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Like many listeners, I have come to Bettye Lavette’s music a little bit late. Just a few months ago, in a bookstore in Tsawassen, we picked up (for music to listen to in the car on the trip back home) the Bob Dylan tribute Chimes of Freedom, a January 2012 release that bills itself on its cover as “honoring 50 years of Amnesty International.” There are some great (and some mediocre) versions of Dylan spread over its 4 CDs, but when our player cued up Bettye Lavette’s cover of “Most of the Time,” I have to say that I was brought up short: it’s a powerful, fierce, committed, startling transformation of the song. “Who,” we had to ask ourselves, “is THAT?” It turns out that 2012 also marks 50 years in music for Bettye Lavette herself. Her first single, “My Man, He’s a Loving Man,” was recorded and released in 1962, when she was sixteen. Her career, for subsequent decades, seems to have been a long struggle for recognition, a story she tells in her forthright autobiography (also published in 2012, though titled after her first album for Anti-), A Woman Like Me. Her concert Saturday night at the Vogue, as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, was a revelation for me, a brilliantly orchestrated overview of that career, featuring songs from her early days to recent versions of Gnarls Barkley, but every song infused with aspects of that struggle to be heard and acknowledged, and given an edgy vitality, a moving immediacy and a grainy depth that lent her performance moment after moment after moment of true greatness. As Marke Andrews notes in an omnibus review in The Vancouver Sunof the festival’s opening weekend,
Despite 50 years in the music business, [Bettye Lavette] remains largely unknown (“We’ve just completed the ninth year of our Who The Hell Is She Tour,” she joked to the audience), and seems determined to prove herself with each performance.
But there was nothing strained or effortful about her singing, only a fierce and unwavering commitment to the emotional substance of each song she chose. She engages lyric and melody on their own terms, but she also remakes them on hers. At one point in the concert, she admitted that she “wasn’t a writer,” but I think that might be exactly what she is. Most of her source material (from standards to Motown classics to country ballads to carnivalesque Tom Waits numbers) is so utterly and radically transformed that it becomes wholly her own; her re-casting of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” which she first covered in 1972, is nothing short of stunning, as she turns his frail nostalgic folk anthem into a tragically affirmative lament for lost days. The highlight of Saturday’s concert, for me, was a version of Pete Townshend’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” which was the song she performed at the Kennedy Center in 2008 that seems to have secured a position for her in the pantheon of epochal voices. Slowing the song, almost to the point of fissure, at the verge of coming apart, drawing out the melodic line syllable by syllable as she felt her way along and through the notes – “Love … reign … o … ver … me …” – she made the music do what it needed to do for her, to allow us to recognize her, that is, to connect with her as a powerfully felt and powerfully feeling human being. I don’t mean to suggest that her voice was especially serene; any saccharine critical platitudes would be belied by her take-no-shit attitude toward her own 50-years-overdue canonization. I think there is something to be said for hearing her performance in relation to what Edward Said called “late style”:
The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works, often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of reality. . . . But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction?
Bettye Lavette offers us neither one of these alternative alone, but sings instead with a resilient, difficult beauty. “Late style,” as Said puts it, “is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality.” In her voice, I hear a collision of fierce self-awareness and commanding aesthetic presence. For real.
This is the text of a colloquium presentation I gave for the Department of English at UBC on 16 March 2012. Please pardon the formality of the MLA style — I decided to put it up on the blog rather than on academia.edu because of its autobiographical content, because of its closely contemporary subject matter, and because it’s still underdeveloped as an academic paper. There are probably also a few formatting glitches; my apologies, I’ll try to correct those. I hope it’s of some interest.
When I try digging through swelling shelfloads of criticism and secular hagiographies that, by her 2011 centenary, have become associated with Elizabeth Bishop, it starts to sound like those of us who read her, and who try to read her “straight through,” have a pressing and symptomatic need each to have our own particular Elizabeth, to craft from her work a genetics of voice to which we can belong, as recombinant latecomers. I want to explore one such attachment today, through the poetry and electroacoustic work of Lavinia Greenlaw – or maybe two such attachments, including my own. It seems to me, though, that it’s important to acknowledge that while many poets have been and continue to be reclaimed, repurposed and tentatively canonized, Bishop forms a particularly crucial case, if for no other reason than her writing practice assiduously troubles and even resists such claims, such figurative colonization, with its deliberately dislocated and dislocating geographies, – or, perhaps better put, with its careful unmooring of what Bishop calls “the family voice / I felt in my throat” (Poems 181).
