How Refrains Work: M.I. Devine’s Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry

The cold open from Saturday Night Live, Saturday, November 12, 2016. Kate McKinnon’s impeccable Hilary Clinton singing Leonard Cohen’s everyman anthem, “Hallelujah.” McKinnon, center stage, alone at the grand piano, off-white pantsuit and her bobbed wig, incanting “I’ll stand right here before the lord of song/with nothing, nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah….Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.” McKinnon channeled our grief as a nation, in Cohen’s refrain, staging Clinton’s loss all while live from New York that Saturday night. 

Cohen died the day before Clinton lost the electoral college vote to be the first female president of the United States. We didn’t know yet which was more tragic: the electoral college’s skewed decision in favor of a corrupt New York real estate tycoon, or the loss of one of the most versatile singer-songwriters of our time. It was mourning in America.

M. I. Devine’s Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry dances majestically between poetry, prose, and song, reminding us of that somber week in 2016 in a piece late in the collection, After Carson.

President elected. We felt cheated. Cohen had died. 

    Poets tweeted

                 gyre wide af

We were. Grieved af. We needed words but Cohen had died–words were tangled in the thick of national sorrow. Experiencing McKinnon’s gut punch on the piano that night in 2016 was cathartic. Devine’s collection is a similarly cathartic mashup of cultural studies, a collage of anecdotes and moments in sharp relief set against a backdrop of literary history. His woman at center stage is Andy Warhol’s mother, Julia, as inspiration for and concoction of her son’s life in art. She is spotlighted in this divine collection, but she is not alone. 

Devine’s redemptive work burrows into pop and punk, funk and jazz; he lavishes on the reader a legion of holy names, events, visceral experiences, and scenes that can feel incomplete without diving deeper into people and terms; that’s what Google is for. We need to read inside and outside of Devine’s text. Devine’s allusions take the reader to Eliot’s Waste Land and back, a point not lost on Devine himself, who references Eliot several times in the work. Devine writes, “(n)ot the expression of personality, but the escape from it–that’s T. S. Eliot on poetry, but I prefer Noname’s version, the Chicago hip-hop artist. I find it more democratic. Art as the work of actual human beings. Voices.”

Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry invites readers into Devine’s head where we interact with characters who dance with the music in our own heads. A choir of 20th and 21st-century poets and songbirds, including a heavy lift from Bird himself, Charlie Parker. In section three of the book, “A Photograph of a Little Room,” a section that unravels the work of Philip Larkin, Devine writes: “It’s dead now, all dead, Larkin ends, ‘dead as Elizabethan madrigal singing.’

So, Charlie Parker killed the sonnet. Who knew?… Larkin’s sonnets, in other words, are pulp, pop. Call them bebop. Why not? They are autobiographies of modern selves: birds caged like the Charlie Parker of Larkin’s mind.” 

Devine connects. Only connects. “Like Warhol,” Devine asks the reader to think about “the power of reproduction–the power of art–and how it pictures us in the world.” Art reads us while we’re reading art. Devine’s book is part performance piece–moving deftly from the white male literary canon to mid-century jazz to contemporary hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar, putting the past in conversation with the present–not conversation, dance. A Twyla Tharp piece, feat. Tyehimba Jess and Leonard Cohen. 

As I write this, Tyehimba Jess is a guest poet-in-residence at the top-20 public land grant university twenty-eight miles from my arts-and-crafts house on the prairie. He’s giving a public craft talk on poetry and I’m taking notes on Zoom. My notes on Jess and Devine’s kaleidoscopic text intermingle in my own head and in the newly reopened coffee shop, where I’m listening to Charlie Parker, reading about Warhol, David Foster Wallace, James Joyce, Basquiat, Whitman’s “Manhatta,” and now shifting tabs to YouTube, where the 1921 silent documentary of the same name is viewable in its restored version. Reading Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry is reading as modern dance. We move from space to space, with partners and solo, trusting his choreography. 

Devine reveals early on he’s a songwriter, which means he writes refrains. 

Here’s one:

A kid just googled

Is God really dead?

The refrain, from  “All in My Head”, is featured on his author website and grants the reader more opportunities to interact with Devine’s bebop creativity. The line works in the book, in the song, and it weaves together my experience as a post-9/11 mom of teen boys and a teacher of cultural studies, writ large. There were moments, sitting and reading Devine at my local pub, that felt conversational and I’m 90% sure I was talking out loud, to myself, masked but wondering what Devine’s favorite cocktail might be. Mine’s a Tito’s and soda, two limes. 

Section four of Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry is an open invitation to research while reading. In “Manhattan Redeemed: Manhatta,” Devine directs attention to the 1921 silent documentary, Manhatta (a short film restored and easily found on YouTube), which spliced Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name to filmed images of 1920’s Manhattan, complete with boatloads of workers, factories, bridges, and, using language from Whitman’s poem

Countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the ferry boats, the 

Black sea-steamers well-model’d,

The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business, the houses of business of

the ship-mercanges and money-brokers, the river streets...

Reading Devine requires exploration into forgotten texts from the way-back machine and discovering new texts with deep roots in American cultural history. The book is a moveable feast that starts with Andy Warhol’s mother, and ends with one of my favorite bits from “Remnants, Scraps, Waste: Pop’s Postscript.”

After Cohen

Thing about “Hallelujah”: like something from Eliot, from Pound but whittled down. A bird in space. Brancusi. Line for line’s sake. 

The refrain brings us back to McKinnon’s grieving Hilary on Saturday Night Live. That singular performance of Hilary wasn’t a parody as the previous weeks had been, familiar lampoons of an ongoing election cycle. McKinnon concluded Cohen’s haunting hymn by addressing the camera and announcing she wouldn’t give up and neither should the audience. We didn’t give up. We survived the corrupt New York real estate tycoon’s power trip, barely. Survival is art and art is survival. Julia Warhol knew this as she prepared Campbell’s soup for her son.

Her husband has died. Fatherless Andy. Andy at thirteen. 

She cleans out the can. 

Tomorrow it will turn into a flower. 

Amy Penne, PhD, is a writer and Professor of English in the Department of Humanities at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois. She teaches courses on women in arts and culture as well as poetry, history and the arts, and myriad versions of college composition. Her poems, essays, and reviews have been featured in Tupelo Quarterly, Minerva Rising, Brain Child, Change Seven, on the Drunken Odyssey podcast and elsewhere. Her forthcoming essay, Exit 212, a Haibun of Comfort Food, will be published in the anthology These Interesting Times, from the Midwest Writing Center. Amy can be found at, and on Twitter @thepensivepenne.