The Passionate Eye: The Collected Writing of Suzanne Vega

The Passionate Eye: The Collected Writing of Suzanne Vega

by Suzanne Vega


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Suzanne Vega is a poet of the urban streets whose passionate eye catches the motion and vibrant color of the life that surrounds us all. In this volume are her collected writings:  poems and stories; song lyrics and overheard conversations; remembrances of times past and faraway countries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780380788828
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/08/2001
Series: Collected Writings of Suzanne Vega
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Suzanne Vega is an award-winning songwriter and recording/performing artist who has performed on many of the world's great stages, including New York's Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, and London's Royal Albert Hall. Her recordings have sold in excess of six million copies worldwide.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Solitude stands by the window
She turns her head as I walk in the room
I can see by her eyes she's been waiting
Standing in the slant of the late afternoon

And she turns to me with her hand extended
Her palm is split with a flower, with a flame

Solitude stands in the doorway
And I'm struck once again by her black silhouette
By her long cool stare and her silence
I suddenly remember each time we've met

And she turns to me with her hand extended
Her palm is split with a flower, with a flame

And she says "I've come to set a twisted thing straight"
And she says "I've come to lighten this dark heart"
And she takes my wrist, I feel her imprint of fear
And I say, "I've never thought of finding you here"

I turn to the crowd as they're watching
They're sitting all together in the dark, in the warm
I wanted to be in there among them
I see how their eyes are gathered into one

And then she turns to me with her hand extended
Her palm is split with a flower, with a flame

And she says "I've come to set a twisted thing straight"
And she says "I've come to lighten this dark heart"
And she takes my wrist, I feel her imprint of fear
And I say, "I've never thought of finding you here"

Solitude stands in the doorway
And I'm struck once again by her blacksilhouette
By her long cool stare and her silence
I suddenly remember each time we've met

And she turns to me with her hand extended
Her palm is split with a flower, with a flame

by myself

(Age 9)

I stand by myself
Not lonely at all.
I listen to the little birds
Beckon and call.

I stand by myself
By the pond, with the fish
And now I don't even
Have one little wish

Except to be by myself
Each and every day
And come down to the woods
Where the little deer play.


As a child
You have a doll
You see this doll
Sitting in her chair

You watch her face
Her knees apart
Her eyes of glass
In a secretive stare

She seems to
She seems to
She seems to
Have a life

Pick up a stick
Dig up a crack
Dirt in the street
Becomes a town

All of the people
Depend on you
Not to hurt them
Or bang the stick down

And they seem to
They seem to
They seem to
Have a life

As a child
You see yourself
And wonder why
You can't seem to move

Hand on the doorknob
Feel like a thing
One foot on the sidewalk
Too much to prove

And you learn to
You learn to
You learn to
Have a life

written after a triumphant fight

(Age 12)

I'm the baddest girl in the world
I'm as bad as Super Fly
and I don't need coke to get me high.
I can beat you, Jack
and you better get back
when the Vega's come around.
We'll kick your ass, and make it last,
I got evil eye, and you sure gotta try
to put me on the ground.
I don't play, hey, you know what I say
when I say it or pay.
I can stare you down,
make you crawl on the ground.
I'm action, no talk, when I say to you walk, I'm not the
kind you can knock.
I use only my hands, no bottles for me
But I got plans, and you won't go home free.
When I don't smile, you know you're in trouble
'cause I can get wild, I ain't got no double.
I can make you cry, I can make you wanna die.
No one beat me yet, and they ain't gonna get the
I can take mine and the little folks at the same time.
I'm the baddest girl in the world.

fighting with boys

Some girls are taught to be sexy. L.A. girls for example. There you are taught to be blond and cute and show a lot of skin. It's different in New York. There you have to prove yourself, and you can't let any other kids mess with you. Not girls, and not boys. Boys will say stuff to you to see if you can take it, talk about your shoes, pull your hair, call you names, like, Hey, white girl, are you really a girl or a faggot? So you have to fight. Here are the rules.

Go for the biggest one. That was my father's advice. If you have to fight a crowd of boys, it's best to go for the biggest one. That way you won't have to fight them all. The others will see that you mean business, and you will have won their respect.

Call their bluff. If Tony W. picks up a lead pipe and swings it at you in the school hallway, he is bluffing. There's no way he'll hit you with it. This later was proven wrong, when Tony W. in fact did hit me in the ribs with a wooden board, as I went after him in the street. I chased him for blocks and returned to see the younger grades of the school out on the stoop cheering.

