Let Me Clear My Throat
Sarabande Books 2012
We all know that iconic scene from the 1951 adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley Kowalski, played with dopey brutishness by a young Marlon Brando, stands at the foot of a curved iron staircase, eyes upturned, and belts “Stella!” with what Tennessee Williams calls, in his stage direction, “heaven-splitting violence.” We all know it, whether we’ve seen it or not. It’s one of those moments that unmoors from its original context and floats off into our culture at large, showing up in parodies on Saturday Night Live or as good-spirited fun in the Annual Tennessee Williams Stella Shout-Out Competition. It’s what Elena Passarello calls, in her new collection of essays, a “screaming meme–a unit of vocal culture built to replicate and to travel.”
The volume of Passarello’s “Stella!” is a good measure of her curiosity. Her book takes up sound-centered topics from the rebel yell to the high C, from Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 comeback performance at Carnegie Hall to the chatter of crows. Along the way, we learn about the psychology, sociology, history, physicality, and humor of the human voice, whether its coming Frank Sinatra, Howard Dean, or a ventriloquist’s dummy, and it all amounts to a celebration of the sounds we create. As Passarello writes of Brandon:
“Stella!” proves that you might have wounded someone you love, you might have woken the neighbors, you might have pushed your voice until it sounds cartoonish and alien, but this scream of yours, if it comes from deep enough inside you, it is your best bet.