National Poetry Month: Molly McDonald

April 13, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 3 4 min read

Molly McDonald has an M.F.A. from the University of Montana and now lives in Eastport, Maine. She wrote the text for “Your Beautiful Grunt,” a 2008 performance by Holly Faurot and Sarah H. Paulson, and she is currently working on a project with Heidi Fahrenbacher that incorporates poetry into functional ceramics.

A line of poetry by Molly: “That once I was a sequin sewn to a bodice.”

For the past several years, I have been somewhat preoccupied with the idea of incorporating falsetto into my poems. The problem is, I can’t quite figure out what falsetto would look like on the page. Where would it be located within a word, line, stanza if it were simply lying there inertly, rather than getting squeezed through the lungs and wide open mouth of a singer? Could it be translated onto the page without any typographical clues? And if so, how would the reader know to shift from one mode to the next without italics or exclamation points or bolding?

I think the difficulty stems mainly from the fact that I’m not entirely sure what falsetto is. I mean, I understand what it is, but I don’t quite understand how it is, or who it is, or where it is that it takes me when it seizes me by brain and heart. I suppose it could be argued that falsetto indicates heightened emotion, or false intensity, or a return to an always-evasive before (before voice change and ball-drop and gendered performance) – but that is the kind of poet-talk that makes poets seem like dickheads. And – and this is the more pressing point – these definitions fail to take into account that falsetto, at its best, socks you right in the gut and leaves you panting, frozen there in the moment between the assumed voice and the actual voice.

coverI like falsetto in all its forms, but I like falsetto of the rock and roll variety the most. I am especially enamored of Mick Jagger’s falsetto – particularly the falsetto featured in songs on the second half of The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You. The dreamy, magical quality of these songs is well-documented; fans and reviewers alike have been attempting to articulate the awesomeness of the album’s “slow sides” for almost three decades. My brother’s girlfriend talks wistfully about missing highway exits whenever she plays the album during late-night road trips. A friend’s ballroom dance instructor used “Waiting on a Friend” to teach his students how to waltz for weddings. The songs even made a cameo a few years back on an episode of Veronica Mars (wherein a charming young history teacher uses them as “mood music” to try to seduce high school students into his silk-sheeted bed: nerdy scriptwriting at its best).

They are not quite love songs, but they manage to maintain the rawness and vulnerability of the best love songs. They push up against the over-the-top sentimentality so often found in rock ballads, but never quite succumb to it – always perched just on the edge, teetering and hypnotic. To be perfectly honest, the more I listen to Tattoo You, the more I want to string a hammock between Mick Jagger’s falsetto and his normal register, and live there, forever, swaying gently. This sounds ridiculous, I know, but I’m being earnest. (Poets are nothing if not earnest.)

Take, for instance, “Worried About You,” the first of the album’s ballads. I already had a play-it-on-a-loop fondness for the song, but then I found the original music video for it on YouTube. Now, far too many views later, I am positively smitten. See for yourself:

There are many things to love about this video. I love Mick Jagger’s interpretive dancing, his facial acrobatics, his tiny swiveling hips. I love his finger-snap/lip-bite at minute 2:04. I love Keith Richards’ green scarf and chest hair and waxen aloofness. I love Charlie Watts’ epic, slightly hostile, eye roll and Ronnie Woods’ yellow suspenders. I love the band’s skinny awkwardness in front of the camera, as if they can’t fully buy into the music video form. I am most interested, however, in the silence from minute 1:28-1:32, which comes between the first verse of the song and the chorus. It is there that I’d like to string my hammock, in the place where Mick’s falsetto is plummeting and the listener’s longing for a return to his regular voice is soaring.

That kind of silence – the kind that spans two entirely different modes of meaning-making – is often what excites me most about poetry and its possibilities. Sometimes this silence comes in the form of a line break or a stanza break; sometimes it comes in shifts of diction or syntax, or in transitions between lineated verse and prose. Sometimes it comes in the form of wild compression or wild expansion or crazy, erratic leaping about on the field of the page. Those transitions, by turns thrilling or poignant or painful, are what I find I seek out in poetry – those moments of expectation that marry the established rule with its variation. They can come in the form of a return to normalcy (as is the case with “Worried About You”) or in a reaching toward something different, something new. My favorite poems, the poems I read again and again, tend to establish these leaps seamlessly. Charles Wright, in his gorgeous poem “Clear Night,” articulates this desire well: “I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed. / I want to be entered and picked clean.”

We navigate that space between falsetto and the “normal” register in a way similar to the one in which we navigate the formal or tonal leaps in good poems: we enter into them blindly enough, but hopefully we emerge from them on the other side, changed or startled or star-struck. I realize that my falsetto project is probably an exercise in futility, since I want my falsetto poems to do for the reader what this 1981 music video of the Stones singing “Worried about You” does for me: that is, I want someday to slay the reader with the unnerving sound of my tiny mouth’s single, shrill utterance of the word “baby.” Perhaps this will happen, perhaps it won’t. But I have to remain hopeful, right? Otherwise, why write poems at all?

More National Poetry Month at The Millions

has an M.F.A. from the University of Montana and now lives in Eastport, Maine. She wrote the text for "Your Beautiful Grunt," a 2008 performance by Holly Faurot and Sarah H. Paulson, and she is currently working on a project with Heidi Fahrenbacher that incorporates poetry into functional ceramics.