In preparation for publishing a new chapbook of poems that use images from the myth of Ys, I wrote this little piece on Joanna Newsom's song "Sawdust and Diamonds" from her 2006 album Ys.
For those who don't know, Ys was a city off the coast of Breton, France, that was flooded and sunk in the Middle Ages by its Queen, Dahut. I'm (re-)writing my own myth of Ys that will be released with the new poems, so to get the basics of the story refer to these sources for now, and know that there is more to come. A few key details to know: my reading is a feminist one. I do not cast Dahut as a corrupt woman. In my story of Ys Gradlon, her father, is to blame for Ys' corruption and eventual destruction. Thank you to Bird Lindsey for this summary of one possible feminist story of Ys: "In some stories Dahut's painted as a woman of lust having many lovers and being evil and flooding the city when she didn't get her way. I see it as a woman who was born at sea, who resembled her mother, which brought her father joy and pain. He built a city for his lost love and Dahut on the water so he would never have to leave his dead wife. How I see it is, Dahut represents women and the city is patriarchy... [Dahut] is accused when she doesn't love men back; they make up lies because their pride has been hurt about her being a 'whore.' [Dahut] finally destroys the city...just like how we have to destroy our society that was built for us, without our consent."
Joanna Newsom resurfaces the story of Ys in her album of the same name. The track "Sawdust and Diamonds" most directly references the story of Dahut, daughter of Gradlon and Queen of Ys. In the first verse Newsom sings: "drop a bell down the stairs / hear it fall forevermore / drop a bell off a dock / blot it out in the sea / drowning mute as a rock / sounding mutiny." This lyric is a reference to the church bells of Ys, which rang wildly in the vacuum that the ocean's rushing water created as it devoured the city. In Breton the bells can still be heard when one is out at sea.
Like Dahut's narrative, "Sawdust and Diamonds" (as well as many other tracks on the album) tells the story of Newsom's manipulation. Over the course of the song she is turned into a series of puppets--a woman, dove, a donkey--and is handled and forced to perform over and over. Who moves her is unclear; we imagine a man, but Newsom continually addresses herself: "settle down, settle down, my desire."
Though Newsom appears conflicted about the role she plays in an abusive relationship, it is clear that her lover isn't a safe person. Newsom sings "push me back into a tree / bind my buttons with salt / fill my long ears with bees / praying please, please, please / love, you ought not! / no, you ought not!" This image--Newsom as a clumsy animal with a buzzing in her ears attempting to fend off a violent hand--comes shortly after her portrait of herself in a public cameo with the same person: "and the articulation in our elbows and knees / makes us buckle as we couple in endless increase / as the audience admires."
These vignettes are punctuated by the image of "a little white dove / made with love / made with love / made with glue and a glove / and some pliers." As the song progresses, Newsom reveals that the dove is also herself: "and a system of strings / tugs on the tips of my wings / see me warble and rise like a sparrow." However, it isn't until close to the end of the song that the origin of the dove is revealed: "A slow lip of fire moves across the prairie with precision / while, somewhere with your pliers and glue, you make the first incision / and in a moment of almost-unbearable vision / doubled over with the hunger of lions / 'hold me close' coos the dove / who is stuffed now with sawdust and diamonds." In this verse there is no escaping that the same "you" being addressed throughout the song as both Newsom's collaborater and manipulator is also the one who created her.
Finally Newsom tears it all down: "and I crash through the rafters / and the ropes and the pulleys trail after / and the holiest belfry burns sky-high... / then I hear a noise from the hull / seven days out to sea / and it is the damnable bell / and I believe that it tolls / that it tolls for me!" Again Newsom's ambivalence about her own guilt or implication in the relationship surfaces, but we see the choice she has made. Ys, Gradlon, the dove, the knight--they're left behind in the ocean. Newsom closes "Sawdust and Diamonds" with the image that opens it--she stands "at the top of the flight / of the wide white stairs," presumably looking down at the sea and wondering: "though the rest of my life / do you wait for me there?"