By Gabrielle Marceau
"[...] And some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place."
Joanna Newsom seems like the kind of person who would spend endless hours in a library, hunched over records, books, maps and prints that might give her a glimpse to the way her world was before. This knowledge is obscure, the kind that could isolate you from others, but I guess that is one benefit of being a famous singer. Now thousands of people know the name of the Lenape village that once was Manhattan’s Greenwich.
In Newsom’s new song, the first in 5 years, she references Shelley’s poem Ozymandias twice: at the beginning and the very end. Shelley's poem is about long lost and decaying dynasties, and is meant to remind us that we won't be remembered, that our cities will crumble and our bones will become mulch, trampled over by future others. And at moments this makes Newsom so sad that it seems she knew John Purroy Mitchell personally and was there the day the so called “Boy Mayor” of New York got on a plane that would fly him to his death. She sings as if she were trying to feel enough for him - and all the lost stories - that it might bring them back.
But Newsom’s song is closer in theme to Horace Smith’s less famous version of Ozymandias, in which he remembers the long dead Pharaoh but also looks to the future, to a hunter who stumbles on something ancient and is called back to our present. Sapokanikan doesn't strike me as sad, but more of a cognitive exercise in seeing time as layers, built into the ground and up, maybe forgotten but still a part of our now. And this song proves that in fact all is not forgotten, the desire to avoid oblivion is precisely why we tell stories.
In the video, Newsom walks at a clip around Greenwitch Village, singing about Sapokanikan, and Noortwyk still beneath her feet. And it makes you think about how a thing can be, and it fact always is, many things at once. Underneath a painting of an angel is a painting of woman and a child, underneath the arch in Washington Square Park is a burial ground (home to some say twenty thousand bodies).
And while true that if the Dutch Pilgrims or the Boy Mayor looked on Greenwich now they might despair, the same can be said of those who lived there thirty, ten, five years ago. Time changes things. It is inexorable, the domain of an unknown and powerful hand.
Liking Joanna Newsom has always posed a certain problem, she’s an anachronism, at odds with the sounds and subjects of her time. It can be isolating to listen to her sing about constellations, cockles and cowries, estuaries of wax-white wending endlessly towards seashores unmapped while waiting for the subway or eating chips out of the bag on your couch. Rectifying that the woman who wrote a ten minute allegory about a monkey and a bear in love is also the woman standing on the red carpet wearing Zac Posen and holding hands with Andy Samberg, inspires a certain cognitive dissonance and requires a certain shift in perception (like imagining that Christopher St. was once a tobacco field). In her shearling collar and pilgrim skirt Newsom walks without destination, like an Austen protagonist through a meadow. She stands in stark contrast with the other pedestrians busy at their daily tasks: carrying home take out or stepping back onto a fire truck.
The thing with Newsom is that as obscure and labored as her sentences are, they also feel right, because Newsome feels about all of her subjects. The line “You've changed some/ peach plum, pear/ peach, plum.” holds a mysterious emotional power, even ten years after hearing it for the first time.
The video isn't averse to embodied pleasures either; the way it feels dramatic to pass the red of a lit up ambulance or walk in time with the kick drum or lift your head up towards the sun - the same sun that lit up someone’s face and hair a hundred or a thousand years ago. Listening to Joanna can make you feel apart from the world and also deeply connected to it. She's not looking at anyone on the street but is still invested in them and the not quite lost stories in the ground.