Summer 2021




​Promises We Could Not Keep

Kevin Rabalais
Josh Hild on Unsplash

Considering sound and narrative

Late adolescence is a time of rapid growth, and growth demands loss. Layers of innocence are shed. The adult world reveals itself to be mundane, indifferent, and sometimes cruel. University, employment, and rent are now visible on the horizon. Responsibility looms. During such rapid growth, there can be no time to honour what is lost. Only now, aged thirty-seven, twenty years after the fact, it has become apparent to me that some grief might be an appropriate response to becoming an adult (whatever an adult is).

Sharon Van Etten (Song: Seventeen) and Stuart Dybek (short story: Pet Milk) both ask their younger selves to look back from inside the mirror, and to cast judgement. It’s a clever narrative device, one where someone re-enters their teenage consciousness to judge the adult they are now. Sharon Van Etten feels something painful as she considers her younger self. Stuart Dybek uses the device to confirm the beauty of a romantic moment. The shifting perspectives are used to reveal a truth about their present situation.

Van Etten employs delicate shifts in time and point of view. The first verse begins in first person, present tense, then the voice shifts to a seventeen year old girl. The chorus speaks entirely from the singer's present moment. Then in the second verse Van Etten addresses her young self directly. She sees her alone and wishes she could close the gap of time between them. The set-up is complete. A shotgun rests against the mantlepiece. In the third and final verse, all is revealed. Van Etten’s voice turns desperate, visceral, injured. This is what grief sounds like. Something was lost, or taken when Van Etten was young. We don’t need to know the specifics to know that the loss is deeply felt. Van Etten, just as Dybek does, re-embodies her seventeen year old self in an attempt to better understand the present. We suspect that she was afraid to grow old, and, forty now, is reckoning with her failure to protect that young girl from the demands of time. How you feel about the final line of the verse depends on how much you respect the hopes, cynicism, and the dreams of a teenager.

It is difficult enough to communicate transactional information using only words-on-the-page: imagine flatpack furniture assembly instructions without the diagrams. To think it’s easy to communicate something as complex as an emotion to a reader is to stop thinking too soon.

Words are silent, dormant, an abundance waiting for the right conditions, waiting for a reader to bring them alive. A cry wants to be expressed as sound. A word on a page cannot articulate the same fervour Van Etten expresses with her voice. The audience hears the noise of her instrument and is moved. Dybek cannot scream, soften his tone to evoke sympathy, or silence the instruments to accentuate the words. An exclamation mark, a heck! FULL CAPS. Three exclamation marks!!! No mark of punctuation can energise prose with the same intensity Van Etten has access to when she sings. A writer of stories employs narrative to evoke an equivalent emotional response in their reader.

Dybek uses the same narrative device as Van Etten, but it’s different. His short story is written on the page. Words, silent. The author is latent, buried in the text, waiting for an alert reader. Dybek doesn’t make a sound. Or does he? When you read to yourself, do you hear the words in your head? And if so, is that a sound? If you believe that the voice inside your head is sound, and parole (language in use) is on a spectrum from silent to loud, then at the silent end is your inner voice (you might be able to hear it now), and at the loud end is Van Etten screaming into her microphone. They are at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet Van Etten and Dybek both make sounds that have the potential to move a person to tears.

Dybek does not speak as himself. He must first build a character. To do that, he draws a plot and tells the story from a first person perspective—I, us. At first the narrator is thinking back on his grandmother, remembering her perhaps when he was a child, then the story moves forward to a time when he was twenty-two years old, and most importantly, when he was in love, the kind of in-love that leads to champagne and oysters. Then in those final lines, witness the leap. He is kissing his girlfriend in the front carriage of a train, speeding through stations, and the narrator catches the eye of a school-boy on the platform and he writes:

“It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my schoolbooks and a smoke, on one of those endlessly accumulated afternoons after school when I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I’d have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.”

This sentence is the fulfilment of a promise the narrator made to his teenage self; that he would one day be alive with love. Every iteration of the narrator loves that twenty-two year old on that train. It is a love story between Kate and the narrator, and between the narrator and his teenage self. The former is a love that manifests as heavy kissing in the front of a train, the latter as admiration. The story is the reminiscence of a past the narrator yearns for. Few people live up to the idealism of their teenage selves. To do so is exalting, and heartbreaking. Heartbreaking because such an impossible promise cannot be kept forever.

With a synthetic drumbeat, an acoustic guitar, a bass guitar, two keyboard players, backing vocals, and her voice, Van Etten stirs up all kinds of muck and debris. Then she takes almost all of that instrumentation away and screams the words to show you how it feels. She is not singing anymore, she is wrestling with her life, wrestling with time. In contrast, Dybek uses quiet prose and a precise narrative structure. It is prose that is introspective, and sexy. He gestures towards the profound sadness of remembering. Some days I hear the words waver, stumble, and choke. They can be as difficult to hear as the words of a eulogy. On other days, better days, I hear life affirmed. As with all prose, Dybek’s prose is silent, but not entirely.

Grieving the loss of one of your selves is often a private labour. I am grateful to Van Etten and Dybek for communicating their losses with such openhearted generosity. They remind us we were once young, and we dreamed, and we made promises to ourselves that we couldn’t keep, and that’s okay.

Seventeen by Sharon Van Etten (Listen from 8:22)

Pet Milk by Stuart Dybek