19 August 2011

aural and literary morsels

A few weeks ago we had the pleasure of seeing Joanna Newsom again live, as she was in town to tape at ACL (Austin City Limits for those of you non-Austinites). It happened to be our anniversary weekend (9th...yikes) and while I was out-of-control ecstatic about seeing her again, I was worried my husband would be less than thrilled. I dragged him to her Have One on Me tour in November and while he was initially skeptical of her distinct voice and non-traditional ways, he walked out understanding a little more of why I love her so much...and actually liked her. You almost have to see her live to fully appreciate her musicianship and poetry; that or be prepared to spend long hours listening and analyzing her deeply intense music. But it was worth it. We both had an amazing time, shed a few tears (okay, well, just me), and had a fabulous sushi dinner beforehand. Thanks to my sweet husband, for always surprising me, for making me laugh till I hurt, and for everything we've been through together, then and now, you are my match, my soulful mate.
WARNING: Going past this point will likely bore most of you to tears, so I advise to stop while you're ahead, but for the few who think they can handle it, I dare you to read the rest...all of it.

After this last concert, I started not just listening to her, but really listening. I have sort of become obsessed with figuring her out--not that I ever will--but just trying to understand more of her poetry and incredible diction, her powerful Shakespearean-like language. She's nothing like I've ever heard before. She's brilliant, actually, and I hope the literary world will come to recognize her genius as much of the music world has. As I am a scientist by profession and a naturalist and artist by heart, I find her poetry to be intoxicating, her allegories and descriptive use of nature to be powerful, raw, and beautiful.


I finally wrapped my head around Emily, on of my favorite songs on her Ys (pronounced "yee's") album. The lyrics and my interpretation follow. Again, beware: they are both long, but completely worth it. I suggest listening too to get the full effect.

The meadowlark and the chim-choo-ree and the sparrow
Set to the sky in a flying spree, for the sport over the Pharaoh
Little while later the Pharisees dragged comb through the meadow
Do you remember what they called up to you and me, in our window?

There is a rusty light on the pines tonight
Sun pouring wine, lord, or marrow
Down into the bones of the birches
And the spires of the churches
Jutting out from the shadows
The yoke, and the axe, and the old smokestacks and the bale and the barrow
And everything sloped like it was dragged from a rope
In the mouth of the south below

We've seen those mountains kneeling, felten and grey
We thought our very hearts would up and melt away
From that snow in the night time
Just going
And going
And the stirring of wind chimes
In the morning
In the morning
Helps me find my way back in
From the place where I have been

And, Emily, I saw you last night by the river
I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water
Frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever,
In a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky'd been breathing on a mirror

Anyhow, I sat by your side, by the water
You taught me the names of the stars overhead that I wrote down in my ledger
Though all I knew of the rote universe were those Pleiades loosed in December
I promised you I'd set them to verse so I'd always remember

That the meteorite is a source of the light
And the meteor's just what we see
And the meteoroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee

And the meteorite's just what causes the light
And the meteor's how it's perceived
And the meteoroid's a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee

You came and lay a cold compress upon the mess I'm in
Threw the window wide and cried; Amen! Amen! Amen!
The whole world - stopped - to hear you hollering
You looked down and saw now what was happening

The lines are fadin' in my kingdom
Though I have never known the way to border 'em in
So the muddy mouths of baboons and sows and the grouse and the horse and the hen
Grope at the gate of the looming lake that was once a tidy pen
And the mail is late and the great estates are not lit from within
The talk in town's becoming downright sickening

In due time we will see the far butte lit by a flare
I've seen your bravery, and I will follow you there
And row through the night time
Gone healthy
Gone healthy all of a sudden
In search of the midwife
Who could help me
Who could help me
Help me find my way back in
There are worries where I've been

Say, say, say in the lee of the bay; don't be bothered
Leave your troubles here where the tugboats shear the water from the water
Flanked by furrows, curling back, like a match held up to a newspaper
Emily, they'll follow your lead by the letter
And I make this claim, and I'm not ashamed to say I know you better
What they've seen is just a beam of your sun that banishes winter

Let us go! Though we know it's a hopeless endeavor
The ties that bind, they are barbed and spined and hold us close forever
Though there is nothing would help me come to grips with a sky that is gaping and yawning
There is a song I woke with on my lips as you sailed your great ship towards the morning

Come on home, the poppies are all grown knee-deep by now
Blossoms all have fallen, and the pollen ruins the plow
Peonies nod in the breeze and while they wetly bow, with
Hydrocephalitic listlessness ants mop up-a their brow

And everything with wings is restless, aimless, drunk and dour
The butterflies and birds collide at hot, ungodly hours
And my clay-colored motherlessness rangily reclines
Come on home, now! All my bones are dolorous with vines

Pa pointed out to me, for the hundredth time tonight
The way the ladle leads to a dirt-red bullet of light
Squint skyward and listen,
Loving him, we move within his borders
Just asterisms in the stars' set order

We could stand for a century
With our heads cocked
In the broad daylight at this thing
In bodies that don't keep
Dumbstruck with the sweetness of being
Till we don't be
Told; take this
Eat this

Told, the meteorite is the source of the light
And the meteor's just what we see
And the meteoroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee

And the meteorite's just what causes the light
And the meteor's how it's perceived
And the meteoroid's a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee

At the beginning of the poem, Joanna recalls a memory from her childhood, a time when her sister, Emily, and she were spying on bullies ("Pharisees") up to no good in the nearby grasslands of her home. In present tense, she sees the "rusty light" casting deep shadows on the life that surrounds her, the woods and rural landscapes, the shadows are steeply sloping like everything's warped, perhaps the way she currently sees life.

So she’d rather think about the sweet memories of her childhood with her sister, those that bring her comfort from the current state of despair she is in. Joanna reminisces on a day by the river where her sister, who is scientific in nature, was trying to figure out the physics of skipping stones. She remembers her sister teaching her the names of the stars and her promising to remember. But she doesn't. She remembers it wrong, because she's not a scientist and it was a long time ago, and perhaps didn’t take it so seriously. Now, straining, desperate to hold on to her sister and what they had, she recalls those definitions taught so long ago, a sweet homage to her scientist sister, a sad metaphor for their tumultuous relationship.

Joanna also remembers how Emily helped comfort her through a traumatic experience, which I respectfully think it is an ill-fated pregnancy and loss. This seems to be one of the many themes mentioned in several songs (Sawdust and Diamonds, Baby Birch, On a Good Day, etc.). It is simply heart-wrenching because it seems to have deeply affected her--and I respect her the more for it. Joanna calls attention to how everyone respects Emily, how “they’ll follow your lead”, or how she's this "great ship" or powerful sunlight that "banishes winter" (which is very interesting because Joanna speaks of the current "rusty light" in her life above). From the lines "threw the window wide and cried, 'Amen! Amen! Amen!'/the whole world stopped to hear you hollering"), I can’t help but think that Emily somehow divulged the secret, but it must have been by accident, because "you looked down and saw now what was happening," as she realized what she had done.

These traumatic events (including the accidental deceit) were devastating to Joanna who admires Emily so much. It spirals Joanna into depression, turning her whole world upside down. She was a mess both physically and mentally ("the lines are fading in my kingdom/...looming lake that was once a tidy pen/and the mail is late and the great estates are not lit from within").

Yet Emily helped Joanna when she had "gone healthy all of a sudden", which makes me think of loss of a baby (when you don’t feel sick during pregnancy, that sometimes means the baby aborted), although it could also be interpreted as the pregnancy itself, when you stop consuming alcohol/caffeine/etc. Whatever the case, needing a "midwife who could help me find my way back in," could be interpreted as Joanna literally or figuratively needing help or guidance to deal with the situation, help so she could find comfort in her despair.

So Emily tried to comfort her, encouraged Joanna not to let it bother her, but I get the feeling it was superficial in nature. By telling Joanna to “leave her troubles here where the tugboats shear the water from the water (flanked by furrows, curling back, like a match held up to a newspaper),” it makes me think that the comfort was shallow in nature. And it makes sense that Joanna was “not ashamed to say I know you better" as this falls in line with how Emily handled the situation.

Joanna realizes that there is no hope of letting go of what happened (“we know it’s a hopeless endeavor”), but yet they're still tied together as sisters, no matter how painful it is (“The ties that bind, they are barbed and spined and hold us close forever”). But just as Joanna starts to heal/forgive by writing a song (this one) about her ordeal, Emily leaves her to live across the ocean, likely Argentina or New Zealand, as stated in previous interviews (“There is a song I woke with on my lips as you sailed your great ship towards the morning”).

Joanna just wants her sister to come home now. She's restless and distracted after her loss, just like the listless wildlife in the dead of summer. Her "clay-colored motherlessness rangily reclines," makes me think she's restless while her roomy and malleable body heals. By the way, I love her imagery of clay throughout so many songs (Bridges and Balloons, Only Skin, Sawdust and Diamonds, Emily); it’s earthy, moldable, raw, and organic, a perfect symbol for a young woman’s vulnerable life that’s in tune with nature. Anyway, she's terribly sad ("bones are dolorous with vines") and misses her sister.

During this time at home, Joanna ponders over the starry sky with her dad. She thinks how we are all like meteors moving within God's universe ("we move within his borders"). "Just asterisms in the stars' set order" is actually one of my favorite lines. Asterisms are patterns of stars that are visible from a certain vantage point on Earth, but the stars of which are not always physically related and are often at varying distances from Earth. Knowing this, I love the interpretation that we're all just different patterns or perspectives in God's set design. I'm not very religious, but can't help but see so much of her writing as spiritual. Joanna thinks she could contemplate this, the meaning of life, of eternity or God for a "century, staring with our heads cocked" and "dumbstruck with the sweetness of being until we don’t be." She could philosophize the meaning of it all until the day she dies; but then again, her sister already told her what it all meant so long ago. She then remembers those sweet celestial definitions that are the aching allusion to their fiery relationship.

Delicate. Haunting. Genius. Thank you, Joanna, for your bittersweet, honest words, the tender morsels of which I eat up every day.

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