mysophobia 潔癖

Nastiness Diagnosis. Anthropology. Religion. Gender. Justice. A Personal Notepad For the General Public.

Ironbound/ Fancy Poultry on Solitude Standing (1987) .

In the ironbound section near Avenue L
where the Portuguese women come to see what you sell
the clouds so low the morning so slow
as the wires cut through the sky

The beams and bridges cut the light on the ground
into little triangles and the rails run round
through the rust and the heat
the light and sweet coffee color of her skin

Bound up in wire and fate
watching her walk him up to the gate
in front of the ironbound school yard.

Kids will grow like weeds on a fence
She says they look for the light they try to make sense.
They come up through the cracks
Like grass on the tracks
She touches him goodbye.

Steps off the curb and into the street
the blood and feathers near her feet
into the ironbound market

In the ironbound section near Avenue L
where the Portuguese women come to see what you sell
the clouds so low the morning so slow
as the wires cut through the sky

She stops at the stall
fingers the ring
opens her purse
feels a longing
away from the ironbound border

“Fancy poulty parts sold here.
Breasts and thighs and hearts.
Backs are cheap and wings are nearly free.
Nearly free”



Ironbound/ Fancy Poultry on Solitude Standing (1987)


The song Ironbound/Fancy Poultry was published in 1987 on Suzanne Vega’s second album Solitude Standing. In my opinion it is among the best tracks of this record. It picks up the leitmotif of Solitude Standing: the wish to break free, to get rid of the urban-angst that haunts the characters who appear on the record. But nevertheless Ironbound/Fancy Poultry is somewhat different from the other songs. On all other tracks there is a “point of view” in the form of a first person narrator, the “lyrical I”, such as Luka or Caspar Hauser or Calypso, or there is an “anonymous” first person narrator such as in Night Vision.


