IT WOULD HAVE BEEN A SHAME TO LET SOME OTHER WOMAN HAVE IT: ON JOANNA NEWSOM’S DIVERS
In June 2010, on trains between New York City and Providence, Rhode Island, she wrote an essay about three records by Joanna Newsom: The Milk-Eyed Mender, Ys, and Have One on Me. At the time, she had been listening to these records across the landscape of six years. Now it is January 2016. It has been six (more) years. She is sitting in bed in Brooklyn—“a beautiful town with the rain pouring down”—thinking about the past. Time moves this way: you start at one point and move back to that which was. Along the way, you search for coincidences, patterns, trajectories: repetition as a form of change. You trace the distance between was to is using the skin of your finger. Like an assemblage of records, this span shapes your writing practice, insofar as one’s writing practice possesses a shape.
The essay began:
To drift along inside Joanna Newsom’s music, which has (under)scored my most profound relationships. . .
. . . then the prose became opaque.
At the time of this writing, it is no longer January.
It is now May.
The Fourth Body
Divers crystallizes toward the end of her third decade. With urgency, she procures its leak from an acquaintance, which she uploads as an assemblage of mp3 files to her anachronistic personal stereo. Before doing this, she accidentally listens to the album’s last song, “Time, as a Symptom,” first. Declares the song’s lyrics: Love is not a symptom of time / Time is just a symptom of love. Accordingly, she is sitting in a car next to a beloved. They are changing. Time is passing. Her eyes trace the sentence and tear.
It has been eight years.
In fact, it has been 12 years since she first heard “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie,” a song from The Milk-Eyed Mender about stirring someone else’s skin into tea. At that time, she was 17, lived in a small Western Pennsylvania town, and wore her hair straight like a tree. A barn across the street contained a stage prop collection, and there was a rhizome on her bedroom wall, or was it a hand-drawn fish tank?
Two months and 15 days ago, her writing practice became ink in water.
Two months and 15 days ago, her mind’s tank became the site for a diorama.
Two months and 15 days ago was a winter evening accented by fish.
(And if ink in water constitutes her writing practice, then it is an element; it is memory; it is an animal that dives.)
Or, it has been two months and 15 days since she first took a train with her nickname (C) to the corporate gym where she regularly goes for five-to-seven mile runs, part of the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life.
(Like memory, writing is a form of diving—so says the book that gives word-objects their meanings. As text encounters the page, it falls and twists and rotates. Once underwater, it holds its breath for an unknown length a of time, becoming a black box.)
Running in place, she listens to Divers, draws a cognitive map. Stars and daughters. Eggs and oysters. Vapors and glass. The pull of the ocean. Moon’s gentrification. Forced eviction. The sun’s pink illuminating a line of trenches. These images are contents to acquire, code, store, recall, and decode.
Of course, there is no telling as to whether she is actually running, because she is running in place (time is taller than space), just as there is no telling whether she is drawing a map. Rather, she may be diving, remembering something, a black box to which she returns as she writes, seated at a metal table or in bed, at an imaginary desk or on a train, music looping, her mind flickering with shards of the past edging their way into the present. (To survive you need an edge, Anne Carson says. To which the record replies: Stand brave, life-liver.)
For the sake of this argument, let’s agree: she is diving. (Okay.)
Also: she is keeping secrets. (This is nothing new.)
And: she is tracking impressions. (See above.)
Further, she is looping the record in order to locate a series of coordinates via which to view her transformation, e.g., 40° 26′ 26.2464” N, 79° 59′ 45.1968” W.
Wherever she is, she is writing this essay.
Whenever she is, she exists in the past.
Now everything is different.
Now everything is the same.
Memory as a Form of Diving
If memory is a form of diving, she is plunging headfirst into her past’s pool, or she is standing on her head, looking at her life from an inverted perspective.
In this figure, she sees herself riding a train, only she is suspended upside-down, her feet impressed upon the train car’s ceiling, blood rushing to her brain. Oddly, her hair looks the same as it does when she is right-side up, even though it should be splayed out in every direction.
My life comes and goes / my life comes and goes: this couplet moves her
from a train to a plane, where she feels unusually calm. At what moment did she stop feeling calm? It may have been the year she fell in love at a distance.
