Welcome to Blessing All the Birds, a feminist fan project focused on the work of songwriter Joanna Newsom. We see Newsom's work as feminist literature and our goal is to provide it the serious critical analysis it deserves, as well as to discuss her unique place in popular culture.
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[CONTENT WARNING: ABUSE, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, RAPE, SUICIDE]

I have been having thoughts about the refrain of “sooner or later, you’ll bare your teeth” in “Monkey & Bear” for quite some time now. I wrote an early draft of this mini-essay on my iPhone while on a disastrously long subway ride to Queens a month ago and it’s taken me this long to actually set it down officially.

As mentioned previously on this blog, “Monkey & Bear” is probably my least favorite from Ys musically and aesthetically, but its lyrics have always been a treasure trove for feminist analysis. Some of what I will talk about below responds in part to Rachel’s most wonderful essay on Bear, clothing, and performative femininity

At a literal level, the refrain refers to Bear and her (in)ability to eat because of Monkey’s abuse. Monkey is controlling her food consumption as a way to fetter her and exploit her. He explicitly begins their “liberation” from the farm with fear-mongering about eating (“But, Ursala, we’ve got to eat something/ And earn our keep, while still within/ The borders of the land that man has girded”).

But the refrain also bespeaks of Monkey’s fear of Bear and the revenge she may take against him. Monkey knows she is fierce and ultimately capable of violence. And that is always the fear from the abusers that be: what happens when women take revenge after the kyriarchy has controlled their bodies and freedoms for so long? What happens when there is a violent reversal? The common tactic of abusers and the kyriarchy alike is to try to squelch any ability to externally fight back. Monkey attempts to do so through emotional and physical manipulation, always making his promises seem simultaneously attainable and unattainable (“Oh, the hills are groaning with excess/ Like a table ceaselessly being set/ Oh my darling, we will get there yet…Your feast is to the East, which lies a little past the pasture”). He promises that he loves her and that she will eat once he feels she has earned that love enough through bodily coercion.

But once Bear finds a way to control her own consumption, it becomes clear that she internalizes, rather than externalizes, the violence she is capable of. Her act of simultaneous violence and liberation is the shedding of her body as she uses it to have her fill of food. She rids herself of her old identity after she obtains what she most desired as Bear, what she most desired when Monkey abused her. For Bear, it is an independent act to reclaim control of her body, but is it too much for her to do it through literal and physical revenge against Monkey? Just as Monkey enforced femininity upon her, her death itself is hyper-feminine. It is one of internalized violence, it is one of excess, food, and luxury (“Fell off, as easy as if sloughed from boiled tomatoes…Now her coat drags through the water/ Bagging, with a life’s-worth of hunger, limitless minnows”). But, of course, Monkey feared all along that she would wreck masculinized violence against him. 

As the song ends, the refrain repeats, although slightly changed (“sooner or later, you’ll bury your teeth”). We recall Monkey’s promise and ostensibly, if we are not listening closely enough, we believe Monkey’s promise is fulfilled. But the lyrical alteration manifests what Monkey’s refrain meant and portended all along: her doom. The “baring/burying” conflation represents the constant tension between the liberation and the eradication of self for female bodies after abuse, which I have been thinking a lot about in terms of Lucretia, the Roman matron who after her rape commits suicide, consciously asserting it as an act of liberation, submission, and elimination. 

Nevertheless, we must remember that Bear (and Lucretia), despite her limited circumstances and fate and gendered expectations, defined the terms of her first and final “baring/burying,” even if we would have wished for a different fate, for a different victim of violence than Bear. 

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