LYRIC MEDIUMS: Joanna Newsom’s ‘Divers’

Joanna Newsom, Divers (Drag City, 2015)
Brad Buchanan (ed.), Visions of Joanna Newsom (Roan Press, 2010)

by Rebecca Varley–Winter

In reviewing Joanna Newsom’s Divers – an album of music, after all – for Glasgow Review of Books, there is that tug on the writing arm, the need to explain myself. Alexis Petridis notes: “No current artist gets critics wheeling out the highfalutin literary comparisons quite like Newsom”.[1] Yes, and why are these comparisons highfalutin? Is the page, in its seeming permanence, so much higher than a song that breathes, dies and breathes again? Don’t make a song and dance about it. Yours for a song

Petridis’ discomfort implies that writing should stay chastely on the page, away from bodies, breath, and animation. Away, really, from mortality. Given that bloodless distance, it becomes pompous and highfalutin to call a song ‘literary’; by the same stroke, ‘literary’ comes to mean intimidating, distant and implicitly upper-class. Poetic resonances in Joanna Newsom’s work are suddenly embarrassing, too much, as if poetry and song were not born twins. Lyric means, among other things: “Of or pertaining to the lyre; adapted to the lyre, meant to be sung” (OED). Sappho sang to the lyre, Joanna Newsom sings to the harp (and, on this album, piano, keyboard, harpsichord, violins, accordions, full orchestral arrangements, a musical saw choir…).

Visions of Joanna Newsom - variousJoanna Newsom is a lyric poet, in the sense of both poetry and song, and her work has always been influenced by written culture. Her first full-length album, The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City, 2004), began by sailing towards Narnia in “a little wicker beetleshell […] its bearings on Cair Paravel”, and continued through “bedraggled ghosts” of sonnets and inflammatory writs, rhyming “blue” with “a page of Camus”. This imaginative bookishness, combined with a slightly clichéd association of harps with fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk, lead some listeners to indulge breathless fantasies about Newsom as an elf-maid or unworldly character from the pages of dreams. In Visions of Joanna Newsom (2010), Tim Kahl writes “Your feyness, forgive me every time I hear your music and feel like a middle-aged Japanese man who visits vending machines to hold and fetishize soiled schoolgirls’ panties.”[2] Each of Newsom’s albums has expanded her range, breaking her out of that queasily infantilised box. Her voice is unflinchingly feminine (flying high, she stings and floats), and it is hard not to see resistance to her intellect as gendered. Was Nick Cave – also with an abrasive voice, writing songs full of literary allusions – ever met with such suspicious condescension?

Divers sink into water and surface again, releasing their breath; ‘divers’ also means diverse, different, multiple. This is an album of many mediums. In the lyric booklet, each song is set collaboratively beside a different luminously detailed landscape painting by Kim Keever, and the music video for the title-trackDiversdepicts Newsom as a sky-god, dwarfing the landscape and singing through clouds, as if she’s in a vast Frida Kahlo painting.

The first song, ‘Anecdotes’, is accompanied by shadowy woodland and a tangle of branches; the second, ‘Sapokanikan’, by a fallen tree, as if a storm just passed through. By the time Newsom reaches ‘Goose Eggs’, we’re in the mountains. Each landscape is distinct, but linked by transcendental mistiness, full of moisture and shifting clouds; the word “transcending” runs through the album, like water evaporating and returning to its source. The final song, ‘Time, As A Symptom’, is accompanied, like ‘Anecdotes’, by an image of arching trees, and ends with a quotation from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (“a way a lone a last a loved a long”) in the flight to its final lines: [3]

White star, white ship–Nightjar, transmit: transcend!
White star, white ship–Nightjar, transmit: transcend!
White star, white ship–Nightjar, transmit: trans

Newsom ends the record on a half-word, looping back to the first line of ‘Anecdotes’, which is “Sending the first scouts over”: trans-sending, transcending. Like Finnegans Wake, this is a circular work; and like Finnegans Wake, which begins with “riverrun”, it’s full of water.

Newsom’s songs are almost endlessly rich in these kinds of connections and motifs, creating a vast and expanding web. By ending Divers on a half-word, she (transc)sends me back nine years to her song ‘Only Skin’, from her second album Ys (Drag City, 2006):

Last week, our picture window produced a half-word
Heavy and hollow, hit by a brown bird.
We stood and watched her gape like a rattlesnake
And pant and labor over every intake.