Airplanes, Anxiety, Nudity
On Divers, an airplane is the setting for “A Pin-Light Bent,” a song that references James L. Dickey’s “Falling” (so says the lyrical archive that provides locks for keys), a poem prefaced by the following epigraph:
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
— New York Times
“Falling” is an impeccably crafted long poem that narrates the 29-year-old stewardess’s descent into “the undying cry of the void,” or “the sky, over the ocean.” Formally, the poem extends for seven stanzas and employs continuous caesura and enjambment, letting air in, capturing a particular cosmic vacuum. On the page, the poem flickers like a cluster of long-lined stars: ⋆ ✢ ✣ ✤ ✥ ✦ ✧ ✩ ✪ ✫ ✬ ✭ ✮ ✯ ✰ ★. But there is a perverseness to the way this poem—written by Dickey, a male poet described by Don Share in a 2009 blog post as “a violent misogynist,” “a macho-man,” and “an old-school white guy from the South”—renders a woman’s body becoming-corpse in a fantastical mode akin to Alice down the rabbit hole. Our stewardess is “lipsticked / stockinged / girdled by regulation” until the poet (de)composes her naked body, “her clothes beginning / To come down all over Kansas […] her girdle coming down fantastically / On a clothesline, where it belongs.” Not to mention how
… she sheds the jacket
With its silver sad impotent wings sheds the bat’s guiding tailpiece
Of her skirt the lightning-charged clinging of her blouse the intimate
Inner flying-garment of her slip in which she rides like the holy ghost
Of a virgin sheds the long windsocks of her stockings absurd
Brassiere then feels the girdle required by regulations squirming
Off her: no longer monobuttocked she feels the girdle flutter shake
In her hand and float upward her clothes rising off her ascending
These words speak for themselves. “Its silver sad impotent wings”—as if the airplane is some kind of double-phallus the stewardess desires!
Her last superhuman act the last slow careful passing of her hands
All over her unharmed body desired by every sleeper in his dream:
Boys finding for the first time their loins filled with heart’s blood
Widowed farmers whose hands float under light covers to find themselves
Arisen at sunrise the splendid position of blood unearthly drawn
Toward clouds all feel something pass over them as she passes
Her palms over her long legs her small breasts and deeply between
Her thighs her hair shot loose from all pins streaming in the wind
Of her body let her come openly trying at the last second to land
On her back This is it this
By the time we reach the poem’s end, the stewardess is lying in a field “on her broken back as though on / A cloud she cannot drop through / while farmers sleepwalk without / Their women from houses.”
To be clear: Dickey’s “Falling” is a misogynist poem. It is not a memorial. It is a tightly held gaze.
Is it possible Divers (the album) or “Divers” (the song) makes reference to “Falling” via its namesake, or is the presence of divers in “Falling” a matter of coincidence? Dickey’s poem makes four mentions of divers:
1. “Down like a glorious diver then feet first her skirt stripped beautifully / Up her face in fear-scented cloths her legs deliriously bare”
2. Like a diagram of a bat tightly it guides her she has this flying-skin / Made of garments and there are also those sky-divers on tv sailing / In sunlight smiling under their goggles”
3. “if she fell / Into water she might live like a diver cleaving perfect plunge”
4. “she cannot / Turn go away cannot move cannot slide off it and assume another / Position no sky-diver with any grin could save her hold her in his arms / Plummet with her”
How do I (how does she) write about reading this poem, first reading Share’s post, then reading the poem again and again, then reading more about Dickey, without invoking my fury? Apologist excuses for his writing make me (her) physically ill, as does the fact that this poem, like a diamond, exacts a human toll. In fury, I cannot help but read Newsom’s “Divers” in a new light, in the voice of the falling stewardess: a woman is alive! A woman is alive, she sings. You do not take her for a sign.
Nor can I consider Dickey’s “Falling” without thinking of the occasions on which my body has been stripped and let go, whether via text or by someone else’s hand; whether consensually, non-consensually, or with ambivalence. I imagine the bodies that rendered my body into an object qualified my body in the ways Dickey qualifies the stewardess—via her lack of clothing, her body’s nudity, or via their silver sad impotent wings.
A paragraph composed for publicly traded corporate network space:
As I wrap up edits on my forthcoming book [The Second Body], I keep thinking about Rebecca Solnit’s “sometimes the key arrives long before the lock,” and how there’s value in continuing to think along with the things you once thought were important to make (or mark), albeit (hopefully) not in a(n overly) self-indulgent way, but rather in the way you think along with other people’s songs or films or books: in the way that continually alters your DNA, causing your body to become—and re-become—part-text.
This thought occurred to me after seeing JN perform twice in New York City on her Divers tour—first at Kings Theater in Brooklyn, then at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. At each concert, she opened with “Bridges and Balloons,” the first song on her first full-length album, and then revisited (I first typed “played the fuck out of” but proceeded to cut this phrase because I am a melodist) several of her other older songs, offering them reverence and a new redistribution across the time-space continuum. I want to do this with texts I’ve written, I thought to myself. Not to dismiss them in the way it is easy to dismiss former language you once inscribed.
