Tuesday, February 24, 2015

“Container” by Fiona Apple

I was screaming into the canyon
At the moment of my death.
The echo I created
Outlasted my last breath.

My voice it made an avalanche
And buried a man I never knew.
And when he died his widowed bride
Met your daddy and they made you.

I have only one thing to do and that's
To be the wave that I am and then
Sink back into the ocean.

Sink back into the o-
Sink back into the ocean.
Sink back into the o-
Sink back into the ocean.


This week's Editor: Zireaux

“Speak, speak, I charge thee, speak" — this is Horatio, in Hamlet, imploring the ghost of Hamlet’s father not just to make some noise, to simply howl or to growl say (which would be astonishing enough), but rather to speak, to say something intelligible. More than any apparition, it's words that bring a ghost to life.

And yet, Hamlet’s father aside, they rarely make good orators, these clumsy, techno-challenged spectres and their speech impediments; rapping on tables, sending codes through flashlights and will-'o-the-wisps, playing alphabet games on ouija boards, making reverse recordings of their glossolalia on old LPs. But how else should it be? Speaking in tongues, or through mediums, offers a solution for those without tongues or bodies of their own. Divested of form, of density, what larynx can produce a voice? What brain suggests a syntax to the whims of the dead?

With her song “Container,” Fiona Apple produces the voice of a ghost — brilliantly, beautifully, but most importantly, poetically. Through lyrics, through words. It’s a wave, that voice. It rises and recedes, rages and calms. Apple starts with a tremor in her tone. Note the metrical structure here, the eerie, plaintive trimeter of the first quatrain — with its trochaic howling words, “SCREAMINGing,” “CANyon,” “MOment.” Then she belts the “echo” like no other singer, in no other song. The line becomes pure sound, pure mantra. The avalanche, meanwhile, seems completely out of place for an ocean-born ghost, but that’s the thing: This is a ghost voice. A vibration. It ripples and tsunamis through space, from sea to shining snow-top. There’s a oneness here, between language and sound, poet and phantom.

The first quatrain swells and solidifies into the event-driven physicality of the second, which is sturdy iambic tetrameter, re-enforced with the “died”/“bride” girders of internal rhyme. Note the echo-effect of line five, with its ricocheting ictus in the canyon of iambs — my VOICE, it MADE, an AVaLANCH. Apple bounces back and forth. The literary device here — “My voice, it made,” “my abc, it xyz’d” — is called dislocation,* whereby the pronoun emphasises the noun by echoing it.

And it’s the echo, the ripple, the great wave of sound that becomes physical and powerful; that causes the avalanche, that causes the death of a stranger and a child to be born. The reference to “daddy” is intimate, child-friendly.

“Containers,” I should point out, is the opening theme song of a TV series called “The Affair,” which just finished its first season on Showtime. The song lends the show a haunting artistic key with which “The Affair” never quite harmonises. Not for lack of trying. One of the show’s two main characters, Alison, insists that her dead son is still present in the world. “He’s watching us,” she says. “He’s caring for us every day.” If this is true — and at one point, yes, as Alison attempts to drown herself in the ocean, we hear the voice of a little boy shouting from the shore — if true, it’s definitely not something we want a main character to tell us.

Rather, we need to hear the ghost-voice for ourselves — which brings us back to Apple’s poem. We’re now at the third stanza, a tercet, in which the first two lines, still holding the dimensions of the previous stanza, start to tremble and collapse:

I have only one thing to do and that's
To be the wave that I am and then

This is pure abstraction, pure searching, wavy, echolocation. It’s barely English. The five-lettered “thing” is the longest of the 18 words that flail about and say nothing. Beautiful, poetic ghost-speak. There’s a very soft, ghostly, syllabic rhyme in the enjambment — “and that’s” / “and then” — which Apple deftly stresses through the rhythm and tone of her voice, before the whole thing slams into the spondee of the original trimeter: “SINK BACK into the Ocean.” From the howling trochees of “SCREAMing,” “MOment,” “CANyon” we end with another, softer, more surrendering and mournful one: “Ocean.”

