“The text will not yield”: Fleeting Tesserae in Joanna Newsom’s Sapokanikan
This is luckily not the beginning or the end of discussion on a new-ish poem/song by Joanna Newsom called “Sapokanikan”. Having spent my childhood falling asleep to my mother’s tireless practicing on her Lyon & Healy, my ears usually perk up when I run across a new song by the harpist. And this song in particular: A few years back, when I was teaching ninth grade English near NYC, my syllabus had Newsom’s “Colleen” alongside Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet, a wry protest to the canon. Imagine the 14-year-olds’ surprise when what they’d studied as a silent poem suddenly came over the speakers with syncopation and squeals!
My apologies if someone else on the internet has staked a claim to some or several of the ideas I put down here — it’s not my intention to trespass. Early panners have already begun to uncover the surface gold (as Joanna mentioned in her New York Times interview), and Christopher Laws has pulled together a well-researched view into many of the song’s references. I’ll take those as a springboard to dive a little deeper, in the hopes of furthering the discussion with some small revelations.
But first, if you haven’t heard the song — mend that!
“Sapokanikan” is a ragtimey encomium to the forces of remembrance, forgetting, accretion, concealment, amendment, erasure, distortion, canonization, obsolescence and immortality. — Joanna Newsom to NPR
At first listen, it’s clear that “Sapokanikan” is an indelibly American song, and both its references and its themes evoke the ethos of a place constantly reinventing itself — starting from zero— yet captivated by anything historical and grand. More importantly, the song sounds American in its jaunty ragtime way.
Early European colonists, sailing into the “untravell’d world,” saw the New Continent as a tabula rasa (they weren’t the first if you ask Edward Said). In tracing the history of a place, Newsom’s poem is replete with white: painter’s canvas, paper, marble, snow. It tells how blank surfaces, as they did for those tulipomaniacal conquistadors, beckon the creative hand. So there’s a tension arising between the unmarked and the marker. Like kids with crayons, a linen tablecloth, and nobody watching.
We all know what happens. The cloth doesn’t stay wax-white for long! Again and again, like the “sanded” map (think of the effect of sanding a painted board, or the shifting, engulfing sands of a Saharan dune), the cycle of marking and unmarking plays out, until we eventually see the image for what it is — not a tabula rasa, but a palimpsest. Now we’re getting somewhere! I haven’t yet listened to her new album, but I would bet real money Joanna Newsom has written a song or ditty with the word “palimpsest” in it. Or she’s been tempted to.
The Van Gogh painting, the Titian… perfect examples. The snowbanks as well, which invite us to recall that before the Lenape, Manhattan was covered by the Wisconsin Ice Sheet (and in geology, “palimpsest” refers to the landscape after a glacier has receded). The Lenape, too, altered the landscape using the phoenix-like practice of slash-and-burn to clear agricultural land for crops, like tobacco. A city destined for rebirth: Sapokanikan, Nieuw Amsterdam, New York.
While we’re on the subject of tobacco, humor me for small detour on our Village perambulation. Christopher Laws rightly reveals the polysemy of “Dutch master,” referring simultaneously to colonization and to the Dutch Golden Age painters. You know, like, the 1600s. But Vincent van Gogh lived in the late 1800s. Why the disconnect? Would Newsom stretch time to spin Van Gogh into this palimpsestic tale? I don’t know, but I do know that there are other Dutch Masters to be considered.
The men depicted in this image are De Staalmeesters, the Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, painted by Rembrandt in 1662. I know I’m asking you to make a big leap here, but consider this: we now have in our hands a “real” Dutch master’s painting concealed behind a logo introduced in the age of ragtime.
And who would have pictured Joanna Newsom a fan of cigarillos?
From rags to…
My great-grandmother used to tell stories of playing ragtime as a child in the bar of her North Dakota town. Occasionally, she would regale us by pounding out a number on her son’s out-of-tune upright.
What would you give to hear some of the original performers playing ragtime in turn-of-the-century St. Louis, or New York? And what would they have sounded like, these unrecorded hands, altering their surface of white keys? Thankfully, a few traces still survive in the form of paper rolls, punched out at birth on “reproducing pianos” (and wrapped tight like cigars).
Our flâneuse, however, appears keen to evoke a “powerful but unrecorded race” and others faded into obscurity. Her oracular voice calls out like some “Mouthpiece of the dead.” In some cases, the palimpsest annihilates recorded history, as in those tantalizing purloined letters between Florry and Smike, while in others, that record was never made. And somewhere in the interstices, the line between overwritten and unrecorded history gets blurred. Such is the case, she reminds us, of “all of the Twenty Thousand.”