Ironbound/Fancy Poultry is the only song that has an omniscient narrator. By using an omniscient narrator, the songwriter gets the opportunity to guide the reader/listener, to take his hand and lead him through her fictional world. The narrator can tell the story from different points of view, she has a multitude of perspectives, she can look into the characters, has insight into their feelings and thoughts.
Having a close look at the first stanza, one can see how the omniscient narrator ‘builds’ up her world. She starts with the setting: she tells the reader where the song takes place (“in the Ironbound section/ near Avenue L2) who is in this place (“the Portuguese women”), she describes the surroundings (“clouds so low”/”wires cut”) and tells the reader when it happens (“the morning so slow”). So by the end of the first stanza, the narrator has already presented all the important information the listener needs to know.
The detailed description of the setting is continued in the 2nd stanza and it is not before the last line of this stanza that the main character appears. So Vega uses 12 full lines to describe the Ironbound section. In this song, the surroundings are very important as they reflect the inner state of the main character.( As for example in Cracking and in In Liverpool).
The reader gets the impression of a very ‘urban’ place, dirty and gray and very narrow. The only positive thing that adds some hope is nature (“the sky” and “the light”, ll 7, 9). But both these things are violently “cut”, are torn into pieces by “the beams and bridges” that seem to bind the people. (There is no sign of a mediation between nature and technology, which could be found in “city-poems” by Hart Crane, Oscar Wilde, or Walt Whitman, who, in his poem Mannahatta, describes even a fusion of nature and technology: “Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron”. Here the element, which, in Vega’s song, is a chain and binds the character is associated with nature, seems to be part of nature and is not at all static but “grows” like a green plant, is full of motion).
The “wires” complete the cage in which the humans are trapped. And suddenly the listener finds himself within this scenery. By addressing the reader with the line “Come to see what you sell”, the listener gets involved and is forced to listen.
The sadness and hopelessness of the setting is stressed by the dark “o”-sounds and the
internal rhymes in lines 5/6 (“so low”/”so slow”). Other means of onomatopoeia are the vast numbers of alliterations, as for example in the lines 4, 6, 8, 11, 14. Up to the 12th line the scenery is described. It is hopeless and unpleasant, one feels bound by the tracks that run round, bound by the wires that separate man from the sky, bound by beams and bridges that cut the light.
Actually, the light plays a big part. Vega uses light, shadow and the colors like a painter to make the environment as realistic as possible. She does this in several other songs, most obviously though in In Liverpool, where she describes a comparable urban place. In the latter she also uses the light to introduce the main character (“the light is pale and thin/ like you”).
In Ironbound the main character is not a second person that is addressed to as “you”, but a third person who (just as the wires cut through the sky before) now appears “through the rust and heat”. Before, the narrator chose a point of view that allowed the reader to watch the scenery from the “perspective of a bird” so that one has a survey of the Ironbound market. Now that the main character appears, the omniscient narrator changes the perspective from a wide-angle to a close up. She focuses on the woman like a camera. The author catches the sympathy of the reader for this character by describing her appearance with the adjectives “light and sweet”. These two adjectives, which have a positive connotation, contrast with the words “rust and heat” in the previous line, which both have a negative connotation and are used to describe the Ironbound market. There is also a very strong contrast in the sounds: at the beginning, the deep and dark “o”-sounds create a depressing atmosphere that is contrasted with the more “uplifting”, high and bright “e”-sounds, such as in “light, sweet, skin”, which are attributed to the woman.
It is striking that Vega refers to the main character only three times as “she”; the other times always pointing out only aspects of the woman (her skin, her ring, her purse). By using this metonymic method, the forlornness of the character in the urban environment is mirrored.
This is also stressed by referring to the woman as “her”, by this making her the object of the sentence and by omitting the main character as the subject of the sentence completely (line 15: “[She’s] Bound up in iron…”/ line 24 “[She] Steps off the curb…”).
The feeling of being caught in a cold, dirty and soulless place is emphasized throughout the song by a lot of concrete hints, most of all by the use of words like “Ironbound” itself and by “fence”, “gate” and “bound up in iron and wires and fate” (in this line the strength of the chains is stressed by the polysyndeton). Even the very strict rhyme scheme conveys and mirrors the lack of freedom in the Ironbound section.
The sheer name Ironbound (which is an actual part of New Jersey, named this way because of the tracks which run around it) evokes a number of associations, and other poems spring to mind in which the iron is symbol for both, city and chains (for example John Hall Wheelock’s Empire State Tower: “The desert where man’s hope goes to and fro/ the iron ways in which his feet are set.”).
The feeling of hopelessness is also reflected in the music. The song is written in an
A-minor key and in a moderate 4/4 time. The melody itself is very smooth and calm without huge intervals. While the song goes on, the character’s wish to break free grows stronger and stronger. This is represented in the instrumental parts between the verses. Here the harmony suddenly changes into D-major, the first “bright” chord that represents the longing to break out. But soon it is altered back into A-minor and the song continues.
Not so the second time:
After the line “away from the Ironbound border”, the second part of the song begins. And suddenly everything changes: the song continues in a 12/8 time which is light and playful, the harmony changes, not into the bright D but into the even brighter A-major. In the melody there is suddenly the biggest interval in the whole song. Also the point of view changes. We now have a first person narrator. The mood is not so sad anymore, it becomes more ironical. The woman is locked into her milieu and her environment, and next to her someone is selling wings, the actual symbol of freedom and liberty. To make it even more ironical, Suzanne Vega uses the double meaning of the word “free”: the wings themselves are “nearly free”. Also the other poultry-parts seem to refer to the human body: breast, thighs, backs and hearts. The word “heart” is stressed not only by the polysyndeton in line 40/45, but even more by the pause in the melody right in front of it. It sounds like a slight hesitation.
The song reaches its climax in the repetition of the bitter ironical phrase “nearly free”. This is also the musical climax. There now are only two chords left which represent the schizophrenia and irony of the song: on the one hand there is the bright and open A-major representing the wish to break free and to fly away; on the other hand we have F-major, a narrow and restrained chord representing the chains.
The tension between these two feelings is also underlined by the chromatic in the melody (one time “free” on e – the other time on f) and in the guitarwork (the change between c and c#).

“Ironbound/Fancy Poultry” is a song about how one is bound and chained in the urban environment, how one tries to escape from the milieu and to break free. The two feelings of freedom and of being caught are expressed by contrasts throughout the song. There are contrasts in words, in sounds (“o”/”e”), in chords (A/F), in times (4/4 / 12/8), in the point of view (omniscient narrator/first person) in rhetorical devices (asyndeton/ polysyndeton) and in the overall structure of the song itself.
The second part of the song reveals a bitter and almost ironical sight of the first part. Now it becomes obvious that the panoramic view the narrator chose in the beginning was false, misleading, (because for the woman there is no freedom to move, to change perspectives in the Ironbound section) and it now appears as though the narrator chose it with some amount of sarcasm.
In the end, Suzanne Vega does not decide for either the freedom or the chains. The song fades out with the “struggle” of the chords A and F and the notes c# and c, leaving the listener uncertain. During the song, the listener is thrown from an emotional high to an emotional low in the next moment. It is a kind of “emotional roller coaster”, but I think that is what makes the song so strong.


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This entry was posted on June 22, 2014 by in 雜Variety and tagged .
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