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'Sweet Bird' thread Print-ready version

Joni Mitchell Discussion List
December 1997

Discussion thread from December of 1997, compiled by BarBearUh

This is one of my fav lines from Joni - "Guesses at most Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching."

I once used this line in a post written to the list regarding the changes in Joni's voice range over the years. But that is another story, but relative. Relative is the opt. word here. As we travel through time and encounter changes our perspective on things are subject to reinterpretation. Be this the viewing of a former or even present relationship we were/are in. Even how we may view ourselves, others, objects, etc. Often we hear ourselves and others say, "I used to think," or "I'm glad I don't see things that way any more," or "When I was younger I thought," etc. But now because of time and change other things have helped to reshape our viewpoint. So we find ourselves in sets of time with a certain perspectives. Sometimes we will find that we have aspects of what is considered solid based information, but new or different info will enter into the picture and reevaluation is demanded or required. Most of the time, even with as much info as we can gather we remain subject to the "guessing game." We call it an "educated guess". Realizing that variables may possibly enter in at any given "time" but right now in the "time-space" that we are in, with the info that we have, or lack, our view is, this or that. There for time and changes touch the guess work of our lives.

In this context this phase, can be relative to not only "STAS" but to any and all of her body of work. Just as it relates to us, be it, physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc. Sometimes not to be completely deleted, but altered, enhanced, revised, renewed, restructured, or replaced.

birds do come up a lot in joni's songs - in fact, i was going to suggest she might be a great blue heron if she was an animal. it's a big beautiful, graceful seabird (a seagull just seems to common for joan). anyhow, there's black crow, seagull, sweet bird, corinna, the eagle of DJRD, the seagulls that come down and squawk on FTR...i'm sure there are others (plus the 'crazy crow' publishing name). i don't think there's a correlation btwn 'song to a seagull' and 'sweet bird', but obviously, birds have a lot to offer in terms of imagery and symbolism.

"guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching" - this is a pretty tough one to interpret. i really adore this song, and think it's very cinematic, as many have pointed out about HOSL songs. first off, i'll risk the danger of being arrested by the lyric police, and admit that i always thought she was saying "guess it's based...", which also makes sense (at least as much as the real line does). perhaps my misunderstanding led me to my interpretation, which has to do with the meaning of it all - what life is, the big picture - whatever you want to call it; because she sings:

no one knows
they can never get that close
guesses at most
guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching

i always took that to mean that no one has the key to it all. we'll never be able to know for sure what it all means. each person makes up their own theories based on the era they live in and the changes they go through, and for some, that means their philosophies change over time, depending on what circumstances their lives are 'touching' at the moment.

this sweet bird that is flying through the sky so carefree, unfeddered by worries about aging and appearance and all the meaningless things we get ourselves caught up in...

sweet bird you are
briefer than a falling star
all these vain promises on beauty jars
somewhere with your wings on time
you must be laughing
...power, ideals and beauty
fading in everyone's hand

although i think the whole song is filled with great imagery, it's the last verse that really gets me seeing things -

give me some time
i feel like i'm losing mine
out here on this horizon line
with the earth spinning
and the sky forever rushing

i see flying birds-eye views over landscapes and timelapse images. i like the idea of starting on a person and pulling way back (like the reverse of the 1st shot of julie in 'sound of music) until you see the entire earth spinning in space. i often think of the 'guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching' as this idea of someone frozen for a moment in time, in a landscape, guessing at what life means. i'm not writing this very well, i can't quite get to it, but if you've ever stood in a familiar, seemingly timeless place (like watching the waves at the beach), finding yourself asking the same questions you always do when you're there, you might know what i'm trying to say.

Barbara, IMHO this is expressed very well. Not only did you get it, but you captured it for others to see. Just like when Joni uses the phrase in "Hejira" "Just at this moment of the world" she is talking about a time frame. Or "We're only particles of change I know, I know, orbiting around the sun" and challenges it with this - "But how can I have that point of view, when I'm always bound and tied to someone" because connections have to be made. Change is there on all levels. So the use of the word "someone" instead of a particular "one" still deals with change. Our connections to things and people change. All relative to "just at this moment of the world" or time. Barbara, I loved the word painting that you created.

In the first few lines, Mitchell "places" the song outside of time and space, "Out on some borderline, Some mark of in-between"

Of course, she was expanding the concept of the jungle line of the earlier song, a more definite and observable (if a snake is linear and observable) image. It's the same snake/bird imagery that she jams together so beautifully in "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" and the same image that drives the mythos of the Mayan culture--Quetzalcoatl and so on. One can also find the same juxtapositions of snake and bird in the poetry of Blake and Yeats. Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale from the Canterbury Tales, which features a character named Constance adrift on a rudderless boat, is also a liminal tale.

