Sea Change: Sound as Force in e.e. cummings, Plath, and Tim Jones-Yelvington

by on Jul.31, 2013

Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning


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.

tim jones-yelvington

“TimTin” (Tim Jones-Yelvington)


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:

ee cummings:

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.

11 comments for this entry:
  1. David Applegate

    Yes, sound can be violent / violence but Tim’s song is disco. I’m thinking especially of Tan Lin’s essay “Disco as operating system,” where he writes:

    “Disco provides impetus for new modes of being and nonbeing involved in the writing and in particular the nonwriting of poetry and art, where lyricism, subjectivity, and personal expressiveness might be reduced to blips in an ambient sound track, where historical markers (of cultural products)
    could be erased, and where nonreading, relaxation, and boredom could be the essential components of a text. Poetry—and here one means all forms of cultural production—should aspire not to the condition of the book but to the condition of variable moods, like relaxation and yoga and disco. The poems (of our era) (are designed to disappear, (and disappear) continually into the stylistic devices that have been sampled and diluted from the merely temporal language) (i.e., duration, historical or otherwise) of the day. As such they might resemble a pattern uninteresting and enervating in its depths but relaxing on its surface.”

    So Joyelle’s poem disappears into Tim’s disco where it relaxes and bores us, becomes a variable mood. The disco backing track deletes the political / historical content.

    Also consider Lin’s idea of disco as a software which automates the human body. Rather than infection, plague, tumor, etc. this collaborative project seems an instance of coding, the creation of a program meant to run on the human-hardware. To mutate Duchamp: “It’s merely a way of succeeding in no longer thinking that the thing in question is a poem.”

    I hope to hear more projects like this soon.

  2. Johannes

    I see what you’re saying David, but my immediate reaction is that Tan Lin’s idea of both Disco and atmosphere is reductive. In a lot of discussion of atmosphere, it’s seen as boring, background, Satie-esque, but for me atmosphere can be highly charged, violent. Think of David Lynch for example who makes incredibly atmospheric movies, where the violent atmosphere in fact pushes the plot/story to the periphery – it ruins the whole mechanism of foreground/background. I’ve written a post about this and I think I’ll post it on the Poetry Foundation web site next week. Also, Joyelle’s and Tim’s project to me doesn’t seem boring at all but – like Tim’s entire performance – very fierce. But I love the idea of coding. I’d like to hear more about this. I know Joyelle’s been writing about this, as it pertains to Bradley Manning so perhaps she has some ideas./ Johannes

  3. David Applegate

    Just to clarify, I think “boredom” here starts becoming something other… It’s the most stimulating boredom, Tan Lin can’t stop writing about boredom. It sometimes seems like boredom is the only subject position he believes possible. Boredom becomes quite malleable and variable… The convention of disco, the four-on-the-floor beat, etc. has the same kind of malleability; Tim’s performance is the variable this time. But the vocal performance is inseparable from the disco form. It never disrupts the disco form. Disco co-opts and erases Joyelle’s poem. I think it’s amazing. The atmosphere of disco certainly erases the foreground / background distinction and has a charge, its the charge of erasure, and that is a kind of violence. But it’s the boring violence of an academic misreading a text, not the violence which “hurts.”

  4. Joyelle McSweeney

    Another word that might be put on the table is ‘damage’. There’s a kind of fluid field of damage where the poem also damages the disco form (to use that phrase for now, provisionally) has to repeat or reshape the poem, almost to ‘heal’ back over the poem by repeating, or maybe there’s something in the ‘noise’ of disco that’s also like scar tissue… epithelial overgrowth… an over-response that’s not producing anything ‘useful’ anymore…

  5. Johannes

    David and Joyelle, both very interesting comments. Much to think about. / Johannes

  6. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    Sorry, but to me the the idea of diso as boredom comes comes from some kinna derisive “all pop music is banal” type critical space (and maybe also some weird blurring of the important distinction btwn different kinds of dance and electronic music? relaxing ambient blips does not describe disco, to me) that completely misses the way (good) dance music functions which is all abt different kinds of community and communion, syncope, release — it’s got more in common with gospel and taking shit to church, more an ecstatic purge than relaxation. …That said I agree the text gets overwhelmed by the production with this piece, which Im struggling with a little bit because one of the aims of this project (I’m hoping to do more of these) was to figure out how to more literally transform text into drag performance by turning the text pieces into something that can be performed outside of a literrary setting for non literary nightlife audiences, with the goal of getting them to pay attention to and care abt text. …But would you call something like TALES OF TABOO by Karen Finely (one of my inspirations with this project) relaxing ambient disco?? that shit’s aggrssive as fuck.

  7. Johannes

    I think David is getting at a kind of ambience that can be quite powerful. I posted an article on Poetry Foundation that talks about a violent ambience, ambient violence. Mostly ambience is jsut associated with the mellowness of ambient music, but it has – for me at least – more about an immersive aesthetic that replaces inside/outside, communication, interiority etc with something more volatile and fascinating. Though “boredom” is kind of hard to get one’s head around, I think it can work atmospherically. /Johannes

  8. David Applegate

    Maybe we should follow Tan Lin and replace “disco form” with “disco sound,” which is “a more ambient search parameter.” —

    Tim: I understand what you’re saying but it doesn’t matter how aggressive dance music gets, even if it’s 300 b.p.m. splatter-core riddled with machine-gun samples. Tan Lin again: “No one really listens to disco, not even the listener; it is passively absorbed by a brain connected to a dancing body.” Dance music creates an ambience, a system into which the community you mention is absorbed. The point is disco’s ambience will always overwhelm poetry… a text (“personal expressiveness”) amidst dance-beats will always “be reduced to blips in an ambient sound track.” That doesn’t mean some kid isn’t getting his head smashed in a mosh pit, it means a certain kind of automation has taken hold and made it impossible to be interested in the text; “boredom.”

    If you (or anyone here) is interested in the Lin essay I’d be happy to send it along.

  9. Johannes

    I want a copy too!Thanks David. Johannes

  10. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    Perhaps it’s just a strange use of the word boredom to me — I interpret “bored” as “disengaged” — passive absorption strikes me as deep engagement, an overpowering forfeiture of coherent subjectivity in sound. Poetry overwhelmed by ambience, experiencing text through the body rather than an intellectualized critically distanced space that seeks to make meaning — those all sound like things I can jive with, it just feels weird to call them “boring.”

    I do want to read the essay. — I started reading it and was mostly still in the early parts that were much more focused on the destabilizing of the “medium” through disco’s system of production, not so much abt the ‘boredom’ piece (unless I was reading the wrong essay). My first thought was that the reader/listener’s experience of art, disco as a system of production, and the material social and cultural history of disco all seem like very distinct if interrelated domains with very different languages and assumptions, and it seems potentially problematic to collapse them.

    …I just keep thinking abt the old school house heads I’m friends with in Chicago… I feel like if you told them the sounds they identify with have been theorized through as boredom, they’d be like, the fuck??? But I also don’t want to come across as anti-intellectual by any means.

  11. Joyelle McSweeney

    I like the damaged, overhelmed, and then superseded nature of dance music– it overwhelms me but then turns me into something else. And I’m talking about actual disco (Turn the beat around! You make me feel mighty real! To be real!) as well as trip hop and other dancey genres. So I guess boredom isn’t a keyword for me in its various cultural valences though I recognize Tan Lin is setting out to redefine/detourn the world.