|[a] Disappears RF|
This song is hard to top in the quiet misery department. It is not unprecedented, as we will see in a few weeks with an equally pleading ode of devastation written by Dolly Parton. "Whoever's in New England" is actually part of a small sub-genre of country songs that I call "timid desolation lyrics." From an analytical perspective, we surely must ask ourselves why a clear majority of these songs are sung by women—not all of them, to be sure, but the gender lines are evident. Do they something about American society? The song is from 1986, and it is up to you to decide if life and lyrics have changed dramatically since then. The message is pointed in its very timidity.
Take a listen, and read the lyrics (don't watch the video for now; it's all about lyrics and you can watch it later). In fact, as a lover of poetry, I am irritated by the video medium, which takes a wide-ranging set of narrative possibilities and crams them into a tiny little story line. Please, just listen.
(Kendal Franceschi, Quentin Powers)
You spend an awful lot of time in Massachusetts
Seems like every other week you've got a meeting waiting there
Business must be booming or could something else
Be moving in the air up there?
An executive on his way up has got to play the part
Each time duty calls you got to give it all
You've got with all your heart
And Boston finds better things to do
You know its not too late
When whoever's in New England’s through with you
I’ve been told its beautiful to see this time of year
They say the snow can blind you till the world you left behind
Just disappears I hear
But before you leave again there’s just one thing you ought to know
When the icy winds blow through you remember that it’s me
Who feels the cold most of all
That is what I want to think about as we wrap up the timid desolation theme for the week. As a student of history and anthropology, what I love about country music is that the lyrics usually have a finger on a real social pulse—and sometimes one many of us would rather not hear. I leave it to you to look through the song's "reception history" if you are interested. Suffice it to say that some people argued that the song should be more empowering. Others said that empowerment comes from the very weakness expressed in the lyrics.
|[b] Reflections RF|
There are many example from which to choose, and I would by dishonest if I hid the fact that most examples were written by women. This is a stronger message than you might think, though. The very best writing in Heian Japan was produced by women (it is not even a close contest). The short-term reward system produced men writing stilted texts in classical Chinese. They were revered in their lifetimes. Women wrote lilting essays (I use the word in the original sense) that captured mood and social flow in a language that people spoke...and lived. Their writing lasted; the stilted stuff was quickly forgotten.
It's a little like academia today.
Here is a snippet from The Gossamer Journal, written in the tenth century by a lonely and frustrated woman finding her way through the byzantine social byways of Japanese marriage life in the upper reaches of Heian society. The passage below is a translation of a full year in the diary, complete with the poetry that gives it extra force as a narrative vehicle. As always, remember (even when the themes look "close") that the East Asian reading is meant to be juxtaposed with the country song. We aren't looking for one-to-one correspondences. We want fireworks.
The Gossamer Journal
Ninth Year of Tenryaku (955)
Around the First Month, at a time when Kaneie had not visited me for two or three days, I went to stay somewhere, leaving instructions with a servant to give him this poem if he came:
It was about that time that I became pregnant. A difficult spring and summer followed, and then, around the end of the Eight Month, I gave birth. Kaneie was most thoughtful and solicitous, both before and after the delivery.
One day around the Ninth Month, after I had left, I idly opened a letter box and discovered a message intended for another woman. Dumbfounded, I scribbled a poem on the edge so that he would at least know I had seen it:
Toward the end of the Tenth Month, he absented himself for three nights running, just as I had anticipated. He was quite offhand about it. "I thought I would stay away for a little while to test your feelings, and the days slipped by before I knew it," he said. He left in the evening, with the excuse that a directional taboo would make it awkward to go from my house to the imperial palace in the morning. I told someone to follow him, my suspicions aroused, and was informed that he had stopped at a house on Machijiri Street. It was no more than I had expected, I thought. But for all my distress, I did not know how to bring the subject up.
Two or three days later, there was a rapping on my gate toward dawn. I thought it must be he, but was too miserable to have my people open the gate, and he went off in what seemed to be the direction of the house on Machijiri Street. The next morning, unwilling to let the incident pass, I composed a poem, wrote it out with special care, and attached it to a faded chrysanthemum:
He wrote in reply, "I had intended to keep knocking until your people opened the gate, even if it meant staying there until dawn, but a messenger found me—someone from the court on urgent business—and I had to leave. I can see why you were angry." His poem:
He was bafflingly mater-of-fact about the whole affair. I might not have minded so much if he had tried to be secretive for a time—pretending to have to go to the palace or something like that—but his disregard of my feelings was too much to bear.
First Year of Anna (968)
So time passes, but the advent of a new year brings no joy to one who is sunk in grief, her life far from what she would have desired. When I reflect on the perpetual uncertainty in which I exist, it seems to me that this has been the journal of a woman whose fortunes are as evanescent as the gossamer shimmer of a heat wave in the sky.
 McCullough, Classical Japanese Prose, 155.
McCullough, Helen Craig. Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Sunday, August 28th