There was a brief craze years ago, over an optical illusion poster which to the naked eye seemed like nothing more than a jumble of repetitive patterns. What was hidden could only be revealed if the viewer relaxed; both mind and vision had to be present but distant to see the second image. Sometimes the mind rebels at trying to find order in chaos. Even when the latter is represented as a type of order, and within that creating even more confusion, the path to it all along is the simplest yet paradoxically, the hardest to achieve.
F.M.R.L.: Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound by Daniela Cascella (Zero Books) is such an exercise. In some ways, to say it is a book does it a disservice, although of course it takes the physical form. Words in lines, on pages, familiar structures. But there is a magical disorder to all of these which reveals the logic from its listener-writer as well as creating a new one from the reader’s perspective: those of sound and word, meaning and memory. To read, in this instance is to open someone’s mind and play with the thoughts within, and then delve into your own to discover a kinship.
Her pages are filled with spiralling thoughts, questions that are so imbedded in us – perhaps even assumed unanswerable – that to dissect their nature seems a path to madness sometimes:
…I question language at the edge, dispossessed words against a horizon of void. Words coiled up on themselves, words after sounds that allude to a meaningful absent: troubled, they point at something else but are uneasy with regard to the shape and movement of that at…It’s difficult to operate through them. Either sound is too far and leaves words in a void intimacy, very private but inexplicable and frozen, or it breaks in and leaves no chance. Hence their meaning can only be delirious: not immediate or most obvious. What, how to write in front of sound?
But they are also an intricate matryoshka, as shown in her viewing of David Lynch’s Lost Highway. The process of listening here – reclaiming incoherence, as she puts it – nestles other worlds, reversed characters and questions. Questions devour endings, which then transform into beginnings. All is within the matryoshka, just as the ouroboros of myth devours and renews itself. From one movie to another, the mirror scene towards the end of The Lady From Shanghai illustrates this similarly: questions hide answers which disguise the nature of characters – which reflection is the real person, the truth? Sound here is simple dialogue echoing in the mirrored surfaces, bouncing back stark and confusing, a cycle that threatens to be eternal. And then the crystalline shattering of glass, the breaking up of an intricate story of lies, the true characters remaining.
Have you ever repeated a word to the point where it becomes alien, loses meaning until it is almost at the edge of being unlearned? That brief vocal unravelling can temporarily negate whole structures of thought, leave you wondering where the stability of words lie. These are only noises, after all, when they leave our lips, only scrawls when they leave our pens. We need, and more than that, we want a receiver, a translator; someone to accept, understand and respond. If there is no one, what are we doing but shouting noiselessly into the abyss? This connection of potentially lost meaning is echoed as she reads Clarice Lispector’s Água viva:
I am not transmitting to you a story but just words that live from sound.
I’ll keep talking to you and taking the risk of disconnection.
…I write because I so deeply want to speak.
But she also poses the idea of mise-en-abîme, where the echo is a reassurance, especially as an Italian writing in English, reading French (Leiris’ L’Afrique Fantôme becomes a three year labour of broken understanding and piecing together meaning as she knows very little of the language), where certain words become a reference to other writings, and she hopes that others that reading/listening to her words will understand the echo even if they do not grasp the actual reference. There is a comfort and a familiarity in the shifting nature of words between languages, that transcend, as she puts it, the opacity of listening and writing in a non-native language.
Aural memories, Cascella says, are not static. They shift with our lives, affect the present rather than being fixed in the past. Thinking of a lullaby sung to her by her Italian grandmother, her mind plays with a single word, taking it from reality to fiction, life to death:
Again I go back to that lullaby, it was sung to me by my grand-mother, in Italian nonna, it went nonna nonna nonnarella, it was sung by nonna-nonsense, nonna-sense, and lullaby is ninna- nanna, nonna-nanna, nonna-nenia, nenia is dirge, incantation. Nonna-norna norn. The norns, in Greek mythology, are the spinners of the thread from which life is woven, they measured each person’s lifespan and cut the cord to deliver them into their death, as once they had cut the first cord or chord: when the thread began when sound began. In tune a thread unravels in life, measured by its pace within a recalled lullaby.
