Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway, Ed Pavlic. University of Georgia Press. 200pp, $19.95.
Film critic Michael Atkinson once described his own suicidal impulses, eventually overcome, as feeling like “a nagging last item on a lifelong agenda”—not something the sufferer wants to do, but something he feels he inevitably must do. Ed Pavlic’s narrative via prose poems, Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway, is haunted by that note of inexorability from its first page: it opens with an anonymous voice discussing the suicide of musician Donny Hathaway; from there, as Pavlic moves back in time and carries us through the final years of Hathaway’s life, the impending act looms over the book like a dread destination, shadowing our reading of every page.
When Hathaway jumped from the window of a New York hotel in 1979 at the age of 33, he was one of R&B’s greatest stars. Though he was best known for his chart-topping, silky smooth duets with Roberta Flack, from the time of his first solo album in 1970 he had also been a popular and critical success as a solo artist, arranger, producer, and songwriter. Yet the depression that had dogged him since childhood had worsened throughout the 1970s, sapping his productivity and straining his relations with family, friends, and collaborators. With Winners Have Yet to Be Announced, Pavlic has set himself the task of describing Hathaway’s life under the cloud of that depression, showing how it both fueled and hampered him as an artist. Given our culture’s historical association of madness with creativity, it’s a difficult assignment fraught with the risk of romanticizing a debilitating illness, but Pavlic negotiates the pitfalls nimbly, and the result is a deeply empathetic exploration of a foreshortened life.
The choice to work in prose must be a difficult one for a poet: in forswearing so many of poetry’s common tools, from enjambment to meter to hoary old rhyme, he also sacrifices the drama and drive that those techniques provide. Yet he doesn’t in return get the luxury that a novelist has of assuming that a reader will be patient with dilatory or flat sentences—every line must still offer the precision and power of poetry. What Pavlic gains from the choice is a feeling of verisimilitude, even of reportage: Winners Have Yet to Be Announced takes the shape of a documentary, with labeled sections (“Interview: ‘Put Your Hand in the Hand’: January 30th, 1979: St. Louis, MO”) offering differing, often overlapping accounts of Hathaway’s life and work.
Hathaway’s first solo album, Everything is Everything (1970), opens with a female chorus singing “I hear voices,” and it’s voices that make up the core of this book—yet according to Pavlic’s explanatory notes, very little of the book is directly drawn from real-world sources. Instead, in an act of breathtaking confidence, Pavlic uses source material from interviews, liner notes, and the music itself as a springboard for inventing conversations, interviews, and commentary from friends, family, collaborators, and even Hathaway himself. Steeped in Hathaway’s music and deeply inhabiting the vernacular speech of the characters (“He’d steal glances at me out the corner of his eye like he’s trying to count the change the Devil’s got in his pockets or something.”), Pavlic presents a convincing melange that grows in concern and sadness, even resignation, as Hathaway withdraws further and further into a private world that only he can fully see, let alone understand. Says a friend, “In the end, he’d become turned away. It’s true. I’d see him talking to people at 45-degree angles. By the end of his sentences, he’d turn almost all the way around.”
Throughout Winners there’s the sense that Hathaway is turning around—or maybe turning into himself—as he talks to us. “Seems most people want clear of borders,” says one of Hathaway’s collaborators, but borders—between genres, between eras, between forms—are where so much great art is made; they’re where Hathaway made his best music, and maybe where he felt most at home. Pavlic’s Hathaway says,
I sing things no one should ever sing. And it blows the blinders off into real blindness and the night comes in like sable-black and oil-smooth fire like a symphony of neurons blown from a blood-swept stage in the back of the brain. There and not. Not and there. And back.
It’s implicit in that statement that the line between inspiration and insanity—especially when talking about something as elusive and indescribable as music (or, and this is clearly a point Pavlic intends, poetry)—can be difficult to define. This elusiveness is continually felt in Winners: when Hathaway early on describes his artistic drive, saying, “Spheres aren’t always enough? You know? The world as we find it? Not enough, sometimes we need better than optimal. Three dimensions worth of perfect won’t get it,” we may not follow every turn of his thought, but we understand and appreciate his central metaphor. Years later, however, he rambles about Cezanne flunking geometry, then wanders into, “Cause the breath is sphere and cylinder. That’s what’s so crucial about native soil. It’s not the native part, that’s always up in the air. It’s the damn dirt that’s the point! Get it?” In that case, no, we don’t get it: his words resemble nothing more profound—or less fundamentally sad—than street-corner mutterings. (In fact, the occasional too obviously schizophrenic banalities are the book’s only real weak points; one of the risks, I suppose, of writing about insanity.)
But where is the border between productively creative thought and incoherent madness? And on which side of it does a thought like this one fall:
Later, man, if I was anywhere near a piano, got to where it felt just like sitting next to a roaring river. Spring run off. That weight and speed and thunder. Problem was it felt like I couldn’t really find it. I could hear it, but, couldn’t find where it’d come from. And it seemed then that I’d have to swim the roar before I could hear, let alone fix, the voices again.
Most likely, only the person suffering the thought knows; Pavlic certainly doesn’t offer any straightforward answers; instead he offers results, both the soaring, uplifting, unforgettable music fueled by those thoughts and the ultimately overwhelming despair they engender. “Wanna know why you feel surrounded?” asks Hathaway. “Because you’re surrounded.” As he declines, as, “Little by little, his mask cracked and the two worlds started to mix,” we see that, whatever mental fragility gave Hathaway as an artist, it took away far more. His voice, when Pavlic presents it, eventually becomes fractured to the point of unintelligibility, sentences replaced with fragments: “the window’s a winter lake unlocked night is day go ahead you try and tell him go ahead and blame me.” The fall, as we’ve known from the start, as perhaps Hathaway has known from the start, is inevitable.
The poem ends in weariness and sorrow, for the man, for the art, and for what was lost. But—and here we come to the question raised by any work of art about a specific person—would Winners Have Yet to Be Announced have the same effect on a reader who knew nothing of Hathaway or his music? As a Hathaway fan, I’m not well-positioned to answer that question, but my tentative answer is yes. Though the book is utterly wrapped up in the man himself, to the point that even asking that question can seem silly, it paints a convincing portrait of an artistic and cultural milieu, of the relationship of craft to genius, the sacrifice of life to art, depicted with strong imagery in sentences where every word feels carefully chosen. A fan says of Hathaway in performance, “He’d stare straight at your life and see it like you can’t and sing it like you don’t.” But the description could apply usefully to any number of types of art, as could Hathaway’s own, moving analysis of his place on stage:
They’ll say they come to hear you sing to forget their troubles. And then there’ll be you, in a room that moves when you move, with a voice that’s a search from the next open opening inside of all the will and won’t and will and won’t want and won’t and won’t will and need and don’t want and need and can’t have. And need and can’t have. And need and can’t have.
Perhaps the greatest tribute one can pay to an artist is to create a new work of art as a homage to their inspiration. It’s impossible to know whether Donny Hathaway would agree with how Ed Pavlic has portrayed him in Winners Have Yet to Be Announced—it’s possible he wouldn’t even recognize himself in the words Pavlic puts in his mouth and in his mind. But his musical legacy has unquestionably led to the creation of a real work of art; that alone, in a just world, would bring Hathaway’s restless spirit some deserved peace.
Levi Stahl has written for the Poetry Foundation, The Bloomsbury Review, the Chicago Reader, McSweeneys.net, the New York Moon, and the New-York Ghost, and he blogs at I’ve Been Reading Lately. In his day job, he serves as the publicity manager of the University of Chicago Press.
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