from the top of the flight
of the wide, white stairs
through the rest of my life
do you wait for me there?

there's a bell in my ears
there's a wide white roar
drop a bell down the stairs
hear it fall forevermore

drop a bell off of the dock
blot it out in the sea
drowning mute as a rock;
sounding mutiny

there's a light in the wings, hits this system of strings
from the side while they swing;
see the wires, the wires, the wires

and the articulation
in our elbows and knees
makes us buckle as we couple in endless increase
as the audience admires

and the little white dove
made with love, made with love:
made with glue, and a glove, and some pliers

swings a low sickle arc
from its perch in the dark:
settle down
settle down my desire

and the moment I slept I was swept up in a terrible tremor
though no longer bereft, how I shook!
and I couldn't remember

then the furthermost shake drove a murdering stake in
and cleft me right down through my center
and I shouldn't say so, but I know that it was then, or never

push me back into a tree
bind my buttons with salt
fill my long ears with bees
praying: please, please, please
love, you ought not!
no you ought not!

then the system of strings tugs on the tip of my wings
(cut from cardboard and old magazines)
makes me warble and rise like a sparrow
and in the place where I stood, there is a circle of wood
a cord or two, which you chop and you stack in your barrow

it is terribly good to carry water and chop wood
streaked with soot, heavy booted and wild-eyed
as I crash through the rafters
and the ropes and pulleys trail after
and the holiest belfry burns sky-high

then the slow lip of fire moves across the prairie with precision
while, somewhere, with your pliers and glue you make your first incision
and in a moment of almost-unbearable vision
doubled over with the hunger of lions
"hold me close," cooed the dove
who was stuffed now with sawdust and diamonds

I wanted to say: why the long face?
sparrow, perch and play songs of long face
burro, buck and bray songs of long face!
sing: I will swallow your sadness and eat your cold clay
just to lift your long face

and though it may be madness, I will take to the grave
your precious longface
and though our bones they may break, and our souls separate
- why the long face?
and though our bodies recoil from the grip of the soil
- why the long face?

in the trough of the waves
which are pawing like dogs
pitch we, pale-faced and grave
as I write in my log

then I hear a noise from the hull
seven days out to sea
and it is the damnable bell!

and it tolls - well, I believe, that it tolls - for me!
it tolls for me!

though my wrists and my waist seemed so easy to break
still, my dear, I would have walked you to the very edge of the water
and they will recognise all the lines of your face
in the face of the daughter of the daughter of my daughter

darling, we will be fine, but what was yours and mine
appears to be a sandcastle that the gibbering wave takes
but if it's all just the same, then will you say my name:
say my name in the morning, so I know when the wave breaks?

I wasn't born of a whistle or milked from a thistle at twilight
no, I was all horns and thorns, sprung out fully formed, knock-kneed and upright
so: enough of this terror
we deserve to know light
and grow evermore lighter and lighter
you would have seen me through
but I could not undo that desire

oh, desire...

from the top of the flight
of the wide, white stairs
through the rest of my life
do you wait for me there?


Lyrics submitted by amina

Sawdust and Diamonds song meanings
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  • +5
    General CommentThis was in an article on Joanna: some of it relates to this song:

    "...The last element of Newsom’s magnum opus to arrive was its title. Newsom spent a long time fishing for a name that would encapsulate the spirit of the project. One night she dreamed about the title, a swirling reverie that featured the letters Y and S smashing together in unusual combinations. Afterwards she began searching for a single-syllable word that bluntly combined the two letters. At the same time, Newsom also finally got around to reading the fantasy novel on her nightstand, which happened to be her best friend’s favorite book. She thought the novel might be cheesy, but she loved it. And one night, there it was: a passage about a seaside castle that had been raised 'by the magic of the ancient folk of Ys.'

