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A Review of Ed Pavlic's "Winners Have Yet to be Announced"

The Crab Orchard Review, Spring 2009

A Beam of Light on Chipped Brick, a Review of Ed Pavlic's Winners Have Yet To Be Announced 

Ed Pavlić's third book, Winners Have Yet To Be Announced, A  Song For Donny Hathaway, poems by Ed Pavlić (The University of Georgia Press, 2008), eulogizes the life and music of the musical icon for which the book is titled.  Hathaway, who is credited with revolutionizing American Soul in the 70s with hits such as "Everything is Everything" and Where is the Love," receiving both critical acclaim and commercial success on the US Pop and R&B charts.  Arguably, Hathaway's vocal and instrumental vision pushed the nexus of Jazz and Soul deeper than it had ever gone, popularizing Soul in a way no one had before him.  And yet, despite such unprecedented achievement, Hathaway was hospitalized several times for depression, hampering his career.  And on January 13, 1969, in the midst of a return to musical success, the singer, songwriter, and composer was found dead in the street beneath the 13th floor window of his room at the Essex House in New York City-- the glass purposefully removed, his death ruled a suicide. 

Unlike other such book-length elegies (i.e. Robert Penn Warren's Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and Mary Jo Bang's Elegy), Winners not only tells Hathaway's story but deftly explores the music and depression of this masterful musician with language.  Arranged in 14 sections (or, perhaps, chapters) of sequenced prose poems spanning 190 pages, Pavlić leans against facts borrowed from album liner notes, Hathaway's own writings, and on interviews conducted by others with his friends, colleagues, and family.  The material from these sources is then reworked into fictional form. 

The first section of Winners consists of a single, 29-page poem, "Interview: Cause of Death: A Sound or Something Like It: February 15, 1979: Chicago, IL," which reads like a sequence of interwoven testimonials by those who knew Hathaway and by Hathaway himself. 

The book opens:

Sure, you could say I knew [Donny died], we all knew it all along.  Or did we?...There it was, things spun into focus...like when you stare out of a train window at trees blurring by and suddenly turn your head against...motion...and...there's one tree standing...Or falling... (i, 4)

The next section of the poem quickly moves away from discussions of the musician's death and launches one of the major motifs of the book, that death is not the end of one's life but is another state of existence:

He'd been there for years.  Trying on disciplines.  Midair right there in front of us.  Propped himself upright and forced himself to look the other way.  She in the funny-house mirror.  Running scared... (ii, 5)

But Hathaway is foremost a master craftsman, a true disciple of song:

One night...we turned into a storefront service and I felt him blast off in his seat.  Real rage and despair...he could tell from the sermon which song ‘d be next...they still use minor downstairs and major for tears on the way up...You know how, if someone's really terrified, their voice sort of gurgles somewhere underneath, like they're drowning somewhere under themselves?...That night he learned to play that sound with his left hand...learned it right then and there...And I remember that beam of light on chipped brick thing happening in his face.  he said, ‘Well there's something...'. (x, 13)

Success, however, is another story, his first poem revealing a brilliant man haunted by the notion that while he's reached the height of commercial and critical acclaim, his music is ultimately a failure, never quite reaching his audience the way it reaches him:

Whole sections of the spoken language on the scrap heap.  Worse than silence.  A kind of sound with no song, with no roots in silence.  It's a lot to ask of music, then, isn't it?  To be song and silence at the same time to people hell-bent on holding them...separate?... (viii, 11)

The result is a man increasingly alone, a man who considers his success (and the people who hand it to him) a fraud:

People would talk to him and he just wouldn't respond... (iii, 6).  He'd begun to call the shit people hand each other "death sentences."  I can hear him now, "counterfeit flesh-bridges, webs of agreed-upon delusions." (vi, 9).  [He said,] they don't want to be cured.  [They want to be] entertained... (viii, 11)

What we end up with is a musician reaching into sound for an experience beyond music: "'a kind of discipline...an unplayed card...something like hearing, and I can imagine sitting and talking to a person...Where does that leave us?  The Mood..." (25).

This first poem also introduces us to what Hathaway calls "Mr. Soul," a character of sorts who follows him around throughout the book and who ultimately narrates his death.

In the first poem of the book's second section, "Listening Notes: Mercy Medical Psychiatric: January 13, 1973: Chicago, IL" Hathaway furthers his commentary on music in his own voice:

Most of them play it way too loud.  Maybe they've already sold their souls to noise.  Make noise out of anything.  Fill mountain air with car horns.  Up early, jack hammers with toothbrush fittings... (i, 36)

But, in my head, they're somewhere beneath whispers.  Volume, yes...[but] it really has nothing to do with amps...silent as karst in the fog on rice paper.  Majestic, even, the longevity of a wave has its own sounds... (ii, 37)

Then, another voice suddenly interrupts and an argumnt ensues:

            You mean wave length?

