Half flings, stridence, and visual timber
I listened to Viggo Mortensen all day not so long ago, his poetry, accompanied with Buckethead’s music, a wry, often intense, aural presence to other writing I was doing. The day had all sorts of distractions – movement in the house, other things that had to be done, the etceteras of the daily. It also rained all day that day, pitched also, as an ambient sound, was liquid dripping into the basement cistern. At times I appreciated the slow visual pleasure of melting snow pooling along the street and twisting into the drainholes. I enjoyed the rush of wind and water. There are frequencies I attune myself to, others I try to avoid, but typically, sound backgrounds to visual experiences; I have never really thought too much about the impact of sound on my writing, though I know sound is constant.
By evening of that day, the street outside looked wet in the dark. I’d seen the guys changing the streetlight bulbs a day earlier; the streetlights have a softer glow. I was on my way to the coffee shop down the street to listen to music. I’d heard separate members of the local group play on other occasions, but not as a group. And there was a singer from Montreal in town who I’d heard was good. As I went out the door, I felt I was stacking my day with sound experiences, putting them to the forefront, so to speak. I was looking forward to the outing; this particular coffee shop is a go-to spot; its shape seemed ideal for a good acoustic performance, and I knew I’d see folks I know and enjoy hanging out with. Uncharacteristically, I’d been in all day – it’s a rare rainy day that I don’t spend part of it walking or hiking outside.
I was not mistaken about the enjoying the evening. I was mistaken about the streets being wet. I noticed what was missing visually, but didn’t note consciously the absence of the sound of water. I noticed the street was reflective; the water had become polished black ice; the pools of water had drained hours ago. The street was slick. I minced my way to the coffee shop, tentative when I would have moved at a fairly quick pace, hands out for balance, aware of how the body will fail you and also support you if you fall– the proof of this my casted left wrist-- my wrist had probably saved my back and my legs when I was striding confidently over unnoticed black ice. I heard the snap of my wrist before I really registered that I’d fallen. When I stood up my eyes hurt with small pink and white dots – and there was no sound. This was temporary.
The coffee shop is long and narrow; block glass next to the back door; a broad window at the front with a windowsill that hosts plants; an ‘old’ cash register in the corner. Walls brick. The front window had a curtain over it; the evening was videotaped. The tables were full; I took a seat at the bar with my notebook. There was some writing I wanted to finish; background sound I have always been able to tune out, or tune into. I watched the musicians play, the movements of the bow on the violin, the characteristic expressions of intensity and joy on the faces of the performers, the measured breaths and movements of feet, hands, and body. I registered the sound of the music, the transitions of the jig, and if I applied some effort, could focus on notes of one instrument as opposed to the whole.
Not too long ago, my son was given a bell. It was his third bell; just before coming back from a road trip to Minas Basin, Nova Scotia two years ago, a friend gave him an immense Zen bell for the drive home. Would the sound change, my son asked, if we open the windows when we drive? Would others hear it, driving? I could barely put a couple of words together after being surrounded by the incessant ringing, sonorous as it had at first seemed. It is a 12 hour drive. His second bell was given in a spurt of nostalgia, I think, a bell that had been part of a home. It had sat at a front door, screwed tightly into the brick. This bell was enthusiastically rung many times until it vanished, as loud things sometimes do, in a house. The third large bell appeared near magically, as things do when other things vanish in a house – and one morning, certainly before the neighborhood gathered themselves to prepare for the day, and certainly before most kids were ready to go off to school, or daycare, the street was shattered open by the sound of the bell in the backyard and my son’s penetrating and exuberant voice bellowing: “CLUBHOUSE MEETING!!!” This was followed by about 20 vigorous shakes of the bell. I was wordless, although my neighbours were not similarly struck dumb.
