This presentation will include creative-critical writing, poetry, and prompts for writing via oceanic listening (either together in the space, or after the session). We’ll spend time on a bridge between performance-as-sacrifice in everyday (social, artistic, and institutional) poetics and listening-as-vibration (hearing, feeling, and resonating with the world that exists here on earth, under the sea, and in outer space) in ways that are spiritually and materially attuned. The bridge seems to oscillate, making any crossing precarious, and poet-philosopher Will Alexander plays with the weather controls and seismic regulators as we traverse. Thinking about the conceptualization of sound as color, I’d like to ask Will (through his poetics) about the curious analogies between hearing what no one else hears and the receiving of secret messages and transcendent knowledge; about the highly sensitive person who hears as themselves heard differently according to their racialization, spiritual orientation, and technical expertise. Counter to exclusionary beliefs that only the initiated can hear, I’d like to try sounding out the bridge together and playfully-ragefully stretching our collective ears.
After writing a sequence of poems in which I imagined “crossing the rackety bridge” alongside Alice Coltrane, I decided to keep walking and to compose a series of speculative soundwalks. This decision was made in March 2020, in the context of a global pandemic and lockdown in the UK, and frequent admonitions to stay in to keep others safe. If I couldn’t walk outside, I could walk in poetry, in which case, why stick to pavements, paths, fields, and coasts—why not walk through spirals, caves, divine ears, wormholes, vasculature? I didn’t realise at the time, but the lockdown enabled me to sidestep the usual issues of walking as a body, in particular as a racialised and gendered body in the city or the countryside. To some extent, in these speculative soundwalks I leave my body behind. But—lockdown or not—many people cannot sidestep these issues and are denied the option of leaving their bodies behind. Walking as a racialised and gendered body is a matter of life and death for many people, as Black Lives Matter makes explicit, as sex workers resisting the so-called “Walking While Trans” ban in New York make explicit. In her talk on “Militant Care: Limits and Horizons,” broadcast live on YouTube in May 2020, Hannah Black outlines a vision of utopia that is “a movement for homes,” centred around the question: “how are we going to make the world a home?” Black modifies: how are we going to make the world “a home that’s a safer place for wandering”?1“The Forum // Hannah Black on Militant Care: Limits and Horizons,” YouTube video, 1:11:30 [~35:00], “TheLabSF,” May 3, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbL_Pyg1ynQ She references Marge Piercy’s feminist sci-fi novel Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), which depicts a future free from racism, patriarchy, and violence, to the bewilderment of its protagonist Connie: “She imagined herself taking a walk at night under the stars. She imagined herself ambling down a country road and feeling only mild curiosity when she saw three men coming toward her.”2 Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (Robbinsdale: Fawcett, 1976). In “Dichtung und Science Fiction” (1982), Samuel R. Delany analyses how a small detail in a novel—such as the ability to take a relaxing walk at night—can signify the social and materialist relations of its world: a feminist utopia.3 Samuel R. Delany, Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2012), 166–167.
The Divine Ear must be dissolved. Divinity is… the ponderability that compounds the inequitable and measures out breath in disposable cups. Divinity is… the missionary’s boot, the microbial symphony on the soles of his boot. Divinity is… all those lifeforms without eyes and mouths that comb and branch inconceivable.
like, we really feel whales because we can hear them, because we can imitate their song and think them mimics, we want to save them they help us focus and sleep
we want to save them they prosecute whiteness surfacing smile, like
whale mouth berthing
upon ear sea
brought to waxy
pasture endures ‘chemical
inner incinerator screeves
or, spirals disrupted, a heap of eyelashes on the pavement, crushed shells, is the family drama and these somatised drawings and sound maps, is how I tried to describe it
R quoted Joyce’s “strandentwining cable of all flesh” in a chat about navel-gazing as contemplation of the celestial placenta into which we’re all plugged
around the same time we walked around time,
. time’s pass
we walked to Ladywell and back giving way to dogs enjoying the patter-bounce-echo of paws on the spiral bridge, like
TEACHER: You may begin.
SOME MISSIONARY: Why not then worship my boot?
TANTRIC METAPHYSICIST: Boot is body. Body is boat. Why not then sail through bliss; why not then tune your body to the interruptions swimming below, the disruptions blowing above? You pave paradise and walk ungrounded.
SOME MISSIONARY: Why not then worship my boot?
TANTRIC METAPHYSICIST: Sound is deathless; the gramophone of the universe is never at rest. Science must invoke the analemmic swan!
SOME MISSIONARY: Why not then worship my boot?
TANTRIC METAPHYSICIST: …
TEACHER (off-stage, from above): Two hours and twenty lightyears later, the Tantric Metaphysicist is still alive and swimming strongly. Sharks attracted by the smell of fresh blood flowering in water gather round. The exam was over.
