Sounding Out the House: Thinking Sound and Sight in Poetry

by Elliot C. Mason

After I first heard Ilya Kaminsky reading the poems from his new collection, Deaf Republic (2019), I read the book over and over. As I did, I suffered some kind of visual freeze. I could simply hear the poems, which, paradoxically, are about deafness. The visual was waved away like annoying heat. I opened my ears in a stuffy basement as he read. I was working at a school and, in the daytimes, I would close my eyes and listen. Of course, I became a useless teacher, and got a few bruises walking into things. But the pleasure of Kaminsky was a good enough cure.

It felt like I had only ever seen poetry; like it had always been some kind of shining flotilla flashing up ink on immense blank spaces, distracting me with repetition: the same sight again, another configuration of the visual. Sound seemed constant, against the binaries of these repetitions. In every sphere of capitalist existence – production, circulation, consumption – repetition is the code to keeping the whole machine enthralling. Occasionally a wave, like sound, punctures the production line. As Benjamin Bratton neatly put it: ‘Repetition means legibility, and legibility helps with the distracted audience problem.’ Kaminsky seemed like every clichéd metaphor of inspiration imaginable. It impelled me to consider where else in poetry there is sound.

Jodie Hollander’s My Dark Horses (2017) explores the narrator’s experience of growing up in a family of musicians. Sound has run through generations, simultaneously causing, hiding and resisting violence in the family line. Music and sound are as clear as they are in Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, despite emerging differently; here, sound is everywhere – is required – where in Deaf Republic it is banned. In Hollander’s work, the violence of seeing and the physical space of being are constantly pulled apart by the connecting vibrations of sound.

In the first poem, ‘Splitting and Fucking’, the physical violence of proximity is torn. A first man splits and fucks the narrator’s mother, with whacking consonants and short lines that start with the punch of a trochee:

something in that
must have set him
off, but who
knows with split

They are watching a movie, the sight of it beckoning the visual spectator to perform his brutal mimesis – to do as the image does. The visual plane is the site of repetition, where the conveyor belt of slightly differently perceived photons slides by: on the cinema screen they are watching, in their own violent gazes at each other, and in our view of them from afar.

Importantly, it is only when sound pierces the solidity of the image that the violence is changed (although not ended). The narrator’s mother’s screams are ‘ear-splitting’, conducting, from the invisible position of the mother, a violence that breaks the body. He has attempted to break her with the physical touch of sight: by looking, by miming the image, he hurts her. But she screams and that splits the organ of sound, cutting through the visible. The police come. The man is removed.

In the second poem, ‘The Metronome’, sound quite literally keeps the family together despite the mania of their splitting movements; ‘her children the pendulum’ pound back and forth: ‘FatherMother, MotherFather, FatherMother.’ The Oedipal triad that holds the narrator in place is not visual – is not something graspable in the seen world. Graspable is the punch her mother’s lovers land her; visible are the bloody steaks her mother scoffs in ‘Oblivion’. This implicit bond – manic and booming with pain but tight enough to hold together a whole collection of poetry – is sonic:

Her children walked sideways, their eyes
shifted horizontally, they looked dizzy, even
possessed – missing the cars zooming in front
of them, but somehow they always heard
Mother’s tempo, and passed from this
love to that lover, from that lover to this.

The visual is a dangerous world of hyperspeed, of boisterous destruction as cars plough about. More importantly, though, the visual is the place of separation, of bodily distinction, where ‘Her children’ are physically separated from the triad, moving sideways, not following the forward path of their parents. The visual divides, creating and justifying corporeal categories of race, gender, ability, sexuality. Beyond that – in the tempo of the mother who calls out ‘Allegro!’, the totally nonlinear rhythm of the musician-mother – they merge into a vibration that is indistinguishable. The separation of self is cut by sound as the last two lines seem to integrate the children in the mother’s passing lovers. Who, we wonder, are contained in ‘they’; are ‘they’ or ‘Mother’, we wonder, the subject of the sentence? Does it really matter outside the hegemony of sight?

