It wants to be heard

The poems that came in, both from the young and the adults, all had some things in common - they positioned the sound poem against silence.

 |  The Sideways Door  |   Long-form |   24-12-2014
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For the first time since The Sideways Door appeared, I have been overwhelmed with submissions. There is much to be said for putting the word out judiciously - this time, a friendly teacher passed the prompt on to her students and they submitted work in droves. Most poems, therefore, are by those between the ages of 14 and 16 and it gives me immense hope to think that poetry matters to these young people.

Naturally, the poems submitted reflect the demographic's concerns: if I was expecting poems that celebrated the howl of speeding cars or the music of machinery at work in urban spaces, I was bound to be disappointed. The poems that came in, both from the young and the adults, all had some things in common - they positioned the sound poem against silence; their spaces were still indubitably 'natural' ones in the traditional sense, where the sound of the fan or a storm is more worthy of notice than the more urban, nearly-virtual world many of us inhabit. Perhaps this is a cause for celebration after all.

Some poems used rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and synaesthesia to good effect and I will come to those in due course. In all, this month's submissions, both in number and in quality, were such that I've reluctantly had to leave some poems out of discussion altogether. I'd urge those poets to not be discouraged but to continue to submit in another month.

And so to the poems:

I said the poems were often meditations on silence as an oblique way of thinking about sound. The poem "The Silence in the Library" by Nangsal W. begins with the lines

  • The silence here is urgent.
  • It wants to be heard.

The speaker submits to it by parsing the soft sounds the speak for the silence - books being taken off shelves, the soft breeze rustling pages, the heavy tread of a teacher approaching a daydreaming boy. With rare skill, he transfers the hushed quality of these sounds to the objects in the library: the fan that 'manages not to feel dizzy', the book 'so thin and starved', footsteps that make 'every soul shiver in the room'.

So also in Harshitha's poem, 'The Music of Shadows', silence becomes noticeable only by its interruption:

  • A haunting hoot stirs the silence of the night
  • The creeping shadow chills the notes of the full moon
  • Half a breath against a cold mirror
  • a tingling silent skate of vapour
  • Under a butterscotch street lamp, the restless
  • flutter of moths creating dancing ripples on the ground

The silence of the night is a unique kind of silence - eerie, unfamiliar and chilly. What do the 'notes of the full moon' sound like and how are they chilled? The alliteration of 'haunted hoot', the striking image of 'a butterscotch street lamp' are memorable details.

In Kavya's 'The Sound of Light', light falls into a room soundlessly:

  • The soundless light
  • Fell softly through the roof
  • Trickling down the wall
  • Slinking silently until
  • Clink, it taps the glass
  • Creaks through the crevice
  • Defiantly drums the door
  • Finds music in the wood

The poem is ostensibly about light but the alliterative description of its progress through the room makes it a musical one - it slinks, taps, creaks, drums and finds music. The only unnecessary word in this extract is 'clink'; 'taps the glass' quite adequately suggests the sound.

Any poet worth her salt should delight in the sound of words as words - their ability to fill the mouth with a pleasure that is close to taste. The poems discussed so far have used alliteration wisely and like salt in food - in moderation.

In Swayambhu's 'The Pandaemonium of Peace', however, the words rampage in an alliterative, anarchic celebration of sound that recalls nothing so much as the verse of Ogden Nash:

  • Pondering and pottering I play with the probable possibility
  • of a plausible perilous predicament preceding
  • the pandemonium that will propagate through
  • pensive paranoid people

One has to look hard for meaning in that tongue-twisting explosion because the poet appears to have used words for their sound rather than their sense; but meaning is present, in the question:

  • Do the murderous machines monitor our minds, or
  • do we steer them like sad silent snails

I especially like 'sad silent snails' for how it describes a human perception of time as against a machine's. The word 'pandaemonium' is an apt one for the poem and I wonder if the writer knew just how much. He is the youngest contributor this month, being in Grade 9, so perhaps current chaos will yield in time to control.

