So Where is This Wild Silent Country.
I can't shut up the voices of men. Or the voices of the world. The commerce voice, the television voice, the telephone voice that says I owe money or ought to spend it. The voice of the means of production that might issue from my body, but isn't my voice. Is that an alien? It seems more at home, here, than I do. When Duras hands us the forest paradox, the fairy tale riddle--go to your silence to hear yourself--she seems so sure the silence is there.
that when I write there is something inside me that stops functioning, something that becomes silent. I let something take over inside me that probably flows from femininity. But everything shuts off--the analytic way of thinking, thinking inculcated by college, studies, reading, experience. I'm absolutely sure of what I'm telling you now. It's as if I were returning to a wild country. (428)
I know what she means. Something clicks off and some other voice flows. But often it's coming to me through static, interference, as from a great distance. How many layers deep do I have to dig through four decades of accrued chatter and my own undelivered speech? Will it come from femininity, which I happen to inhabit and get daily coded by here on the surface world? Is it necessarily inward, darkward, downward? Should I really be returning to a wild country from which I issue, or was I born so late in the game of late-stage capitalism that I ought to be striking out for a new territory? The stars hum, the grave hums, the future hums at me, too.
In Cruel Optimism Lauren Berlant writes on a late, untitled poem by John Ashbery:
reminds me that I am not the subject of a human but of a hum, the thing that resonates around me, which might be heaven or bees or desire or electric wires, but whatever it is it involves getting lost in proximity to something and in becoming lost there, in a lovely way. [...] It might be kind of thrilling to think about this poem as delineating a means of production of the impasses of the present that hasn't yet been absorbed in the bourgeois senses, but takes one out to the space of sociality that listens, is receptive, and calls for theory. Be open to he who comes up to you. Be changed by an encounter.
Become a poet of the episode, the elision, the ellipsis... (102) (1)
Berlant goes on to discuss Ashbery's confidence, and I consider how confidence might be a form of silence. Duras, too, is confident. If in confidence--that is: both assuredly and in the agreement of intimate disclosure--I could channel that hum, let it take over? Duras says, "the silence in women is such that anything that falls into it has an enormous reverberation. Whereas in men, this silence no longer exists" (430). I don't think that's an accurate binary distinction, but I do think she's correct to say that the silence might be available in some bodies more than other bodies. And in some landscapes more than others. It's not just in trees. Surely I could've achieved silence in the desert or on the lonely wind-blasted high plains. This is one version of the experiment: if I, a woman, could get to the center of the forest in which I currently live, would the common chatter of patriarchy cease to describe me, cease to drown out those occult voices that hum and occupy me? What would fall into me, and what through me would it speak?
I'm teaching American Poets in the 21st Century: the Poetics of Social Engagement. To my students, I remark this volume is weirdly obsessed with the (m)other tongues and Kristeva. No wait, I say, catching myself. It's not weird. It's very obvious that my generation of women poets would start asking: what happens if you don't kill the mother to get patriarchal poetry? What happens if you kill the mother to get her tongue? What happens if you have your mother's tongue rooted to your throat? What happens if you don't kill the mother, but are the mother, or become a mother, but you don't shut up, don't shut up shop, board it up, or go silent.
Go to the silence.
Maybe you're having an episode, poet.
Duras notes the unspeakable quality of motherhood. I live in the woods, now, but I never walk there, or at least do not walk there alone. Sometimes I walk there with children in tow, which therefore isn't walking, but attending. Even if no one's speaking, even if you play the quiet game and promise everyone candy, there will be no silence. You need to become alone, or you need to be alone to become.
In a poetics statement in this volume of American Poets, Christine Hume:
Hum When I turned twelve, my family moved into the woods. There, becoming something alone and overripe, my throat emptied easily. A tiny, high diva voice emerged in soft spectacle, barely audible and tuneless. [...] The hum's ambient sonority--mimicry of a local wasp, fly, or bee--led me further into the woods. (221) (2) It's 1:25. I haven't been silent, yet. I should try the woods, but I don't. The children are on their way home. Of contemporary women, Duras says: They no longer talk to animals or trees, because, apparently, they aren't alone. In fact, however, they completely alone in their millions, in their poverty, in their comfort, and in their slums, in all their completely functional marriages--whether rich or poor. They are as alone as before. And everywhere.
Children, fly away home. Your house is on fire. Your mother is alone. And everywhere. I talk to everything, plants, animals, televisions, socks, dirty dishes, my own face. I chatter. It overflows me. There are hums in there I'd rather hear, but it's a lot of work to parse them.