These memories become sentient soundtracks, chameleons adapting to the colours and sounds of the present. How do we read/understand another person’s soundtrack? We can never really understand it completely, of course – they are like fingerprints. But connections are overlapping Venn diagrams, and the best ones overlap almost to the point of uniting their circles. Her childhood lullaby calls forth my own sung by my Japanese mother, called the Edo lullaby. But what was meant to soothe instead haunted and disturbed while I lay in her arms. This must have been one of my earliest memories, although I do not know how old I could have been at the time. I remember writhing to be released on hearing it, and the look on her face, bewildered, as she put me down. It was a fighting reaction, I suppose, on being told to do something. But it has shadowed me in my life, presenting itself in different pitches in stubborn moments – fighting moments. Nennen korori yo, okorori yo (roughly translated, it means to hush, go to sleep). Nnnn-no, the violent shaking of the head and body when you are young and express your displeasure. Nnnn-Noh: Japanese theatre, character masks. My face/mask looks Japanese, hides my shifting cultural identity that even then was in flux.
The author asks, how do you write after sound? To analyse is to destroy its ephemeral nature completely. A plume of smoke, a trail of sound, a memory. They all haunt – how to grasp and solidify but still maintain the essence? In this context, considered words seem to have all the eloquence on paper of an anvil attached to a bird attempting to fly.
This is how I am drawn to sounds. I know nothing of them, they whisper from the edge of my understanding: spend time with me now. And then I recall, then I write and the words that follow will not have a punctum, they will trace instead an extended arc of kinships, in various degrees of closeness or distance, opacity and clarity, and the evidence will never be there, and it will always be on an edge…
Sound is the ghost sense. It stands apart from the others. Take the rose, for example. Blood-red, velvet to the touch. A sweet, almost berry scent. And if you chewed a petal, a bitter taste. There may be some variance in this, but not by much. We would all be in relative agreement. But what does a rose sound like? It has no sound, you say. But there would be a sound, however imperceptible, overwhelmed by the rest of nature and ignored by us – this is its ‘nothing’. The sounds of a bud opening, its petals unfolding. How to describe it? To then move from a simple flower to the sound of memory, of history. Is it an impossible task, or is it that we are so used to violently pinning down our descriptions that we cannot yet understand that we can only describe sound as if we were opening our hands to let a butterfly come and rest on them?
She speaks of sound lying in-between: objects, words, other sounds. The gap is the place of the tale. Is it that there is a richer, a truer meaning in those spaces? This makes me think of Sappho’s fragments, and strangely, candy floss. The most beautiful of her poetry is the poetry that is not there. The reader translates that emptiness. We hear something in that nothing that speaks to us and spin emotion from it. Clouds of spun sugar are created from sugar and heat, but mainly air. Nothingness is given form. This arises again when the author reads Pierre by Herman Melville, but importantly, an old copy that was misprinted; or rather, not printed at all on several pages. These blank spaces are listened to intently in the context of the words that surround them; what emerges are patterns, while over and over she replays in her head a line from elsewhere in the book: for still hidden writings to read.
In the beginning of F.M.R.L., Cascella mentions Bataille on how we should approach primitive art with emotion rather than logical reduction to gain meaning: he urges to consider instead the feeling of their burning, fiery presence that strikes us. Feeling is the temporary release of logic to gain understanding, the complete exposure of oneself to the in-between spaces, the offering of physicality to absorb meaning. It is how we connect with objects, sound, writing, memory, and what gives us the ability to communicate with others about them. It is like the norn’s thread, but eternal, binding us together.
I want this to be sensuous… the murmuring voice that speaks from the bottom of the page.
Daniela Cascella is an Italian writer based in London. Her research is driven by a longstanding interest in the relationship between listening, reading, writing and in the contingent conversations, questions, frictions, kinships that the three practices generate, host or complicate. @enabime
Tomoe Hill lives and writes in a converted lunatic asylum near London. Her last short story, “Peripheries”, was featured in The Stockholm Review of Literature. She is reviews editor at Minor Literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat.