excerpts from The Saturation Project

Hum

Instead, I grow quiet trying to hear your voice. Simmering on my eardrum. It is a radio voice transmitting a whole night throbbing with fireflies, your whole mouth ringing with six hundred species of bacteria, six thousand tingling thrills. “Red rings inwardly…” Kandinsky muses, “It glows in itself, maturely, and doesn’t distribute its vigor aimlessly.”[1]

This hum was an unknowing song of waiting, a refrain attempting to ward off chaos by creating soothing rhythm. To make something out of nothing.

When I turned twelve, my family moved into the woods. I did not have one friend that long summer. There are other details, but the point is: I developed a barely audible hum. Distressed, I rang out. A tiny, high diva voice emerged in soft spectacle from my throat. Mostly I did not know I was sounding off until someone called my attention to it. My hum asked for no answer. Yet my mother and brother noted my psychological leakage in annoyance — “knock off the lame tune.” Sometimes strangers cocked their heads at me with a worried look. The excess of it attracted judgment. The ambient sonority of it — wasp, bee, and fly hum — drove any potential companions away.

This hum was an unknowing song of waiting, a refrain attempting to ward off chaos by creating soothing rhythm. To make something out of nothing. A pinch in my throat, a thing stuck there that I was trying to dislodge in order to be. It was like a cry of being born — “the sudden expansion of an echo chamber” as Jean-Luc Nancy describes[2] — but a slow leak instead of an announcement. I was someone coming to herself slowly by resounding, by opening up into the color and texture of myself. Reverberation is what sound and color share; when they marble, it’s resonance.

Withstanding a recent avalanche of novelty and loneliness, I may have been attuning myself, a kind of summer-long tuning fork or echolocation of my new place deep in the solitary woods. Or I may have been doing the opposite: when a person hums, she can block out most sounds — unfamiliar rustlings, bird calls, silence, all parental speech gary-indiana-ed instantly. Or I was, Glenn Gould-like, humming an independent contrapuntal part. As prophylaxis against loss, the habit wasn’t ineffective. Humming performed for me a sympathetic magic: I was rediscovering a lost sound, a missing sensation, a phantom color in my own voice. I was resurfacing my voice, intensifying it in a crucial moment. As a bird might shed drab feathers for bright ones in a time of courtship, my sonic ornament was perhaps the first flush of puberty. Or a last channeling of an atavistic charm. With a vibratory rhythm of my own, drilling toward red’s center, I readied myself. Out of a rogue moment, rouge burst forth. I hummed a route to the interior life.

Deep Bells

Humming made me transparent — a voice sent out searching for recognition. At the end of the summer, when school started, I discovered the band Kleenex (later called LiLiPUT due to a lawsuit from Kimberly-Clark), whose female noises I instantly recognized — blurtish, gleeful, launched, squealed, kicked up, and floating. Kleenex reached my ears as if their sound might have come from inside my own extravagant impulses. Listening to them I entered myself. I found the fight to grieve my receding childhood; I remembered that infants laugh and weep before they speak.

How metaphor becomes bodily has never been made clearer to me. This is how I grew, extended by sound. Isn’t it always true that some parts of us stay behind? Then, everyone gathered around me in the orthodontist’s office. My mouth was open wide, no sound escaped. We were looking at an X-ray. The doctor had discovered that my jaw had been growing long after the rest of me stopped, jutting out as one surgeon said “unlike a human jaw.” All the better to spit and spout with, my dear.

red
red
red red
red red red
red red red
red red
red
red
red
red
red red
red red
red red
red
red
[3]

Red is my replacement, it is the color I fall into when I run out of words or reasons to talk. When I gag on my own sentence.

Hum

All brained up, I swallow words, hold my tongue for fear being led by it. Just then: a blurt escapes unsuppressed. My onomatopoeic bout, a sputtering, skipping, faltering vocal overflow. Without syndrome, up comes a projectile voice — ugh, bla, ack, ouw, hmf, gah! — and I cultivate a taste for the superlative. It’s as inevitable as a baby’s cry, which in fact prefigures linguistic vocal authority. My summer hum settles into it genealogy. The blurt, then, reverts to this initiatory umph. It deals in startle, stutter, and screeched resistance.

