Sonnets and Unrealities: Bjork and ee cummings

With the coming of National Poetry Month, it seems like the perfect time to tackle the overlaps between music and poetry, as well as the few direct adaptations that exist in popular music. A few of these adaptations come from Bjork. The singer is known for her continuing collaborations with the Icelandic poet Sjon, and with her unique singing style, which has become more lyric-orientated and metaphoric over the years, she has always been in a prime position to tackle poetry head on, instead of warping the words to fit specific musical melodies and time signatures. With his own unique wordplay, lack of punctuation and truly unusual poetic constructions, ee cummings seems to be the perfect poetic partner for Bjork, so it’s unsurprising that she’s returned to his work numerous times. But as with any adaptation, the road from written poem to song isn’t always a smooth one.

Bjork tackled ee cummings twice during 2001, the year Vespertine, her fourth album proper, was released. ‘Sun In My Mouth’ was an adaptation of cummings’ ‘I Will Wade Out’ (1923), while ‘Mother Heroic,’ the B-Side to ‘Hidden Place,’ took on his poem ‘Belgium’ (1916). Though both songs are relatively oblique with their debt to cummings, there are themes that run through both that connect them: sparse instrumentation, numerous references to body parts and corporeality and an odd sense of mourning and loss. ‘Sun In My Mouth’ is particularly unusual in that it’s probably the sparsest track on the whole of Vespertine. Bjork’s vocals take centre stage across the minimalist melody, contrasting to the heavy use of strings, beats and forceful choirs on the rest of the album.

The Icelandic songstress’ most celebrated and famous adaptation of cummings, though, comes from her 2004 album Medulla. Medulla was an interesting departure away from maximal melodies and intricate layering to a more minimalistic approach. On this album, the voice was the central focus, using two choirs from Iceland and London, Canadian throat singer Tanya Tagaq, ex-Faith No More frontman Mike Patton, Radiohead man Thom Yorke and Japanese beatboxer Dokaka, as well as Bjork herself, to create the vast majority of sounds on the album. It’s also, arguably, Bjork’s last truly great album, the last one where she truly pushed herself to the limits of what she could do and attempting to break further boundaries.

Buried amongst the solo performance of ‘Show Me Forgiveness,’ the hip hop infused ‘Who Is It,’ the thoroughly disturbing ‘Where Is The Line’ and the final stomp of ‘Triumph of a Heart’ lies a relatively short interlude called ‘Sonnets/Unrealities XI.’ It’s here that Bjork tackles cummings head on, changing nothing except one singular word.

It’s here that Bjork’s femininity overlaps the most with cumming’s tactile and corporeal nature the most. In the untitled poem itself, a whole swathe of body parts are referenced: “lips,” “fingers,” “face,” “hair,” “heart,” “hands.” Similarly, there are numerous references to the senses: “touch,” “clutch,” “sweet,” “hear” and “uttering” to mention just a few. What’s unusual about cummings’ original poem is that it’s easy to presume that the character speaking is male; there is nothing to suggest otherwise, and as cummings is the poetic agent, it’s only natural to think that he is speaking these words.

That’s part of the reason why Bjork’s interpretation of the poem works well. Bjork is well known for her sensory and feminine lyrics, something that arguably came to the fore the most in the years between Vespertine and Medulla. These albums contain some of Bjork’s most intricate and indeed intimate lyrics and, thematically, cummings’ work fits in perfectly with these ideas. Using only her own voice and that of a female choir, ‘Sonnets/Unrealities XI’ is almost the epitome of the feminine love song.

Yet, Bjork’s musical adaptation, or at least the way she presents her interpretation, almost masks the overall narrative of the original poem. In cummings’ original work, the narrative hangs on the conditional. It starts with the uncertain “it may not always be so,” predicting only a potential failure in the current relationship. The word “if” then appears three times, signalling only the possible and not the probable. It adds a layer of perversity to the poem; there’s no stated reason why the pair should split and yet the central character fantasises about it, adding a rather dark and twisted layer.

Bjork, however, emphasises words and phrases in a way that brings out an entirely different meaning. Instead of emphasising the conditional, she stresses the imperatives. Relatively speaking, the mentions of “if” are hushed in tone, whereas she all but belts out the lines “you of my heart/ send me a little word,” demanding that her lover confirm the ending of their relationship. Additionally, by isolating one line – “accept all happiness from me” – it could be assumed that the relationship presented within the short narrative is already over. This puts a much more emotional and heart-wrenching spin on cummings’ work, almost stripping it of its dark and perverse edge and turning it into a semi-redemptive breakup song.

This isn’t to say that ‘Sonnets/Unrealities XI’ is a poor adaptation. Bjork was taking on a monumental task trying to translate a man’s poem to a woman’s experience. More than that, though, it’s a perfect example of the flexibility of poetry; even though Bjork only changes the pronouns of the song, so that in the end she is addressing her partner’s new female lover instead of a man, the way she chooses to stress certain words and phrases and construct the song using only female voices arguably changes the original meaning of the poem and exposes its malleability. Poetry is meant to be interpreted, and Bjork’s adaptations of cummings’ work are some of the most interesting adaptations out there.

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