Insert an obligatory meditation on eviction, or a few sentences about living in an apartment that cost $1500 in 2009. You were forced out of the space by a duplicitous landlord, then watched the apartment’s rent be raised by $650 on a Brooklyn broker’s website. Reflect too on the colonization of the moon and the miniature song you created about it on a recent evening of its fullness: Leave the moon alone! Leave the moon alone!
Is there more to say on this note that hasn’t already been said? Don’t forget that the longer we live, the higher the rent, and how two of your resolutions for 2016 include “insist that you live in NYC” and “don’t be afraid to leave the city.”
She is sitting with a person she does not yet remember in a space she thinks she loves. It is a warm winter evening. There are other people she will come to remember in this space, a space she will eventually love. The fish and their tanks have yet to be delivered.
She and the person she does not yet remember attended the same concert. She sat in the orchestra; they floated above the stage. After the concert, she took the train.
Did they talk about the concert? She remembers telling this person it was the second concert she attended that week. With whom did she attend the first? This was the question the person was asking but did not ask. No.
Months later, aglow from the fish tanks’ light, she thinks of patterns: the confluence of Divers and this landscape, the presence of the tanks with their dioramas in juxtaposition to the tanks and their dioramas on and within the album’s cover, or the re-arrival of the diver she pined for six years prior. She does not remember how she wrote a poem about black lace and Xanax titled “It Has Been Six Years,” nor does she recognize that her sentence about Joanna Newsom’s music underscoring her most profound relationships had retained truth across time and space.
Let us pause for a moment and think about the sexual undertones of JN’s “his belt unfastened / the boy was known to show unusual daring.”
Songs on this record cinematically impress themselves upon her memory, as when a stranger crossed the street and the song announced time passed.
She was walking from the sculpture garden where she teaches to the garden-level brownstone café just four blocks away.
That afternoon had been uncanny. First, her community grappled with the impossibility of discussing Pamela: A Novel. Next, a cat a murdered a bird. Finally, hundreds of flies descended upon the sculpture where they were holding class.
As she walked she listened, trying to take these instances as signs.
Look up from your cell phone, lest you get robbed or raped, the stranger said.
Later, she would summarize the encounter:
(What’s redacted will repeat.)
The hardest thing to do is to describe the pieces of hard tissue that make up her skeleton. Gloom and glee. Bones and teeth. A 200-gallon tank filled with ink.
She falls into a layer of air below the cloud and sublimates.
Conversely, she is changing directly to ice.
Which is how snow forms.
Which is how snow falls in a house.
If snow falls in your writing practice, you may attend a funeral.
Another example is when frost forms on a leaf.
All of the above is one model of diving.
Amidst this exercise, she is worried about the possibility of indulgence. Is this mode of invoking the record invoking the record?
She will delete everything and start again.
Six years ago, she did not write an essay that reflected anything about the records she had listened to across the landscape of six years. Instead, she rode trains to and from New York City to Providence, Rhode Island, melodramatically claiming an ending.
To end: to desire, to be drunk, to desire, to dwell in multiple minds, to inhabit several bodies at once. To recall, and to name. “To love someone and then not love them,” writes Amina Cain. “If it is not heartbreaking, it can be interesting.”
Three records remain, but now there is one more.
In September, she turned 29, the number of years she’s been alive (so her life has been over for some time). From an acquaintance, she procured her life’s leak, which she uploaded as an assemblage of mp3 files to her anachronistic personal stereo. Before doing this, she lay upon the bed with a momentary eclipse that transcended itself, obscuring light.
29 years and 107 days.
In fact, these numbers make her self-conscious because they recall a form of theatrical performance, an act of staging she is no longer interested in letting her writing practice be. For no longer will she follow herself oblique-like through the inspired form of the third person singular and the moods and hesitancies of the deponent…
(And if the mind is a writing practice, it is an element; it is memory; it is a process. Like a fish, it possesses physical form, consumes oxygen.)
I am writing this to you, else there is danger of
… looking back, akin to standing at the end of one track, as in how I am (once) (again) writing this to you, as in the album’s final song, as on the final page of Finnegans Wake: a way a lone a last a loved a long the
… no longer will she follow herself obliquelike through the inspired form of the third person singular and the moods and hesitancies of the deponent but address myself to you, with the imperative of my vendettative, provocative and out direct to look back:
It goes. It does not go. And if a list of clear associations is what you seek, I offer you instead this opaque lake. There already exist numerous websites containing locks for keys!
