Let Me Clear My Throat

By Elena Passarello


Sarabande Books
October 2012


Reviewed by Nicole Sheets


Elena Passarello's recent essay collection, Let Me Clear My Throat, is a book obsessed with sound. One of the most remarkable is Passarello's own first-prize-winning scream in the 2011 Stella Shouting Contest. In "Harpy," she distills the charged interior moments leading up to her shouts of "Stella!" The actual performance, though, she doesn't recall. Thanks to an audience member's video of Passarello's screams on YouTube, she can analyze them as an outsider, with a surprise and wonder at her own voice. (And thanks to the book's ample bibliography, we have the URL, too.) Passarello flexes her formidable gifts with figurative language to convey the effect of her winning shout: "Imagine the margin of a piece of paper torn, notch by notch, from a spiral notebook, or an anvil dropping through floor after floor of a cartoon tenement…The noise is just awful, but it is mighty loud."

She bends her prose into unexpected, at times synesthetic, descriptions, trying any available path into the heart of a sound. In some cases, Passarello is not only aiming to describe the indescribable, but to spell the unspellable as she squints at the fine lines between sound and music, noise and speech.

Passarello reflects that a scream is one of the first things we produce after we're born. "[F]rom birth," she explains, "our vocal cords work like fingerprints, telling the unique tales of our specific bodies." While some screams are more theatrical ("Stella!"), others are political, such as Howard Dean's infamous scream from 2004 (transcribed by comedian Dave Chappelle as "BYAH!"). Passarello offers rapid-fire metaphors in an attempt to understand this "electric, fantastic, obscene, unspellable thing": "It is a one-second glissando from an impossibly high note…It is the sound of a Muppet, or a baby in tantrum, or a bike horn half-squeezed."

(I should mention, too, that at times the most notable sound of the book was my own laughter.)

Passarello is interested in what screams like "Stella!" or "BYAH!" might mean as well as what our treatment of those screams reveals about us: "As with a two-headed calf or a third nipple, there is a kind of glee in collecting a leggy note and then revisiting it. That second listen somehow grants us ownership, license to open the curio cabinet again and again, just to see if the pull of the sound is still there—and if it is still just as weird." She documents a kind of Doppler effect, considering the ways our perception of a sound changes over time—how a once-chilling movie scream becomes kitsch, a caricature of fear.

"BYAH!" and "Stella!" are examples of what Passarello calls a "screaming meme: a unit of vocal culture built to replicate and to travel." She investigates ways that a "leggy" sound, much like a story, is replicable, mobile, mutable, able to be relished in private long after the initial occasion of its sharing.

One of the most notable features of Let Me Clear My Throat is the way it gives voice to many different ways of being. Passarello flashes her expertise as a writer, an actor, a teacher, a screamer, and a cat enthusiast (I heartily recommend reading the book in the company of at least one cat). She constructs her book in a polyphonic way, pairing her essays with interludes and piquant monologues, most of them crafted from interviews she conducted and labeled by occupation rather than name ("The Starlet," "The Candidate," "The Soprano," "The Shape-Shifter").

Even when describing hard-to-love sounds like "BYAH!" or the call of backyard crows, Passarello gives her prose a luxurious feel; it's language with a high thread count. For example, in "Teach Me Tonight," Bing Crosby adapts to a studio microphone by making his singing voice "close and ornate, as if the screen of the radio speaker were the lattice of a confessional window." She has a way of double-clicking on a sound, opening up small sonic bits for further scrutiny. The long "EEs" of Only the Lonely "echo in [Sinatra's] mouth as if they sit in cavernous rooms, alone with their blue thoughts." It's a facet of Sinatra's voice that, as she describes in the words of Murray Kempton, "made us glad to be unhappy."

In the book's third and final section, "The Thrown," Passarello lets things get weird. She considers the interiority of a ventriloquist's dummy and grooves on the strangeness of an automated answering system, or as she puts it, "me pretending to be a robot when I am on the phone with a robot that is pretending to be like me."

For all of the power that voices have throughout Passarello's collection, there's also a vulnerability to that "unlocatable entity that could be trained, but not trapped." When damaged, our singing "cannot be X-rayed or splinted, like our other breakable body parts. For the voice is not a body part at all." For all of our study, the voice eludes us, outwits us, betrays us. Stars fade or burn out, recordings are lost (or, if they're intact, remind us of the passing of time). But there's something irrepressibly hopeful about the book. In "Space Oddity," about the Golden Record that surely must be from a fairy tale, but is in fact a disk affixed to a NASA probe launched in the late 1970s, Passarello mentions the "two dozen popular songs sung by voices from six of Earth's continents." She takes heart that "aboard all that politicking and science" are affixed not just "the voices of our leaders, but singing voices," sounds that thrill us, traveling still.