Think of the blood-curdling, heart-chilling groan of the Gorgon. Her name comes from a Sanskrit word, garg, meaning a gutteral animal howl from the back of the throat. A huge distended mouth issues great howling winds, emits time itself. Do not kid yourself; there’s nothing pleasing about it. Gargle. Gag. Impossible to swallow. Its power to repel and repulse matches the power of your mother’s voice to soothe and seduce. It’s the old dichotomy haunting everything female.

But the mirror — reverse image — is not how we learn self or self-reflection. Rather, the sound of our mother’s voice — its grain and cadence — first helps us know ourselves. A sound mirror, Lacan be damned. At six months in utero, a fetus recognizes her mother’s voice. A fetus responds to maternal speech patterns and is enveloped in a world of sound well before she’s born into the visual world. Sight doesn’t organize enough to recognize people until weeks after a baby’s born. The shift from auditory to visual orientation happens later, imitating the cultural shift in the West, from Medieval sonic to Renaissance visual culture. The nourishing maternal voice evokes and engineers our psychic lives. No one can understand the words — semantics is always an anemic allegory — but the expression itself communicates directly via rhythm and tone.

But the mirror — reverse image — is not how we learn self or self-reflection. Rather, the sound of our mother’s voice — its grain and cadence — first helps us know ourselves.

And an infant’s first force is her cry, her endless vocal arsenal, a language parents learn until the infant forgets the sonic spectrum, limits her sounds to only those most effective. We learn language by forgetting sounds that don’t signify in that language. And throughout our lives, voice is the body’s most mighty emanation. An expansion of the body as fully complex as the face, voice harbors remnants of desires, past intensions that confer on it its singularity. Mobilizing latent metaphors, voice is made up of a parallel chain of unconscious or preconscious signifiers. It indexes, knowingly and unknowingly, bodily excitement; pace Cassandra babbling, the Sirens singing, and the Furies unceasing curses. Sing your head off, dearies, no one will listen. Sing yourself into trance and ecstasy, Sybil. If the Pied Piper had been a woman she would have sang the rats then your children into the netherworld. Speak your tongues and your sentences that take full decades to finally arrive. There is nothing quite as frightening as a woman’s voice hounding you, spitting your full name, flying after you.

I tell my daughter, “listen to my words,” and “use your words,” though I can’t stand the sound of my voice in these moments. I don’t sound like my own mother — though that can also cut to the bone — but I sound like everyone’s post-attachment parental chime, cliché lodged there with all the conviction of thought itself. Even though I want her to know there is a place for female deities of loud vengeance and cursing, I parrot the slogan anyway. I drip the self-righteous claim that someone is always listening. That you can openly and calmly talk away the confusion and frustration. Do I want her to know both things or do I speak with a double tongue? Does anyone hear words before tone?

I have always been embarrassed by the sound of my own voice. Its tics and semi-voluntary drives, its mind-of-its-own mispronunciations, its tendency to get lost or become stranded, its foreignness. Tripping too fast through syllables. That’s her voice, not mine. That voice made me receptive and taught me the most important things: love, speech, fear, protest, and sleep. By phonic imperatives, by pulse. Reading. Riding a bike. Trust. The agony of trying to please. A voice has the power to call my whole life into question. All at once everything seemed to be listening. When I hear my mother’s voice now, it’s faceless. Smoking has cut out its woman’s face. What’s left is heaved up from the deep bell of bottomlessness, a chain of substitutions which finally traded for nada, a hollow ruthlessness turned inward, a stark yap scrapping through red clay.

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REFERENCES

  1. Kandinsky, Vassily. On the Spiritual in Art. Trans. M.T.H. Sadler. New York: Dover, 1977. 38.
  1. Nancy, Jean-Luc. Listening. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007. 17.
  1. Pritchard, Normal H. “ ” ”. The Matrix Poems: 1960-70. New Jersey: Doubleday & Co., 1970. 187.

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