Defend what's yours. If my brother has provoked a fight by calling Tony W. a fucking bastard, then I still have to jump in and defend my brother. If everyone is standing around in a circle downstairs chanting, "The Vegas are sick, they suck on big dick," then you must go, and fight all of them, and make them stop, even if you are happily reading Steinbeck's Travels with Charley and do not want to go. You have to defend your honor. And your family.

Always aim for the face and the stomach. And always defend your own face and stomach. I forgot to do this once in the fight with Jonathan R. He hit me in the stomach, and knocked the wind out of me, after which my face hit the sidewalk and I chipped my front tooth.

Fight fair. But don't be stupid. It's best to fight fists with fists. That's the best, most honorable way. If you really need help, you can pick up a bottle and smash it against the curb and brandish the jagged edges at your opponent. Or else look for a stick, a lead pipe, a piece of wood. Switchblades are showy, as in West Side Story, but we never used them. Chains are for the more advanced, and guns are right out. You are trying to fight the guy, not kill him. This was twenty years ago, so I'm sure some of the rules have changed by now.

Never back down. Don't threaten something and then not do it, (See Call Their Bluff, above.) I came close to backing down once, when I offered to fight Ricky W. I remember saying, "Do you want to fight?" The words popped brightly out of my mouth before I had a chance to bite down hard on them, and I remember Ricky W.'s look of amused amazement, since he was the blackest, toughest, meanest guy in the school. Although he was thirteen, there were rumors that he had a woman in her early twenties, that he'd gotten her pregnant.

    So when he turned his cold eyes in my direction and said, "Fight? Yeah, I'll fight you. I haven't had a fight in a while. I could use the exercise," and he began to roll his sleeves up over his hard tan muscles, I thought I was going to die. The other kids on the stoop said, "No, Suzy. Don't, Suzy," and looked at me nervously. I don't think I actually said anything or did anything after that except stare at him, and eventually the whole thing blew over, as he didn't take it seriously. I was relieved, but at least I had saved face.

Don't fight with girls. Girls are crazy and mean. They don't fight fair. Fighting fair means hard tight fists and regular punches. But girls will slap, bite, pinch, pull your hair, rip the buttons off your shirt and the earrings out of your ears.

    The one exception was the fight with Carla W., where she had challenged me. We never even touched each other. I just stood there staring at her as she wound herself down, and she eventually began speaking nonsense. "I'll kick you in the ass! I'll kick you in the pussy and two babies will fall out!" What was that supposed to mean? Eventually the crowd around us began to laugh, and I was the winner.

    The other fight with a girl was in high school. We were both fifteen. That was the last fight I ever had. She was a cute blond girl who besides being a ballet dancer, also worked as a model. We did not like each other. She accused me of having the Evil Eye, after which I called her mother a whore. She flew at me with her friend and pulled my braids. There are no rules in fights with girls. Just hurting.

I remember two girls fighting in my elementary school. They were wild: sobbing, crying, slapping, and punching each other, two light-skinned black girls, or maybe one was Puerto Rican. One had torn the other one's dress wide open and you could see her small hard breasts under her undershirt, exposed to the breeze, and the buttons from her dress rolling away down the asphalt. We all hung around, watching.

    Sometimes you become friends afterward. This happened with Stephan D., a big, half-black, half-Jewish guy who hit me in the eye, after I hit him for some reason, which is unknown to me now. He hit me really fast. My eye swelled up. The crowd separated us before either of us could get in another hit. The teacher made us stay in after school to talk things over, and we actually became friendly. I still have the plastic bracelet he gave me at the end of the school year, striped with one stripe brown, one stripe red.

Even pacifists fight. "One of these days you Vegas will learn that violence is not the answer!" shouted my teacher Ruth M., as I held Michael E.'s face against the floor in the hallway. I had him down but never knew quite what to do after that, as I had no natural killer instinct. She forced me to let him up, and soon after that year, she quit teaching to enter New York politics. She is currently Manhattan Borough President, and is probably fighting some boys herself.


(Age 12)

Apple Jacks and Vaughn
Are having a fight.
Vaughn is having fun
But Apples is uptight.

Apple Jacks and Vaughn
Are rolling on the floor.
Sophie comes and asks,
"Hey, what's the score?"

Rodney comes and answers,
"It's as plain as can be
Vaughn is gonna win
You just wait and see!"

Apple Jacks and Vaughn
Are having it out.
Vaughn is going easy,
And Apples wants to shout.

Ruth comes along
To break up the fight,
Sophie says to Rodney,
"How do you know you were right?".