It's the mark of in-between that grabs me every time, though.

Early in the 20th century, long before Joseph Campbell (in the 60's with his _The Hero with a Thousand Faces_) and Julia Kristeva (French feminist of the 80's) discussed the hero journey and the thetic space, a man named Victor Turner was exploring "liminality" with a vengeance. The three writers' constructs are all essentially the same: there is something in between opposites, a state between sleeping and waking, for instance, or an initiative space between two more or less known points, which Turner calls the "liminal space." It's unhinged from ordinary time and space. The self (or the working construct of the self) disappears into a space where learning is possible, but perceptions of linear time and definable space aren't definite: "guesses based on what each set of time and space is touching..." so beautifully states the subjectivity of the liminal state. The liminal is the space of initiation, of revelation, of being open to the cosmos. Joni's song so well elucidates Turner's concept of Liminality that in speaking of it in classes, i often quote lines from the song as an example of the sensation of liminality. Then students start seeing it everywhere.

One of Joni Mitchell's greatest artistic virtues is that she peeled away the dualities of "Both Sides, Now" and discovered the out-of-time-and-space treasures that lie in between the opposites. Only the great ones get there. And i think she does this musically as well; those tunings that are actually between keys, or that drift in and out of keys---some music appreciation course book i picked up in college says that "Amelia" moves between two keys. I'm no music theorist, but i suppose that is the point of open tunings. Certainly lyrically she begins her most fruitful forays into the liminal in The Hissing of Summer Lawns. At least that's where i first hear it.

The space of liminality is the journeyer's most intensive learning state. I do believe that Hejira, the compilation about wandering to discover, to grow, to choose to remain open and vulnerable, driving past those white flags of winter chimneys on winter nights, to keep venturing into art, reality, time, space, really articulates the highest possibilities of the liminal space. Hejira couldn't have been done so brilliantly without Hissing, and she's brought back many poems from the liminal ever since.

this theory of liminality reminds me of something i learned about a year ago. i was interviewing the architect cesar pelli about the petronas towers in malaysia. this is currently the world's tallest building, made of two towers with a pedestrian bridge that runs between them halfway up. he explained to me that the design concept was based on an old japanese saying "the reality of an earthen pot is not in its walls, but in the space it contains". he put the bridge between the towers to make the eye move towards the space between the two towers.

Again, as we have discussed before in another context, this is Joni's way of describing the chronosynclastic infundibulum -- the time-space continuum to which we are stuck passing through linearly but which Vonnegut's aliens (what was that species, Ken?) can see in four dimensions -- the fourth being time, of course.

Actually the CI's in the book "Siren Of Titan" were these invisible areas in space. Once you hit one you were spread out through all of space and time. You were also stuck in it and could never escape it. It wasn't actually Salo, the Tralfamadorian, who was caught in it but an earthling character named Winston Niles Rumfoord and of course his dog Kazak. A great book.

Sweet Bird has always been one of my all-time Joni favorites. In large part because the imagery *is* so evocative and yet so ambiguous.

I always assumed loss of youth was the primary subject -- echoed years later in "nothing lasts for long, nothing last for long" -- and recently I too had heard that Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth" was probably the intended allusion.

But as others have noted, that last stanza remains deliciously unclear:

No one knows
They can never get that close.
Guesses at most.
Guesses based on what each set of time and space is touching.

I always thought of the "it" in the last stanza as being Death and the possibility of a Hereafter. Not because I thought *Joni* intended that, but cuz it works for me. Reread those last lines with that thought in mind and you'll see what I mean.

And if I may second Barbara's choice for the most evocative lines:

Give me some time
I feel like I'm losing mine
Out here on this horizon line
With the earth spinning and the sky forever rushing

The image of the "earth spinning and the sky forever rushing" never fails to take my breath away.

Hi. I'm new to this list, but couldn't stop myself from posting about 'Sweet Bird.' I think 'guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching' is a reference to the I Ching - or Book of Changes. Almost as clear as 'the hexagram of the heavens' in Amelia, 'guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching' is a reflection on the process that the I Ching represents.

Another case of Joni synchronicity . . . I was watching the "Nothing Can Be Done" segment of the JMDL videos when I saw an I Ching hexagram etched (or painted) on Joni's guitar.

