Vowel Meadows: Seamus Heaney’s Catches
Like so many, I have been very deeply saddened to hear of Seamus Heaney’s death this morning. Like so many, I have held his work closely for many years, and have heard and continue to hear in my mind’s ear the echoes and soundings of his careful resonant lines. He remains a presence. He has been for me one of the few poets who maintained a thorough and unwavering faith in the capacity of the lyric to speak in and to and with our late world. He seemed always to believe, when others fell away, in the essential and abiding interdependencies of earth and speech. He listened. Spoken, his poems each found a particular catch in the voice.
I have been re-listening to The Poet & the Piper, a collaborative recording he produced with Uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn a decade ago. Most of the poems Heaney reads on the CD have to do with folk music, with listening, with voice, and many of them are closely familiar to his readers. The second-to-last track is a recitation of “Postscript,” a poem that comes from his 1996 collection The Spirit Level:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
The rhythmic lilt and lift – setting the withheld beat that closes “capture it,” for instance, against the firm iambic heartbeat asserting itself in the rhymed phrase, “a slate-grey lake is lit” – is all Heaney, and reinforces the medial position, “neither here nor there,” in which he characteristically positions himself in his later work. But this shore-line sense of self and place – and the geography is specific and significant: Clare south of Galway on the western edge of Europe, the light and wind smashing and buffeting in from the mid-Atlantic – has little to do with poetic diffidence or last-Romantic fraughtness. (Are those Yeats’s nine and fifty swans?) This isn’t, for me, Heaney’s more violent version of the poet’s body as an Aeolian (or even Uilleann) harp. Rather, his lyric frames and expresses a different order of self awareness. What catches and moves him involves both the estranging sublimity of the oceanic – the bottomless centre of his “Bogland” well – and the necessary inadequacy of language, its pathos. The “catch” in the last line, I think, names both the beautiful and moving brokenness of speech and the song-form – a catch is a traditional round – that utters this insufficiency and makes it sing, in second-hand human terms. The poem, with its opening unlinked conjunction, sounds to me more like a promise to make time “some time” to revisit that sublimity than an assertion or claim to have done it. His autochthony – emblematized in a diction obsessed with turf and rock and root and water – strikes me never as a given but always as a coefficient of desire, as want. In “Postscript,” he wants to keep the experience unfinished: a futurity, a need. And it’s this address to uncaught air and light, to the medial textures of encounter, that lets Heaney’s poem do its deep, keen work, that crafts his faith.
Hard Frailties: MD and PiL
|Always be merchandizing.|
I bought a re-issue on LP of the first Public Image Ltd record a couple of weeks ago, and I have been playing it over and going back to my other PiL records, particularly the key four of the first albums (including Second Issue, Flowers of Romance and Album). I don’t know why, but I hadn’t had these out in a while. Maybe they still have a certain repulsion about them, wanting to push listeners back and keeping them estranged. It’s not exactly likable music. In their specific ways, they also have a raw immediacy and a loose fierceness – not just in the dissonant snarl and visceral whine of John Lydon’s vocals, but in the way the music assembles itself – that shake me every time I put the needle down. Even as each track locks palpably into its particular, febrile groove – and from Jah Wobble to Bill Laswell, these remain definitely groove-based records – you often get the sense that things could also shatter at any moment; songs, particularly on the first album, hang vestigially in scissions and fractures. Sometimes, they sound like the reassembled shards of songs, songs that can’t quite piece themselves together again, if they were ever whole to begin with. Setting the new-age steady on-the-beat pulse of “Public Image” against the unkempt noise of its b-side, “The Cowboy Song,” suggests the antithetical aural tug-of-war in which Lydon and companions consistently engage: centripetal and centrifugal sound. The attenuated slow drag of Wobble’s bass on “Theme” teeters on the verge of collapse, then lurches forward a bar at a time, still locked into its deep rhythmic pocket. These are compelling and unsettling collaborative performances that take aim at the sonic foundations of popular music.