Some Equivalences re: Love and Translucency
1. Esmé = a French name meaning “loved”
2. “Esme” = a song on Have One on Me
3. “It was there that I called to my true love / who was pale as millennial moons” = a lyric from “Waltz of the 101st Lightbourne” from Divers
4. “I sat up and blinked, / when you appeared, / so pale you were nearly clear!” = a lyric from “Esme”
5. Elaine Kahn writes: we should say “I’m going to die” in lieu of “I love you.”
6.— I’m going to die
— I’m going to die, too
7. If you were here I would no longer be a ghost
8. But to love is always to be with and to become a near-future ghost.
Alain Badiou (I’m sorry) via Lacan (I’m so sorry): “Love focuses on the very being of the other, on the other as it has erupted, fully armed with its being, into my life thus disrupted and re-fashioned.” I’m not sure if this is true, but I appreciate the idea of building a world in which I address myself with you—wherein you are one person or two or three—so that we gain awareness of boundaries that, in turn, begin to break. In other words, to love may be to see the seen, and the seeing. Is this breakdown is the first step toward what Bachelard calls “creative disobedience,” or what poet Caroline Bergvall describes as “denaturalization of one’s personal and cultural premise. Getting lost”? Together, we (one or two or three or more) cannot love without getting involved (just as the eye is involved with the body, and the body with the polis): love’s disruption always influences what the eye sees.
- 1. Recently, a bottle of rye, and a friend, and me / On our five loose legs / Had a ramble, and spoke / Of the scrambling of broken hopes, and goose eggs
- 2. Bottle of white, bottle of red / Helpless as a child / When you held me in your arms / And I knew that no other / Could ever love me as you loved / But help me! I’m leaving!
I Sd to My Friend, Because I Am Always Talking
We are always in a relationship with anyone we’ve ever loved.
To Which He Responded
I am in solidarity with your selfish feelings.
Now she is thinking about friendship. More specifically, she is thinking about a friend from the computer who initially sent her the song about stirring skin into tea. This friend manifested in the actual world and was a good friend. She needed them until her needing ceased. To this friend—because she wants to believe in a form of translucent being-with that persists across Time and Space—she sends her shame, a handful of eggshells, and a clumsy apology, signed with love from.
Love as a Boundary, or Intervention
With regard to love, it is fruitful to ask: What is at stake? Bear in mind, one stake—one point—doesn’t do anything. One stake is a point; two stakes imagine a boundary. You need at least two stakes, two markers to delineate a boundary, to imagine the line between.
Once you have your stakes, strong and vertical, the horizontal space between them needs to be imagined. Ask: Of what material is the space constructed? How did the space come to be? What exists inside it? How does the betwixt-space disrupt, or interrupt, and how might one deconstruct the line? Once the line is scrutinized, do the stakes remain?
To ask ‘what is at stake’ is to not ask: Who is at stake? This is another important point of inquiry. Implied within this question are more questions: Who is being represented? Who is not being represented? How are we addressed, and who are we if we reply? When you break down the boundaries, you recognize what the boundary is—an imaginary line, an intra-space. We need to see our own subject position and the way it is implicated in the thing we are trying to describe.
Paradoxically, the goal of love cannot be—and simultaneously must be—to improve the world. As Lyn Hejinian notes, “the twentieth century […] include[s] so many examples of atrocity perpetrated in the name of improving the world forever” (31). Yet, she notes, “The fact of the matter is that the world requires improving (reimproving) every day” (31). Consequently, love must be an ongoing metamorphosis, a constant transformative process, the buoyant shift of one’s perspective across a life. And when love is complete, it doesn’t die: it pulls up the stakes and becomes part of the audience, a group of seers who intervene, and become part of the scene.
What would the community think?
They are sitting in a car listening to the record’s last song, which lasts for five minutes and 28 seconds. (328 seconds.)
How many minutes is eight years?
She doesn’t (I don’t) care to solve this equation.
They pass an elementary school.
The she that is not I traces the sentence and tears.
They pass a church.
Am I crying because of the space, she thinks to herself, or because this is where my life unfolds?
They pass a community recreational facility.
They pass a white pickup truck.
They pass a dumpster lined with plastic.
They pass a grocery store.
They pass a backyard delineated by a wire gate.
And is it really me if I’m not there? (Amina Cain)
At last, she thinks about the Diver, a character on the record’s seventh song she conflates with an architect. He takes one breath above for every hour below the sea. He abides by rules. He phosphoresces. And there are infinite divides that were at one time nonexistent.
Because she does not believe in property, she will compose her way toward freeing someone else.
She’ll never wed.
 “In spite of all this,” Share writes, “I’m going to recommend his work, warts and all.”