Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Listen to This, Listen to That: Fruitful Tension

by Dan Froid

My favorite fact about Enya: She has sung in ten different languages, seven of which are real. (Two of them are dialects of Elvish, the other invented for Enya by her lyricist.) My second-favorite: She owns her own castle in Ireland, fitted with maximum security precautions. I know a lot about Enya. As a deeply weird fourteen-year-old, I found myself developing a fascination with her. In the springtime—exactly this time of year, I believe—I took a Quiz Bowl trip to central Nebraska, and it was Enya all the way. I was the resident expert on literature: I had to answer questions about Ovid and the Brontës and Flaubert. Rather surprisingly, given the relative dearth of my counterparts, question sets were heavy on literature. And so, because this was a weak spot apparently endemic to regional teams, I, a freshman, was recruited to help. On the way to the competition, Paint the Sky with Stars, Enya’s 1997 best-of collection, enjoyed pride of place in my crummy little CD player. It didn’t have much to compete with: a compilation of cuts from Wagner’s The Ring cycle (remnant of my hilariously arch twelve-year-old self) and a few miscellaneous Christian rock albums I’d acquired at church. I listened to Enya while dilatorily reading Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, a book I suspect Enya herself might enjoy. A couple months later, my family took a vacation, snaking through the Midwestern and near-western states. I listened to Enya as we drove through the Colorado mountains, and on the way to that weird hotel in Wyoming, with fake deer antlers affixed to the bed frames.

It seems weird to say this, but Enya was my gateway into so much other music, the music that became integral to me, became the ever-present and insistent humming of my subconscious—Joni Mitchell and PJ Harvey and Tori Amos and Dusty Springfield and Kate Bush. It seems weird to say because she seems on the face of it so different: so tame. But she has always been a real personality, which I think is what I still like about her. She’s so bizarre, doing her Enya thing in her castle. And lest you forget: she has her own language! Listen to “Water Shows the Hidden Heart.” I’ve never had a clue what she’s singing, even after skimming her lyricist’s novel of the same name.

Er-rhee-mo may nay
Say la na or-ro
Pirr rro say a nna
A-he rhay
Pr-ma na so la
Be-o so bay hey
Abr a-ma rhay na
A-he rhay o rhay mr-hee mo-ay.

This is the Latin-alphabet transcription. Helpful, isn’t it. This was for me some kind of driving force. A bo’or ah mor rhee ay mo-ay.

TJ Dema says, in “Fruitful Tension,” Air Schooner’s nineteenth episode, that when she writes she does so, ideally, in a negative mood: “Anxiety is my friend. Discomfort is my friend. If I’m happy, if I’m enjoying something, I almost find writing to be a distraction . . . if there was never a situation that made me uncomfortable . . . I might never get any writing done.” Anxiety is my friend, I think I thought on the way to the Quiz Bowl trip. I was also writing a whole lot of terrible poetry, reams of it; all literarily inclined fourteen-year-olds do. In the hotel room, after all my roommates had left to go swimming, I sat in the room at the hotel desk and, after listening to Enya, wrote “inspired” poems of my own in iambic pentameter. I read more Radcliffe and slept on the armchair.

Caryl Pagel reads from her poem “Gravedigger”: “Because I am the Gravedigger I can no longer be the Mayor. Because I chose the plains, I won’t head for the ocean,” she says. I like the fatalist streak in her poem. This is the way things happened; it’s the way they were destined. I am amused that as I write this I’m listening to Patti Smith—perhaps as un-Enya as one may get. I’d discovered Smith’s “Piss Factory” at fifteen or sixteen, and it changed me, as everything did at that time. “You gotta relate, babe,” Smith sings, and I know that I’ve vigorously nodded my head, sung along, carefully copied the lyric on paper. “You gotta find the rhythm within.” Where was the rhythm, outside of Enya, outside of, later, Patti Smith, in northeastern Nebraska? Emily Brontë ruptured me, and John Milton, and A.S. Byatt. I bought a copy of The Satanic Verses in a bookstore, and a mom, seeing me clutching the book to my chest, shot me one of the dirtiest looks I’ve ever received. I was ecstatic. I was finding the rhythm within.

“I often think that poets are kind of the rogues from human nature,” Dema says. I don’t think I’m a poet, but I have felt like a rogue from human nature. “You head down this maverick route and you choose this thing. You allow this thing to choose you . . . This is a kind of freedom.” Choosing all my beautiful books—allowing literature to choose me—has been a kind of freedom, and, too, a kind of power. At one point—and this is maybe the only time this has ever been said about me—I attained a fearsome reputation. To my gratification, by my senior year of high school, by which time I’d more or less stopped listening to Enya, I struck fear in the hearts of our regional Quiz Bowl competitors. I knew the titles and authors and plots of many, many books, and a little about music, and history, and art, which is easy to pick up along the way. I was then a lanky bookish freak. My hair was long. A Henry James lay on my lap on the way to the competitions: The Wings of the Dove, maybe, or The Portrait of a Lady. Our competitors thought I was weird, for sure, but I intimidated them, because I could answer so many questions. Dema writes, in her poem “These Women,” “I am slave to the page, for only it saves us from this rage.” And yeah, there was anger within me, because I was weird, and queer and confused, and often lonely. “I got nothin’ to hide here save desire,” I can hear Patti shout. Nothin’ to hide here save desire. I kept reading and I kept going to competitions, and I did my homework and listened to music. It all felt happy and free, because of course it was. I was, and am, incredibly comfortable and privileged and lucky, but for my gosh-darn feelings, the places my anger and confusion took me—and this was of course a fruitful tension—I had books to guide me and to answer to.

My third-favorite fact about Enya is that, when asked how she might categorize her music (Is it New Age?), she says, “Enya.” She is always herself in her faraway castle. She reads and tends to her cats and writes her lovely songs. She has a secret language of which perhaps two of us, in all the world, know anything other than its name. Enya is fabulous. She was the first quiet humming behind the “fruitful tension” that led me to all my thinking and wondering. She was at the beginning of my own path towards books and music, all the things I consider most central to my life.