Book Review

I do not, as a rule, read aloud. This did not, as a rule, strike me as sad, until I found myself not quite halfway through Elena Passarello’s essay collection, Let Me Clear My Throat. I found myself startled, in wonder that for all the sound I hear, I rarely encounter writing about it. What a pity that is. What a pity I never read the words out loud myself.

The relationship between sound and the page has its tensions. There’s a famous saying: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” If you think that writing is chasing after the sound, trying with blunt tools to replicate that thing that only music does, then surely something will be lost in translation. But Passarello’s aim here is hardly to transcribe. She is, in fact, interested in noises that defy transcription—like the “electric, fantastic, obscene, unspellable thing” Howard Dean once voiced that accidentally sounded the end of his presidential bid.

Let Me Clear My Throat is divided into three parts and essentially three kinds of sound: “Screaming Memes,” “Tips on Popular Singing,” and “The Thrown,” a section about voices. This major arc from the visceral to the disembodied is echoed within the essays. Each essay is grounded in a trained actor’s attention to the body’s production of sound, but then, with an essayist’s ear, Passarello pursues the significance of those sounds. Hence a battlefield cry is broken down before it is appreciated for its effect and intent: “Fear lifts the palate and quickens the speed of exhalations, raising the pitch so that it cuts through the noise of cannon fire and horses to locate help. A scream is, essentially, the sound of the self trying to move when its body cannot run away.”

As a rule, Passarello’s descriptions of sound are more tactile than aural, full of size and shape and texture. When she writes of the “e” ripping her throat as she screams “Stella!” she instructs the reader to “imagine the margin of a piece of paper torn, notch by notch, from a spiral notebook, or an anvil dropping through floor after floor of a cartoon tenement.” I took great satisfaction, toward the end of the book, where she writes, “It’s my own dorky bastardization of synesthesia, staring at spoken words as if they are tangible skins that wait for unique speech.” That satisfaction came from thinking for 180 pages that this was a kind of synesthesia, a kind of dancing about architecture—joyous and daring and sharp. Passarello is not just writing about sound; she is building about it, flexing about it, sending it in streams and whips and eddies.

Adding to the polyphony, Passarello’s essays in this collection alternate with her interviews of a dozen different people. These interview excerpts are printed in italics and last only a page or two, just long enough for a good anecdote or a short story to make its point. The change of voice from essayist to interviewee and back makes a rhythm, like breathing, like notes and then rests. Of course the alternation has the palate-cleansing effect of any brief and novel element, but I think it also achieves a more surprising trick: it changes the mode from reading to listening. It reminds the silent reader what it is to hear, the ear opening differently because of these passages, attending to the cadence of talk in italics and then returning, reoriented, to the roman prose of essay.

The subjects of Passarello’s essays are themselves excellent company—castrati and crows and the great Judy Garland herself—and I am only too happy to spend time with an author who is the first woman ever to win New Orleans’s annual Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest. But of course, what carries this collection is a deft marshaling of personal history and wide-ranging research, touring the popular and the arcane. The reader finds herself emulating the text: perhaps manipulating lips and teeth and throat to make Sinatra’s vowels, or else pulling lips and teeth closed to demonstrate just how the symbolic disgust of a spoken “eew” will also physically cloister the mouth from that which offends.

The bibliography includes web addresses, so I could presumably track down most of the sounds taken up in the essays and hear them for myself out of my computer’s tiny speakers. And yet I finished the collection without ever looking one up, totally content, still hearing everything only in my head. Because, of course, it’s not the sound itself that Passarello makes so tantalizing; it’s the sound’s effects. The “aural hanky-panky” of castrato singers in the 1730s is a fascinating subject in its own right, but its reception by listeners is no less riveting. As Passarello notes of one concertgoer, “The papers reported her performance right alongside the singers’—the way she hollered to the top of the hall, over the scuffle of the crowd, so fucked with high, tight, spiraling sound that she forgot what was charming in a lady.”

Which is to say, I don’t need to hear Myron Cope to care about the way a sports announcer “with a great voice for mime” becomes a regional icon. Nor must I hear a single note to appreciate the splendid fact of sending an a cappella recording of a coy Andean teenager into space on a golden record. No, after sitting alone working my jaw and lips like a gulping goldfish as I tried to sort out the particular mechanics described in this collection, I wanted nothing but to change the contortions of my tongue and read the prose aloud so that someone else could hear the same shimmering words.

About the Reviewer

A. Kendra Greene is an essayist and sometimes letterpress printer living in Texas, where she is finishing a collection about museums and writing the blog Dallas Needs a Cheerleader. Her first chapbook is forthcoming from Anomalous Press. She is also the daughter of a speech therapist, and has already recommended Let Me Clear My Throat to her mother, who loves it.