Apple Jacks and Vaughn
Were having a fight.
Vaughn was having fun
But Apples was uptight.

my friend MILLIE

I was six years old and playing in the front yard on East 109th Street, with a stick and a crack in the sidewalk, when this big girl came up to me and said,

"Millie told me
that you
called me a huah
and I'm gonna knock your
fucking teeth down your throat."

I looked up and said, "Excuse me?" because I wasn't sure if I had heard her correctly.

She repeated her words.

    Oh, I said, and tried to imagine what she was talking about. What was that word? A huah? What was that? I tried to picture this word in my head. I had just learned to spell the words "cough" and "bough." Perhaps this mystery word had a gh or a silent p in it. So I said,

    "How do you spell that?"

My question took her by surprise; I could see it in her eyes, as she looked down at me. She thought for a second, then leaned forward, and said gently and dangerously into my face,

"I don't know how you fucking spell it. But it means a bad girl and if you call me it again I'll kick your fucking ass."

Then, looking over the small crowd that had gathered, she sought out the one face that wouldn't meet her eye and said,

    "Millie. This girl ain't call me a huah. She don't even know what it is." "Oh, yes, she did!" said my friend Millie. This did not surprise me as Millie would say anything. Millie would say, "Go inside and tell your mother it's my birthday." Which I would dutifully do. "Millie has her birthday five times a year," said my mother. "Go outside," I puzzled over that one. Millie has five birthdays? But now Millie stood there in front of the big girl, and in front of Markie, and the two little twins, and everyone else, and said "Yes, yes, she did, I swear to God she did."

    But the crowd began to look at her suspiciously. Then they started in on her.

    "How come you can't just swear? How come you gotta swear to God?"

And I breathed a sigh of relief, since I knew I was out of the hot water and she was falling in.

    But Millie was just that way. My parents had taught me, do not talk to strangers. Do not accept gifts of any kind. Do not accept food as it will be poisoned, or it will have a hidden razor blade inside which will slice me up.

    So one day I was in the front yard again, playing with a mysterious round object with a small window through which something blue was gleaming; now I would call it a blown fuse. I shifted it this way and that and poked at the glass. This was interrupted by a fat lady walking past the yard. She looked at me, and I looked at her, and then she did the unthinkable—she offered me candy.

    "Would you like one?"

    "No, no," I said.

    "They are very good. Here have one," she said.

    "No, I can't," I said, in a quiet panic.

"I'll leave it right here," she said, putting it onto the metal fence, in between the spikes. "In case you change your mind,"

She sailed up the street. I went over to look at what I couldn't have. I didn't touch it. It was a piece of jelly candy, shaped like a section of orange, covered in sugar, and smiling in the sun at me.

    I looked at it. I swear it looked back at me. I could feel it sort of singing to me. But I didn't touch it. So here comes my friend Millie walking down the street.

    "Hey, what's this?" she says, snatching up the piece of candy. "Is this yours?"

"Some lady gave it to me. But don't eat it. It's got poison," I said, trying to be helpful.

She examined it. She popped it into her mouth.

    I watched her, wondering if she would go blue in the face and drop dead, if blood would spurt from her mouth because of the razor blades, but she just chewed it, and swallowed it, and put her feet on the bottom of the gate.

    "It's good," she informed me. "You are an idiot."

She swung around on the gate, and looked at me.

    "Go ask your mother if I can have dinner here."

Last time I did that my mother had suggested that Millie eat at her own house.

    "I don't know if I want to," I said.

"Go do it," she said, swinging on the gate, with her bony elbows sticking out. "Or I will go into the street and pull up my dress."

    This puzzled me. Why would she do that? What did one have to do with the other?

    "No, I don't think so," I said.

    "Okay, then," she said, hopping off the gate.

She walked over to the curb, and lifted up her dress in a fast swooping motion in front of some kind of car going by. I wasn't sure why, but I felt worried, and thought maybe I should go in and ask my mother if she could stay for dinner, though I didn't want to.

    "Maybe I will," I said nervously.

She ignored me and lifted up her dress again, and this time pulled down the front of her panties. A truck driver yelled something as he went around the corner in his truck. I was impressed.

    "Okay," I said. Dinner with Millie meant hours of playing house where I was always the Baby, where whoever finished eating dinner last was a Rocking Egg, along with an endless commentary on what I had, what I wore, and what I did. But she was my friend, and she was bigger than me, so it was better than nothing.