Stop just before the entrance, the sheet of running water or loamy smell. This is the last sunlit station; the rest is groove. The architecture of the cave helps people and animals sync up with space-time as well as with each other, like the internet shapes our built and social environments and is shaped by them. The finest paintings are far from the entrance, but no one controls the buzzer, you can call your way in. Call then; utter any silent sound or informational noise, the cave will respond. A little away, a little away; come close, come close. You can trust this voice, can you? You can hear your way to belief, the deeper you move in its stuff. Brush fingers, sticks, and bones against stalactites, compare the effects to xylophones or soundbars or whatever feels right to your sonic context. Stamp your muddy handprints on the walls, ceding your subjectivity to speleothem. Feel your way into millions of years of drip, flow, gush—never dry, never still—even if you cannot perceive the wetness and movement with your fingers, ears, nose—you can, you can. A shimmering carpet of crystals; an assemblage of golden eagles, porcelain skulls, bio-glitter, bhindi glue, lip melt, flute, fur. Every sound in the history of space-time still resounds; every sound ever made leaves a scratch in the field; the field is the recording, every sound ever made reproducible. The air swathes warmer here, breath ripples further than you intended to go or thought possible. Maybe you’ll ignite a torch to signal reciprocity; maybe you’ll awake surrounded by bear scratches, horses, birdcages, shapeshifters, or by bears, artists, ceremonies, spirits. Will you dance, will you boggle, will you enter another kind of sleep? Here you are folded in; you cannot see or be seen, you are out of the state’s earshot, beyond cannons and espionage. Here you can sleep for millions of years; borne by your secrets which will never be mined. You are the matter in which splendour is hidden; you are the sculptor who shrouds their work.
CHILD (holding a stick): How many worlds may be seen in the desert?
ARTHUR AVALON: Let us suppose, he said (holding forth), that man’s body is a vessel filled with oil which is the passions.
CHILD: If centres proliferate, what formula shows the blizzard’s role in the poetics of relation?
ARTHUR AVALON: If you simply empty it and do nothing more, fresh oil will take its place issuing from the Source of Desire which you have left undestroyed.
CHILD: If the beach is burning, what of the adulterous woman’s name?
ARTHUR AVALON: If, however, into the vessel there is dropped by slow degrees the Water of Knowledge (Jñana), it will, as being behaviour than oil, descend to the bottom of the vessel and will then expel an equal quantity of oil.
CHILD: Who confers innocence to the potting mix homunculus, to repossess its shit?
ARTHUR AVALON: In this way all the oil of passion is gradually expelled and no more can re-enter, for the water of Jñana will then have wholly taken its place.
CHILD: What is so unabolishable about hierarchy, confinement, destitution, death?
ARTHUR AVALON: As the Latins said, “If you attempt to expel nature with a pitchfork it will come back again.”
CHILD: What if there’s no more nature, either because it’s over or because everything is?
What do you hear that no one else hears? What points do you perceive amidst the wash of colour, and what colours lose saturation the longer you look? In the next scene, the figure, who comes between us to hold space for grammar, walks to the coast. One of us says, gaze split between the view and the other’s reaction to the view:
At length our walk was ended. The increasing height and boldness of the hills had for some time intercepted the prospect; but, on gaining the summit of a steep acclivity, and looking downward, an opening lay before us—and the blue sea burst upon our sight!—deep violet blue—not deadly calm, but covered with glinting breakers—diminutive white specks twinkling on its bosom, and scarcely to be distinguished, by the keenest vision, from the little seamews that sported above, their white wings glittering in the sunshine: only one or two vessels were visible, and those were far away.4 Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1920), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/969/969-h/969-h.htm#chap07
What do you feel is missing in this depiction? For instance, what are you holding in your hands, what happens to your balance when you glance down at your hands? Does the scene emit any particular smells from within the frame—the air, the birds’ prey below—or outside—the road, her oil paints, a roll-up. When you draw your attention to the one or two vessels on the horizon, can you discern what language the mariners speak in your rendering of the scene? Or, if the wind and the waves are too loud, maybe the only information you can go by is the colour of their skin, which also sounds, the way that some things produce noise inaudibly, are read impassively. Do you picture the scene as taking place somewhere far from where you are now, or from where you grew up? If you’re familiar with Anne Brontë’s rapturous presentations of the sea, you might be thinking about Scarborough; perhaps the north of England is very like or very unlike the place you call home, by degrees of latitude and longitude, history, composition, spirit.