We’re told Elizabeth Bishop disliked the sound of her own voice. She “read her poems with reluctance in public,” writes J. D. McClatchy in his notes for Random House Audio’s The Voice of the Poetseries, “and she loathed being recorded” (9). She also typically refused permission to tape her readings, although recordings made for Robert Lowell in October 1947 when he was poetry consultant at the Library of Congress (a post for which he would recommend Bishop two years later) provide some source material for this audio compilation, officially issued for the first time only in 2000, after extensive pleas by editors and admirers to Bishop’s reticent estate. Listening to her awkward, plainspoken delivery and to the audible traces of her anxiety, Bishop’s pronounced distaste for her own untrained verbal performances seems justified enough. In a letter to Joseph Summers sent from Halifax, Nova Scotia in August of that same year, Bishop refers disparagingly to “records I made for [Jack] Sweeney” at Harvard in 1946, which she hears as “pretty dreary” (One Art 149). Conversely, she praises Sweeney’s recordings of Lowell, whom she had just met through Randall Jarrell in New York in May 1947: “they aren’t at all professional, but they are extremely good in parts.” Lowell’s own invitation to record her reached her in September, just after her second sojourn in Nova Scotia. Their correspondence had begun in earnest that summer, with Lowell following up on a review by him of her North & South, and, more significantly, responding enthusiastically to the publication in The New Yorker of Bishop’s Nova Scotia poem “At the Fish-Houses [sic],” which had appeared in the August 9 issue: “The description has great splendor,” he writes, “and the human part, tone, etc., is just right” (7). That very human, tonal restraint is clearly also what Lowell hears in Bishop’s voice, and his invitation – which he politely asserts she doesn’t have to accept – is coupled to a plea that she might “oust some of the monstrosities on [his] list” of overblown poets he feels obliged to record (8). The recording session did take place some time on or around October 17, and Lowell enthuses in a letter to Bishop on November 3 about the excellence of a number of her readings:
I’ve at last heard the records and some of them couldn’t be better – “Faustina’s” the best I think, but “Sea-Scape,” “Large B. Picture,” “Fish,” and “Fish-Houses” are wonderful too. “Roosters” is swell in places and not so hot in others. Anyway you’ll get them in a few days and can judge. (11)
Lowell goes on to apologize for some technical shortcomings in the recordings themselves, and laments that “perhaps they won’t do for publication,” which in fact did not happen until the 2000 audiobook. The reasons for his enthusiasm aren’t ever made clear; nevertheless, I don’t think he’s just being polite. There is something poetically remarkable about these awkward, inadvertently suppressed records.
That something might be called their resonance, though I have to be careful to define what I might mean by that term, which seems odd in the context of Bishop, and of these readings. Jo Shapcott describes hearing Bishop read in a “deep rich voice” in the late 1970s at Boston University, but this is surely a combination of mistaken memory and a desire to heighten the posthumous heft of Bishop’s “strange, precise, profound poems” – their poetical depth (113). Profound seems to me precisely the wrong word for what Bishop does. Bishop’s voice, based on the surviving tapes, was never especially deep or rich, but always reticent, diffident and withheld. (Ruff a bit more kindly attributes this shyness to a combination of anxiety and asthma, but I hope it’s clear that it’s not my intention to criticize Bishop for reading poorly or for being somehow shallow: on the contrary, I want to pursue the poetic rightness of what she does achieve.) This hesitancy was a hallmark not simply of her speech, but of her poetics: “I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry more by not writing it than writing it,” she famously tells Lowell in a letter of 21 January 1949, after she herself had, with characteristic reservation, assumed the poetry consultant post at the Library of Congress two years after him. Voice acts both as a harbinger and as a disavowal of self, of what it is to be and say an “I,” an Elizabeth: to speak oneself into external being. As James Merrill among many other has noted, Bishop’s “I” – especially insofar as it remains implicated in personal history, in memoir – models what feels like a formalized disavowal, a writerly reserve:
I think one saw the possibilities, perhaps through Elizabeth Bishop, where “I” could be used with the greatest self-deprecation, humor, a sort of rueful sense of “Well, yes, I did this, but you know what to expect of me.” (Neubauer 85-86)
Deeply suspicious of both the confessional and the expressive, Bishop does not consistently retreat into the detachment of craft, but tends instead to dwell poetically in the tense uncertainties between bios and graphē, the written and the lived.