    Some time later we moved from that neighborhood to the UpperWest Side. The day we left, we put our piano in the front yard to be moved. Some people came with a truck and loaded it up in front of all the neighbors. We never saw it again. Millie came to say goodbye.

    "Maybe I could go with you," she said to me.

    "No, I don't think so."

    "I think my parents would let me go with you. It would be okay."

    "No, that's okay," I said.

Many years later I was walking down the street, pondering the mystery of the word huah with the hidden gh—huaugh, maybe? and then it dawned on me what she had meant. She meant whore, like a prostitute. I had to laugh. Because if she had pronounced it the way they pronounced it in my first grade class, she would have said ho. You called me a ho. And I would have known what she meant because everybody knew what a ho was.

(Story told onstage)


"We had our
Neighborhood girl, she
Used to hang out, in front of
McKinsey's Bar, and we were
Interested in her, and her
Clientele ...
We just wonder where she's gone ..."
"Oh she's gone?"
"Yes, she's gone, gone, gone."

"I think I know your
Neighborhood girl, she
Lives on my street, now, with
Eyes of ice
I've seen her in the morning, when she is
Walking in the sun
And I always thought that she
Looked kind of nice

She spoke to me once
At a party, I think
And I thought at the time
That she had had too much to drink, because she
Said to me, 'There's a backbone gone
And I've got to get it back
Before going on ...'

And your neighborhood girl
Seems to have resigned
She was looking out at people
From the back of her mind
And before she went off
She spoke to me again
She came up and said,

'You have the eyes of a friend
And there's a razor's edge
That I have lost somewhere
And I would like it back
So if you've seen it anywhere ...
I've been out for a while
But I'll be back in a bit
I am just walking through the smoke
Finding out if this is it
Because I've got this feeling
That things are going gray
And I'd like to hear a straight line
To help me find my way ...'

I looked at her
And I did not know what to say.
She had long black hair."
"Must be a different
Neighborhood girl, cause
Ours had blond hair, in front of
McKinsey's Bar
And we were interested in her
And her
We just wonder where
she's gone ..."
"Oh she's gone?"
"Yes, she's gone, gone, gone."

    for I.r.

You remind me of the day
when I first left home
you remind me of the moment
I learned I was really alone
you remind me of every boy
that I've ever known
from the first grade to the lost ones

of the dust on the pavement
and the heat on the roof
of every closed fist
of every inner blade
you need to wake up with
you remind me of the edges
of the places in my life.

Believe me you don't
frighten me
you already know
the things I've seen

of the kids in the sprinklers
and dampness in the air
of every mother's hand
on every child's hair

You walk down
all of the streets in my life
and you know
every corner.


(Age 16)

Daniella, she sits by the tree in the playground,
sometimes we go there and the children all play.
But no one can tell me just where is Daniella
when she looks in the distance that way.

Daniella, your hair is growing wild like a jungle,
like a garden of ivy that's been blown by the wind.
In the morning we brush it and tie it with a ribbon,
and in the evening it has flown loose again.

In the afternoon when the day seems forever
and the night feels like never then she will sigh.
But no one can tell me just where is Daniella
when her thoughts wander off to the sky.

Ilana's her friend, she runs fast like a squirrel,
she has big brown eyes and sometimes she cries.
But she stops very soon and they both play together,
making castles and strawberry pies.

And sometimes Daniella believes she's a sparrow,
she sits by the window and eats sunflower seeds.
She watches the rain and the birds on the rooftops,
and often I wonder just what she sees.

In the afternoon when the day seems forever
and the night feels like never, then she will sigh.
Oh no one can tell me just where is Daniella
when her thoughts wander off to the sky.


In the Ironbound section near Avenue L,
where the Portuguese women come to see what you sell
the clouds so low, the morning so slow
as the wires cut through the sky

The beams and bridges cut the light on the ground
into little triangles and the rails run round
through the rust and the heat
the light and sweet coffee color of her skin

Bound up in iron and wire and fate
watching her walk him up to the gate
in front of the ironbound school yard

Kids will grow like weeds on a fence
She says they look for the light, they try to make sense
They come up through the cracks
Like grass on the tracks
She touches him good-bye

Steps off the curb and into the street
the blood and feathers near her feet
into the ironbound market ...

In the Ironbound section near Avenue L,
where the Portuguese women come to see what you sell
the clouds so low, the morning so slow
as the wires cut through the sky

She stops at the stall
fingers the ring
opens her purse
feels a longing
away from the Ironbound border

"Fancy poultry parts sold here,
Breasts and thighs and hearts,
Backs are cheap and wings are nearly free,
Nearly free ..."

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