. The figure between us opens the “The Scale of the Universe 2” app on their phone and turns on the torch at the same time, creating a stereographic projection of everything, or, of everything included by the app’s developers Cary and Michael Huang and of anything illuminable by the torch of your mind’s eye. The figure folds an origami swan in three-dimensional space using hypercube paper and invites us to shine our four-dimensional torch on the sphere5 “4D Monkey Dust,” YouTube Video, 11:29, “Numberphile,” June 15, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhuaPhahHbU&t=500s . Their face and voice flickers into specificity and Swami Pratyagatmananda speaks:
[A] particle is not merely impelled by external or intrinsic “strings” or stresses but dances to the tune of a hidden chord in it which thrills, may be subconsciously, in the joy and pathos of love and yearning, craving and communion. To this Science cannot shrug her shoulders too long. If the ground is not firm to-day under her feet between her laboratory and the orchestra “hall” where the psalm of the heavens as well as of the meanest particle is “silently” sung, she will do well to hold her soul in patience and attend more closely to the “insolubles” of her laboratory solutions as they stir for an inside expression, and to the “inequities” of her academic equations as they strain for a deeper equitable reduction. Possibly sooner than later she will have to change her old charts and guides. She will have to dismiss the rocket for instance and invoke perhaps the “swimming” Swan. The rocket bursts and blasts; the Swan beckons and inspires and enlightens.6 Swami Pratyagatmananda, Japasutram: The Science of Creative Sound (Madras: Ganesh & Co., 1961), 29.
Swaying on the cliff’s edge, we become aware of an equation connecting the oceanic feeling with the analemmic swan, the silent songs of its variables weaving a force field to keep us safe if not steady. The music holds us in place on the edge, blocking our ears to other sounds, the sonic controls automatically levelling social dissonance—cows, people playing music further along the coast, bugs, the electromagnetic field—and I wonder if it is possible to conceive of a oneness that is not noise-cancelling.7 Mack Hagood, Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).
. Wherever you are, what gives you away more—how you look or how you sound; what lets you blend in or hide the better—silence or covering up? I want to stand next to you without differentiating myself from you or our surroundings; I’m afraid to talk to you if it means words issuing like toothpicks and extending like bargepoles, keeping us apart the more I try to predict or explain. How do you feel about dissolution? The figure sets up a table of equipment to enable us to zoom in and out exponentially, objects that ground the scene and instruments that break its frame: 3D glasses, mood rings, an extremely large telescope, bacteria quorum sensors, subspace radio, tarot cards, a particle accelerator, CGI software, Romulan ale, floating obelisks, dark matter truffle hogs, a hydrophone. When noise surrounds you, does the space expand or contract, do points destine or multiply? Where on your ego-body are you most touchable, where does skin melt into carillon, or cut glide to putrefy, i.e., join the positive infection of the common-uncommon voice singing out of doors? Where, if anywhere, do you let it, let it come, assail differentiability; who will you swim with and in, how do your strokes sound in this snail-purple sea?
. These notes on perceptions of colour as noise follow Samuel Delany in rejecting the hypothesis of linguistic relativity that says we can’t imagine or understand things for which we don’t have words; as Delany argues:
What’s wrong with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that it fails to take into account the whole economy of discourse, which is a linguistic level that accomplishes lots of the soft-edge conceptual contouring around ideas, whether we have available a one- or two-word name for it or only a set of informal many-word descriptions that are not completely fixed.… Discourse is a pretty forceful process, perhaps the most forceful of the superstructural processes available. It’s what generates the values and suggestions around a concept, even if the concept has no name, or hasn’t the name it will eventually have. It determines the way a concept is used and the ways that are considered mistaken. The following may be a bit too glib, but I think it’s reasonable to say that if language is what allows us to think things, then discourse is what controls the way we think about things. And the second—discourse—has primacy.8 Samuel Delany, Occasional Views, Volume 2: “The Gamble” and Other Essays (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2021), 119–120.
A dangerous ramification of this hypothesis, I think, is that complexity of thought becomes bound to capacity for language, when both epistemological complexity and linguistic capacity are already bound to lethal discourses of life and death, value and deprivation, subjecthood and commodification/expendability, via coinciding discourses of race, gender, class, and caste. I’m troubled by language, pulled between the obligation to say and not to say, the pleasure of saying and not saying, devoted to that trouble. What happens when complexity of thought is bound to incapacity for language, for bad English, worse puns, cringey rhymes, and silly noises; or when thinking verbally meets and is diffracted by music, or when desire takes the form of a sacred syllable, or when the syllable enters the atmosphere and cracks to effect law despite its sacred heart remaining unchanged, unproven to many listeners, though sonically real.