The year 1947 is significant for understanding the specific genetics of Bishop’s voice, what Michael Donaghy calls her “accent” (Shapcott ). The summer and fall of that year would see the second of her return visits to Nova Scotia after the death of her mother, trips that would provide Bishop with raw matter for many of the poems and stories she would write until her death in 1979. In the final lines of her New Yorker poem, “At the Fishhouses,” she writes herself – distanced a little into a “we” that collects her enunciative I and the readerly you – into what becomes a maternal, liquid and lapidary Atlantic physiography:
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
“I have seen it,” she tells us, “over and over, the same sea, the same, / slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones” (63). Hands and tongues, she says, are not so much nursed on saltwater as burned by it, marked by its hard indifference. Bound to our historical and genetic limits, we are incised by but also finally lost to oceanic depth, to “what we imagine knowledge to be” rather than what we can in fact ever know. Brett Millier, like Shapcott, falls into clichés of profundity when he describes Bishop’s first visit to Nova Scotia – involving visits to Halifax-Dartmouth and to Cape Breton – after the death of her mother:
From the many notebook entries of this summer , and the poems that grew from those notes, it seems clear that the trip [to Nova Scotia] was both deeply disturbing and deeply significant to Elizabeth in ways that it would take her years to articulate. (Millier 181)
Poems such as “At the Fishhouses” and “Cape Breton” had their origins in these notebooks, and certainly do speak to Bishop’s tenacious attachment to Nova Scotia as her genealogical locus. Under her yearbook photo from Vassar College, for example, Bishop lists “Great Village Nova Scotia” as her home, while in fact she had lived there only from age 3 to 6 with her maternal grandparents. As Lavinia Greenlaw puts it, “while [Bishop] is justly celebrated as one of America’s most important poets, it was not America that formed her.” Greenlaw – whose poetic enmeshment in Bishop’s work I will soon come to – recasts “At the Fishhouses” to explain the internals tensions within Bishop’s poetic voice, as an effect of cultural genetics, of what Bishop herself might calls the “question” of how she travels, and the complexities of rootedness and uprooting:
The young Elizabeth stayed with her grandmother for just three years but retained her connection with Great Village all her life. Nova Scotia is the setting for many of her best poems, and its geography of vast skies and wild Atlantic coastline is present as a sense of being on the edge of something deep and dangerous into which she might disappear and into which she might want to – an ambivalence that is one of the most striking aspects of her writing.
The hyperbole here, while perhaps warranted by the occasion of an effusive book review, is wholly out of step with Bishop’s poetic, although we can certainly hear the echoes of the ironically-framed sublimity at the close of Bishop’s poem (as well as the falling from the world that informs “In the Waiting Room”). Greenlaw isn’t wrong to affirm that Bishop’s writing is marked by Nova Scotia; but if you have ever been to Great Village, you will know that it is hardly a place of vast skylines or wild coasts. (These stock-phrases sound more to me like the figural language of Canadian tourism.) The disturbances, instead, are much more closely personal and, importantly, accentual.
In a 1947 letter to Lowell, Bishop remarks – coincidentally, in a paragraph immediately following a description of having herself recorded “like a fish being angled for with that microphone” – on the “strange rather cross-sounding accent” of Cape Bretoners, a hybrid of something “Gaelic,” “Scotch” and “English,” she thinks (147). What I hear in Bishop’s voice on those Library of Congress records, after her return from two summers in Nova Scotia, aren’t anything so overt or so strong as those Anglo-Celtic brogues, but I do hear the pronounced and, to me, self-evident traces of time spent in the Maritimes. Her voice obviously – obvious, perhaps, to anyone who’s from there – migrates and shifts through an inconstant array of East-Coast inflections. When I first heard these readings, I thought Bishop sounded like my grandmother, who comes from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and of whose voice I have a cassette tape, still. There is something in the way that both Bishop and my grandmother pronounce their Rs, pulling the rhotic slightly back, swallowing it just a little, to create what linguists call, if I’m not mistaken, a rounded retroflex approximate – which is a fancy way of saying an east-coast R, an inflection that among others you can still hear in recordings of Bishop.
I have to pause here to tell you a story, a story about me. My reading of Bishop has an even more personal angle than its link to my grandmother’s recorded voice – it connects to my own colloquial speech genetics, too. Here is my story. I was presenting a paper at a conference at UC Santa Cruz – the American Pacific Southwest – in December 2009. The paper was on the poetry of Charles Simic and its relationship to the music of Charles Lloyd. At one point in the talk, I discuss Simic account of hearing Thelonious Monk play in a New York bar. At the end of my talk, I took questions, of course, anticipating discussion of improvisation and aesthetics, or the complex relationships between music and poetry. A younger colleague of mine put up his hand and asked: “Are you from Nova Scotia?” I was a bit dumbfounded – “What?” “Are you from Nova Scotia?” he repeated: “you said baerr.” Apparently, despite a continent of distance and a good two decades of life elsewhere, my mouth still betrays my adopted origins. It’s been ingrained, coded into my tongue. So too, I think, it might be with Bishop. Leaving Great Village at six, she never can shakes its inflection, shoring against her embouchure.
