Saturday, March 19, 2011

"With his kiss the riot starts": What Hades Has to Say about Poetry

Anaïs Mitchell's Hadestown has been on my mind (and in my ears) constantly for the last few days. When it came out last year, I was struck by its ambition (the story of Orpheus and Eurydice retold as a modern folk-pop-blues opera) and its reconfiguring of lyric, ie: songs of love, of which Orpheus is the mythic father. The economic, political and affective complexities of the male poet hymning (always-already lost) love are laid bare through the subtle shift of the story into multiple perspectives, including Eurydice's.But relistening to it in the last weeks, what has come to the fore is its political observations, which seen incredibly timely -- Orpheus the folk poet-hero of a revolution against a tyrant who has imprisoned his songbird (who stands for freedom).

Reviewing the London performance of the opera at Union Chapel for the Independent on Sunday, Simmy Richman concludes:
At the show's centre is a song so sensational that even the discomfort of our hardwood pews is forgotten. "Why We Build the Wall" is both the story of life in the mythical underworld and as potent a parable as it is possible to write. "Why do we build the wall?/We build the wall to keep us free/And the wall keeps out our enemy/What do we have that they should want?/We have a wall to work upon/We have work and they have none/That's why we build the wall."
When I read the review in January I was more compelled/intrigued by the start, where Richman admits that "finding out about the best album of 2010 a few weeks after compiling your end-of-the-year list is about as grave a mistake as it is possible to make if you review music for a living," which made me think cynically about the multiple ways in which the UK music press ignores a class of female singer-songwriters whose work is not "freak" enough to fit their hipster folk tastes, or poppy/pappy enough to be patronised.

But it's the wall that I have come back to, and to the character of Hades, "king of the kingdom of dirt," "a mean old boss / With a silver whistle and a golden scale," sung on the album by Greg Brown, with a thrilling depth and steeliness. Hades only has one solo, "His Kiss, The Riot," where he lays his plans to trap Orpheus in the mythical double-bind of the terrible "don't look back." "Nothing makes a man so bold / As a woman's smile and a hand to hold / But all alone his blood runs thin / And doubt comes in, doubt comes in" he concludes, leading into Orpheus' and Eurydice's duet "Doubt Comes In." Though he uses it cruelly, Hades knows his psychology: he knows Orpheus, like all of us, is susceptible to fear (as is Hades himself), just as he knows -- and uses -- Eurydice's fear of poverty in "Songbird," when he seduces her to stay in the Underworld.

In "His Kiss, The Riot," Mitchell offers a fascinating insight into the psychology of dominance: her reading of Hades makes it clear that tyrants are not enormities, bizarre distortions of human nature, exceptions to the rule, aberrant perversions or magicians who put whole populations under a dangerous spell. They are human and -- under capitalism, with its structuring metaphor of competition -- they are inevitable. Hades speaks the language of spin, with its niggling, irritating grain of truth under layers of nacreous polish, when he says that "All my children came here poor / Clamoring for bed and board," arguing that he offered the miners, gravediggers, and -- in that spectacular image of the futility of capitalism and empire -- wall-builders work to raise them out of poverty (while of course, as Persephone's seductive "Our Lady of the Underground" hymns, keeping them in poverty by selling them illusions to buy with company scrip). "Now what do they clamor for? / Freedom! Freedom!" Hades protests, the music dropping away behind his barks of "Freedom!," as if there were no music that could support such a word. For him, it is the disruptor of harmony, of his perfect, closed system.

In Hades' cry, we can hear Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi, the House of Saud -- but also every politician and manager who believes in the system. But the song also suggests just how vulnerable the system is, if it can be brought down by a kiss (or the image of a suicide, or a cardboard sign, or a line of poetry), and how insecure every tyrant, every person of power, is concomitantly. Power's main belief in itself is in its unshakeable stability: if it's not perpetual, it's not power. But Hades is "stricken… stung" by Orpheus' song -- so stricken that, after this cruel unfolding of his well-laid plan, his voice is not heard again. Orpheus falls away, as Hades predicts, and it is Eurydice and Persephone who end the opera, mourning and remembering him.

Hades is troubled by Orpheus because his devotion to love suggests that there is another way of life, one that is potent and provocative: "With his kiss the riot starts." That kiss awakens not only love, but love's insurgence, its refusal of ownership and hierarchy, its need rather than want, its poetry of productlessness, the very qualities that Hades puts forward so snidely when seducing Eurydice:
Hey little songbird, let me guess
He's some kind of poet - and he's penniless
Give him your hand, he'll give you his hand-to-mouth
He'll write you a poem when the power's out
Again, there's that irritating grain of truth: Orpheus is a dreamer, offering to get the river, trees and birds to arrange a marriage; the fear of poverty and hunger is real. But Hades, with his clever lines (as the Devil gets the best tunes, so Hades gets the cleverest turns of phrase, which in itself becomes a kind of cheapening of the poetic power of language), presents the symptoms (poverty, hunger) as the disease. Orpheus isn't poor because poverty is the natural state of poets, but because the society Hades runs doesn't value their labour -- and demands that they pay for the necessities of life.