The uncertainties and incommensurables inherent in the collaborative process – that there are differences among performers that can’t be overcome, and instead need to be embraced – seem to me to play a significant part in PiL’s music, in how it unfolds. Still, the track I most want to repeat on the player is “FFF” from Album (1985), and what draws me to it isn’t this uncertainty, but rather a sense of its absolute, unshakeable beat: the confident, driven heaviness of Tony Williams’s drumming, and Bill Laswell’s bass-line. In contrast to the dehiscence that I have been suggesting lies at the heart of PiL’s output, “FFF” and most of the tracks on Album (or Cassette or Compact Disc) feel intentionally stable and powerfully coherent (Lydon’s singing aside, perhaps). Album is famously a Bill Laswell project, assembling studio musicians and colleagues from Laswell’s Material bands, mixing funk players with avant-gardists, to produce a set of tracks onto which Lydon’s vocals could be overdubbed. Lydon’s liner notes to the 1999 compilation Plastic Box admit as much:
In some ways, Album was almost like a solo album, [guitarist] Keith [Levene] and [drummer] Martin [Atkins] weren’t around, and I worked alone, with a new bunch of people. Obviously the most important person was Bill Laswell.
Importantly, Laswell employs a number of forward-thinking – some might even say inappropriate – improvisers to lay down tracks on the record, most peculiarly perhaps acoustic bassist Malachi Favors Maghostutfrom the Art Ensemble of Chicago, although any potentially startling or obvious improvisational work seems to me to be largely lost in the mix here. It’s the idea of employing Favors, perhaps, rather than the quality of his actual contributions, that seems to matter – an instance of artist cred derived from public-image-making, no doubt, although Laswell also withheld the musicians’ names at the time of the record’s release, toying with the weight of notoriety in music marketing. My point is that Laswell’s pool of players offer substantial potential for creative, rule-breaking performances, although he also very audibly, musically, reins every one of them in.
Lydon’s note continues with another significant moment of name-dropping:
But it was during the recording of this album in New York that Miles Davis came into the studio while I was singing, stood behind me ands started playing.
Later he said that I sang like he played the trumpet which is still the best thing anyone’s ever said to me. To be complemented by the likes of him was special. Funnily enough, we didn’t use him.
There isn’t any corroborating evidence that this encounter took place, and it’s not clear what Miles Davis would have been doing in that specific studio at that time. I’m not sure how well Laswell (who had elevated his credentials working on Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock LP, which may have put him in Davis’s viewfinder) knew Davis. (Tony Williams, who would collaborate on Laswell’s Arcana, was one of Davis’s greatest drummers, but the instrumental tracks were done, and only Lydon would have been in the studio that day. Davis may also have been working on Steve van Zandt’s anti-apartheid Sun City project around that time, so their paths may have crossed around those recordings in New York.) Panthalassa, Laswell’s “Reconstruction & Mix Translation” of Miles Davis’s 1969-74 music, only happened years after Davis’s death. (Wikipedia offers another account of a fabled unreleased Laswell-Davis session from the period: “Laswell has stated in numerous interviews that he met with Davis a number of times and discussed working together, but busy schedules kept them from arranging such a recording before Davis’ death, though Laswell’s chief engineer reports an unreleased Davis recording session from 1986.”)
But there are some very real connections that might be worth pursuing about this missed encounter between Lydon and Davis, illuminating something about their respective senses of “voice” and phrasing. Paul Tingen quotes PiL bassist Jah Wobble praising Laswell’s “mix translation” of On the Corner: “The weird thing is that when I thought of On the Corner, I have always heard it in my head the way Bill mixed it. That’s how it really is. Bill’s in the one. That’s the real deal” (Tingen 140). Wobble goes on to associate the music of Davis’s pre-retirement period, the mid-1970s, with the early performance style of PiL:
Dark Magus is my favorite Miles album of that period because it is so raw, with such a hidden power, such a mixture of dark and light. When I first heard it, in 1978, it was one of those magical moments. It had an overall sound that was similar to what Public Image Ltd was about. I couldn’t believe it had been recorded several years before us. I imagine Miles deliberately threw in these new musicians at the last moment because musicians get complacent. I can imagine how he wanted to affect their psychology, and so the music. I also know that musicians can think something is not representative of their best work, and yet it’s actually great and a lot of people love it.
This doubled sense of an improvisationally rough, groove-driven music pushing itself forward even as it seems to come apart at its seams links early Public Image Ltd directly to Davis’s aesthetic, though as (what he called) “social music,” Davis lays claim to a racial provenance that both eludes Lydon and company, and also becomes an ironically appropriated foundation for their work. (“I could be black I could be white / I could be white I could be black” Lydon yawps in “Rise,” rejigging lines from a South African torture victim as a provocation against prejudice; the shock-tactics title of his memoir, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, venomously throws racist signage into its reader’s faces.) But when Lydon recounts Davis saying he sings like he plays, he creates a collision of similitude and difference that results in a species of violent fragility, or fragile violence: an antithesis, a negative identity, that emerges not through or against but as voice: “Like me, / you are unlike me,” Lydon snarls in “Fishing,” recalling Shakespearean manipulations of self-image from Twelfth Night and Othello, in which both Viola and Iago assert that “I am not what I am” – or, perhaps for the latter, “I am what I am not.” Selfhood – as (public) image, as seeming, as performance – consists in its own negation.
