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Vol. LXV, No. 24
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
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Record Review

Open House: Kate Bush Receives a Surprise Visit From Emily Dickinson

Stuart Mitchner

Kate is a creature …. In other words, she does things witches, elves, alien beings, and ventriloquists can only envy: she goes from singing the sound of the earth to singing the sound of the sky … and before you can catch your breath she’ll be babbling like a brook, laughing along with a blackbird, and dancing barefoot on the moon. She’s a James M. Barrie fantasy come wildly to life as a winged femme fatale: she’s erotic, tender, perverse, maternal, and impossible. In another life, she’d have been Isadora Duncan or Sarah Bernhardt.

The quote above is from my first record review for Town Topics (December 7, 2005), in which I attempted to describe what Kate Bush is doing on the brilliant “Sea of Honey” side of her double CD Aerial. Five and a half years later here she is with a not strictly speaking “new” album called Director’s Cut, which features revised versions of songs from the albums The Sensual World (1989) and The Red Shoes (1993).

“Creature” though she may be, Kate Bush is also a true English heroine in the mold of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mollie Gibson, Charles Dickens’s Amy Dorrit and Lizzie Hexam, and the other bright, tough, spirited girls and women in the BBC adaptations of classic literature I wrote about last week. What sets Kate apart, among many other things, is that, to my knowledge, she’s the first singer songwriter in the so-called pop world to make her debut by channeling a classic of English literature. She accomplishes this in her song from 1978, “Wuthering Heights,” by becoming, in effect, one of the most fascinating female characters in the canon, Cathy Earnshaw. Bush and Brontë were both born on July 30, by the way, Emily in 1818, Kate in 1958, so a feeling of kinship on the singer’s part is all but inevitable.

You might think Emily Brontë would turn over in her grave to hear this audacious 19-year-old girl, born Catherine (and called Cathy while growing up), dare to reduce her novel to a Top 40 song (the best selling single in England for four weeks). More likely, Emily would admire her birthmate’s achievement in bringing the mythic essence of the book to life in music, most boldly and passionately in the chilling moment when “wuthering wuthering Wuthering Heights” soars into “Heathcliffe, it’s me, Cathy, come home/I’m so cold, let me in your window.”

If Kate Bush had composed and performed nothing more than this one song, she’d be remembered. Instead, she’s produced nine albums as personal and daring as those of any singer songwriter this side of Bob Dylan. At 53 she’s no less willing to take literature by the horns than she was at 19 — or at 31, when she first assumed the persona of James Joyce’s Molly Bloom in the title track from The Sensual World. Twenty-plus years later Joyce’s estate has finally given her permission to quote directly from rather than paraphrase the tidal monologue that concludes Ulysses. Retitled “Flower of the Mountain,” the newly recorded version of the song in Director’s Cut does full sensuous justice to Molly’s great, all-encompassing “Yes.” Thus Kate Bush’s career highlights include two of literature’s most compelling and memorable women, both of whom suggest qualities at the heart of her appeal. Brontë’s wild maid of the moors has turned up in various guises in every one of Kate’s albums as has Joyce’s earthy, lusty Molly, most strikingly in “Feel It,” from Kate’s first album, The Kick Inside. In that song, she projects a brazen sexuality solely through her singing and without engaging in the gaudy antics of performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga.

The Other Emily

If there were an English equivalent of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), Kate Bush would have gone to the core of her by now and brought back a song. Of course there is no equivalent of Emily Dickinson anywhere on or off the planet.

Think of the Belle of Amherst as today’s mystery guest. She wasn’t supposed to be here. It was in her house in Amherst last week, in her bed room, to be exact, that my plans for this column got turned around. We were a small group, only four of us in addition to the tour guide, whose mission was to show us that Emily was not some prissy uptight spinster who had never lived and whose poems were tidy quaint little things. Although I knew better, I had begun to take her poetry for granted. The word the guide kept using was “slant.” Emily’s poems, she said, defied expectation, went against accepted form, at a slant from the norm. Also, Emily liked to wear simple white dresses like the one we were shown, rather than burying her body in masses of heavy dark fabric; nor was she encumbered by the assemblage of hooks and stays and undergarments Billy Collins inventories so amusingly in his poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.” More important, her hair was red, not black, as it appears to be in the one and only picture we have of the grown woman. We heard about how she enjoyed playing with children, how widely read she was, how she loved the Brontës, even naming her dog after the one in Jane Eyre. Images of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot were on the wall of her room, with its big windows facing on Main Street.

