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FORCING ORDER ON A WORLD OF CHAOS: A FORENSIC READING OF STOP YOUR TEARS BY ALDOUS HARDING


Verb Wellington Director, Claire Mabey, didn’t set out to write a series of close readings of Aldous Harding lyrics. She just wanted to think about them in a forensic way for a bit. Then it got serious and out of hand. For the second in the series she took a deep dive into Stop Your Tears.
FORCING ORDER ON A WORLD OF CHAOS: A FORENSIC READING OF STOP YOUR TEARS BY ALDOUS HARDING

by Claire Mabey

Claire Mabey is founder and director of Verb Wellington which celebrates and supports writers and writing with festivals, events, residencies and publishing. She lives in Wellington.


I’ve always been drawn to stories about women in history who were treated like shit thanks to the patriarchy. I think the earliest of those was The Juniper Game by Sherryl Jordan (I must have read it about 10 times between the ages of 11 and 13). That novel saw a (redheaded) heroine travel back in time to aid her medieval ancestor who was accused of witchcraft. Images and scenes from Jordan’s young-adult masterpiece came back to me as I wrote this essay because in Stop Your Tears we also time travel with a protagonist whose story reveals how women are destroyed in the hands of an inadequate system.
*Just a note that at the very end there’s a postscript with a very condensed version of the below.

Stop Your Tears is gorgeous to listen to: lilting and calm and resigned like a lullaby. The tone and style of the music draws us into a deceptively calming experience. The tune belies the traumatic story it accompanies which in turn echoes the strongest themes of the tale: forcing order on a world full of chaos. There is a dash of hope and even of comfort towards the end. But before we get there we have to go down a dark path that leads to the pits of hell, religious discrimination and the blisteringly despicable treatment of vulnerable women throughout history.

We head straight into our protagonist’s immediate dilemma: She’s going to die. And, she doesn’t give a shit about going to hell which suggests she thinks that she is definitely going to hell.

I will never marry my love
I will die waiting for the bells
Death, come pull me underwater
I have nothing left to fear from hell

The opening verse instantly evokes a particular aesthetic: bells, hell and drowning. Bells are usually associated with churches when they’re brought into a scene such as this. They mark the hours and so the passing of time. They communicate ceremonies and rituals and signify a world ruled by a certain belief system. And that belief systems includes hell, which of course is a construct designed to offer a vivid portrayal of an afterlife of pain and torture should you make the wrong choices in your bodily life. Death and water immediately bring drowning to mind: though the idea here is more layered than that. She is asking to be submerged (“come pull me underwater”) pushed down, placed in an environment in which you can’t survive. Our protagonist is waiting for the end to come and she sounds like she’s ready and resigned to it.

All of this together brings a witch to mind. The term applied to women who lived outside the rules, had gifts, opinions and knowledge that frightened the Church and the patriarchy. There are many, many historical accounts of witch ‘dunkings’ throughout the Early Modern period where women were tried by water: if you drowned and sank you were innocent, if you drowned and floated, you were definitely a witch. The logic being that water was a pure element and so it repelled those in the Devil’s service. 

Even without going so far as to say this song is the story of a witch, we can conclude at this point that the storyteller is ready to die and ready for hell because she’s in so much pain already. So who is she and what has she done to make her think she’s destined for hell? Our storyteller continues:

I was gifted at the music
I was born the day the year was new
Someone has stolen all the water
I keep the pills inside an urn

This second verse gives us more clues as to who our main character is. Firstly she was born on New Year’s Day which is a loaded fact. The Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Virgin Mary on this day while the Anglicans celebrate the Circumcision of Christ (according to Hebrew tradition Jesus would have been circumcised on his 8th day of being alive). There’s also the more contemporary myth of luck surrounding babies born at the start of a new year, which would be ironic in this case. I’m interested in the shadow of the Virgin Mary, particularly if we take into account the religious atmosphere so far being drawn by bells and hell. On a human level Mary’s story is pure tragedy — fated to knowingly carry a son (via a non-consensual pregnancy to God, we might add) who will only be brutally killed.

The line ‘I was gifted at the music’ is slightly ambiguous. On the one hand this could mean she was a gifted musician. But on the other it could mean that she, herself, was given over in a ceremony accompanied by music. The second possibility is more of a stretch and I think it’s more fruitful to think of our storyteller as an artist: a woman with talent and skill, which is always threatening to some (witch). 

The final two lines of this verse expand on the dire situation that we have entered into. There is no water left and pills are secreted inside an urn (often meant to refer to the vessel used to hold the ashes of a cremated person). She is thirsty, lacking in basic human needs and has a secret stashed in a vase intended for the dead. Perhaps the pills are a quick death one that she can control if the time comes and desperation requires it. 

Lord, show me my daughter
Show me her before she burned 
We go walking in the hallways
Now and then a record gives a tune

Here is heartbreak. Now we know the storyteller is a mother who has lost her baby. This is a plea to a god, an outburst of grief and anguish: ‘Lord, show me my daughter.’ Hell is conjured again with the idea of burning in the line that follows: ‘Show me her before she burned.’ Unbaptised children went to hell according to historic Catholic doctrines. Perhaps the baby girl died before she was able to be absolved of original sin? Or perhaps she was harmed and the burning here is more literal - accident or murder.

The second two lines in this verse flesh out an environment and succinctly conjure the feeling of an institution. ‘Hallways’ immediately evoke a building of purpose, of compartments and rooms intended for specific use. I think of hospitals and boarding schools and dormitories. The ‘We’ indicates our storyteller is not alone in this environment and that the place is not without texture: ‘Now and then a record gives a tune.’ However, that ‘now and then’ lets us know that entertainment is sparse, that respite from treading the same hallways is rare. Is our storyteller in some kind of institution? Awaiting the hour of her death in a Victorian asylum perhaps?

