Photo: “Danger”, Boston Public Library.

Joanna Newsom’s Word of Warning

A cautionary tale hidden in the immense, precise vocabulary of “Time, as a Symptom”

Recently, a bottle of rum and a friend and me made our way down to Hayes Valley in SF to eavesdrop on author Dave Eggers’ conversation with harpist Joanna Newsom. During their chat, the latter eschewed the suggestion of other songwriters’ direct influence, but she did readily acquiesce in the influence of Nabokov, saying you could always count on him to have picked every word by hand. Every word was selected with care, and was meant to be there. Intention.

If there’s anything you take away from reading about “Sapokanikan”, “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne”, or “The Things I Say”, I hope it’s just how far-ranging yet contained and intentional Newsom’s record Divers truly is. (Perhaps a bit like the universes Kim Keever creates, which appear endless, though contained inside an aquarium?). As she told Eggers, when she finds the right word, she acts like she just scored a touchdown, “cussin’ and kicking things”. Her reverence (cussin’ aside) for language reminded me of the line you hear about Michelangelo’s belief in marble. Something about releasing what’s trapped inside, waiting.

Microscope slides. Photo: “Installing the Micrarium”, UCL News.

Under the Radar, Under the Microscope

Newsom’s work displays just how much she’s mastered polysemy. A mouthful itself, the word polysemy (from the Greek for “many signs”) allows words to convey more than one meaning at once, and is one of the super powers of poetry and song lyrics. Its ambiguity creates a fascinating tension. We’ve seen it in the multi-layered “Dutch master” and “sanded” of “Sapokanikan”, and the simultaneously warlike and godlike “taking fire” of “Waltz”.

It comes as no surprise, then, that we find poly-meaning again among the syncopated last words of “Time, as a Symptom”:

Joy! Again, around — a pause, a sound — a song:
a way a lone a last a loved a long.
A cave, a grave, a day: arise, ascend.
(Areion, Rharian, go free and graze. Amen.)
A shore, a tide, unmoored — a sight, abroad:
A dawn, unmarked, undone, undarked (a god).
No time. No flock. No chime, no clock. No end.
White star, white ship — Nightjar, transmit: transcend!

Forgive me for taking a post-it note approach, but I want to do a little more showing than telling here. Let’s take, as a point of departure, the word “undarked”. What tensions are contained within?

darkness / light

all the splintered light that leaked her fissures,
fleeing, launched in flight:
unstaunched daylight, brightly bleeding,
bleached the night with dawn, deleting,

camouflage / visibility

“It ain’t about how rare you are, 
but how hard you are to see.

burial / resurrection

All exeunt! All go out!

war / peace

Now, overhead, you’re gunning in those Vs,
where you had better find your peace,

ignorance / knowledge

Make it stop, my love! 
We were wrong to try.
Never saw what we could unravel,
in traveling light,

In a simple reversal from what we’d expect, the term “undarked” positions light as the absence of darkness. Birth appears as a natural follower to death, rather than the other way around. And knowledge? The voices of Divers challenge us to think long and hard about knowing. In fact, they don’t just challenge us — they challenge knowledge itself. What does history remember? Is all progress good? What cost do we pay for crossing frontiers?

Imagine yourself on the Western Front, down in the trenches. Maybe you’ve donned a mask in the calm before the gas attack, maybe you’re coordinating a charge into no-man’s-land. You check your trench-watch to count the seconds pass. Lighting a match to see the face, you hope the enemy doesn’t spot the flare. The face — the hands — undarked.

Imagine yourself catching a glimpse through the window of a ramshackle laboratory in Paris, a husband and wife focused on their separate projects — he, crystals, and she, waves. She begins making breakthroughs and draws his attention. Ultimately, their work leads to the discovery of new elements, and the world bestows its honors upon them. Nature, undarked.

These two scenes intersect, as war and science often do. See, the woman scientist is Marie Skłodowska Curie, and the waves she studied are X-rays. In fact, during the Great War, she trained doctors to use X-ray machines to treat the wounded.

So close to the enemy, soldiers were careful not to give away their location to waiting snipers; however, stretched out as they were across miles of trenches, synchronization was critical to their collective safety. So the technology caught up with the demand — first, moving watches from the pocket to the wrist. Then, letting soldiers tell time without being seen. With the faintest blue-green glow, a new paint made with Curie’s “beloved radium” let them see in the dark:

1921 Advertisement for Undark | Public Domain

And, so we’re given yet another meaning for “undarked”. A strange kind of self-illumination, almost reminiscent of the Quaker “inner light”. An addition to the litany of “fluorescence”, “phosphoresce[nce]” and other types of radiance found throughout Divers. Since the early 1900s, travelers sought out hot springs said to contain radium, and advertised as “fountains of youth”. As with many discoveries, Undark paint was useful. Deborah Blum tells in her introduction to MIT’s Undark Magazine how glow-in-the-dark watches became popular after the war:

Companies like the New Jersey-based U.S. Radium Corporation hurried to hire workers — mostly young immigrant women — to meet demand, paying them to paint the tiny, lacy numbers on watches and clocks. The women were taught to use their lips to return their paintbrush bristles to a fine tip after each stroke. No one worried about the risks — this was the stuff of cosmetics and health drinks, after all. And the dial painters — or as they would later be called in newspaper stories, the Radium Girls — decorated themselves with the paint, giving themselves glow-in-the-dark smiles and hair that twinkled in the dusk as they walked home from work.
Then they started to fall sick. Their leg bones broke under them as they walked. Their jaws shattered. They developed wasting anemias and other exhausting illnesses. And then they began to die.

Though a different kind of burning, and a different kind of falling, the story of the Radium Girls eerily calls to mind the young immigrant women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Like the polysemy of words themselves, Prometheus’s fire gives both warmth and destruction. Blum reminds us that we still live in such a world, describing science as “a frequently wondrous, sometimes contentious, and occasionally troubling byproduct of human culture.”

Back in that dimmed auditorium, we listened to Eggers ask Joanna Newsom whether she found answers in working on the record. I don’t recall what she said. But we start by asking questions.

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