            You again?  Can't you wait outside in the street anymore?

            It's raining.

            How'd you get in?

            Don't worry about that, you were saying?

            Since you're so interested... (37)

and Hathaway goes on to have a conversation with a person he believes is there.

Four pages later, another, more lyrical personae enters in in italics, on its own page between sections v and vi, "nude            he's on fire      he climbs over the rocks on the breakwater and opens the blue with his body" (41), and after section xiii, "on fire     over the rocks on the breakwater        with his body,"(50)-- the voice of Mr. Soul.

These opening poems of Winners forecast the narrative structure of the book.  Swinging back and forth between the testimonial voices of the musician and of those who knew him with the multiple internal and external voices of the musician himself, Winners delves into the history of Hathaway's musical education and family, the origins of music and of the Western world, and the nature of his depression, telling his story with wildly cross-referencing narratives in a way that, once you get to know Hathaway, it seems only Hathaway could. 

This adaptation of such a legendary's life, work, and words is, without question, a risk.  But it's nothing new.  The narrative, imagistic, and lyrical impulses behind poetry written today work in much the same way, as mere representations of reality-- as stand-ins for actual experience that, in the end, can only approach that which actually takes place.  Pavlić briefly addresses this concern in "A Note On Fictional Truth," which appears after the Acknowledgements page at the end of the book.  "All correspondence," he writes, "between the truths of this book and documented (or as-yet documented) lives of real people are a kind of unintended exhaust produced via my encounter with the tone of Hathaway's voice and the power of his music" (190).  Indeed.  For what is music without its listener?  And what is a listener without his/her various levels of interpretation?

What Pavlić has put together in Winners Have Yet To Be Announced, A Song For Donny Hathaway, poems by Ed Pavlić is, as the title implies, as conflicted as its subject.  Is Winners a book of poems?  A song?  A work of fiction?  All indications point toward yes.  Like music (which overlaps tones, vocals, solos, instrumentation...), these poems at all times switch between (and yet, simultaneously rely upon) prose, poetry, fiction, and voice.

Pavlić crafts this voice by eschewing the conventions of the genres, oftentimes omitting punctuation, rarely using line breaks or citation, and manipulating ellipses, indentation, and typical stanzaic structures in such a way that boils language down to its bare parts with a control any writer would admire.  Emulating with the word and with syntactical play what Hathaway did with instrumentation and voice, the rhythms and signatures of these poems slip within and beneath themselves, pushing for a deeper, self-created experience with poetry and music.  The result is a truly unique encounter for the reader who not only gets to know Hathaway but gets to know his music in a way that simply hasn't before been an option before.

As a result, when Mr. Soul breaks in in the penultimate section of the book in "Mr. Soul's Listening Notes: 'You Are My Heaven': Lakefront Hallucination: January 13, 1979: 10:45 pm: Essex House Hotel, Manhattan,"

I had the man pegged before he was a man.  I watched him from out in the rain.  Remember me?...Didn't think so.  He knew me, though.  And him trying to convince everyone I was real.  His doctors.  That band.  Good luck. (i, 176)

we're left convinced that it's not Hathaway's family or friends who are left out in the cold of a New York "January with a big old air-hole in the window" ("A Song For You": A Conversation: October 26, 1979: Chicago, IL," i, 66); rather, it's Hathaway whose been let down...not so much by his doctors or his colleagues or friends and family, but by music itself, that artform he seems to know a little too well in "Listening Notes: After Shock Therapy: Mercy Medical Psychiatric: November 7, 1973: Chicago, IL":

Deafening       I sit with my hands weightless on the keys    goddamn         I could             sit like that for hours               Debussy said he never wrote down a line until just before it disappeared                 I tried it: Jesus, it hurt at first... (i, 56)

I could sense it getting light behind me          and then what I wrote wasn't the line I'd lost                       they don't            don't fool yourself      they never comes back...I'd wait...and I'd write down what I could feel coming on            behind me as if it was right over my shoulder            I swear I thought they were shadows          I used to pretend they were people... (ii, 57)

When the final section presents itself as a quote from the Washington Post reporting on Hathaway's death: "'the door to the room was locked and there was no evidence of foul play...He was nominated for a second Grammy in 1978.  Winners Have Yet To Be Announced'" (i, 184), it's Mr. Soul who has the last word.  We find we've come to the end of a book that, if we had it our way, wouldn't end.