But who are these Twenty Thousand? Jules Verne aside, we can find examples aplenty for this number. The most compelling clue, though, can be found engraved on a plaque just a stone’s throw from Washington Square Park. More on that in a minute.
Clara Lemlich is not a household name. Yet at 23, having already fled pogrom from Russia to New York, she gave voice to thousands of tyrannized women working in shirtwaist factories, and incited the 1909 Uprising of the Twenty Thousand. A clothworkers’ union — you might even call it a guild. The oath that bound the strikers was this: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.” In a song so teeming with synecdochic disembodied hands, it’s a wonder they don’t reach out and grab us! And like the many hands in “Sapokanikan,” the garment workers’ hands are both symbols of strength and frailty. Strong in their union (like the lone arm of Lady Liberty); frail in the reminder of how an injury to their hand would bring a devastatingly swift end to their livelihood.
That swift end did find the seamstresses, less than two years after swearing allegiance to their “cause.” As told in the Broadway flop “Rags” (alongside the successful “Maytime” and “Ragtime”, another juxtaposition of fame and obscurity), a fire ravaged several floors of 23–29 Washington Place, and locked doors turned the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory into a readymade grave. Many resorted to jumping from the windows. The reporter William Shepherd recorded the event in print, saying, “I learned a new sound — a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.”
Drawn over five quickening syllables, Newsom sings, “I fell.” — while in P. T. Anderson’s video she approaches the flare of a ghostly fire-engine.
And just like that, her art renders Washington Square Park the ground zero that it was for New Yorkers of 1911.
“All exeunt! All go out!”
What, then, explains the poem’s perplexing dearth of fire imagery? Even the “X-ray” and “fluorescence” cast a cool light at best… Instead, the focus moves over and again to the aftermath, what remains: the “map,” the “potter’s fields,” the “monument.” Both as listeners of the song and as survivors of life’s tragedies, we’re left grasping for the elusive flame, for the “event” itself. We’re left in the space of memory and forgetting, which Newsom reminds us is the space of recording, too, in echoed refrains: “The Event is in the hand of God. […] The event lives only in print.”
What endures? A “plastic bag,” perhaps? Writers have wrangled with this question, and how to word it, since time immemorial. Even Shakespeare’s Macbeth soliloquaciously muses after learning of his wife’s death:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Others have already cited records “in print” of an eventful and tragic flight. Overlay the song and that earlier printed text, and striking semblances emerge like caesarean coins cold-forged onto blanks. The joke with his instructor, the seatbelt unheeded — what are we listening to, a plagiarist? a counterfeiter?!? The sameness is intentional, no doubt, but to what end? (Are we continually compelled, like Plath, “to dredge the silt” from this poet’s throat?) This isn’t the first fake, fraud, or coverup we’ve encountered in “Sapokanikan.” A peasant woman’s portrait becomes a field of grass. A mother and child becomes Tobias and the Angel. A newspaper clipping becomes a song. Each palimpsestic example gives surmising “scholars” only the before and after. The event — the transformation — blankly missing.
Take the song, then. If both copies are pressed from similar dies, then where did the genius goldsmith go wrong? What changed from the 1918 original? What can we learn of the event of creating this song?
It would seem uncharacteristic for the poet to lift lines about Mr. Mitchel’s bold Ulyssean heroics without noticing the different brand of heroism that Mrs. Mitchel displays. The wife “bore the shock with fortitude”:
“Tell it — tell it all. I am prepared and can bear it.”
Her words echo the oft-silent or silenced voices of the Triangle seamstresses, the “mother and kid,” my great-grandmother, my grandmothers (Florence and Sheila), Florence Walker, Faulkner’s Dilsey, Florence Schust, the women of ragtime, Lucinda Morgan, Penelope, my harpist-mother… who all cry out, softly: “Do you love me? Will you remember?” Are they doomed to remain but the countersink to their great men’s relief?
Who, then, will answer their plea? If the ragged colossus of Smith and Shelley (whose largely-disregarded wife Mary authored Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus) merely looks on with an unpitying sneer, what heroine will rise up like Clara Lemlich in the crowd? The simplest answer might be, well, a new colossus.
While some of us have heard the name Emma Lazarus, I would hesitate to call it a household name. And yet countless Americans, if prompted, can eke out some semblance of an excerpt from her sonnet, stamped on a “tribute” in one of New York’s most illustrious parks: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Contrasted to the “brazen giant” that once stood guard to defend the harbor of Rhodes, which collapsed in an earthquake leaving only its “trunkless legs,” the American colossus — a woman — watching over New York’s “sea-washed, sunset gates” continues to stand, raising her “beacon-hand” to draw in newcomers.