    "Et voila–Newsom had found her title. Ys is a lost city immortalized in the folklore of Brittany, a region that lies along the northwest coast of France. As Newsom read more deeply into the legend, things got a little spookier. Here, in a nutshell, is one version of the tale: Dahut, the blond daughter of King Gradlon, begs her father to build her a citadel by the sea. And so he does, creating a city that’s protected from the waves by an enormous wall of stone whose one entrance, a gigantic bronze door, is opened by a key that Gradlon carries around his neck. Like a lot of seaside towns, Ys attracts horny sailors laden with goods, and Dahut makes a wicked pact with the powers of the ocean to make the already decadent city rich. The agreement is rather kinky: every night the princess takes a new sailor as a lover, and places a black mask on his head. In the morning, when the song of the meadowlark is heard, the mask strangles the guy, whose body is then offered to the waves. Eventually Dahut meets her match: a haughty crimson-clad lover who persuades her to slip the key from around the neck of her sleeping father. The rake then opens the gates of Ys to the raging ocean, which swallows the city. Father and daughter escape on a magic steed, but daddy is forced to drop the princess into the sea and she drowns. In some tellings, she is then transformed into a mermaid.

    "Newsom saw so many parallels between this story and her own that it freaked her out. There were the themes of decadence and excess, of fathers and daughters and boundaries burst, not to mention details like the meadowlark and the heroine’s underwater metamorphosis. Then Newsom stumbled across the clincher: according to Breton folklore, on calm days along the coast you can hear the sunken bell of the cathedral of Ys, tolling evermore. Later, as Newsom finished the fantasy novel, she stumbled across yet another uncanny echo of her own tale: a line that spoke of 'that damnable bell,' a direct sample, as it were, from 'Sawdust & Diamonds.'
    Anneliseon January 24, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentWithout reading the whole thing, and just commenting on the first and last stanze in the song, I'm pretty positive she's talking about eternity. There was an interview with Joanna where she said that all her songs are an attempt to remake a dream she had when she was a little girl about these dogs and cats with party hats, but anyway, there were these stairs, and she had these sense that they were eternity. Check it out at Milky Moon. So, there's probably more, but I thought that was pretty cool.
    myeh_manon February 26, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General Commentthis has been one of my favorites ever since i first heard the green man recording of it as posted on milkymoon. it's one of those songs almost cinematic in drama, to me about that quiet pondering everyone tends to fall into over the afterlife or whatever. when you lose people in your life you start to wonder if when you expire, they'll be waiting for you there "at the top of the wide white stairs."

    the imagery having to do with false angels rising with wires and flying with wings of clipped magazines and cardboard is so vivid for me, so gorgeous.

    "what was yours and mine
    appears to be a sandcastle that the gibbering wave takes,"

    there's something so touching in these lines for me. sometimes it seems no matter how much tender loving care you put into something, there's always a wave that can easily take it away.
    delialon September 09, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General Comment"Hold me close," cooed the dove who was stuffed now with sawdust and diamonds.

    -one of my favorite lines ever.
    catherine kon April 29, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThis song has a lot of references to zen Buddhism, in which you give up desire to find enlightenment. They say carry water and chopped wood..become enlightened and carry water and chopped wood.
    Also, i heard this song played on a piano rather than a harp, it sounds like a ticking clock. Which makes me think that it's really just about life, and running out of time.
    ea.bednaron March 20, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General CommentPage 6 of this interview:
    thewire.co.uk/articles/56/
    says that she wasn't intending a comment about her experiences as a performer, but about more general social dynamics where people are pulled about by strings (of convention and what's acceptable?), like marionettes, and are being watched by everyone around them, as though they were on a stage. If I'm reading her right.

    Having read that, my understanding of the song changed. I think it's somewhat piece-meal in terms of the things it talks about, but I think that theme I just described draws it all together. Plus some stuff about mortality.

