From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (17)—Whoever's In New England

Click here to read the introduction to the Round and Square series "Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin'..."
[a] Disappears  RF
Reba's pathetic. I mean that in the strict sense, and not the common one. I love Reba McEntire's voice, whether she is belting out "Fancy" or roiling in apprehensive pathos, as she is this week. Not many artists are capable of swaggering with opulent confidence in one song and begging "him" just to come back when he's ready in the next. No one can doubt that Reba has range.

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.

Whoever's in New England
Reba McEntire

(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?

You say that it’s important for our future
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

When whoever's in New England is through with you
And Boston finds better things to do
You know its not too late
‘Cause you'll always have a place to come back to
When whoever's in New England’s through with you

I hear the winter time up north can last forever
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

I packed your bags and left them in the hallway
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

Repeat Chorus

Pathetic. It's the word that won't go away for me when I listen to this song. The coursing stream of melancholy winding through the verses is nothing compared to the (para)phrases that always raise my feminist hackles. I'll still be here, waiting, when you're done. It is hard to put a confident spin on this theme, isn't it? Yet it would be foolish—unpalatable as many of us might find the message—to deny its place in the complex world of relationships. Anyone who has lived for a few decades recognizes at least a few elements from the song in the social world around him (or her). It is always gendered, but it is not exclusively "male" or "female."

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
All I will say is that the themes have been around for a long time, and we will look at an example from Heian (794-1185) Japan. Diarists in Heian times often evoked a complex world of hurt, waiting, and quiet despair—not to mention a little pushback.

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
蜻蛉日記 (かげろうにっき)
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:

shirareneba                                        Its heart unfathomed
mi o uguisu no                                   the disconsolate warbler
furiidetsutsu                                       ventures forth crying
nakite koso yuke                                toward whatever field or hill,
no ni mo yama ni mo                         leaving the city behind
He replied:

uguisu no                                           Even though its flight
ada ni mo yukamu                             may lead the capricious warbler
yamabe ni mo                                    into the mountains,
naku koe kikaba                                 I will not fail to seek it
tazunu bakari zo                                as soon as I hear its cry.

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:

uragawashi                                        At sight of a note
hoka ni wataseru                               intended for someone else,
fumi mireba                                       I can but wonder:
koko ya todae ni                               might this perhaps spell the end
naramu to suramu                            of your visits to my house?

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:

nagekitsutsu                                      You cannot know
hitori nuru yo no                                 how long it seems until dawn
akuru ma wa                                      for someone who lies
ika ni hisashiki                                   on a solitary bed,
mono to ka wa shiru                          lost in melancholy thought.

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:

ge ni ya ge ni                                     It is true what you say
fuyu no yo naranu                             of winter nights. Yet I have learned
maki no to mo                                   that a pinewood door
osoku akuru wa                                may cause painful waiting, too,
wabishikarikeri                                  when it is slow to open.

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.[1]

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.[2]
[1] Helen Craig McCullough, Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 109-111.
[2] McCullough, Classical Japanese Prose, 155.


McCullough, Helen Craig. Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Sunday, August 28th
Chiseled in Stone
The title might give a hint of how sad and miserable Vern Gosdin will make us next Sunday...on Hurtin', Leavin, and Longin'.

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