Lavinia Greenlaw is one of a number of younger British poets who claim Bishop as an influence. She has written numerous reviews of Bishop’s work, has produced a audio documentary for BBC Radio 3 on Bishop’s childhood, and, perhaps most significantly, has directly repurposed and reworked a number of what you might call Bishop’s keywords into the core of her own work: “Questions of Travel,” “The Casual Perfect,” and others. But Greenlaw is more than a fan, and “influence” is hardly the right term for her relationship with Bishop’s work. Greenlaw has remained a decidedly London-based writer, but her interests tend to gather around resisting the genetic determinants of her Anglocentrism. Her voice characteristically oscillates in her writing, a crucial ambivalence that has frequently been misread by reviewers of her work as hesitancy, between where she comes from and where she’s looking to, between the way she speaks and what she hears.
The Importance of Music for Girls, Greenlaw’s disco-punk memoir, begins with an account of her own near-death at age 4 when her mouth was accidentally pierced by a length of bamboo garden cane: “It could have affected your speech,” her mother tells her, “by changing the shape of the roof of your mouth” (3). Voice is both determined and deformed by her domestic, maternally-governed backyard. I want to claim that the difficult vagaries of Bishop’s accent, its complex dislocations, help to explain something of Greenlaw’s fraught lyricism and her attention to the displacements of public, performative language. Greenlaw’s shape-shifting elocution involves a recombinant genomics that synchs her to a poly context in which the dislocations and displacements of recording technologies come to inform how we sound ourselves.
Greenlaw’s poems resonate with Bishop’s, or perhaps alongside them. “Millefiore,” a lyric from Greenlaw’s 1997 collection A World Where News Travelled Slowly, thematizes resonance – as the sympathetic material attunement of molecular glass with intensified sound – but also recovers a fractal sounding, a version of the disavowed recorded voice that I have been tracing in Bishop’s poems. “Millefiore”’s dedication to the Scottish poet Don Paterson, who happens also to be an accomplished jazz guitarist, suggests that Greenlaw wants self-consciously to re-frame an ars poetica here, but a poetics that is at once intermediate and multimodal, aspiring conditionally to the feel of vocal music. The glass eye described in the lyric is “vitreous not ocular,” externalizing its opaque substance rather than pretending to be an organ of vision: neither poor prosthesis nor crafty fake. The inherent fluidity of glass – which as the long viscous drip of cathedral windows remains us, is not solid but a silicate liquid – allows the eye to hold rather than transfer the light of “everything,” but also enables it materially to oscillate, and Greenlaw imagines the eye recreating the ceramic texture of millefiore, an interlace of a “thousand flowers.” Despite its lyric trappings, this is not the visionary sublime, but a material registering, a sonogram, of someone’s artful voice: that is, it’s a glass phonograph. The inscribed sound-waves are apparently unplayable, vibrating senselessly in a dysfunctional skull socket. But in registering the limits of that listening, of what’s knowable, in the lyric textures of her poem, Greenlaw produces what she would later term an “infinite [as in, non-finite?] proximity,” a collision of the immediate, embodied auditory and the mute, representational visual at, and in, the virtual surfaces of poetic text. In her review of Exchanging Hats, a posthumously-published collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s paintings (which Greenlaw calls “poems made in pen, ink and water”), Greenlaw takes Bishop’s seeming lack of painterly technique, her uneasy primitivism, more deliberately as emerging from Bishop’s poetics of disavowal: “The wobbliness of it all is her argument with what the eye expects, how the eye wants to tidy up what is really seen.” Both Greenlaw and Bishop have sometimes been castigated for a forced formalism, a willful tidying up; in fact, the work here dwells not on the well-turned artifact, but in the argument itself with form, what David Kalstone presciently names Bishop’s “becoming a poet,” rather than ever her claiming actually to be one.