    The main 'story' aspect I see in it is of a relationship (whether romantic or not) in which she and the other person experienced some kind of freedom from all these games, and found something real. That's what I think it's about when she makes these sudden shifts in scene from a theatre to a log cabin in the woods or something. There's a lot of nature imagery in relation to this person. e.g. 'long face' section (which blows me away), which I take to be about a sort of transcendent intimacy and devotion they shared - something elemental.

    But they keep getting pulled back into the theatre scenario, and ultimately their ideals elude them. Partly because everyone around them has something to say, partly because they themselves are full of fears and expectations that get in the way ('praying please, love, you ought not!'), and partly because of the looming threat of death, and forces beyond their control (the gibbering wave).

    There is so much in this song, but I think mostly it's about someone being conflicted within themself with regard to their ideals, and their inability to fully realise them.
    meudwenon July 10, 2008   Link
  • +1
    My InterpretationI wanted to say: why the long face?
    sparrow, perch and play songs of long face
    burro, buck and bray songs of long face!
    sing: I will swallow your sadness and eat your cold clay
    just to lift your long face

    and though it may be madness, I will take to the grave
    your precious longface
    and though our bones they may break, and our souls separate
    - why the long face?
    and though our bodies recoil from the grip of the soil
    - why the long face?

    I feel like in this part, Joanna is talking about someone close to her who died unhappy (hence the "long face"). She wishes she could bring them back to life, by eating the "cold clay" they're buried under, just to make them feel better.

    I've read that one of her best friends passed away while she was on tour. Apparently, Cosmia is about them, and as all of the lyrics on Ys are connected in one way or another, maybe this is another connection.
    elliesaysmeowon October 07, 2011   Link
  • +1
    Lyric CorrectionTo me, the song seems to be told from the point of view of a sailor and also his wife/significant other that waits for him. Most of the song seems to be told from the point of view of the wife, up until the lyrics “in the trough of the waves which are pawing like dogs.” As I see it, the sailor left on a voyage and never returned. Throughout life we all have moments like the sailor's wife where we contemplate eternity and a possible afterlife.

    The song starts out with someone seemingly philosophizing about eternity- I believe this is the wife, she asks if her lover will wait for her at the door to eternity so to speak. There is no mention of setting for most of the work, this adds a dream-like quality to the piece. The bell symbolizes the memory of the loved ones that left us, thus when the bell is dropped from the “top of the wide, white stairs” it falls forever and echoes not just throughout our remaining days, but forever as it passes from generation to generation.

    After the death of a loved one we're left with memories, and like a bell falling down a staircase they never fade from our lives completely. But if someone leaves on a ship and is lost in a storm many times they are never seen or heard from again, this was especially true a hundred years ago or more. Their family and friends would be left wondering whether their loved one's ship crashed in a foreign land and they didn't have a way back, if they are slowly dying on a deserted island, or if they died before anyone even realized that something went wrong. The memory of the sailor is muted by the waves, by the possibility that they aren't gone forever. Not to say that the memory of them is forgotten, because it would still be there despite the lack of closure, but the most powerful feeling associated with the sailor would be the hope that they're still alive somewhere out there.

    The sailor's wife was so deep in thought, and grief, at the start of the poem that she was in a listless, trance-like state as she fell asleep. “The moment I slept I was swept up in a terrible tremor, though no longer bereft, how I shook, and I couldn't remember.” From these lines I gather that she began to dream, and all of the lines up until “in the trough of the waves which are pawing like dogs” are taken from her dream. The dream itself is made up of fractionated memories that have been filled with new symbolic meaning. The point of view seems to shift to the sailor aboard his vessel with the line “In the trough of the waves which are pawing like dogs,” but this could have been the wife dreaming of the sailor's fate.
    Memento22Morion June 22, 2012   Link
  • 0
    General Commentyeah, that is what this is about. this is my second favourite song, behind clam, crab, cockle, cowrie.

    i think this one is tied with emily. i'm hoping for a studio version of this and emily on the upcoming album
    aminaon July 19, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General Commenti love this song. love love love love it.
    HyperGlitteron September 09, 2006   Link

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