Sometimes we hang from our chambers
Baudelaire in the afternoon
The yellow rose is a stranger
The devil's invitation in bloom

In 1857 the French writer Baudelaire published a collection of poetry called Les Fleur du Mal / The Flowers of Evil. Famously, Baudelaire was fined 300 francs for exposing French society to indecent ideas. Six of the poems were suppressed (and not allowed to be published until 1949) and those were all poems about women, as lesbians, as prostitutes, as vampires. The erotic, decadent images were not the stories that the reigning men of the time deemed acceptable. The collection moves through six themes: Spleen & Ideal, Parisian Scenes, Wine, Flowers of Evil, Revolt and Death.

Dropping Baudelaire’s infamous collection into this verse breathes potency into the picture we are building of a group of women incarcerated together. In this scene, they lean out of their rooms (‘hang from their chambers’) perhaps to talk to each other, the cast of characters echoing the many voices in Baudelaire’s collection. I think we can say that the line ‘the yellow rose is a stranger’ is referring to the fact that all of the women in the institution are strangers yet they are all marked with the same fate. Simply by the fact of being women they are riddled with original sin and so are smiling assassins like a rose hiding thorns. In this context they are each a ‘flower of evil’: an inconvenient story, a temptation or a passion that has frightened the authorities so badly that they must be contained and compared to the devil himself. Like Baudelaire’s censored poems these women are erased from society.

I stand looking at my chamber
There are many things upon the floor
The blade is ready for the slaughter
The Virgin Mary hangs on the door

Written in the present tense we are alongside her now, looking at the artefacts of a life in confinement strewn across the floor. The mess suggests disarray: perhaps a flurry of contempt or fury, or grief. A last fight before the sharpened blade lands its blow. Here again is a preparedness for death: she is standing passively now (‘looking’) and is mirrored by the watchful, silent Virgin Mary whose constant presence is weighty and loaded at this moment. 

I have always thought of the Virgin Mary of the icons and statuettes and paintings as perpetually resigned. They don’t allow her ugly, honest grief, only surreal acceptance and an ever-lasting patience that is so unfair. Let the woman tear out her hair and mess up her chamber. The Solemnity of the Virgin Mary sounds again (remember the earlier shadow of the Virgin when we explored the significance of being born on new year’s day). Here the Virgin Mary speaks to all of her contradictory selves: the mother who has lost her child; the feminine goddess symbol created by the Church (and the men who ran it); a quiet woman accepting of her fate; a woman containing vast and dangerous secrets; the woman not making a fuss. The next two lines suggest a wish:

I will arrive at death's border
Take back the cover God has torn from me 

Our storyteller departs from the Virgin’s trademark resignation here and instead speaks to her loss and her intention to have that pain rectified. She will journey into death but she will not be going there to be judged and quietened. Instead she’ll be taking back what was hers. The word ‘cover’ speaks to protection, warmth and comfort. We can assume that here she is referring to her family, her daughter and the lover she will never marry. We can also assume this could mean her very life, her way of being and behaving which the Church and authorities deemed so abominable as to be sentenced to incarceration and eventually death. The final verses are both beautiful and brutal:

I am at the river with baby 
Her father enters with a leap
Hold her head above the water
She is pale against the streak

Is this a memory? Or is it another wish-projection into her future? Or are we watching a scene unfold at a river of the afterlife? She is with her daughter and now the child’s father. They are all crossing it, holding the baby’s head up above the ‘streak’ (meaning the water). Has our singer joined her lost loves in the underworld? Were they faithfully awaiting her arrival and now they journey together to an afterlife, away from the brutality of the judgement systems they departed? The word ‘leap’ suggests intention and energy. But the shadow of foreboding is so dark: the idea of a baby’s head being held above the force of a river is precarious. The idea of a young family crossing flowing water at pace has the dogs of dread running after it.

Perhaps this isn’t a peek into the afterlife but instead a flashback. Could it be that her daughter and lover are gone because they died while crossing a river? The grief of which has driven our artist-mother to madness which led to her being locked up in an asylum only to die there, cast as a misfit of society. The kind of woman Baudelaire needed and society needed to oppress. Or perhaps she was blamed for their deaths as the sole survivor, her baby unbaptised and she unmarried (he is never referred to as her husband, only as her love and as her daughter’s father) and so they are all condemned to burn.

I am the horse beneath his daughter 
He is the mountain underneath

We end on metaphors of duty, strength and stability. Still in the present tense these are affirmations: our mother is carrying her baby as steadfastly as a horse and beneath them the baby’s father is a vast and anchored landscape. It is a remarkable image turning three lives into a moving scene: a daughter journeying forth with the support of her parents. We could be optimistic and decide this indicates an afterlife of reconciliation and peace. Even if the baby and her father did die in a river crossing they are all now reunited after the mother-lover dies and joins them.

If we resign ourselves to this happy ending we can obey the song’s title and stop our tears. We have arrived at a resurrection. We started with impending death, moved to grief, and then to the claustrophobia of an institutional chamber. But we’ve ended on the definitive ‘I am:’ she has her baby in her arms and she in turn is held by her lover.

I think Baudelaire would have approved of such a story, and so would Sherryl Jordan.

 

POSTSCRIPT
If we read Stop Your Tears as an allegory then I think this is about the oppression of female grief. ‘Stop your tears' being a command. I don’t think we can doubt that the protagonist has suffered the death of her child and the possible death of her lover, too. That kind of pain is difficult for others to accept and in so many histories the grieving woman is shut away. The inner world of this protagonist reveals how ready she is for her bodily life to end so she can enter the next world and there join her loved ones to journey together as untouchables - part of the landscape itself.

 

This essay was originally posted on Verb Wellington's website.

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