Sound, though, cannot so simply be labelled an unquestionably liberating force beneath the historical regime of sight that categorises bodies with various oppressive codes. In critical race theory, sound is often theorised as an ulterior agential force against what Nicholas Mirzoeff calls ‘visuality’ – the regime of overseeing constructed first in slave plantations, allowing the colonial manager the symbolic (as well as physical, geographical) ability to see over and beyond the physical limitations of bodies then coded as inferior because of their inability to oversee. This regime of visuality continued into the history of photography, as Jacqueline Goldsby details at length in A Spectacular Secret. The divisive positioning of the camera constructs a privileged way of seeing for white bodies, allowing certain figures progressive temporality – capturing time, looking at it afterwards, moving on – and stagnating others the past, creating a symbolic code of temporal corporeity of: black body is the past, white is the future.

Alexander Weheliye, in Phonographies, is especially concerned with the antagonistic sound of black being; with how the musical tradition – from plantation chants to M.I.A. – undermines visual exclusion because it contains a collective opacity that the visual cannot achieve. It is unclear, communal, socially constructed; sound is not for one’s self (speech is always to an other) as opposed to sight, which is singular and personal. Sound is a displacement of other particles – a vibration of matter that is not itself – while the light of sight is physical photons and actual waves and particles of quanta. Sound can undermine sight, or it can justify and support it. When the boy in Fanon’s famous ‘train scene’ shouts, ‘Look, a Negro!’ the sonic force penetrating the scene with linguistic difference produces the visual difference in skin colour, which otherwise – without it being violently pointed out – would be as meaningless as the different shoes they were wearing.

The scene reveals that the little boy relies on the difference of something other, outside his own categories, to construct his visual singularity. As Weheliye writes of that scene, ‘the white subject’s vocal apparatus merely serves to repeat and solidify racial difference as it is inscribed in the field of vision; yet in doing so, it lays bare the structural methodology of race in Western modernity by piercingly calling attention to how whiteness is just as dependent on blackness in order to appear and function as whiteness.’

In Hollander’s poetry there is also this moral problem of sound. Sometimes it displaces particles against the will of photons – serving as an antagonistic agency against sight – and sometimes it’s part of the problem, another vibration in oppression.

In ‘Little Serenade’, her father’s violin controls the narrator, pushing her into adulthood as she gets her period after dancing to its rhythm. Sound is guiding her out of the sight of progressive time, as she sees the blood – sees the evidence of her expected adulthood – and yet reverts to a memory of the music, dancing again. Her movements, out of time with the physical visual plane surrounding her, are sonic, existing despite the world, against it. And yet it is the sound of her father’s violin that stagnates her. She is trapped in a violent act: his own violin playing cannot help but suggest her mother’s father’s playing (‘The Red Tricycle’):

ever since that first time her father
brought her home early from the circus
promising to buy her a bike.
Instead he brought her back to his bedroom
and had his way with her young body.
He made her swear never to tell a soul
then went upstairs to practice his musical scales.

She is bound by sound, unable to grasp the agency it could provide her of telling. Instead, she is stuck in the violent order he performs, the rigid order of his ‘scales’, of her silence, of the lost potential of physical movement in the bicycle she never received.

This is the antagonism in all of these poems. Hollander describes a world in which sound is an ulterior ontology within this life of visual violence. It is a way of being not in another world, not as some kind of egoistic self-escape that retreats the wounded self into a protected cave, annihilating any critical confrontation with violence and eradicating all singularity and difference, allowing the smooth surface of the visual to continue unperturbed. The sonic vibration that connects against progressive temporality is a way of being that is in direct confrontation with the ontology of the visual: the way of being according to who can see and how sight is constructed.

But the relationship is still complex and her poetry is far too good to provide any simple solution to visual violence. All the way through, sight and sound contradict each other, providing little tunnels of escape which are then swiftly closed. In ‘Transporting the Piano’ ‘neither of us said a word: / between was the space for a piano.’ A physical barrier of potential sound. In ‘The Sound of Scissors’ she drowns out the physical splitting with regressive sound, listening to Smurf records, unable to move on in the split visual field.

So much can be said about sound in poetry. It subverts and conforms at odd turns; it confuses and organises. Kaminsky has produced an incomparable world where speech is made illegal; it is a tool for rupture and for oppression, as raucous as Oskar’s incessant whacking in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum (1959), and then suddenly cut away into a haunting visual silence. Hollander pushes a noisy force of troubling sound out of a little blue book that looks so much like silence but roars like the grinding engines of visuality’s mechanical regime; roars within.