It got me thinking about how the volume in this house has increased since my son’s birth, and how quiet it used to be here, and in this neighborhood. When I write, I write with ambient sounds -- creaks of the house, the whirr of the dryer, the chatter of birds outside, the rumble of wheels, and bellows of enthusiasm, as kids go to school or home in wagons, on foot, and on bikes. I write in my head, sort of mapping, when I’m outside, on a hike or just walking, taking note, attending– in all the ways that word is charged – to what is around me, including the sounds of movement – trees, leaves, birds, water, the sounds of response and echo, the sounds of pause. So I have an ear, or two, and the sounds get included, contribute to, visual experience. When someone reads their writing, I appreciate the how the voice, in its pauses, frequencies, and emphases, affects the way the sound of the words might illuminate something otherwise hidden. But I rarely read my writing out loud when I’m writing it.
I am enjoying the music at the coffee shop. Folks are tapping their hands, feet, moving their bodies to the harmonies. The music changes from a Swedish ballad to a fast jig, and I am distracted from the words I’d started to jot down by a flash of blue. It’s a lone dancer with a blue hat; she’s up in front suddenly, lending movement to a room moving in subtle ways – and then everyone is clapping, her hands are over her head as she twirls, the sound is enthusiastic and so --- a young woman moves past me toward the back of the coffee shop. She has a guide, but I move to the side to give them both space.
The sound man sits alone – so how does he hear language, see the words…or does he feel them, reverberating, and adjust accordingly with buttons and dials, the microphone? The singer comments that two of her songs are similar in sound – it’s an obvious surprise – and it happens. I notice repetition sometimes when looking at different pieces of my own writing, and in the writing of others – as if the words had encountered each other before – even the blocking of words can be repetitive, as though something more concise formed before, and is still forming. Sometimes, if I notice it, I leave it, let the accident happen. Other times, being more deliberate, I disrupt things, change direction: sounds clash, words get sharp, edgy, until I don’t want to listen, or read it. There’s some discomfort. I try to do the same thing with how I place words, how they cluster, or vanish, or bump into each other acoustically, even when separated by their own visual formations.
Behind the stage is the bands’ banner. Ferns unfurling, textile and tactile. The kinetics of writing leaves behind, near reveals, the tactility of language—in rhythm, visual imprint and reverberation. Words intersect on the page and inform one another. The performer can take the words and enact them, sound them, give them movement.
I think in pictures and spaces and physical forms. I think in a kinetic way, too. I sentence sound to the back of my mind; I preference the visual and shaped/ly in writing but am coming to see that I’ve often been using sound to shape. I was talking with a friend, a sound/performance poet about a long piece I’ve been working on, and while we were chatting over the phone, he asked me if I had read it out to myself. Pause. No, I said. It is a multi-voice piece, oddly enough, and meant to be performed by voices other than mine. The piece as a whole evolved as a voicing; it seemed the best way to get into the text in the writing of it, the best way to describe formulations, or reformulations, of memory and history, the best way to get at fluctuation and curvature. It is written deliberately; made up of discrete visual chunks which, when voiced, or depending on how they’re voiced, relate to one another in obvious and sometimes surprising ways. But they have form. They suggest. If words could be physical, tangible blocks that I could touch and move and push…I would move them into place with my fingers. And yet, I’m realizing that I’ve ventured into a sound landscape as a visual landscape in the writing. And I move through it – movement is important.
As I write this, I’m listening to Mortensen and Buckethead. My cast came off today; it was a hairline break of the radius; I imagine what that looks like without asking to see the X-ray. I walked home from the hospital, paying attention to the skidding clouds, that the birds are having a bit of trouble, half flung. I think the wind got in my ear because it’s humming.
Chris Turnbull lives in Kemptville, Ontario. In 2010, above/ground press published a chapbook of her visual and multi-performative piece, continua. Thuja Press published her chapbook Shingles in 2001. Her poetry has been published in The Volta, Ottawater, Convergences, How2, ditch, Dusie, Open Letter, Dandelion, and experiment-o (Angelhouse Press), among others. Occasionally, she has written poetry reviews and interviews. Her sometimes small press mag, rout/e, has more recently become an ongoing footpress project involving placing poems on trails, including pieces from Monty Reid, George Bowering, rob mclennan, derek beaulieu, Amanda Earl, Pearl Pirie, Angela Rawlings (http://scalar.usc.edu/works/stroboscope-magazine/issue-1), Steven Ward, and Jamie Reid.