by Joyelle McSweeney on Jul.31, 2013
1. Tim Jones-Yelvington and I built a battle-wagon made of sound. It is made of both of our words, Tim’s lungs, trachea, and soft -palate, Tim’s sense of sound as glamorous decor and still more glamorous weaponry, my interest in the vulnerability of Irish epic heroes, my rage and grief for Bradley Manning, my rage at the US governments many crimes and alibis. This is what it sounds like.
2. This amazing invention made me think more about what Sound is, the force of Sound, what force it may be said to have. I am interested in the mess and muck of sound, its glamorous necro-force, the way it forces itself like the sea that changes through the aperture of the human body and into the soft tissue of the human brain. I see this muck and murk as a not-quite rational fabric, propagating its waves through us, forcing upon us its own occult connections , ie assonance, rhythm, rhyme, hijacking the brain from its finer work of manufacturing such high-grade Cartesian products as self-hood and thought and forcing it instead to go ‘ding-dong’. Sound is violence. It causes its own seachange.
3. Outside realism, rationality, exposition, or depiction, there is something that cannot be named or paraphrased, there is something else. We might provisonally call it Death, or, the Real. Black, flexing, occult, fatal, seductive, violent, forceful, demonic, oozy, performed, as in Shakespeare’s plays, not in soliloquoy but multivocally before dream corpses and trick caskets, capable of forcing change, forcing the future to arrive: this is what sound is to me, and this is why I make my body and my writing a medium for sound. We don’t need to look back to Shakespeare to find these occult wriggling and bizzarre moments, moments which at once calls the nerves and brainstem to attention and demote the higher seats of logical thought:
Jimmie’s got a goil
Jimmys got a goil and
she coitinly can shimmie
when you see her shake
when you see her shake a
shimmie how you wish that you was jimmie.
I first (and last) read this poem about 25 years ago in middle school and it has stayed with me, intact, for its bumpy burlesque music, its twisting motion. Jimmy’s goil’s shimmy invades the whole poem, making the poem perform dangerous whip curves and moebius strips and turning continuously perverting the sounds of language—goil to a gutteral ‘gurl’ to by gulpled in the lusty gutter, that ‘i’ gets its own syllable, like foil, a glittery luster. The poem is a gesture and a garment with no body underneath. But it leads us to unclean thoughts—the poet’s thoughts: thoughts of leaving the self, for I to be an other—and finally to fatal thoughts:
talk about your Sal-
talk about your Salo
-mes but gimmie Jimmie’s gal.
Here, although Jimmie’s gal is preferred at the end and Salome supposedly rejected, Salome can’t be divorced from the goil; once she enters the poem, her steps are matched to the goil’s; Sal Sal Sal. Salome stands for sin, for murder and betrayal, as does, after all, Jimmie’s gal. The twirling shape of the poem now resembles Salome’s veils, thrown off to show the allure, not of a conventional human body, but of fatality and crime underneath. But there is no Salome without her veils; it is her veils, and not her body, that hold allure; the shimmie is the goil; sound in this poem is the shimmie’s fatal (and only!) body.
This poem with its gladsome gal-salome, its wriggly salamandinre form and its blackly occult engine recalls another infamously catchy poem, Plath’s Lady Lazarus. In this poem, the body is a garment—‘the clothes the grave cave ate’—and that garment is made of sound. This Ariel-minded poet first recounts one of her many deaths, one of her many sea-changes, in the language of Ariel’s song: “I rocked shut/As a seashell./ They had to call and call/And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls”. After this alarming claim the poem takes on its ding-dong Seussy swiftness:
Dying/ Is an art,/ like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real./I guess you could say I’ve a call./It’s easy enough to do it in a cell. It’s easy enough to do it and stay put./It’s the theatrical/Comeback in broad day/To the same place, the same face/ the same brute/Amused shout: ‘A miracle!’ That knocks me out. –
These brief lines move like a rickety Coney- Island rollercoaster chuffing us off to the Sublime. As with cumming’s poem, assonantal distortions provide the glamorous vertiginousness. We begin with ‘el’ but that ‘el’ becomes sprained: “else”, “well”, “hell”, “real”. The long ‘e’ of ‘real’ takes longer in the mouth and represents that little hop before the rhymes start blinkering out, returning, going hectic and haywire: real to ‘call’, call to ‘cell’, ‘cell to ‘theatrical’, and, after a long wait, ‘A miracle’. The ‘c’s (the sea’s!) soften and harden, close and open around a vowel that changes shape like a tiny breathing mouth. There is something uncanny in that undead, mewling vowel and its little valve of opening ‘c’ and ‘l’ sounds. That something is the punctum, the wound, the magnet, the death drive, the ‘knockout in broad daylight’ which we all should love and ‘beware’. The poem’s speedy virtuosic tercets are its shimmie, its brief body, its fatal veils with nothing as safe as a body underneath: “ I am your opus/I am your valuable/the pure gold baby/that melts to a shriek.”
4. Sound’s effects, sound’s stupid and contagious ‘ding dongs’ are not poetry’s decorations, a matter of dry tradition or technique, or, god forbid, something that must ‘follow’ sense or ‘serve’ the poem in any way. Sound is ART, breaking through the conventions of the poem as commodity, as polite and sanitized exchange, revolting the poem, shimmiing, it, sea changing it, making it spill its black unparaphrasable guts and rework the poem as a black site where the individual-serving-size self with its rationalized self-image doesn’t actually want to go. Sound may seem to give a poem unity but it is also the place where something non-rational, even inhuman takes over the poem, a compulsion, a forcefulness as ready to shake it to death or flip it into the afterlife as stroke it to sleep with dulcet, sinister tones. It would be a mistake, however, to associate Sound’s irrationality, it’s nonsense power with the a-political. For Sound’s irrational force, its appetites, its drives, its greed, its bloodthirstiness, its pratfalls and its violence are politics itself. In an introduction to his 1926 volume is 5, e.e. cummings wrote,
At least my theory of technique, if I have one, is very far from original; nor is it complicated. I can express it in fifteen words, by quoting The Eternal Question And Immortal Answer of burlesk, viz.”Would you hit a woman with a child? – No, I’d hit her with a brick.” Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.
Sound’s burlesk action, its precision, is violent; it is violence; it moves through real bodies, touching them all. It calls and responds. It carries with it all the hilarious energy of hitting a pregnant woman, hitting a woman with a brick. Rather than removing us from the exquisite composition of the Shakesperean play, from the political anhendonia of this anthropocenic, teratogenic moment, Sound is the occult black force running through, over, and across all the seemingly sane bodies of the stage or state. Sound amplifies what nice society tries to hide. Sound is hilarity, it is desire, it is revulsion, it is pettiness, lust, vanity, even ill-conceived expenditure and generosity; Sound is Violence’s motion, its machine and its garment, its contact and its diminition, its ‘reply all’ and ‘delete all’, as it saturates the troposphere with its fatal force, its rich, strange toxins, its unbearable climates, its sea-change.