Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A hundred million miracles

I've been quiet for a while. Not in real life--ask anyone--but here, mostly. And what has brought me out of my cocoon is, I kid you not, The Flower Drum Song. Why had no one ever told me that Miyoshi Umeki would break my heart? Or that "Chop Suey," channeled through Juanita Hall, would become at once an ode to American hybridity and a more poignant commentary on Hall's own embodiment of multiple racial identities? This, dear reader, blows West Side Story (its strict contemporary, cinematically speaking) out of the water.

It's not just that I'm partial to San Francisco. When Umeki's character, Mei Li, performs for the first time--in a public plaza, presumably near Market and Stockton?--she begins by inviting the passersby to hear "songs of ghosts, songs of love, and songs of misery." Tonight--it's past 10, and the air in this small town is so thick you could serve it as a foam in some big city restaurant--I wonder if there is any love song worth singing that would not also be in some way about ghosts or misery. Or not about them--that's my lousy paraphrase--but *of* them. Songs that come from, songs that are made of, songs that owe their very shape and substance to things like this: ghosts; love; misery.

But when Umeki starts to sing, she doesn't sing of misery. She sings of miracles. The song begins by evoking the continual becoming of the world: kids growing, rivers flowing; the kind of stuff you've heard a million times (a hundred million times) before. Maybe not right after a promise of ghosts and love and misery, but still often enough that you could be forgiven--but you could always be forgiven--for tuning out until the chorus, or at least the hint of a chorus that emerges when Umeki sings, for the first of many (how many?) times, "A hundred million miracles are happening every day." (I use Umeki's name instead of her character's because the thought of these lyrics is inseparable from the thought of her voice, just as the thought of her voice is, for me, inseparable from the thought of her cheekbones: a quality that she shares with Barbara Stanwyck--although what a difference between those voices, and those cheekbones!)

These miracles--these hundred million miracles--are relentlessly ordinary. Weather. Birth. Growth. Sunburn. It's as if these elemental processes, themselves dangerously close to clichés, were nonetheless more evocative, and less cliché, ways of saying the things that tend to get said, particularly in popular culture, under the signs of love or loss. The world of "A Hundred Million Miracles" is not that different a world from, say, the world of True Blood--to take a slightly less than random example from television--but it says this shared world's problems (and joys) differently. It sings them differently. Intimacy, it sings--Umeki sings--can be a question of whose blood gets in whose veins; but it can also surface in a sunburn, in the unexpected ways we are touched (and hurt) by the world. Heartbreak and sunburn have something in common.

I think that it takes guts to sing the connectedness of things. Umeki does this; so, too, do two other people I want to mention tonight. Earlier this summer, I was lucky enough to see Josh Ritter perform in Louisville--why don't I just live there already?--and to have my dad beside me during the show. My dad's a gentle guy, up for just about anything. And he loves music. Still, I hadn't expected that he would love this concert as much as he did (or as much, I should say, as I think he did). The moment when, without looking at him, I felt that somehow we were both connected to Ritter and to one another through an infinitely thin, infinitely strong thread (call it music, call it the world) was during a song, "Another New World," in which the speaker--the singer--tells of a trip to the "top of the world" in his beloved boat, the Annabelle Lee, which he'll chop up for firewood before the song is through. It's a song of ghosts and love and misery: of the dream of a "fine deep harbor ... past the ice" for a ship whose embrace is a lover's; of "another new world" beyond this one. The song's tragedy, in the end, comes from the refusal to accept this world--a world big enough for ice and, tonight, condensation on my water glass--as the new one; from the insistence that there must be yet another new world just around the corner, or beyond the pole. To get there, you sacrifice what you love most. The song, as I hear it, is an indictment not of wanderlust but of the stubborn incapacity to take the given world as given: to accept that it not only can be but is being made new, just as it is. We ought to be wary of anyone--I'm looking at you, evangelical pastors, with your all too confident accounts of the hereafter--who tries to sell us a ticket to another new world, especially when it becomes clear that the means of getting there (our ship, our love) is precisely what we'll be required to burn.

That was a digression, maybe. I have a thing against sacrifice, against the romance of sacrifice. And Ritter's voice--quivering, growling, and here too, as with Umeki, I'm reading his werewolf-like face into the tone--is an incredibly powerful and persuasive instrument for exactly those romantic qualities that make sacrifice (especially self-sacrifice) so alluring. In his song, though, it's the beloved, not the self, who gets sacrificed in the end.

The beloved, here, is a boat. Is it silly to get this worked up about a boat, about the violence of destroying what we could easily, blithely call an inanimate object? Not if we take seriously these words from Todd Boss's poem "Things, Like Dogs," which begins narratively--"I came home last night to find that my / laptop had crawled up onto the table"--and turns, at the end of the fourth stanza, to reflection: "...it was kind of nice. / Kind of nice to know that things, / like dogs, grow fond and want / to be had, to be used, to be played." Everything coheres around that break, more present in the body of the poem than in the title, between "things" and "like dogs": that there is a line--but a line you can cross, or, better, a space--between the animate and inanimate worlds. Things are not dogs; dogs are not things. Theirs is a relationship of likeness, not equivalence. Moreover--sorry, that's the academic creeping into my voice--playing something is not quite the same as playing *with* something. (I do not play dogs, but, if I'm lucky, I sometimes get to play with them.) All the same, the poem raises the possibility that our treatment *of* things (and dogs) might open onto our treatment *by* things: the world wants to be useful; the world grows fond. We are handled--it is not, or not only, a surreal fantasy--by the creatures around us. We don't come first. It becomes even more violent, in this light, to think, in the terms of Ritter's sailor, of sacrificing the very world--the most loved and cherished embodiment of that world--that has made us possible, and to do so for the prospect of another one.

It's late. I'm misreading, or mislistening, I'm sure. But it is no small miracle that three distinct voices come together in agreement here: around the sense of the miraculous unfolding of the world; around the connections that persist across line breaks, between fathers and sons and singers; around the fact--the conviction--that this happens every day.