It's 4:51 and my experiment hasn't been particularly successful, hardly silent. I had a cup of coffee, decaf, because too much caffeine makes me even more talkative than usual. I watched a funny television show, I got a package of books, I fell asleep on the love seat, the children returned home. I haven't been outside today, nor have I turned inward. I have thought about hum, hymn, home, and les hommes as Berlant instructs, and I have thought about silence, humming, wasps, and the woods.
There are so many mushrooms, here, I tell my long-distance lover, I can't get over it, so many different kinds. I don't know any of their names, nor do I remember there being so many types in other northeastern places I've lived. Maybe you just don't remember, he suggests. He knows that when I say I don't remember, it's my way of saying, I could be incorrect and I do not wish to argue, but I'm sure it wasn't like this. Of course I'd remember if there had been so many varieties of mushroom in upstate New York or New Hampshire or New Jersey! But there's a chance that one of these times the only thing askew will be my memory, and on that day I'll be shaken by my fallibility, but perhaps reassured that without me the universe carries on, orderly and fine.
Later a colleague tells me there is a greater variety of mushrooms because there is a greater variety of trees. She has a ceramic mug full of foraged mushrooms and she's walking across campus wonderfully replete with her findings in mud-speckled rain boots. She's got a fine eye for color, and each of her outfits is an experiment in the logic of a spectrum. In the desert, we have the mycelium highway, which guides tortoises home (unless it's disrupted by industry and climate change, which it is). Other plants communicate through fungi. My colleague is a medievalist, and I imagine she'll have thoughts about this. I plan to ask her. I also begin to wonder if I can send and receive signals via these mushrooms? They are certainly sending signals to my autoimmune system. I can feel the viral bloom in me. It's a hum I'm not keen to tune into, but I'm impressed by it. In the deep silence of my spinal column, there's a hum neither men nor medicine can interrupt.
Of course, when I say lover, I mean husband. In her book Writing, Duras tells us one mustn't speak of the husband to lovers. I don't have the exact quote, the book left behind in my desert home where it turned out I'd rather missed the silence of trees, so different from the silence of rocks. Anyhow, of all the advice in Writing, this is the imperative that lodged in me. Do not speak of the husband. To the lover. Or subsequent lovers. And by that we must also mean do not speak of him to the reader, though Duras briefly breaks the rule to issue the rule. I'm not supposed to be married any longer, anyhow. Isn't late-stage capitalism strange, isn't love? At night my husband absorbs over the telephone my undelivered speech, as he often has before. Where does he keep it? The line hums even though there's no longer any such thing as lines. We speak through the static of an out-of-date metaphor.
I'm saying speech-act a lot in class lately. It's very 90s of me. Maybe it's a result of being back east where I first encountered such terms. I'm saying voice. I'm talking obliquely about the poetry teacher I had who implored us all to listen and find our authentic voices. What a boor, what a bore. But now I think he got the listening part correct. I don't know whose voices these more slippery hums issue from, but I do want to turn to their channel.
Molly Bendall writes in American Poets, after J.L. Austin's speech-act theory, on poet Christine Hume:
[...] in Hume's poems, the word repetitions with their rhythmic potency and hypnotic effects undermine logic and rob the words of their mundane usages. The echoes and cumulative sounds behave as saboteurs infiltrating the real and representational, and in turn attempt to access an otherworldly or occult realm. As in a charm, but uttering certain words, a bond develops in which an action or alternative outcome becomes possible. The circuitry of the utterance inserts itself into the listener's and speaker's own nervous system. (229) (3)
There's a binarism to Duras's constructions in this interview that just won't fly now, but if we look at binarism as a symptom rather than a structure, it's useful to see how we're curing ourselves of it, often by turning inward. I do agree that women don't know themselves, or some women don't. Or I. I mean, I do not know myself, though I know that before I rise to the surface to perform Pafunda, I rise to the stratum woman. In class, I assure my students I don't believe in an authentic self any more than I ever did. But that doesn't mean the self isn't a powerful metaphor. As must a poem's metaphor, the metaphor self must be vivid enough to its audience to produce belief in the real. If there is something otherworldly or occult in my silence, it's only my self that can speak it back from the forest, the grave, the home, or the hum.
Anyhow. I agree that I do not know myself and I often seem to issue from darkness. To some degree I have the persistent notion that I would've been more robust, replete, worth regard, that I would've been something I more enjoyed being, had I not been shaped by an ableist, capitalist heteropatriarchy. I would still have been more amalgam than essential being, but a more ideal amalgam. I don't like what I've become. Or, I just don't know what I've become. It's unfamiliar to me.