The open-ended discovery of an unsettled and unsettling poetic voice is mapped as a kind of mistaken listening, a creative misprision, in an episode from Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls, in which she outlines her first encounters with recorded music, specifically Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. As a child overhearing her parent’s music, she admits that she can’t quite make out the words to “Lay Lady Lay,” which she hears as “lay, lay, delay.” This goofy distracted mistake becomes foundational to her own work as a poet – with the book open in front of us, we overhear, at a silent remove, the moment at which she first feels her way toward a poetic re-making of language, its resilient fluid stuff. There is also a specific lyric temporality, its “delay” – her own version of a Bergsonian durée– that can only come from not understanding Bob Dylan, not hearing him correctly. Significantly, there is also a peculiar genetics of accent at work in her description. She transliterates the surreal nonsense that she hears in Dylan’s lines: “brass bed” becomes BRA SPED. Admittedly this isn’t IPA, and I’m putting some undue pressure on the accuracy of her transcription of her own audition of the song, but Dylan does not say or sound out “BRA,” ever, in the song. In a peculiarly throaty falsetto, he sings with a nasally Midwestern American accent something like “BREH.” I don’t mean to criticize Greenlaw’s ear at all by nitpicking this way; what I do want to notice is that she overlays her own London accent onto Dylan’s voice – she hears her own inflection, herself, re-sounded on Dylan’s very strange, idiosyncratic vocal performance. She has Dylan intone, like a slightly posh Londoner, BRAWSS. This imposition might be understood as antinomian, as reciprocal to the traces of Nova Scotia we can detect, liminally, in Bishop’s 1947 recordings. Greenlaw’s accent goes in the opposition direction, expressed rather than impressed. But it nonetheless re-casts that wobble as reciprocity, as give-and-take rather than determinism – regardless of what trajectory any tidy closure might follow.
I have taken too much time already, and there are numerous significant collisions and collusions with Bishop in Greenlaw’s poetry, but I want to conclude with a brief description of a recent electroacoustic project undertaken by Greenlaw at two railway stations in England, Manchester Picadilly and London St. Pancras, called Audio Obscura. Greenlaw created two audio installations which recorded the random chatter of travellers on their way through a rail station; that chatter was then edited to script and re-recorded by voice actors, and the resulting audio tracks made available for listening (on personal audio players with earphones) to passers-by in the stations in which they originated. In a print version of the transcriptions, which have been aggregated and shaped into fragmented lyrics, Greenlaw asserts that she has mined a kind of verbal DNA, caught in passing, and distilled a poetry that exists between vox populiand the solitary lyric voice. The resulting pull between close attention and diffused distraction, she suggests, enacts the subjective becoming of poetic voice, as its texts “hover between speech and thought,” or “somewhere between what is heard and what is seen, what cannot be said” (6). The texts themselves, as concatenated fragments, incline toward the legibility, the sense, promised by a poem – they look like poems – but finally resist hermeneutic finality:
Most of us don’t set out to scrutinise those around us or to listen to their conversations yet we find that faces, gestures and phrases stand out and are remembered whether we like it or not. Things catch our attention because they raise a question and fail to answer it. We are left in suspense. (4)
Those unanswered questions derive for Greenlaw directly from Bishop’s questions of travel, which Bishop distils into one key interrogative in her poem: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” (Poems ). Home becomes unheimlich, dislocated and disturbed in under Bishop’s scrutiny. Or, in Greenlaw’s hands, interstitial, transitional. Her set of glosses on William Morris’s Icelandic journal, also published in 2011 alongside Audio Obscura and The Casual Perfect, involve Greenlaw taking up phrases from Morris’s prose and writing her way across and through them, not so much as explanation or expansion, not footnoting, but to recognize the intersubjective disturbance, the wobbles, of travelling. For her, Morris offers
the document of a journey that becomes a description of all journeys: the tensions that set in once the decision has been made, the hope that something will keep you at home coupled with the fear of missing your plane or boat or train, the realization that you are dis-equipped however much luggage you have brought along with you, the dropping of habits and co-ordinates, the ease with which you cobble together new ones, and the point at which you stop travelling and start heading home. (xxiii)
That turning point, that peripety, is where the voice, both for Bishop and for Greenlaw, feels its way into audibility, into view.
Books and Such
Bishop, Elizabeth. Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 2011. Print.
– – -. Exchanging Hats: Paintings. Ed. William Benton. New
York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. Print.
– – -. One Art: Letters. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1995.
Greenlaw, Lavinia. The Casual Perfect. London: Faber, 2011.
– – -. A World Where News Travelled Slowly. London: Faber,
– – -. Audio Obscura. East Anglia: Full Circle Editions,
– – -. The Importance of Music to Girls. London: Faber,
Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with
Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1989. Print.
Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It.
Berkeley: U of California P, 1993. Print.
Shapcott, Jo, and Linda Anderson, eds. Elizabeth Bishop: Poet
of the Periphery. Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 2002. Print.
“Sweeney, Jack and Maire.” Archival Finding Aid, University
College of Dublin. http://www.ucd.ie/archives/html/collections/sweeney-jack&maire.htm. Web.
Travisano, Thomas, with Saskia Hamilton, ed. Words in Air:
The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and
Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,