And how does that negation sound? (Or maybe better, what does it sound like?) How is it voiced? Lydon may not be much help here, but Davis suggests in his autobiography that he derives his own sense of line, of musical phrase, principally from the human voice:
See, music is about style. Like if I were to play with Frank Sinatra, I would play the way he sings., or do something complementary to the way he sings. But I wouldn’t go and play with Frank Sinatra at breakneck speed. I learned a lot about phrasing back then listening to the way Frank, Nat “King” Cole, and even Orson Welles phrased. I mean all those people are motherfuckers in the way they shape a musical line or sentence or phrase with their voice. (70)
And later on, near his book’s close, comes another version of the same claim:
I had a chance to work with Frank Sinatra a long time ago. [. . .] But I couldn’t make it because I wasn’t into what he was into. Now, it ain’t that I don’t love Frank Sinatra, but I’d rather listen to him than maybe get in his way by playing something that I want to play. I learned how to phrase from listening to Frank, his concept of phrasing, and also to Orson Welles. (395)
There are some structural ironies here as well, given that the text is principally poet Quincy Troupe’s imitation of Davis’s speaking voice, culled from hours of taped conversations: it isn’t really Davis speaking directly here at all, that is. But, more importantly for my purposes here, is the recognition that Davis appears significantly to mishear his own voice. In practice, his fractured, bent phrases – no matter how lyrical they may be – have very little in common with Sinatra’s mellifluous, soporific baritone or Welles’s theatrical declamations. His connection with Lydon comes through, if at all, in the steely and fragile awkwardness of his lines, their bent uncertainty. The Barbadian-Canadian novelist Austin Clarke once told me he heard anger and fierceness in Davis’s Harmon-muted horn; this was no soothing balladry. “Anger,” sneers Lydon, “is an energy.” What’s valuable for me in the early Pil sessions isn’t so much the audible anger as this vicious, cutting lyricism, the probing, needy and breaking articulation that, for me, also makes Miles Davis’s bittersweet electric music of the 1970s so vital.
Davis, Miles, with Quincy Troupe. Miles: The Autobiography.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Lydon, John, with Keith and Kent Zimmerman. Rotten: No
Irish – No Blacks – No Dogs. New York: St. Martin’s P,
Tingen, Paul. Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles
Davis, 1967-1991. New York: Billboard Books, 2001.
Shortish Take on Neil Gaiman, Reading Live and In Person
During a question and answer session between readings from his most recent books (one just published, one to appear in September), Neil Gaimanconfessed to a sold-out Vogue Theatre in Vancouver last Thursday that he seemed to have graduated into some next level of fame, when people who hadn’t actually read his work still knew something about who he was and what he did. I have to confess, too, that I haven’t actually read too much Neil Gaiman (some Sandman and a little Coraline,— and I have watched the two Doctor Who episodes he scripted in the last three years), although I’m keen now to read much, much more. I was there not so much as a fan, but just to see and hear him. What started to become compelling about this public appearance were the ways in which he both enlivened and managed his fans’ expectations. They adore him, and every time he (pretty expertly) name-dropped the title of one of his books, at least two-thirds of the audience hooted and cheered. He’s now much more than a cultish comic book and fantasy writer, but he assiduously and warmly cultivates connections with his readership, with his audience, around their willing buy-in to his myth-making: the mythworlds of his fiction, yes, but also the myth of Neil Gaiman, author and impresario of a set of collective subcultural imaginings.
His performance was excellent, and well worth the modest ticket-price. It combined reading from recent work, as I said, with him answering questions audience members had submitted on cards ahead of time. (He told us our – Vancouver’s – questions were the best he had had for the whole tour, probably an untruth, but a nice appeal to our west coast intellectual vanity.) He stayed after the reading for at least three hours, signing books and chatting – briefly, given the numbers – with his keen readers. And that extra willingness to stay on, which was anticipated in media build-up to his appearance, is the first part of his myth: he gives you the sense not of distraction but of caring engagement with his readers, making sure that they have some modicum of contact with him, that they feel that he’s present to them. Neil Gaiman takes considerable pains to offer his audience a feint of intimacy, disclosing what felt like private details of his life particularly around his relationship to femrocker Amanda Palmer – Amanda Fucking Palmer (“No Neil Fucking Gaiman tonight,” he joked) – which were the kinds of details he also occasionally lets slip via Twitter. (He recently tweeted about his happiness waking up in bed beside her, for example.) Now we all do this kind of thing on Twitter, mingling public and private idioms for an indiscriminate readership, but given the extent of Neil Gaiman’s following, as it shifts from cult to mass, it’s this feeling of access, of closeness, that seems to firm up his fan-base, to keep them attached to, immersed in, his writing.
