Hear! Listen! Hark!

by Jessica Sequeira

AT THE LIMIT of language
                               I tire
So, every word
Is a return, a close-up
Or maybe
Just the cartwheel,
The pirouette, the sparkler or
Firecracker: a brief
Noise, before it’s

—Rodrigo Lira, from his Proyecto de Obras Completas, quoted from the biography La poesía terminó conmigo by Roberto Careaga C.

Tired of a flattened out world reduced to headlines and wild monologues, with a faith in words combined with sensations, I think about a literature in love with the verbal but also with other sensations. Sun on the back of the neck, a soft breeze at 6pm. What can words do beyond just appear on screens? Is this a kind of neosensualism? Only if you must stick a name on it, and this isn’t about names.

Words and

The ‘and’ stands for everything beyond discourse. Pure monologue can be superficial cleverness, and lack something, the essential element of contrast. I, like many humans, find great pleasure in contrast. Autumn colours worn in summer. Water with orange, not lemon. Bread with tomatoes, onions and garlic, not butter. Thinking of snow in London, under a tree on a hot day. Loud music in world-silencing earphones. Bitter herbs made into sweet gelati, the sugar and water drawing out the nuances and softening astringencies. The way that words can dissociate from images, as in film stills where the subtitles don’t quite go with the pictures, to aesthetically pleasing or funny effect.

Words and images

Often I find it a soothing exercise to try and notice better, to jot down in my mind the things I’d otherwise skim or overlook. Low houses, thatched roofs, white sheets hung out to dry. Thistles and sunflowers and a dream catcher on which lace ribbons, lavender and cream, have carefully been tied. Unexpected cloud formations and patios with tattoos of light. A lonely saxophonists on a quiet street. A mosquito floating in a puddle, sleeping the eternal siesta, one of those idealist bugs that mistook water for truth. They say poetry is about the image. The poignant, often melancholy capture of a moment. Imagistic poetry can make one feel centred, in a way that frenetic, language-based words, words, words babbling and competing for supremacy, do not. Sure, sometimes I do love the mad babble. But these days, I wonder about the alternatives to the journalistic bombardment and Bernhardian rant, two sides of the same misanthropic coin.

Words and other senses

We can go beyond words and pictures, the molecular structure of the meme. Words take on the greatest life, it seems to me, when they are accompanied and informed by everything else the body can do. Ordinary images scooped from the quotidian, paired with touch, hearing, smell, taste.

Words and sound

Of all the former, I’ve been thinking lately about how words go with sound. This morning I sat and tried to chronicle a few sounds I’ve heard over the last days. People calling to each other, a sigh, a cowbell in the breeze, the persistent and annoying buzz of a mosquito at midnight (the same in the puddle? how to know?). Tree murmurs. AA Anuel, Rosalía and Nathy Peluso blasting from neighbours’ apartments. Bicycle wheels over dirt and sand. Sea sounds. Rasping sounds. Imperative, ingratiating, insinuating sounds. A dog walks over cement with the hard clicking sound dog paws make. Efficient barks as these dogs escort humans and cars to their destinations, believing themselves captains of the planet. The whistling sound of wind, constant, that sometimes dies away and sometimes becomes a roar.

I think of the people who’ve dedicated important parts of their work to combinations of words and sound, from Daniela Cascella to Jean-Luc Nancy as translated by Charlotte Mandell. The sound of writing as not just rhythms and cadences, not just warmth or coolnesses in the tone of voice — not just orality — not just pauses; not just punctuation, but something else. Not just descriptions of sound (representation), not just repetition. And not just the sounds around one’s physical body that go into the writing. Sound as something that exceeds any possible answer, linked to silence.

Sound and silence

Yes, the babble of words, as contrasted with silence. If the eye can fill with colour, what about the ear. . .? There you are, silent with your screen. You can’t hear my voice right now; you’re reading this in your head. Yet that silent reading has its own kind of sound. It’s making some kind of space. Writing as sound as space. What can that do?

Sound and history

At Cambridge, as I discover in one of the ten million emails that clutter and inform and enrich my inbox, I see there’s something called the Auralities project. A panel that explores the differences between hearing and listening, and investigates something called ‘post-aurality’, which, from what I can make out, has to do with the unlinking of sound from understanding. That is, it takes seriously the idea of the echo of the sound and its repercussions, not just the moment of the sound itself. I’m getting my head around this. It has to do with history and memory, that much I can make out.

The question is how to do this without reifying the material as ‘sound archives’. Without making it something boring, unprocessed noise. Those mp3 clips nobody wants to listen to. That’s where words come in. Not to explain, not as museum labels, but to give back life.

Words and sound and history

I’m reading about the history of sodium nitrate, also called saltpetre, also called white gold, which can be used to make both fertiliser and bombs. One silent, the other a deafening blast before a deeper silence. How to use words to recreate sounds, not just replay them? How to hear the past? Or any other time?

My favourite kind of literature is neither the autofiction of self, nor social realism, but speculative excursions into past or present or future. Our ears, little fragile portals, are a good place to start. What was the sound of sodium nitrate extraction, for instance? What sounds did the humans and tools and machines make, what groans and creakings and shouts?

A fiction that goes beyond mere words to embrace other senses — including sound — can be a kind of second making. Especially when it forays into periods beyond the contemporary. There’s a lateral politics in this, if you’re looking for it, but also imagination and tenderness. And with the reverberations, maybe even second chances.