by Joyelle McSweeney
About six years ago, I began to lose my hearing. When someone would talk at a certain pitch and volume, I would lose the words. That is, my brain could usually hear the sound but no longer break the sound into words. And at certain pitches and volumes, I couldn’t hear the sound at all.
I visited an audiologist in South Bend, Indiana. She put me in a little booth like a DJ’s, foam soundproofing and exposed wiring. Cosmic, uterine darkness. Utterly analog. The audiologist sat muttering in her empyrean, her lit booth. I, like a Sybil, sat on a tripod in my darkness. Why did it need to be so dark, cosmic, uterine. Locked away from the light wash of the Milky Way, that maternal gush, sound became a when. When there was sound I could not hear it. And when there were words below my hearing they sometimes transmitted to my brain without me actually experiencing them audially. Theater, the word occurred to me, though I couldn’t actually hear it. It occurred. It was an event, a when. A non-event, a non-sound, theater. And still it occurred. And I repeated: Theater.
This was when I experienced a breakage between biological hearing and sound. And when I experienced that break, I became a devotee of Sound, its intervals, its inscrutable and occult arrivals. Sound as an event, a when, its frequencies made of repetitions. Sound it. Sound it again. Sound again and again. Sound like tide arriving in a black place. Sound like waves. It breaks, so it can return again.
In darkness, In obscurity, In Indiana, obscure location, place of damage, I stopped being a devotee of the retinal model of art, or the prizing of the sight, of vision; instead, seated on my tripod like the oracles at Delphi, the Pythian oracles, the girls who sat above a rotting python, I became mediumistic, I was a designee, having experienced idiopathic hearing loss, I experienced occult hearing. Darkling, I listen, I was occulted in mine own dark inner ear, down a mineshaft, in mine own locked vault, in that clinic’s womb, when sound arrived. Incipit. Ab ovo. Over and over. Unbeknownst, antinarrative, irrational, doubling, and always arriving. Sound.
The loss of a newborn daughter further abandoned me to the black region of occult hearing. Here, I am disoriented. Here, I am abandoned. I close my eyes and return to the black booth. I’m never at rest. I go staggering and cannot coordinate along Cartesian axes like a good Western capitalist. I can’t tell the difference: dead, alive, X, Y, myself, others, a map of the property, a rational map. Like Schrödinger’s cat, I’m alive and dead. I have tinnitus, so it sounds and sounds toned and entoned, tombed and entombed. I walked in Hell like Kim Hyesoon or like Blake, in its blackness, and I hear so many sounds, the voices of the abandoned, and that is my practice, I open my throat and voice those sounds into audibility.
Through repetition, damage turned my hearing to a non-hearing, to a hyper-hearing of non-sound. Reply, reply. Listening to Nirvana, the hairs in my inner ear all laid down and surrendered. Made an underground region where occult sound could resound. Could echo. Such co-existence of damage and hearing, such co-morbidity that is an uncanny covitality, is diagnosed in the poetry of Jack Spicer, a misanthrope who was known to go to the beach with the ballgame crammed in his ear, devotee of the play-by-play, transisting.
The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
A knocked-out fighter, as we know, has had his bell rung. We know that from Looney toons. But in this stanza, we feel the punches themselves: “The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a counterpunching radio.” The waves of sound, of arrival, beat and beat in short phrases, the phrases contradict themselves, distorting each other’s sense, creating a zone of paradox, arriving and arriving again. The fitfulness of this stanza is sound beating against sound. Something breaking through the skull of the poet, again and again. Reply, reply.
I sense that if I am to find a writing practice that can exist in this new zone of grief and trauma, I must re-dedicate myself to Sound. Under the influences of Sound. I will call up the sum of my influences, and I will be a place of confluence. I will haunt the dead landscapes of my ear canals, which mimic in form both the deadzones of Anthropocenic destruction and the classical rivers of the dead. I will stand in the rush of Sound. I will be as a rushet in the inlet, wearing a cap of wires, a cap-o’-rushes, da capo, where the Sound washes, beneath the weathermap of acoustics and neurology, biological sound and cosmic Sound. I will be the place Sound arrives to, and through contact with the stuff of me I will amplify it, I will change and redirect it. I will reel-to-reel. I will reel and persist. Move as close to the Rose as I can get. Novitiate of the Rose of Sound.
Joyelle McSweeney is the author of the forthcoming Toxicon & Arachne (Nightboat Books) as well as eight other books of poetry, prose, and plays. She teaches at Notre Dame and co-edits the international press, Action Books.