I said a sort of prayer for some rare grace
Then thought I ought to take her to a higher place.
Said, “Dog nor vulture nor cat shall toy with you
And though you die, bird, you will have a fine view”

Here the gasping bird hovers on the edge of articulacy, panting and labouring within Newsom’s own singing voice. Birds and words are twined through rhyme as well as their role in her songs, flying from one work to the next: Divers particularly features nightjars, mourning (/morning) doves, and migrating geese. ‘Goose Eggs’ echoes Have One on Me (Drag City, 2010), in which ‘Baby Birch’ – an unbearably beautiful elegy to a lost child – uneasily confronts a mother goose:

We take a walk along the dirty lake.
Hear the goose,
cussing at me over her eggs.
You poor little cousin.
I don’t want your dregs
(a little baby fussing over my legs).

In Divers’ ‘Goose Eggs’, the goose becomes a repeated emblem of lonely home-seeking. Perhaps it’s a silly goose, too; Newsom’s geese feel suggestive of poignant and sincere foolishness. Goose eggs, cussed over in ‘Baby Birch’, here become a legacy of love, likened to fragile clay vessels: “The old veil of desire, / like the vessels that we fired, / fell thin as eggshells.”

Newsom often invokes fire as a threat, a disintegrating emotional intensity. In ‘En Gallop’ (2004), she sings “Never draw so close to the heat that / you forget that you must eat”, while ‘Only Skin’ (2006) fluctuates from “Fire moves away” to “Clear the room there’s a fire a fire a fire, get going.” ‘Kingfisher’ (2010) plays out under a pall of volcanic ash:

Stand here and name
the one you loved,
beneath the drifting ashes,
and, in naming,
rise above time,
as it, flashing, passes.

Now, in ‘Goose Eggs’, the volcano becomes a kiln, more human in scale, imbued with personal craft. Newsom assesses the remnants of overheated goose eggs (more intimate asides are often put into parentheses on the page):

(A goose, alone, I suppose, can know the loneliness of geese,
who never find their peace,
whether north, or south, or west, or east;
and I could never find my way
to being the kind of friend you seemed to need in me,
till the needing had ceased.)

Despite thematic echoes, the music of ‘Goose Eggs’, jaunting and bouncing to a harpsichord,  feels lighter and more tranquil than the heartache of ‘Baby Birch’. The lyrics “you cannot learn that you burn when you touch the heat, / so we touch the heat” reconcile themselves with fire. Coals blow over hills and sea, as if the terrain of this song is a smouldering raked hearth, kiln  or an abandoned industrial landscape, its fuel dispersed by the breeze.

In ‘Anecdotes’, Newsom assembles a whole bird army, addressing ‘Rufous Nightjar’ and ‘Private Poorwill’ (both species of nightjar) as a kind of commander. This army battles the passing of time: “round every bend I long to see / temporal infidelity”, accompanied by cascading harp notes. Newsom begins in trilling spirit, but the final stanzas are marked by a tender shift in her voice, addressing an imagined daughter who recurs in her work: “you will not mark my leaving, / and you will not hear my parting song. / Nor is there cause for grieving. / Nor is there cause for carrying on.” The lyrics are seemingly at ease in a static present moment of loss: there is “no cause for carrying on”, no need to move beyond it. In other songs, past moments are fleetingly regained, in a migratory loop like the flight of a swift. In ‘The Things I Say’, Newsom sings:

When the sky goes pink in Paris, France,
do you think of the girl who used to dance
when you’d frame her moving within your hands,
saying This I won’t forget?

What happened to the man you were,
when you loved somebody before her?
Did he die?
Or does that man endure, somewhere far away?

Divers attempts to preserve a past carried invisibly within the present: time is spatialized, as if the past is “far away” in terms of a horizon that might still be sailed over, rather than “far away” purely in a temporal sense. Newsom describes the researches that go into her work as emotionally, rather than intellectually, driven. Like a medium, she tries to speak the dead. ‘Sapokanikan references the Native American settlement that preceded New York’s Greenwich Village, placing a history of suppression and aggressive conquest alongside Shelley’s sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ and many buried ghosts. Shelley’s sonnet reads:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Joanna Newsom DiversNewsom’s song implicitly critiques kingdoms, Ozymandias’ “sneer of cold command”, recording less stony traces that lie quietly, hidden or barely visible. Mothers and daughters and love affairs lie hidden under layers of paint, and are buried anonymously in “potters’ fields” beneath the city. The music video shows Newsom performing across this buried landscape, beginning in light skips, but progressing to tears. ‘John Purroy Mitchell’, a former mayor of New York, is one of her cast: he plummeted to death from a plane in 1917, due to an unfastened seatbelt, and is one of this record’s “divers”. I do not think it highfalutin to suggest that Joanna Newsom’s agile density of reference in ‘Sapokanikan’ bears comparison with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, or Four Quartets, with its cycles of time: her lyrics skip like a stone over deep water, revealing different dimensions depending on the depth that the listener-reader, like a diver, cares to descend to.[4]

However, Joanna Newsom’s lyrics are written to be sung, rather than only read: viewed on the page, they look distracted, full of questions. In ‘Leaving the City’, she sings “I believe in you. / Do you believe in me? / What do you want to do? / Are we leaving the city?” Music is a tide that enacts a kind of call-and-response, if not a complete answer to the lyrics’ questions. Newsom has stated that music is, for her, equivalent to poetic meter or rhythm, the necessary “subtext” to her texts:

I was in a poetry class and my poems were very bad. They kept weirdly falling into these meters that were replicating, or at least approaching, sonnet form more than anything else—Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet forms. And I didn’t understand why, ’cause that’s not the type of writing I like the most. I realized, later down the line, I had this huge longing for music, and as a subtext for the words, the words needed counterpoint, and they needed not just meter, but rhythm. Sonnets are incredible, all the rules that they have are so exciting to me. They’re stand-ins for a musical line, in a way.[5]

The excitement of hearing, rather than reading, Newsom’s songs lies partly in words unexpectedly extended into rhythmic dance. She draws out the word “Spirit” – “Spe-e-e-e-e-eeeeerit” – as if to make the soul last longer, and this dialogue between body and soul, emerging physically through Newsom’s breath, recurs throughout Divers. In ‘Leaving the City’ she sings in the persona of a horse, with bridle and bit being embodiment or mortality, “when the spirit bends / beneath knowing it must end”:

And that is all I want here:
to draw my gaunt spirit to bow
beneath what I am allowed.

Describing even the spirit as “gaunt” makes it into a starving and prohibited body that wants to eat, but cannot, still carrying fleshly connotations. There also is an extraordinary personification of “Spring” in this song: “deranged, / weeping grass and sleepless, / [she] broke herself upon my windowglass”, again echoing the bird hitting the window in ‘Only Skin’. Spring splinters light as blood:

And I could barely breathe, for seeing
all the splintered light that leaked her fissures,
fleeing, launched in flight:

Newsom’s lyrics are full of violent metaphors, sometimes descending into total war. Her songs bristle with bombs, armies constantly in defeat, her soldiers always dying. In Have One on Me’s ‘Kingfisher’, she plays out a duel in a dream, and is killed:

And I saw that my blood
had no bounds,
spreading in a circle like an atom bomb,
soaking and felling
everything in its path,
and welling in my heart like a birdbath.

This “birdbath” could be bathetically funny after the vast “atom bomb” that precedes it; but it is also the heartfelt well from which her army of birds drinks and takes flight. Newsom persistently undoes supposed bounds between a (private, singular) lyric and a (public, collective) epic voice. This blood “has no bounds”, flooding irrepressibly outwards. As with Emily Dickinson, who dances like a bomb, Newsom’s violence can be viewed as a metaphor or simile for internal states; but she draws so frequently on it that her work becomes shadowed by real and visceral conflicts, resisting otherworldliness. Violence refuses to be fully abstracted, even when pantomimed.

‘Anecdotes’ opens with a broken soldier, his “eyes frozen wide by what went on”, carried on the back of a horse, while in ‘You Will Not Take My Heart Alive’,  the heart becomes a refused hostage:

[…] even though each hour I ever loved
must queue and dive,
still, you will not take my heart, alive.

In martial wind, and in clarion rain,
we minced into battle, wincing in pain;
not meant for walking, backs bound in twine:

The line “we minced into battle, wincing in pain” is characteristically funny and vulnerable at the same time: these bodies are impeded yet determined, moving in ways that they are not supposed to, trussed and bound. Newsom invokes pinching and binding, breaking and bleeding, as if her singers are either constricted by or exceeding their own skins; her songs also collect “bones” and she is repeatedly “breathless” or calling for a doctor. On this album, even time is a “symptom” of love, metaphysically sick. Newsom’s voice swoops defiantly into a head-turning operatic flight on the repeated refrain “you will not take my heart alive,” her voice breaking the line open as if loosening the vertebrae of a stiff spine.

            The penultimate song on Divers, ‘A Pin-Light, Bent’, initially reminds me of metaphysical poems like Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Definition of Love’, in which love is measured in terms of distances, angles and instruments. Newsom references the real news report of the fall of a stewardess from a plane, like John Purroy Mitchell before her, as described in James L. Dickey’s poemFalling:

A 29-year-old stewardess fell … to her 
death tonight when she was swept 
through an emergency door that sud- 
denly sprang open … The body … 
was found … three hours after the 
accident.                                              
                              —New York Times [6]

Dickey’s poem is expansive and deliberately, wistfully redemptive, slowing and glossing the fall of the stewardess, as if wanting to turn her into an angel; he even gives her the presence of mind to “arrange her skirt” on the way down. Her real fall becomes submerged as the hook his rhapsody is hung on. Newsom’s words, although they revolve around the same event, are more brief. “Short flight, free descent, / Poor flight attendant” she morbidly jokes, followed by an exclamation at the world seen from a plane window, either imagining or re-enacting a fall towards it:

But the sky, over the ocean!
And the ocean, skirting the city!
And the city, bright as a garden
(when the garden woke to meet me),
from that height was a honeycomb
made of light from those funny homes,
intersected: each enclosed, anelectric and alone.

There are several doublings here: the city, in its honeyed electric light, being like a beehive and like a garden. Does the fall or dive also mirror Milton’s Satan flying towards Eden, or am I overreading this? Rather than singing very precisely from the stewardess’ point of view, Newsom’s voice splits into different possible positions. This song could be the voice of someone literally falling from a plane, but could also be about someone sitting in a plane imagining that fall, and/or reflecting on Dickey’s poem. Newsom suggests several possible ‘divers’ (herself, John Purroy Mitchell, the unnamed stewardess… and Satan?) simultaneously. Her lyrics describe an individual selfhood unable to defend itself, shattered by a “Great Light” that shines through an “Amora Obscura”. This plays on the image of a pinhole camera, and mimics what the sun looks like when seen, over a horizon, from the window of a plane. “Amora” – love – becomes an eye or lens through which the self shatters and disperses: life becomes a haunting refraction of light, and the desiring body an obscure medium through which it is “lent” and “spent”.

Following this concentrated refraction, ‘Time, As A Symptom’ states Divers’ overriding message clearly, echoing Keats’ ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’:

The moment of your greatest joy sustains:
not axe nor hammer,
tumor, tremor, can take it away, and it remains.
It remains.

From a relatively steady opening, this finale builds inexorably. Listening through headphones, fully immersed, reveals its detail, which is cumulatively overwhelming. It’s as if Newsom is commanding a forest into life via the orchestral arrangements of Dave Longstreth: birdcalls flit from one ear into the other, beside rumbling drums and tensed strings, her song mantra-ing and commanding:

Stand brave, life-liver,
bleeding out your days
in the river of time.
Stand brave:
time moves both ways,
[…]

She also releases the suffering horse who has traipsed, burdensome, all the way through the album: “Areion, Rharian, go free and graze. Amen.” Areion is the mythic horse-child of Demeter (goddess of earth) and Poseidon (god of the sea), while Rharian is the field sown after Demeter is fleetingly reunited with Persephone, another daughter, emerging from the underworld.[7] So Divers traverses sea and land, water and light, winter and spring, time, death and birth in a multifaceted series of dives, like a flock of birds separating and cohering. ‘Time, As A Symptom’ cuts off in the process of transcending its edges, like a voice from the page: go free and graze.


Notes

[1] Alexis Petridis, ‘Joanna Newsom: Divers review – deeply idiosyncratic, straightforwardly striking.’ The Guardian, 22 October 2015.

[2] ‘Your Feyness’, in Visions of Joanna Newsom, ed. by Brad Buchanan (Sacramento: Roan Press, 2010), 31–35 (35).

[3] My thanks to Ollie Evans for spotting that “a way a lone a last a loved a long” is a Finnegans Wake quotation.

[4] The references in ‘Sapokanikan’ have been thoroughly annotated by delving fans at Genius.com.

[5] Tavi Gevinson, ‘Stand Brave, Life-Liver: An Interview With Joanna Newsom.’ Rookie, 26 October 2015.

[6] Accessed via the Poetry Foundation. I am indebted to Jen Rouse, and to delvers at Genius.com, for alerting me to Newsom’s reference to Dickey’s poem.

[7] ‘[460] “Come, my daughter; for far-seeing Zeus the loud-thunderer calls you to join the families of the gods, and has promised to give you what rights you please among the deathless gods, and has agreed that for a third part of the circling year your daughter shall go down to darkness and gloom, [465] but for the two parts shall be with you and the other deathless gods: so has he declared it shall be and has bowed his head in token. But come, my child, obey, and be not too angry unrelentingly with the dark-clouded Son of Cronos; but rather increase forthwith for men the fruit that gives them life.”’ Hymn 2 To Demeter, trans. & ed. by Hugh G. Evelyn Wright.


 

 

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