seems to be jeapordized. Which according to L.A. Burke et al. is quite frequent, yet Sufjan never expresses in “Casimir Pulaski Day,” the sentiment of “betrayal, and a sense of feeling robbed following loss [that] are sometimes related to the griever feeling that their spiritual community lied to them about God’s character” (273). Instead stating that God “..takes and he takes and he takes” having twofold meaning: one is that “he” being Christ continues to take the place of Sufjan Steven in taking the wrath of God and the more base meaning is God takes people from the world of the living (Stevens). Sufjan seems to have the realization already that God is sovereign and can decide to take people’s lives. His community instead of shaping his religious beliefs seems to be supporting him indicating a close individual relationship.
His Christian faith is inherently the most important theme present in the song and influences his mourning. While Tomarken et al. acknowledge that “bereavement is a social process that involves numerous relationships” in the end people have to work through their own grief (106). Even in grief he begins multiple verses singing “all the glory” he is still acknowledging God’s work in the events leading up to her death. Since he does not feel that he is being punished by God for her death he is able to move past it and therefore shows relief from his “spiritual anguish” instead worshiping and glorifying (L.A. Burke, 277). Sufjan Stevens seems to hold to his view of the Bible and it’s expression of a creator God who is sovereign.
In conclusion, Sufjan’s response to the death of his friend is uniquely expressed in this song. Instead of a conventional response of anger and running away from a ‘spiritual’ community he gives glory to God. In the midst of, “unfathomable pain existing on a personal, communal and global level and God seems to allow this truth [of pain]”, his response is to say, “All 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”(Loomis 707; Stevens).
In today’s society, this message is important because it challenges the conventional way that we view mourning, fairness and more predominantly the view of God in death and sickness. Is God just in taking people away at a young age? “Casimir Pulaski Day” was written from a Christian understanding of God. Another direction would be to view how other religions, communities and cultures have written songs reflecting on loss. This same technique could be used to study secular lyrics and how secular society deals with loss, death and grief.
Burke, Laurie A., and Robert A. Neimeyer. “Complicated Spiritual Grief I: Relation to Complicated Grief Symptomatology Following Violent Death Bereavement.” Death Studies (2013): 259-67. North Central College. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
Loomis, Tiffany. “Good God?!? Lamentations as a Model for Mourning the Loss of the Good God.” Journal of Religious Health 51 (2012): 701-08. North Central College. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
Tomarken, Alexis, Jimmie Holland, Sherry Schachter, Lauren Vanderwerker, Enid Zuckerman, Christian Nelson, Elliot Coups, Paul Michael Ramirez, and Holly Prigerson. “Factors of Complicated Grief Pre-death in Caregivers of Cancer Patients.” Psycho-Oncology (2007): 105-11. North Central College. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
Casimir Pulaski Day:
2, 3, 4
Goldenrod and the 4H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone[5,11]
Your father cried on the telephone[2,12]
And he drove his car into the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry[2,10,12]
In the morning, through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading
All the glory that the Lord has made[4,8,10]
And the complications you could do without[6,2,11,]
When I kissed you on the mouth[6,]
Tuesday night at the Bible study[3,4,7,9]
We lift our hands and pray over your body[4,5,7,9,11]
But nothing ever happens[11,5,7]
I remember at Michael’s house
In the living room when you kissed my neck[5,6,]
And I almost touched your blouse[5,6,]
In the morning, at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night[6,9,12,]
And you told me you were scared[6,9,12,]
All the glory when you ran outside[8,10,]
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you[2,]
Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I found the card where you wrote it out[5,6,]
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[2,11]
In the morning when you finally go[1,2,3]
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low[1,2,9,11]
And the cardinal hits the window[4,7]
In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March, on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing
All the glory that the Lord has made[8,10]
And the complications when I see his face[8,10]
In the morning in the window[7,8]
All the glory when he took our place[4,8,10]
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face[4,8,10]
And he takes and he takes and he takes[1,2,4,8,10]
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