(Wendy's Subway, 2021)
JJJJJerome Ellis’s debut album and songbook, The Clearing, is a project of listening. Resistant to stifling and colonialist notions of fluency, The Clearing is attentive to corporeal language-making processes often dismissed as impediments. The Clearing supposes that certain “dysfluencies,” such as a stutter or a lisp, are mechanisms for diasporic embodiment, acting as a bridge for ancestral voice. Commissioned by The Poetry Project and coproduced by Northern Spy/NNA Tapes, Ellis composed and recorded all the music for The Clearing. To engage with The Clearing, as a Black person and frequent lisper, is to be lifted to a new, but also previous place. It astounds in its otherworldliness, as my father would say, a reminder that we’ve been here together before. More than a songbook, the accompanying text documents the vocal intonation, musicality, and resistance of a stutter. The Clearing is not a metaphor—a symbol for clarity or realization—but an activation of ever-present clarity. As Ellis writes in “Preface, or Prevoice, or Melismatic Palimpsest”—itself a performance text—The Clearing considers, “Could Black dysfluencies be a form of ancestral wisdom, a perfect memory?”
Each track cites a range of Black visual culture, from Bernie Mac’s stuttering nephew to Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, alongside Black scholars whom Ellis states “have invested in the stutter as a generative site.” In the first track, “Loops of Retreat,” Ellis explores a potential thesis, “black dysfluency places the paradox of black humanity in the body, in the throat.” From here, Ellis loops back to a lineage of stutterers, enslaved individuals who were believed to be dysfluent. He continues, “Are Black people humans?” Ellis introduces his childhood diagnosis with a prolonged syllabic intonation in the track, “Jede Krankheit ist ein musikalisches.” Borrowed from the German poet Novalis, the title translates in English to “every illness is a musical problem,” which lands as a reference to the artist’s stutter, a viable predisposition much like his musical virtuosity.
A later track, “Stepney” is a rhythmic percussive confluence of names and naming. The track is composed of snares and horns with a rolling, searching bass. Ellis further invokes the enslaved individuals who are said to have stuttered, calling them in with a choral naming: Stepney, Raymundo, James, each recited in undulating, scat-like repetition. Here, “Stepney” documents transmission, and inheritance. Interspersed is a recording of Milta Vega-Cardona reading from a letter she sent to Ellis. Vega-Cardona describes Ellis as a “conduit” and his stutter as “other-abled, rather than disabled, or at least out of the white time continuum.” In a later track called “Milta,” Ellis reads her letter back to her. Milta listens in real time, in a powerful act of reciprocity and meaningful friendship without interruption.
In the book, published by Wendy’s Subway, the rich turquoise cover, an imagined oceanic blue, protects the songbook. The opening flap is printed with M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem of the same title. Time is demarcated along the margins, and instrumentals are signified by italicized verse personifying their sound—“bass slithers” or “voice steps out into the sun.” Parentheses carry consonance, a flow usually spanning lines and appearing like large stacks of text claiming white space. The line, to be specific, reconfigures the mechanics of the poetic line. The reader mustn’t ignore the parenthetical (in the way one typically waits, or briefly departs in the presence of a stutter). Instead, the reader needs to remain with the line, to continue following along with the text, resisting the search for legibility.
This is beautifully illustrated in the tracks “The Bookseller, Part 1” and “The Bookseller, Part 2.” In the audio, Ellis records a phone call to Barnes and Noble to request information on Dr. Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake. In “Part 1,” before he can tell the bookseller the title of book, Ellis begins to stutter, and the bookseller hangs up her line. While the audio is almost silent, on the page, the stutter is performed in floating syllabus and squiggly, circular formations. Ellis recounts, “Stuttering presents silent gaps in my speech. I sometimes call those gaps, clearings. On the phone with the bookseller, there was something preventing us from gathering in the clearing.” In “The Bookseller, Part 2,” Ellis manages to breathlessly explain his stutter, and the bookseller waits. In those few seconds of pause, the gathering is possible, inside of rich, soundlessness.
The Clearing invokes the poetic imaginings of The Middle Passage by Robert Hayden in his epic poem of the same name. Hayden relinquishes the tragic perpetuity of the slave ship through visceral fabulation, “Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under.” One envisions the complexity of the retreat, as a potential opening, the haunted timelessness of the abyss between enslaved captives ruthlessly taken from their homes. Or the dark opening of a throat, previously interfered. Ellis warns those of us who have been here together before, “For this world can’t hear y'all, and is sustained by its decision not to hear y'all.”