At this point in the tour I’d already begun pondering the possibility of a Kate-Emily connection. Here, after all, were two unique, eccentric creative beings, and while Kate can’t be said to have red hair, her dark brown hair has a lot of auburn in it. Still a stretch, I was thinking, but not after our guide told us what Emily had to say about what poetry did to her:

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me,” the guide read to us from a piece of paper trembling in her hand, “I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Even if I hadn’t already begun looking for a connection, I’d have thought of Kate Bush when I heard those words.

Two Houses

Later that day in a used bookstore I bought the Modern Library edition of Emily Dickinson’s Selected Poems, with an introduction by Conrad Aiken. It was a user-friendly volume, someone having already marked occasional passages. I opened the book at random and ran into this:

Much Madness is divinest Sense
To a discerning Eye;
Much Sense the starkest Madness.
’Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, — you’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a Chain.

If you’ve heard Kate Bush’s music, you’ll understand why I didn’t need to ponder a connection after reading that poem, which echoes one of the prevailing (not to say obsessive) themes in Kate’s work, particularly in her darkest, strangest album, her journey to the end of the night, The Dreaming (1985). In the record’s most bizarre track, “Get Out of My House,” Kate stammeringly sings: “This house is full of m-m-my mess/This house is full of m-m-mistakes/This house is full of m-m-madness.” In this terrifying song, it’s one thing to talk of paranoia or claustrophobia or being besieged by demons, but the element of violent sound in which the singer is submerged is a nightmare that peaks with the forces of evil, the “Devil Dreams” pounding on the door (“Woman let me in!”) while she struggles (“This house is full of f-f-fight!”), trying to create an escape, as a bird, as the wind, and finally, “I change into the Mule,” as she does, to a raucous chorus of hee-haws, which is where the nightmare began.

With house and madness in mind, I look at the page opposite in the Modern Library Dickinson and see this opening line, as if to a story, “I know some lonely Houses off the Road/A robber’d like the look of.”

Is there a copy editor in the world who wouldn’t have attacked a piece of anarchy as flagrant as “A robber’d like the look of”? In fact, the poem had been tamed; either Aiken or the editors had removed a host of the poet’s compulsive, often intrusive dashes, which in this case actually enhanced the flow of narrative as I read through the seven stanzas, a chill on the back of my neck much like the one I felt the first time I heard “Wuthering Heights” and realized that Cathy was outside the window singing to Heathcliffe.

After opening the book at random, here I am with the robbers in a house as strange as Kate’s house of horror. Into the kitchen “by night” they go, “With just a clock, — /But they could gag the tick.”

Robbers! They could gag the tick!
And mice won’t bark;
And so the walls don’t tell,
None will.

By now the top of my head has been taken off and I’m cold all over, something that rarely happens outside the realm of recorded music. The next stanza has a pair of spectacles that “just stir,” and “Was it the mat winked,/Or a nervous star?” What next? “The moon slides down the stair/To see who’s there.”

The moon sliding down the stair puts the top of my head back in place. Now I know where I am, I’m a child in the Night Kitchen, Wynken Blynken and Nod, and the cow jumped over the moon. My hair’s standing on end, not from fear, but because I have the feeling Kate Bush is reading over my shoulder and going “Ah-ha! Yes! Wow! Brilliant! I’ll do that!”

And on the next page I find the gem that begins “I taste a liquor never brewed” and, as the elfin Kate does when she gambols on stage or flies through hoops and heavens for a music video, Emily is “Inebriate of air,” and “debauchee of dew/Reeling, through endless summer days.” Then, after a line that sings like Shakespeare: “When landlords turn the drunken bee/Out of the foxglove’s door,” this wonderful creature, this poet “shall but drink the more!”

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

There goes the top of my head again.


The photo of Kate Bush holding the film comes with the new record, Director’s Cut. The image of Emily Dickinson is the work of Penelope Dullaghan and is on the front cover of the Emily Dickinson Museum brochure. For more information, visit www.EmilyDickinsonMuseum.org.

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