I paused the video so I could get a better look, then found my I Ching references to learn what the hexagram represents. One reference calls the hexagram "The Traveler," and another calls it "The Stranger," and here is a bit from one of my books:

"Your life is an odyssey . . . This is not an aimless, chancy wandering -- is the the movement of fire on a mountain which travels on an unrelentless pursuit of its own fuel, a search for its means of continuing existence . . . Perhaps you are a sexual nomad. Perhaps you wander in and out of relationships . . . Enlightenment for you is not a final revelation. It is never a complete experience . . ." And on it goes.

Anyway, regarding the synchronicity, I thought I should check out the Archives for previous discussion about this, and lo and behold there is a post from Ian C. about "Sweet Bird" and I Ching, a post dated only yesterday and that is not on my list of email to be read. Hmm.

What a wonderful web we've woven, pun very much intended.

I am awed by bb's, Mendi's, and Deb Thornton's posts ("footnote" indeed, Deb!) on this song, but I'm going to try to add something not too farfetched or completely unrelated to "Sweet Bird" in comparison, I hope.

This is extremely clumsily expressed, but here goes:

I think of a graph, with the x-axis and y-axis. Each axis has its own "set of circumstances" going on -- its own coordinate, as in (4,7) which denotes a specific point on the graph. Or it might be two algebraic equations, with some point(s) where the graphic representations of those equations intersect ("are touching") -- that point is a/the solution to both equations.

This is what I have always thought of from that repeated line in Sweet Bird -- a kind of abstract graph with sets of time and change on the x- and y-axes, or as equations. Where "each set of time and change is touching" -- where they intersect like the graphs of two equations -- that's...? I don't know. Something special, a solution (or an answer) of some sort, perhaps. In this respect, I have always thought of Sweet Bird as an extremely mathematical song.

Of course, "sets of time and change" imply that the "solution" of this graph -- maybe you could call it reality -- is in constant flux, changing from instant to instant ("forever rushing").

In addition to x- and y-axes, a graph can have a z-axis, in which case it becomes three-dimensional. In another way, I think perhaps reality, or the meaning of life, or whatever you want to call what Joni is talking about in the song Sweet Bird, might be thought of like a graph with an infinite number of axes or dimensions -- with all of our individual stories or realities, everybody's or everything's set of circumstances, as an axis.

(I recently was looking out of a third-story window over the campus here, noticing a lot of people going different directions and doing their own thing, and was struck by the thought that each of these people has their own "story," all of which are overlapping now in this parking lot I'm looking at. Even the birds and trees around this parking lot have their own stories, for that matter, making up this larger story.)

Where everybody's stories overlap, or intersect, or "are touching" -- that is "reality" for that one instant. A mathematical concept of the universe and life.

no one knows
they can never get that close
guesses at most
guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching

give me some time
i feel like i'm losing my mind
out here on this horizon line
with the earth spinning
and the sky forever rushing

To go even further out on a limb (assuming that's possible): vaguely recalling what I learned in chemistry some four years ago makes me think of another level to Sweet Bird and its graph-of-infinite-dimension (in my interpretation). I think of a comparison between this infinitely complex graph and the smallest most basic but also very complex thing of all -- the atom. You have the electrons orbiting the nucleus (composed of protons and neutrons), and because electrons are so small, and move so fast, or for some reason like that, you can't point to one place and say that's where the electron is at this moment. Rather (if I remember correctly) you define a certain band around the nucleus and say, there is a significant probablity that the electron will be within that area. This is where the "haziness" of Sweet Bird comes in -- the lyrics above could practically be about subatomic particles -- "no one ever knows/they can never get that close/guesses at most," "horizon line," "spinning," "rushing," etc. Electrons orbiting. It's a state of constant change ("time and change...") and unpredictability, like above.

(Mendi, I think, quoted from "Hejira" in reference to Sweet Bird: "particles of change...orbiting around the sun." Interestingly significant also in this context.)

Reality as a point on a graph....the idea that the subatomic is really the same as this infinite thing....this is what I've been trying to describe in terms of Sweet Bird here, I hope it made some sense (and didn't seem too NJC)....

In line with this idea of Sweet Bird's mathematical/atomic model of reality, I am reminded of the line from "Strange Boy": "he sees the cars as sets of waves" (and what's the line right after that?). But that's probably another very long post....

Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle - you cannot simultaniously specify the postion of an electron and then conjugate it's momentum. Heisenberg's follow up to Schrodinger's "particle in a box" theroy. As you can see, I as a Joni follower and chemist can appreciate your analogy. Thanks.

That post makes perfect sense to me. Joni's "system" of composing, IMHO, has become as distinctive as Martha Graham's choreography and Louise Nevelson's sculpture (all 3 Scorpios). The posts on slapping the guitar, is very much in character with Graham's odd sense of movement (contraction release) and so brilliant in it's originality (parallel Joni's tunings, along with her guitar playing style).