This autobiographical myth-making particularly both frames and informs his new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which bears the dedication “For Amanda, who wanted to know.” (Indeed, it’s precisely I’d say the idea of an intimate knowledge – or of a knowing intimacy – that started to become an issue here, as Gaiman read to us, in person. What exactly was it that Amanda wanted to know? How much access were we, as listeners, as over-hearers, being given to that knowledge? Something is described in the book, he told us, about his past, his childhood. This book, he said, came about because he missed his wife and wanted to make her love him by giving her a short story (which developed into a “novelette,” then a novella, then a short novel) with “something me-ish in there,” some small “slices of real life and one slice of imagination when I was a child.” Slices, maybe, like the slices of burnt toast in the passage that he read from the second chapter, which begins with the narrator’s depiction of his detachment from the world – “I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else” – but which, through the slow careful accumulation of descriptive detail (like that toast), gradually reconnects the observer to what seems to be going on around him at a remove, even without him.
The narrator’s doubled perspective – a forty-year-old man recalling what he experienced as a seven-year-old – reinforces the essential interestedness (as opposed to detachment, objectivity or disinterest) of the narrator, his being-with as opposed to standing apart-from, those around him, which is how he’s positioned, or positions himself, at the discovery of a corpse (I’m trying to avoid any spoilers) in his father’s car:
I don’t remember who said what then, just that they made me stand away from the Mini. I crossed the road, and I stood there on my own while the policeman talked to my father and wrote things down in a notebook. (18)
Writing, here, is limited to sparse note-taking, and the limitations of perspective and memory are candidly foregrounded; we can’t even read over the policeman’s shoulder to see what he has written down. Intimacy or closeness, in other words, remains denied to us, Gaiman’s committed readers. He’s withholding, through the device of an unreliable juvenile focalizer. Generational dictions meld throughout the chapter (adult vocabulary often mingling with childish self-interest, for example), but you can also hear, even in this short excerpt, Gaiman’s inclination toward austerity and directness: how committed to the matter being described here is the voice doing the describing? How involved or how removed?
This point-of-view feels like objectivity, but during his presentation Thursday, when asked about the differences between writing for adults and for – or perhaps about – children, Gaiman asserted that what makes for good writing around children is to “make every word count.” (I’d suggest, too, that there is something of that directness cultivated in his writing for television and especially for graphic texts.) What we might take for empirical distance here, in other words, is shaped by close child-like observation, by the directness and directedness of a child’s eye and ear (not just for descriptive detail, but also for details of speech, of words themselves). While our narrator waits, he thinks back on his father’s constant burning of toast:
At home, my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. “Yum!” he’d say, and “Charcoal! Good for you!” and “Burnt toast! My favorite!” and he’d eat it all up. [The American spelling is original to the edition I have.] When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, and had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.
The doubled age of the voice in this passage, audible in the mixed diction, also maps onto a personal mythopoeia around burnt toast and the simultaneous demythologizing of those intimate patrilineal memories, as his whole childhood begins to feel “like a lie” (although likeness, it’s worth asserting, isn’t the same as it’s being a lie). The with-ness of interest, of the narrator’s and the reader’s inter-esse, is caught up in this double movement of Gaiman’s narrative, which both intimates and debunks.
I mean to approach, just so briefly, something of the dynamics of fandom that inhere in Gaiman’s own writing, and in his performance – his reading – last Thursday. The declarative clarity, the confessional candour that circles through his speaking subjects, his voice(s), isn’t so much a masterful feint as it is a self-conscious address to the capacities of language itself to disclose, to tell. Or, perhaps more clearly put, to give us what we want to know. Gaiman’s success, in this terrific new book, strikes me as in part enmeshed in a virtuosity of disavowal: the well-honed verbal craft of making his readers keep wanting, even as he gives them more of the feeling of intimacy, of personal proximity, that they crave. In a very peculiar and particular sense, what Neil Gaiman offers us all is a species of mythical close reading, a closeness both inand as reading. It’s what must keep us coming back to his work, even if it’s for the very first time.