A wonderful control of rhythm and line is evident in Arun R's 'The Sound of Truth', which is an almost-sonnet in its structure:

  • Know you the sound of a blazing fear
  • The heave of a sob, the splash of a tear?
  • Know you the snarl of a soul's last breath?
  • A lifeless surrender to the embrace of death?

The poem's old-fashioned syntax coupled with its easy progression of thought makes it a poem that could have been written by someone much older. We value the sound of the spoken word too much in poetry today and so it's a pleasure to read a poem by someone unembarrassed by a clear, imposed rhythm and rhyme structure.

I had said that many of the poets wrote about a 'natural' world. In one such poem, Sophia Pandeya turns the nature-sound-poem on its head by imagining a thunderstorm as a predatory Marquis de Sade. In 'Diary of the Marquis de Storm', the speaker wants to ravish the quiescent land:

  • pounding
  • her every thought
  • and mouthing
  •  
  • those soft breasts,
  • of hillsides flecked with
  • nipples of houses I tweaked
  • with rain quilled tongue, then
  • clapped mercilessly

The descriptions are erotic but it's easy to hear the storm in the words, 'ramrod red siren, wet slap of flash flood/ she is my beep, my prod, my door slam and traffic jam'.

So far, none of the poems discussed have thought of sound as being located outside the body; sounds clearly happens elsewhere. But illness has a way of amplifying sound and distorting in strange ways, as we see in the last two submissions.

In 'Headache' by Rahi De Roy, the speaker experiences a common kind of synaesthetic confusion brought about by migraines - the fevered merging of light and sound. It's a poem short enough to be quoted in full:

  • Headache
  •  
  • A beast thumped through my head
  • sending the starry points of fever spinning
  • into each other, causing pain-coloured
  • explosions-- blue, green, silver and red.
  • It prowled my rain-hollowed skull, still
  • crackling from the electric seas it crossed
  • to reach this shore. When this small, white pill
  • dropped in with a plop, I did not expect more,
  • but found that drugged asleep and dull,
  • it was far heavier than before.

The compound words 'pain-coloured' and 'rain-hollowed' evoke the essence of the confusion of senses but the strength of the poem lies in its clear two-part structure - pain and its remedy - but the two parts also seem to have merged into one solid, undifferentiated whole, like the pain experienced by the speaker.

David Jairaj, who has been a regular contributor, sends in a narrative poem that is chilling in its clarity:

  • I used to live in an empty house,
  • Walls awash with memory,
  • Windows shut from domestic grouse,
  • And doors closed to buggery.
  •  
  • But emptiness is the quantum field,
  • Our most potent chance to wield,
  • A hand worthy of a creator's likeness,
  • A mind removed from worldly bliss.
  •  
  • From a full menu of hallucinations,
  • I picked my career: auditory vacations.
  • Though I began with voices to amuse
  • I quickly graduated to freaks cut loose.

More effectively than talking about silence and the schizophrenic multiplication of voices, the empty house of the first line stands in for both the mind of the speaker and the sounds with which he seeks to fill the emptiness. The emptiness does not denote silence; here lies the complexity of the poem. What it holds is a particular violence that the speaker wishes to escape - 'auditory vacations'.

'Empty', 'vacations', 'a mind removed' all signify an absence that is not cerebral but terrifying because they allude to things rather than state them. This is why I have left off the last two stanzas of the poem, because in their bald statement and diagnosis, they undo the work of  what has gone before.

*

This has been a terrific month for submissions and I look forward to the new year with a sense of optimism and eagerness for the work you will send me.

I leave you with a poem by Mark Strand, who died recently. It is probably Strand's most-quoted but Jairaj's poem has called it to mind. The poem's apparent bleakness resolves into a cautious hope and it's seems a fitting note on which to end the year.

Here is Mark Strand's 'Keeping Things Whole'. The Sideways Door wishes you a very happy new year.

Disclosure: One submission from among the young people belongs to my offspring. I won't specify which one.

Writer

Sridala Swami Sridala Swami @sridala

Sridala Swami's latest collection of poetry, Escape Artist, has been published by Aleph Book Co. She is an alumnus of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

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