In understanding the mathematical "science" behind the art (See the Discovery program entitled "Understanding Beauty") for more mathematical summaries, your base understanding of the creative process, IMHO, is so much greater than most people's. It's sort of like seeing a Sol Lewit installation (minimalist). There is a movement which forces the viewer to revert to understanding the basic "science" if you will, behind the "art".

Actually, to put what I was describing in an earlier post into mathematical terms, there would be a fourth axis, the t-axis, which represents the passage of time, the fourth dimension.

While we humans are bound to strict points on the t-axis, others have postulated that it might be possible to move across the t-axis and Joni is trying to show, I think, that birds are an example of a creature that is free to travel in three axes, and that those who think freely enough can stretch the boundaries of all four, though as others said earlier, each creature's perception/reality is only as good as its experiences and guesses about each of those axes .

By placing herself on the horizon, Joni takes the song out of the realm of the physical. It is impossible, of course, to actually be on the horizon, because, if you're there, the horizon is somewhere else. She takes us conceptually where we cannot go physically. I think the physical (i.e. real) elusiveness of this state, this in-between, drives a sense of madness and hopelessness in the song: "I feel like I'm losing my mind (or ...mine)." It is this elusiveness of the horizon (the in-between, the liminal space) she refers to IMO by saying, "No one knows/They can never get that close."

Our horizons are "Guesses at most/Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching." That is, the horizon, and its conceptual corollaries, are imagined by us based on the physicalities and the changes of where we are. As we move on the land, the horizon changes. As time passes, the horizon changes.

I think the horizon is this liminal, in-between, unconstrained space Deb's talking about conceptually as well as geographically, and that our place and time and change in space have a conceptual corollary as well--our experience. Freeing ourselves of that experience to sit on that in-between enlightened plane is an elusive, frustrating, and maddening task.

She immediately follows the relativistic frustration with a more absolute, oppositional statement: "*Every* picture has its shadows/And it has some source of light." She gives us both sides of the horizon and reminds us that they both always exist.

All of this babble reminds me of _A Tale of Two Cities_. An apparently oppositional discourse, it posits Paris vs. London, evil vs. good, night vs. day. There is a lot of shadow imagery, though--shadows hiding, morphing, indicating presence. Shadow and darkness are not equivalent: darkness is the *absence* of light; shadow is the *obstruction* of light. Shadow requires light to exist, and is in fact darkness in the presence of light. These shadows could be similar liminal, in-between spaces, where the real drama, question, puzzle occurs. The moral ambiguities of the French revolution are well documented, and in the novel, its least ambiguous moments (the beheadings) occur at the most shadowless time--high noon. During an eclipse light takes a funny form and shapes morph and new truths are revealed. This is what the shadows in _A Tale of Two Cities_ are about for me, and what the unattainable horizon in "Sweet Bird" may be about.

Whether or not the shadows in "Shadows and Light" are equally ambiguous is the subject of another thread... :)

Anyway, it seems that Joni and Dickens throw up these poles only to brush them aside for what lies between, and that's what "Sweet Bird" is about for me today.

I also have considered the closing lines to Sweet Bird as mathematical, but have not been able to express it as well as you have David. I don't think of it as points on a graph exactly, but as a search for truth, when searching for truth it seems one inevitably turns to mathematics, and then quickly doubts the existence of zero, the existence of "one", and conversely the existence of infinity- How can they all exist? I don't believe that 1=.999999999 ad infinitum, if I throw this baseball at that wall, it will hit the wall, it won't forever be approaching the wall, (simplistic yes, but proof enough for me)- then quickly one doubts the existence of "reality" the existence of any "truth". Because nothing is static, everything is constantly changing, how can there be any truth?

I am a painter. When painting I'm often in a "liminal" mode (Thanks Deb Thornton, it's nice to know the names for things!!), when the painting is going well, this kind of "out of mind" experience hangs around, (but drains me, makes me feel as if I'd been digging ditches all day rather than standing at an easel) then at other times I sort of snap out of it, for example:

Q. What is the brightest, the whitest object in this winter landscape?
A. Well it's the snow of course.
Q. How can the thing that's illuminated be brighter than the light source? Isn't the sky the brightest, no matter how overcast, how blue, how grey it appears?

The simple test of placing a mirror on the snow, to reflect the sky, proves that the sky is the brighter (the whiter) thing(or does it? Does the mirror as a tool distort reality?). But it doesn't appear that way, reality is only a perception, truth is ephemeral..."guesses at most".