. Real? The figure’s eyebrows raise. I remark that in these discussions of reality, recognisability, self-awareness, and speculation, John Dee’s name has come up more than once. You recall reading about him in relation to Mary Queen of Scots and finding out that he recorded a dream about a “tall black man” chopping off a white woman’s hands. Were Egyptian and Ethiopian texts found in his library, mentioned in his diary? Was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine? The everyday desolation of the Dominion War induces a psychotic break in Captain Benjamin Sisko and he wakes up in twentieth-century New York City. Coming from the post-scarcity, post-racial capitalism of twenty-fourth-century Earth, Sisko’s encounter with a racist society and painful experiences of racism indicate his break with reality, according to the logic of the show. Racism is unreal in the future, and those who point it out are hallucinating, in a utopia created and produced by white men, in the mirror that pimples to meet your finger, the mercurial ocean that opens at your touch. What we heard as background noise all this time was tusky portals. The figure, who has been expanding and collapsing space all this time, standing in for grammar, i.e., for the finite arrangements of tarot, the repetition with ripples of drone, and the infinite collisions of relation, assumes the form of Jackie Wang:
[Though] oceanic experiences may be an involuntary mystical experiences, it might be possible
to induce (or cultivated) oceanic experiences through meditation, rhythmic breathing, psychedelic drugs, participating in a riot, fasting, sleep-deprivation, tantric sex, BDSM play, chanting, emotional pain and grief, physical pain, exercise, prayer, music, experiences of collective euphoria and any number of other activities that push one to a threshold state of consciousness.9 Jackie Wang, p. 31.
She’s telling us to drop, you say, wrapping the hydrophone around your ankle as a makeshift bungee rope; a shapeshift monkey rope, I echo. We drop.
shhh – – – intermedial
song – a little little light to none
to none “donate voice”
go down – shhh “to voice
dunked poet’s lullaby
like sugar in watercolour
the descent pockmarked with caves, caves papered
closed to feel “interaction
of energy lines”
wetly amass to taste without touching:
ballum rancum ooh-ooh-ooze
“spirit estate is the space”
pliés & splats of microtubes
“spirit estate is the space”
radioledance across latitudes
“spirit estate is the space”
who says it’s me! down the line and hears it’s you
who says “call me tantra” – hears write this bridge
this bridge called roseability
pecking coral to build
“vibratory fields of webcams”
to grit in unison
multidimensional sirens sound
from the past”
how to redo
DO! to dissolve the keys
ask not faint rays of sun
on what is predicated
your sunken eyes
your “promised land”
ask athwart of flatness
“sound being given, thing evolved”
a glimpse of what we’ve left behind:
submerge papers in
pseudokin “rubs out”
following haemolink elimination, tree
brought down, Mulder
& Skully uncover
the fungous catacombs
of life’s birth
l i d l e s s
l e s s n e s s
n e s s l i d
some ears are
a glimpse of what will be:
housecats on the windowsill
. “quack”ing at parakeets
. in the silver fir parrotfish
. knit intestinal rainbows
“consciousness without memory”: the perpetual mantra
hrīṁ strīṁ huṁ phaṭ ||
wildfire shuttering up and down
your sevenfold spine: now! now! now! now! now! now! now! &c.
some ears are ears of the “world prison”
some hear membraneously
to fly through these jammy clouds of pan-studying
we fly “building in improvisatory asides”
to admit the artifice of foresight
buoyant skull escape pod
the particular correlates with all other
particulars in the universe, a scallop’s
bubble-the sonospheric foam, a clack-
“the straight edge of the cloud” unless
if name and form fuse, signs
proving things for things,
stirring them into sensibility
as one can’t lie to a telepath
how precisely we’d sound
how sound would consummate
. triggering virtualities”
sound says: “the lesson that sticks” is the easiest to forget
let each souvenir retune you in a flash, let each flash pale
. to inquire
of knowledge exchange
. in footnotes
. bungee back:
a body since two bearings, frozen in a warm room, yields to your lines
“signs are always triadic”
. something which substitutes
. something for something
shapes oscillate to release this sacrificial logic
making a swarm of its perpetual motion clink
~ gain weight in petals ~
~ revolt sunbeams bridge ~
~ feather the balance ~
~ ~ ~ wave with all your brains ~ ~ ~
say that you are here
your feelings over there
to “navigate through
you might establish
an observatory of licks
flang sibling moons
eggs moult in space
shmooshy, from a time before survival,
. it’s still playing out here
. unfolding jellyrolls
. flux stars with wet noses
your feelings respond well to noodles
worming against ideas
“legal language that compels” – magically
to cast horizons
take the algal superhighway
city elbows waterline
a try where you expect a cloud
loop back from duration
NISHA RAMAYYA grew up in Glasgow and now lives in London. Her poetry collection States of the Body Produced by Love (2019) is published by Ignota Books. Recent poems and essays can be found online in CCA Annex, JUF, and Spam Zine; and in print in Wasafiri and Magma. She teaches Creative Writing at Queen Mary University of London.