Let Me Clear My Throat by Elena Passarello


Arts East is based out of Halifax, and we don’t always get to present the diverse talent in other parts of Atlantic Canada as much as we’d like or should. So we were thrilled when talented PEI writer, Mo Duffy Cobb, offered to share her gorgeously vivid prose--this time in the form of a review of Elena Passarello’s Let Me Clear My Throat.

Mo Duffy Cobb is a student of Creative Nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has been published in Red: The Island Storybook, and popular travel blogs, and is currently working on a memoir of her time in Asia. Her blog, FurtherMo, is a record of her passions of traveling and parenting on the journey to inner wisdom. She lives in Prince Edward Island where she teaches English.




Let Me Clear My Throat
Essay Anthology by Elena Passarello
Sarabande Books, October 2012
ISBN-13: 978-1-936747-45-0
Paperback: 240 pp; $22.95
Review by Mo Duffy Cobb

You’ve been thrilled by the shriek of a child, riveted by one of Robert Plant’s quivering tones or energized by a crowd chant at a political rally. Welcome to Elena Passarello’s Let Me Clear my Throat, a journey through our acoustic upbringing, into our aural mysteries, and across the sound waves and into our lives as sonic travelers.

They wait for her in a high domed ellipsis of brick and masonry... We’re waiting for the moment in which sound fills a room and then changes from wavelength to wave: a thing we can surf on or drown in. A moment of undertow that hits us in the places where we move. Though, we all choose to sit still while it strikes us.
                                   — “Judy! Judy! Judy! p. 96 97

"...a journey through our acoustic upbringing, into our aural mysteries, and across the sound waves and into our lives as sonic travelers."

In a modern world of ring tones and techno beats, Passarello’s poignant investigation into the importance of the human voice really hits a high note. Passarello  begins with Screaming Memes (part 1), but soon takes the reader into Tips on Popular Singing (part 2)— through the construction of the sounds we make, to the glamorous, the devious and the sexy interpretations of these intonations. The author divides the work between longer, in-depth examinations and shorter, more potent sections of interviews with singers, actors, and characters of all shapes who use their voices in distinct or significant ways: from political candidates to Elvis impersonators. These tiny morsels round out the author’s clear, more audible voice between her longer essays.

Passarello has many occasions to share with the reader a unique slice of her aural history, from growing up with the sound of her mother’s voice in “Harpy”, to our own unique relationships to crows and other birdsongs in her touching essay, “And Your Bird Can Sing”. And although she claims to be an actor first, she is also a masterful wordsmith, drawing the reader into her song as here, when she describes scream queen Fay Wray in King Kong with the lovely visual as well as aural imagery: “I love the little points at the end of her poison-dart screams, as if she were dancing over her giant ape.” 

Let me Clear my Throat has the added impact of creating a multimedia, multi-sensory participatory experience for the reader, as Passarello makes reference to several dozen videos throughout the book’s discernible musical scores. Rarely do readers have the pleasure of curling up with a blanket, a good book, and the iPad open to YouTube to delectably surf through the book’s extensive bibliography, including everything from Hollywood’s most famous screams, Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, and my personal favorite — the author herself winning the “Stella” Shouting Contest onstage at the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans. 

"Rarely do readers have the pleasure of curling up with a blanket, a good book, and the iPad open to YouTube to delectably surf through the book’s extensive bibliography..."

Passarello’s voice also resonates when she explores the quiet within us, as in our own inaudible melodies. We remember not only the loudest times in our lives, but also the quietest; we ponder our loneliest moments and their screaming companions, the living soundtracks of our lives.

In this new era of personal quiet, sometimes I can actually feel my voice shrinking. Songs I love will come on in the car, but I don’t like the sounds I make when I sing along to them. At the end of my longer days of teaching, my voice is clenched, thirsty and dull. Right now, just thinking about screaming on stage or in a karaoke bar makes my stomach lurch a bit. The only place I might feel wholly comfortable to scream would be at the top hill of a roller coaster, or just outside a plane after I’ve jumped from it.
                                                                 —“Harpy”, 71

Passarello’s timeless work wakes up our auditory senses by bringing with it the drapes of historical context (“Hey Big Spender”), the overtones of popular culture (“The Wilhelm Scream”) and even manages to highlight the mundane, as when readers identify with struggling our way through a telephone banking phone call or waiting for an airline reservation (“Please Hold”).  By channeling the “thoracic power” of the high C and “carrying the compelling tension” of our sonic kin the F, Passarello’s book of essays keeps us in tune the whole way through. ~ Mo Duffy Cobb