Lazarus was hand-picked for the job — cast for the role, and yet quickly faded into obscurity. We’re talking about the Statue of Liberty here, not some random rusted statue in a park!
Emma Lazarus did not pick her name. She was Jewish, like many of the Twenty Thousand who would rise up after her death. Taken out of context, it might be a somewhat unremarkable name. But we’ve been witness to several quite remarkable signs in Joanna Newsom’s company. If you’re of a certain bent, you might even call them miraculous. You just might.
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Before I go getting everyone riled up about equating JN with JC, let’s recall how we got here. The first words we hear are that “the cause is Ozymandian.” You can interpret that “cause” broadly in other contexts, but taken narrowly for a minute, it’s the endeavor to write, to make Art, to give voice, to create.
The echoic singer, through blotted palimpsests and layers of concealment, exclaims, “Lazarus, come out!” in the silent voice of a multitude of women to this hero of the voiceless, Emma Lazarus. For, as the dismembered mummified speaker in Plath’s poem reminds us:
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
And in an instant of transcendence, the rag becomes the high-hoisted “standard to which the wise and honest soul may repair.” Lazarus’ rags are no longer the winding sheet of the dead, no. Her Shakespearean command is transubstantiated from a despairing “Out, out, brief candle!” to a rallying-cry for metempsychosis and rebirth:
“All exeunt! All go out!”
Continuing in the vein of my exploration of “Sapokanikan,” I hope you’ll go with me on a bit of a descent into the…medium.com
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Well, I’m quite exhausted at the moment, my head is swarming, and it’s probably time to go to Trouble for a coconut. Thanks for hanging in there this long! Thanks to Medium for providing the medium to share these words.
I’d like to say thank you, again, to all those who generously shared their discoveries, and hope that this is in some way a contribution to the discussion.
And many, many thanks to Joanna Newsom for sharing her art, and for countless listenings and re-listenings that never fail to unveil another layer. I’m looking forward to conversations to come!
Thanks most of all to Ariane, for putting up with me through what must have appeared a crazed few days.
(appendix of poems below)
Appendix — Poems
by Emma Lazarus, 1883
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
by Sylvia Plath, 1957
I shall never get you put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.
by Horace Smith, 1818
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows: —
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.” — The City’s gone, —
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, — and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
by Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818
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.”
by William Shakespeare, 1609
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid? O! none, unless this miracle have might, That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
by William Butler Yeats, 1927
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1842
It little profits that an idle king,
by Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1858
This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign, Sails the unshadowed main, — The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings, And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.
by William Carlos Williams, 1962
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
by Sylvia Plath, 1962
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it — —
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My featureless, fine
by Elisabeth Bishop, 1975
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
by Joanna Newsom, 2015
The Cause is Ozymandian.
The map of Sapokanikan
is sanded and beveled,
the land lone and leveled
by some unrecorded and powerful hand,
which plays along the monument,
and drums, upon a plastic bag,
the Brave Men and Women, So Dear to God
and Famous For All of the Ages Rag.
(Sing: Do you love me?
Will you remember?
The snow falls above me.
The Renderer, renders.
The Event is in the hand of God.)
Beneath a Patch of Grass,
her bones the old Dutch Master hid,
while, elsewhere, Tobias and the Angel disguised
what the scholar surmised was a mother and kid
(interred with other daughters, in dirt, in other potter’s fields).
parades mark the passing of days
through parks where pale colonnades arch
in marble and steel,
where all of the Twenty Thousand attending your footfall
(and the Cause that they died for)
are lost in the idling birdcalls,
and the records they left are cryptic at best,
lost in obsolescence:
the text will not yield
(nor X-ray reveal, with any fluorescence)
where the Hand of the Master begins and ends.
I tried to do well, but I won’t be.
Will you tell the one that I loved
to remember, and hold me?
I call and call for the doctor,
but the snow swallows me whole,
with old Florry Walker.
The Event lives only in print.
“It’s alright, and it’s all over now,” and boarded the plane,
his belt unfastened,
(The boy was known to show unusual daring —
and called a ‘boy’, this alderman
confounding Tammany Hall, in whose employ
King Tamanend himself preceded John’s fall!)
So we all raise a standard,
to which the wise and honest soul may repair;
to which a hunter,
a hundred years from now,
may look, and despair, and see with wonder
the tributes we have left to rust in the park:
swearing that our hair stood on end,
to see John Purroy Mitchel depart for the Western Front,
where work might count.
All exeunt! All go out!
Await the hunter, to decipher the stone
(and what lies under, now).
The city is gone.
Look, and despair.
Look, and despair.