One of the most beautiful themes in poetry (which circles just beyond the black hole tug of a trope) is that of the passively almighty. The powerfully weak. The noisy unnoticed. A kind of stop-motion perspective in which things that appear silent and still and locked in eternity — the ocean, the dead, the ancient rocks of Australia (see that greatest of ghost stories, Picnic at Hanging Rock) — can rise up, knock us over, overwhelm our world with their substance. Apple’s poem contains that kind of substance. It dislocates our sense of control over our lives; and makes us stop and listen in wonder.


This week's editor, Zireaux, lives in Canberra, Australia. His most recent novel, A Charlatan's Orbit, is available on Kindle and in paperback on Amazon. (If you can't afford the Kindle version, contact Zireaux.com, mention "Tuesday Poem," and you'll receive a free gift version). His poetry, commentary, stories, novels and other writings are available at Immortalmuse.com.

* Dupriez, B. and Halsall, A.W., A Dictionary of Literary Devices: Gradus, A-Z, University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, October 30, 1991; and later referenced in Huddleston, R. and Pullum G,, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge University Press, April 15, 2002.


Penelope said...

This reminds me of the type of poem, or nursery rhyme, where a short first line is gradually expanded into something much longer. Examples include 'The house that Jack built' and 'There was an old woman who swallowed a fly'.

Of course, it is far more subtle.

An interesting post, Zireaux.

Michelle Elvy said...

Thank you for this wonderful post, Z! I love this part especially:

I have only one thing to do and that's
To be the wave that I am and then
Sink back into the ocean

And the commentary you offer. The way you write about the rhythms, the undulations, the sounds of this piece... It's really good to see on the page and also hear.

Helen McKinlay said...

A most effective poem, which draws the attention and raises the hackles. The ghost voice...an interesting and unusual topic, as we have come to expect from you, Zireaux, with an illuminating, beautifully written commentary.

Helen Lowe said...

Thank you, both for the poem and the indepth commentary.

AJ Ponder said...

Nicely done, Zireaux, always surprising, a very freaky and unexpected poem, with a fantastic commentary. Thanks.

Zireaux said...

A cosmic symphony of Tuesday Poems this week. I read them all and heard a common theme — namely sound and eternity; or let’s say, the sound of eternity:

The ceaseless cricket-chirps “Time in the Grass” (W.S. Merwin/Kathleen Jones); the “cosmic background” of “The stars, Natasha” (Tim Jones/Helen Rowe); the harmonies of nature in “The Floating Island” (Dorothy Wordsworth/Helen McKinlay); the “Yo Hos!” of pirates singing about the dead in “Pirate Post: Here be Dragons” (AJ Ponder); the TV-sounds of American news programs in “Dispatch from the Fringe” (Paul E Nelson/Andrew M Bell); the enormous belting “echo” of Fiona Apple (“Containers”); the rooster-crow of a new dawn in Lesotho (“Choosing a Leader” by Rethabile).

This last one, by the way, concerns yesterday’s elections in Lesotho, where people yearn for, and let us hope for, a peaceful result. P.S. Cottier’s prose poem, “Falling through,” while not so noisy about time, makes a delightful traverse of space — “space and lancet light” — transposing the narrator from Canberra to Cornwall, from poet to John le Carré.

And, of course, speaking of eternity — a very special mention to Michelle Elvy’s brilliant “Moments in Sand,” which spans thirty years and includes one of the best metaphors I’ve ever read. Few poets in history have held more authority, or showed a greater sensibility, in writing about such a topic.

Overall, it’s been a week of poetry that — as Jones’s narrator implores in “The stars, Natasha” — pays less attention to our daily macro-economics and more to the macro-cosmos; and even more than that, to the timeless background hum of our shared passions, our shared humanity.
- Zireaux