Reviewed by Julie C. Graham
In her book of essays, Let Me Clear My Throat, Elena Passarello writes around the central theme of voice. This is not voice, in the literary sense, as in an author’s style or persona. These are essays to do with actual voice and vocalization. However within these brilliant little essays, the author’s literary voice rings loud and clear.
Passarello begins the series of essays with a forensic study of Stanley Kowalski’s “STELLA!” in “Down in the Holler.” She lets us know right away that we are dealing with a woman who knows music, who knows voice and who knows writing.
Most speech teachers will tell you the best way to tax your “instrument” is either to flatten the sound hold made by our lips, jaw, and throat or to finish your words in the rear of the mouth rather than at the lips and front teeth. Throughout his movie career, Brando…rolled his voice toward his molars, where it slumped over his epiglottis like a delinquent schoolboy at the back of the bus. “Stella!” is no exception. That clenched neck squashes his airway, and the downturned mouth and retracted tongue reduce resonance. The bared teeth add grit and rape tone. If this voice had come from an inanimate instrument – a trombone, say – it would be one whose bell and slide had been run over by a streetcar.
After another few pages of vivisecting “Stella!,” we feel we can never quite hear that pleading call the same way again.
Midway through the book, Passarello’s delightful essay “Harpy,” recounts the author’s entry in the annual “Stella Shouting Contest” in New Orleans, part of the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival of 2011.
Part of the fun of this book of essays is learning all about things one takes for granted. As in her essay on “The Wilhelm Scream” (an essay about a famous scream that has been used over and over again in film making), “How to Spell the Rebel Yell,” (about the famed war cry of the Confederate Troops at Manassas), and even an essay titled “Communication Breakdown” about how Howard Dean (admittedly in 3rd place) may have lost the Presidential election of 2004 because of an ill-timed and embarrassingly goofy “BYAH!” shouted in a Des Moines Iowa ballroom.
From there, with his lungs, lips, and larynx in their most politically incorrect positions, Dean makes the sound we care most about, the hostile mutation of a “Yeah!” cheer that many blame for the death of his election hopes.
Layered within the essays are one-page missives about various types of people who use their voice in certain ways. They are titled by profession or habit: “The Starlet,” “The Motor-Mouth,” “The Candidate,” “The Zealot,” “The Soprano,” “The Contestant,” “The King,” “The Interpreter,” etc.
Passarello even takes on the digital age in “Please Hold.” She begins the piece describing a Jean Cocteau one-act play “La Voix Humaine:”
…By the end of the show [the lead actress] has the black cord wrapped around her throat. “I have your voice around my neck,” she whispers into the phone…The imaginary voice that chokes her is the soon-to-be ex -lover on the other end of her line. Cocteau was both fascinated by and wary of the telephone … The deeper this technology gets into the boudoir, he tells us, the more machines can teach us to trust things that are not true.
Only 80 years after Cocteau’s play, I am a fool if I expect any of the voices on the phone not to lie to me. It is part of the telephonic contract to call a help line that crackles with continental distance and hear a voice – in an accent that swirls with the music of somewhere else –introduce itself as “Brad.”
Passarello deftly works her artistic instrument like an accordion, the left hand playing up one side and the right hand down the other. On one hand, we get an education on sounds we have taken for granted, and a musical education. On the other hand, we begin to understand the importance of our own voice. A favorite essay, entitled “Hey Big Spender” is about the High C note. It begins with an explanation of how difficult that note is to reach: To reproduce a high C with an oboe, one must apply nearly twice the air pressure used to inflate an automobile tire, then works it way towards an explanation of why that note came to be desired by composers and listeners.
By the time of Farinelli’s birth in 1705…Baroque melodies grew to wander and waver, slowly dizzying up the central octave and, when reaching it, pressing out toward the next. A few dozen bars of this circling sound creates a desire for pay off. In the gut, there blooms a hollow reach for atop sound that is both glittering and justified, like and angel on a tree. Because of this infernal ache, that top note, when experienced, feels like a blessing from the highest conceivable place.
The essay winds its way past la scuola dei castrati and on towards Enrico Caruso, who she believed was killed by the High C note: Because the C will raze a man’s throat until it bleeds, until, in the last eighteen months of his life, it fills the lining of his lungs with toxic fluid.
We also learn from Passarello that there is a part of ourselves that we’ve been taking for granted for far too long, …But this scream of yours, if it comes from deep enough inside you, it is your best bet. We begin to appreciate what she has in mind after all, and she’s right on pitch.
Julie C. Graham is an MFA candidate at Antioch University. She lives near Santa Monica, California. Look for her forthcoming essay ‘Courageous Hearts’, a discussion of the memoirs of solo women adventurers, at the online arts and literature magazine Storyacious.