But Hades' words are persuasive: "Hey, Little Songbird" is not a solo, but a duet, as are "Why We Build the Wall" (with the Hadestown Chorus) and "How Long" (with Persephone). Hades' system works because others are complicit in it: his workers and his wife. But complicit is a complicated word: Hades and his lifestyle are powerfully charismatic. "Seems like he owns everything / Kind of makes you wonder how it feels," Eurydice sings. And there Mitchell pins the biggest problem of power, which is that it itself is seductive. Rather than protesting, dismantling or exiting the system, the Workers and Eurydice want to use it, to become like Hades; to shelter in his power and thus to have it. Orpheus, compelled by his love of Eurydice, needs and offers something different - an outside, an unravelling of the whole system.

But Hades identifies that Orpheus, too, thrives on power of a kind: "Bravery can be contagious / When the band is playing loud." As well as the touch of a woman's hand, Orpheus -- as a poet -- depends on his audience and his culture for support. He needs to be heard, he needs to be approved, to move, to connect. And so he is vulnerable to the machinations of power that would separate him from that audience (and this is the springboard for much of the work of PEN, like this event for Chinese Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo tomorrow night). And this raises a profound question for me about vulnerability, one that has been mulling since I read Judith Butler's Frames of War.

That question is about how to sustain vulnerability when it is exploitable by power - but is also, Butler concludes (in alignment with Gandhi), the most durable form of resistance to power's depredations. I don't know how -- but Tahrir Square seemed to me to offer a model. My friend Rebecca passed on a translation of a sign she had seen there: "I was afraid -- and I became an Egyptian." Rather than repressing fear, as power does, or buying goods to cover it up, as power exhorts us to do, the protestors walked into, and with, their fear as a shared expression of being human. Not just "I was afraid," as Orpheus finds at the end of the song, but "and I became an Egyptian." Rather than putting the author out front in a combat for hearts and minds, or in conflict with his forefathers, or trying to win his crust, is there a poetry that can sing this shared consciousness?

Butler thinks that this is exactly what poetry (and only poetry/song, freed from the cause-effect constraints of narrative), removed from the marketplace, can do. She says: ‎
When the Pentagon offered its rationale for the censorship [of poetry by Guantánamo detainees], it claimed that poetry 'presents a special risk' to national security because of its 'content and format'… Could it really be that the syntax or form of a poem is perceived as a threat to the security of a nation?
and concludes that its not the syntax of form of the poem that's a threat, but its relation to the body and its relation of vulnerability. Even Hades, when he sings, sings of emotions -- song itself breathes with and from affect. Orpheus, who is all poem and no body (as the end of the classical myth recognises), finds himself overwhelmed by doubt -- that is, a belief in his own isolation -- and loses Eurydice, who asks him to "hold on tight."

Hadestown agrees with Butler, that interdependence and vulnerability (Butler calls it injurability) are inextricably linked and are definitional of life; they also agree that poetry is the form for voicing this injurability. But poetry also needs to "hold on tight", not to the sound of the band or the praise of the crowd, not to its reflexive, hyper-critical sense of itself as poetry, but to its relations with life, the body and freedom. It needs to feed us more than rivers and trees. It needs to "hold on" to its connection to us all -- and so it needs to have an informed comeback to Hades' clever lines and cutting insights in order to keep language vital. This is another way of saying that poetry is always political, that the lyric cannot shut its eyes against that busie old fool the sun and the world it brings in.

Hadestown shows this subtly: in between "How Long," Hades' duet with Persephone where he argues that "nothing comes of the songs people sing / However sorry they are" and the collapse of his wall in "His Kiss, the Riot," comes Orpheus' solo, a reprise of his earlier song "Epic," which is a description of Hades and his world. Envisioning Persephone "in her mother's garden" he sings that "suddenly Hades was only a man / With a taste of nectar on his lips." Love undoes even Hades. But it's not just the lyrics, which contrast the man of steel with the woman of flowers and pollen; the song is followed by an instrumental "Lover's Desire," a traditional Afghani piece. Persephone's image is at once Greek and part of the tradition of ghazals and shash maqam, the musical styles of Persia and Central Asia. And she is married, inextricably (if seasonally) to Hades: by kidnapping her, he has connected himself to her forever. Interdependence begins in vulnerability -- but acts of violence cannot destroy it, only secure the bonds tighter. That allows, just maybe, for that vulnerability, for the party that has remained vulnerable, to begin -- amplified by poetry, perhaps -- to effect change, to destabilise the violator. Just maybe.

You can see why the Pentagon banned those poems. Hades does the same.

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