He sees the cars as sets of waves
sequences of mass and space

This seems to me very mathematical AND very painterly, try to depict the 3 dimensional world on a 2 dimensional plane...Presto!!! now you see it, now you don't!!! Try to depict your world, so that others will see it as you do, to *force* others to see it as you do. I often see objects in space with black outlines, as did Cezanne, as did Michaelangelo (take it easy List-Police I am NOT favorably comparing my vision, my talent to theirs!) this looks right to me, it looks real to me. The world of course has no black outlines, the world has no BLACK.

Joni has successfully shared her world-view through her music, she has made us think, she has made us see and feel her reality-this to me, is the essence of great art.

In the liner notes to HOSL, Joni thanks Jon Guerin "for showing me the root of the chord and where 1 was". I have often pondered this, music is so closely tied to math, is it the root of the chord that she means by 1? Or does she know where 1 is?

When it comes to mathematics
I got static in the attic
no sir!!

I love the stuff about sweet bird I don't have the time to write up all the points I want to now (Friends discussed this all last night ) because I have a hang over . I just wondered if any of you have read Jonathan Livingston seagull its been a long time since I have but I'm sure it's relevant to the understanding of the song. Sorry this is a bit off a crap post I'm tired. Also I love the part of the song

Behind our eyes
calendars of our lives
circled with compromise

This to me is like when you circle an important date, birthday et on a calendar , but Joni here is saying our eyes are the mirror of the soul and if you look you can see the lines around my eyes that were put their by some significant event that changed me. I think this was later picked up on Off night backstreet

I can feel your fingers
feeling my face
there are some lines you put there
and some you erase

This event whatever it maybe (broken relationship ,drugs ,religion) opens you to new discoveries about the self and just some times you kind of have an identity (?) breakdown, crisis and its at those moments that you slip into that feeling of letting go, its the space in-between your old identity assimilating the new one . This is change, growth, rebirth ,growing up ,aging (He drifts off into the memory of the way she looked at school H/H ) I could go on and on but I really have to get some sleep SO I lay down golden I hope I don't vanish because I'd love some feedback. All the best and thanks for a great thread.

I would think that there are more dimensions than we know about. I think other worlds might well exist in these dimensions. We are atuned to this one-maybe there are others around us and we cannot be aware of them(usually) like when we are tuined into one tv station we cannot see the other channels-but they are there. I think 'space' might well be full! the space I am occupying right now as I type might well be in the middle of a field or whatever in anoither dimension. My uncle who has loads of tapes he made from regression sessions(including one where he talks to a pilot in the 21st century!) reckons past present and future are all happening NOW. My uncle is very strange but I would not dimiss his ideas. he also reckons that when we die we create the world we live in by our thoughts. So there is a london circa 1890 populated by thoise who have not progressed in their thought. Anything is possible when we know so little. I'll be really pissed off if when I die I don't get the answers I crave-like all about the stars and stuff. Fascinating. So frustrating to know i will not know these things in this dimension. Still it is something to look forward to!

I love this discussion on Sweet Bird. I always thought that Joni was referring to God as the "Sweet Bird." God is outside of time, afterall. We humans are confined to our mortality.....we are confined to being inside of time with the clock running....I guess I always thought of Joni as lamenting about feeling as though she were losing "her time, her mind". And I guess I always thought that the "guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching" kind of referred to all of us guessing as to what God is like...what death is like.... "no one knows they can never get that close." Does this sound off base? I always thought that in her indian way that maybe God was symbolized as the biggest of "sweet birds."

At dinner with Rich N., Barbara B., Michael Y. and his totally cool sweetie Sean, I remembered that what I like best about Sweet Bird is that it never fails puts me in a rich state of melancholy.

Kind of funny, huh? One depressed person on the list asks for happy song suggestions and Meri (who, like Sherrie, is a satisfied customer of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors -- "anti-depressants," to the uninitiated) raves about Joni's depressing songs!

But melancholy is vastly underrated, methinks. Everything about Sweet Bird is depressing, but in a transcendent way. All the trappings of our surface lives are found to be emphemeral: Power, ideals and beauty, Fading in everone's hands." If this isn't the core dilemma of our lives, what is? Is all this for not? Is there any lasting meaning to our lives? Does it matter if anything we do lasts? Have we been totally distracted by the superficiality of Maya? (Susan LA and Sherrie, cue up that Ferron song here!)

Anyhoo, if Sweet Bird had more melody, it probably wouldn't work for me the way it does. It is a haunting piece -- perfect as is.

Or so say I!

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