- Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway
"Out of our quarrels with others we make rhetoric. Out of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry," William Butler Yeats asserted. If this is so, how are we to understand the prose poem—as a quarrel with others that is at the same time a quarrel with ourselves? As a quarrel with ourselves as though we have somehow been possessed by others or rendered the other? And who might this other or others be, exactly?
For Ed Pavlic, the other is 1970s soul singer Donny Hathaway; the others are Hathaway's wife, fellow musicians, psychiatrists. They are only incidentally the eavesdropping reader. As Pavlic quarrels with himself in an effort to understand not only Hathaway and all that created him but also whatever Hathaway might be said to represent—about music, schizophrenia, black America—that quarrel takes the form of the 139 imagined prose-poem conversations and monologues that are Winners Have Yet to Be Announced. Moreover, to engage Hathaway is to engage a cacophony of internal voices in a man diagnosed with depression and paranoid schizophrenia. As Hathaway's wife says in one of the poems, "I was married to the man. One of those men" (161).
Does "cacophonous" seem an appropriate word to describe Hathaway's inner weather? Certainly his songwriting and performance styles suggest anything but noise. Was his music, then, an effort to salvage harmony from mental discord, a tool for finding his way back to health, a symptom or cause of what one website inelegantly terms Hathaway's "health problems"? As Pavlic's Hathaway tells us, "behind the songs, I make real mistakes, I let the mind really go. 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 from the blood-swept stage in the back of the brain" (148). ("It's the danger of singing," he tells us bluntly elsewhere .) Then, a few pages later: "One thing's for sure, I ain't no damned singer" (164). Let us say that thouugh his virtuosity, Hathaway made music that finally released him from whatever it was to which his talent and intellect had once been tethered: "Like walking into water, sooner than later, your feet leave the ground" (132). Yet not to sing was not an option, for out of the quiet came voices telling him to "sing it," and "he sung it out of sheer self-defense" (88).
The singing stopped in 1979, when Hathaway leapt to his death from his room at New York City's Essex House. Still, if the dead keep their thoughts to themselves, they also speak/sing volumes (four posthumous albums so far). What Hathaway has to tell Pavlic—who worked from a longstanding love of the music and copious materials about the singer—may of course be more indicative of Pavlic's demons than Hathaway's, for what Donny tells Ed is nothing one is likely to unearth in the pages of a music magazine. Indeed, it is perhaps worth noticing that these poems are not finally biography (one will read nothing of, say, Hathaway's early career as producer and session man, the Grammy he shared with Roberta Flack, the theme song he wrote for the CBS television series Maude), nor are they quite music criticism, or even a fan's notes in any easy or obvious way. Rather, these poems are dense imaginings of Hathaway's wide-ranging interests and tortured thought processes, his inner demons, and how these combined with music in an effort to solve problems that were not exclusively musical. Thus, the music that haunts Hathaway in the avatar of Mr. Soul leads him also to meditations on "rage and prayer" (155), on "the music going on just behind [the] songs" (54), on melodies as people "gathering behind me" (57), until their noise becomes music, of songs that...