Writers on writing, overheard.
What are you working on?
I am writing a series of stories. I think. Or something.
What are they about?
They are about what this book is. They are still coming.
What is this book?
Complicated, I guess. They keep adding new parts.
So, what do you do?
I listen and try to write as they come. I guess it would be easier if so much of what they do didn’t evade language.
Wait. That doesn’t make sense. How can any part of writing evade language?
I mean the verbal kind. The kind I know.
What do they use?
It’s more like an incandescent unknowing. Like the brilliance of the world after memory loss.
Do you speak that?
I feel like I could once but lost it. I am trying to learn. But I guess I am a slow learner. I keep defaulting to the old expectation that they speak mine, forgetting I’m the visitor.
Inspired when I encountered Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ use of the phrase “incandescent unknowing” in reference to her experience of memory loss, which she relates interestingly to her process of storytelling in this interview she gave to Kaveh Akbar.
In the year of quiet, you noticed what got louder. Listening, you transcribed a diary of what was happening just beyond the nearest clouds. It was not a new invasion, only the old one you had long been living with, adjusting to, learning to accommodate––until you noticed, or almost did not notice, how well you had learned not to look at the edge where you lived. One day, you decided to look.
Why? Some asked you, and you explained that you took it personally.
What, exactly? The skies, and what happened in them, for one. But also, this other thing, more diffuse and insidious, precisely because it is lethally easy to ignore.
Inspired by Finn Blythe’s BOMB interview with Lawrence Abu Hamadan, on his work Air Pressure: A Diary of the Sky, on view at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Italy, until February 26.
Was it Kafka who said that we are most human when admittedly animals? I can’t remember. The elephant would. We give each other pet names and share our own names, homes, and fashion motifs with pets. We are much less willing to engage with our vegetable sides.
The snap pea is probably great company, and no doubt leeks have dimension. When it comes to tubers, I can only imagine. Perhaps we have a hard time opening conversations with the ones whose faces are not––well, faces; whose beings are arranged in ways we can less readily recognize from mirrors and photo albums.
Maybe it intimidates us to interact on a conversational level with living forms that will not run, fly, or swim from us, who can’t make us heroes for luring them to our realms. Maybe we don’t know how to open conversations that don’t begin with a chase. These vegetables, they just show up––or don’t, allowing or resisting growth, harvest, cultivation. We can’t always find the narrative line of their movements, and it perplexes us.
Or maybe we don’t like to entertain the possibility of admitting when we are only seeds or going out of season; ripe for harvest or willing to be met by moles. The cat offers an easy meme and endless punchlines, and most of her jokes are on me. If this is any model, it’s likely the vegetables are doing something similar. From a plastic bag on the counter, the armed potatoes wave.
The rewilding of language and hearing.
After the long racket, there was a time when the words loosed their ties and harnesses, freed their necks from collars, and jumped the fences one by one in an unrelenting tide, away from us.
Once freed, they made their own music and removed the delicate garments we had been dressing them in. Once feral, they refused our concerted efforts at domestication. They would think and move for themselves and no longer in our tight throats. They were done with our agendas, our probing scrutiny, the various tinctures we administered at prescribed times, and especially the bells.
We spent our frustrations banging against the broken fences and ringing the redundant bells, and then grew silent with a sense of everything to say and no way to do it. In this time, we became aware that the next occasion for speech would announce itself only by the rising hairs at the backs of our necks, and this was the beginning of our listening.
There is a large megaphone. The artist has a question. Is it possible to turn every cell in a chosen direction and if so, what if? What if we all––did?
If the forest is an archive of breath, who keeps things in order? The trees are silent, but not the wind and not what flies and calls between the limbs.
Here is a study in the movement of these bodies answering a call. What does it mean to be here now, together? Meanwhile, trees listen.
Inspired by Sioban Burke’s article in the arts section of yesterday’s New York Times (“A Choreographer Who Merges Art, Activism, and the Natural World”) on the work of Emily Johnson. Italicized phrase appears in a recent performance.
Many poets aren’t poets, Merton says, for the same reason so many religious are not saints: they never get to becoming the version they are meant to be, as created by the circumstances of their own lives.
It always seems more attractive, somehow, to be some other artist––the point being, one you can point to, already formed, as opposed to––what is this, but so much blurred confusion and dissonant noise?
The work of the artist comes from staying with the mess even as the dust settles, even as more debris accumulates, to rescue a faint but still-living music from the wreck.
Inspired by this morning’s reading, Thomas Merton’s short essay “Integrity” in New Seeds of Contemplation.
In love with an unknown intimate briefly glimpsed, the stranger moved so steadily towards the source of longing that he became transparent with time. Suspended in its liquid, the desert salts of his waking form dissolved in her waters until he knew himself at once known in the shadow of the apocalyptic cherub.
I am surveyed, he admitted, but it was good to be untethered from the demand to be any sort of self in any of the atomic cities, to join the games with no winners, to keep company instead with a chorus of loss, its abundant ache seeded in the silence of this elsewhere when the voices that will be heard choose themselves.
Inspired by various morning readings, including Thomas Merton by way of Richard Rohr. Italicized phrases above come from Thomas Merton’s “Day of the Stranger,” first published in The Hudson Review, summer 1967.
From the congregation of stones.
Against the disposable, away from the technofix, certain questions emerge. They are about relearning our being in the world. I heard these from a scientist poet, although she didn’t call herself this. Asked to describe her work, she said listening. She said delight. She called it the work of waiting.
For what, I wondered. She said, consider the reverence of the speechless stone. What would they ask of us, she wondered back, that would allow our admission into their holy communion, and how would we hear them? Perhaps by these skeletons, our marrow singing like well-tuned bowls.
Nothing is single here, she said, and nothing goes one way. I want to wait with her, to learn the reverence of these silent-seeming stones, until their language hymns my bones.
Inspired by, and with borrowed phrases and images from Ursula K. Leguin’s Keynote address, “Deep in Admiration,” from Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, from the Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz, a gem curated by David Naimon in the beautiful ecosystem he’s created around his Between the Covers podcast.
If a dove should descend now,
through the smoke and the
flood, may someone stop
to witness, and hold us here
until it is clear
how the silence
if a dove now
let it not be
the next body
yet not before
To listen through soil is to be reminded of the inadequacy of words for sound, the curious choral cacophony of those out-of-sight creatures so easily out of mind, the soundtracks of springtail, of mellifluent moles mirroring the melodies of mice amid mesh of mycelium; these reverberating roots a revelation, calling a body back to unknowing. This is what the birds are turning their heads to listen for, plainchant of these porous depths, resounding.
Inspired by Ute Eberle’s recent Knowable Magazine article about the emerging field of soil bioacoustics, which some prefer to call biotremology or ecoacoustics.