SHK: Are women trained to act organically, or are they that way naturally, because of their biology?
MD: I can't say. For the moment, that is how they are. (428)
I live with my children in an apartment complex near the forested campus. I'm friendly to the maintenance men (they're all men) in the complex, and chat with the one who's replacing some siding on our unit. He then knocks on my door at 7:00 am as I'm preparing my children for school. He gives me his phone number. I don't know what to do because he has come to my home, which is also his place of work. He then tells me he didn't mean any harm, worried I might report it to the property manager. Harm, hum, hymn, him, home, les hommes. The homonyms shape-shift first a threat then a promise, a stranger, a sanctuary, a community one might have to walk from.
I didn't tune in to this man's frequency, but there he is broadcasting over whatever else I was trying to think or hear. Later he tries to friend me on Facebook. He yells out to me when, deep in thought, I'm crossing the wide green lawn of the complex, mesmerized by its many sorts of mushrooms. I say hello because in the community it's important to appear neighborly and not incite anyone's irritation. Please ignore me, I want to say. Please insert a silence whenever you see me.
Reverse everything. Make women the point of departure in judging, make darkness the point of departure in judging what men call light, make obscurity the point of departure in judging what men call clarity. (426)
So Duras says. Upend everything. Make me your point of departure. You're no longer a destination to which I travel. I no longer commute to your intelligence. It's binary in her expression, but it doesn't have to be. Men, in Duras's formulation, are metonymy for those-calling-the-shots.
Now it is 5:17pm and I am in the bath. My children chatter in the closed loop of their phenomenological space. "Do you eat dinner together with your family?" the smart, kind pediatrician asks my youngest. "No," my youngest tells her. "We watch television." We do. None of us can eat if there's talking. I'm a bad mother. I haven't elevated us. We take turns eating, and we do it without looking each other in the eye. Maybe we're like wolves, or maybe we're just the worst of the bourgeoisie. The film In the Company of Wolves comes luridly to mind. After dinner a parry, we come home hungry with stomachaches as though we've eaten nothing and far too much at once.
Children, your mother is never alone. Always, she is surrounded by you and your multivalent voices. She can hear your colicky cry, still, and she can apprehend the multitude of declarations you might make as an adult. "In the future, tell your therapist," I say, "that I knew this wasn't good parenting. Tell them I was out of resources and I knew it." I don't know myself, but I know my conditions.
Women must speak out. They must date. They have to say, "No, today I will not work." ... They have to tell men: "What you say bores me. Your intelligence doesn't interest me. I don't know to whom it is directed. Not to me. It bores me. I am bored with you." Women must leave the community-I'm speaking of a daily process. Wherever they feel bad, they must leave. (431)
Says Duras. That's starting to happen, responds Susan Husserl-Kapit. But then it stopped happening, didn't it? The exo-community didn't sustain itself. Or was a theoretical paradox. If you left the community, did you simply haul the community with you? I thank about Agamben, then stop. We have more immediate obstacles. Isn't it too expensive to go? Isn't it too impractical? What becomes of your children? What if you have to work and the only paying work is inside the community? In late-stage capitalism, who can say "[n]o, today I will not work"(432)? Not me.
Of course there is a masculine literature and a feminine literature. There are also non-binary and nonconforming literatures. There are nuances in each of those categories. There's a major and minor literature, a colonizing and colonized and anti-colonial set of literatures. There's literature of dominance and the literature of resistance. What I didn't realize about the literature of resistance was how tired, brittle, jagged its authors must always have been. Duras doesn't expect us to be lively about it. She tells us to grab what pleasure we can where we can, and not to bother expressing our burdens in a language built to dismiss them. It's permission to shut up, shut down, change the channel. It's permission to know that what's in you deep, dark, and lovely in your spine is brewing trouble you might catch yourself humming along with. That buzz in the blood that does not rhyme with power or chores or wages.
(1) Berlant, Lauren. "Cruel Optimism." The Affect Theory Reader. Editors Melissa Gregg, Gregory J. Seigworth. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
(2) Hume, Christine. "Poetics Statement." American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement. Editors Michael Dowdy, Claudia Rankine. Middle Town, CT: Wesleyan, 2018. Pages 221-222.
(3) Bendall, Molly. "Utter Wilderness the Poetry of Christine Hume." American Poets in the 21st Century Poetics of Social Engagement. Editors Michael Dowdy, Claudia Rankine. Middletown CT: Wesleyan, 2018. Pages 223-237.
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2018|
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