The To Sound
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
— Emily Dickinson
How many volumes of contemporary experimental poetry have you read in praise of absence, silence, cleavage, difference, and unspeakability? Or championing gaps, breaks, fissures, and abysses? If your answer is, “It depends on what you mean by ‘read’,” then do not “read” Eric Baus’s The To Sound, published in 2004 by Verse Press. If, however, your answer is, “More than enough, isn’t anything different going on in the experimental poetry world?” then go to your local bookstore and buy (more likely, order) this book. In a slim eighty pages, Baus takes a much-rehearsed problem – the inadequacy and unreliability of language – and provocatively commingles wryness and melancholy to offer an alternative to the encomia for contingency and ambiguity that usually result from most contemporary meditations on language.
Although The To Sound is full of its fair share of gaps, fissures, and blanks, in Baus’s world these are just givens to be dealt with, not abstractions for belly-button gazing. And Baus deals with them by constructing a synaesthetic cosmology in which bodily senses transcribe the nonsense of internalized language into a sensible external world, and vice versa. Or to evoke the epigraph from Emily Dickinson’s most sensible of poems, Baus does not just use his eyes to discern the meaning of inner thoughts – which appear in the poems as fragmented chunks of language – or to absorb the meaning of the surrounding world – which appears in the poems as birds, science, medicine, and family. Instead, like a synaesthete for whom numbers might evoke a certain color, months a particular taste, or the alphabet’s letters a specific smell, Baus uses the full palette of the body to bring the inner and outer world into provisional alignment. The body becomes the syntax that holds sense together: “Everything I say is part sound rain” (48).
This unqualified and confident statement is a departure from Baus’s generally more tentative tone – reluctance accompanied by a compulsion to apologize [e.g. “I apologize for using my museum voice” (13); “I’m sorry for transcribing the incendiary tenor you never wanted read into your movements” (17); “…you’ll have to forgive my absence of perfectly phrased clippings to back you up” (18); “I couldn’t exhale long enough to explain my delays” (35)] that stems from his awareness that he is tackling some very large and much-discussed problems of poststructural thought: the difference-based structure of language and the death of the subject.
“The sleeper develops in the chords of my throat,” a poem that intertwines the representational challenges of film, radio, and speech and articulates the physical limits of sight, sound, and voice, exemplifies the poststructural logic out of which Baus’s poetry grows and then departs. The poem is a series of simple phrases and sentences without any transitional language holding them together. The absence of formal cohesion effectively performs the content of those phrases and sentences which discuss how the space between objects is actually more meaningful than the objects themselves:
I am the retina and throat of that ghost. Recorded in her blanks.
She enters through the fissures. The vagrant space between our eyes.
To pronounce the blank in her mouth.
We develop in the space between revolving and breath.
Gloss in the chords. Detached.
I am a hive and shard of that voice. (68-9)
This deconstructed conception of representation complements an extended meditation on the ontologically suspect status of subjectivity, a theme most thoroughly taken up in the book’s third section, “The Thing I Do Is Speaking.” Like Beckett’s Molloy trying to determine the few things about his identity of which he is certain, this section begins with the speaker laying out the basic facts: “I can’t picture myself, but I know my name” and “I think, I remember, and I am still” (51). Appropriately, the Cartesian subject is eventually dissolved into textuality: “I was named. I have form. I want to watch the work as it speaks, but I can only hear my own signal” (53). Or:
I don’t want to say anything about us, what we are made of, or the tin cup the teller’s mouth ruined. When I can’t think of another, I use the word signal. You would sound so good beside my name. It is pictorial. From the painting. I can’t place you. How do you know my work? You can touch anything except for me. Come outside, please. You have strayed in my mouth for so long. (52)
Even though Baus is churning up the poststructural landscape by expanding his conception of language beyond the textual to include speech, film, and touch, and even though he playfully deconstructs “you” as well as “I,” these parts of The To Sound are the most hackneyed.
But as I suggested earlier, these well-rehearsed difficulties are just a jumping off point for Baus. It is the understated irony and humility with which he struggles to align language, body, and world that makes this poetry so unique and enjoyable. Baus writes, for example, “You say the chest is a place just to step from, but I have found a crushed the in my lungs. A cyst in the flight of my buried in.” Earlier in the same poem the speaker tells this unnamed “you,” “I am worried about your embedded bout of disavowal. The submerged magenta hidden under your blue. The arteries of am or spilled tongue of a” (48). Here, the synaesthetic substitution of articles, prepositions, colors, and body parts blurs the line between earnest concern and benign facetiousness. This understated yet plainspoken tone, which the poem’s speaker variously names his “museum voice,” “indoor voice,” “paperback voice,” and “darkroom voice,” derives from the epistolary form of most of the poems which begin and take their title from the salutations of letters addressed to either birds (“Dear Birds, There is still some weather here,”) or to a sister (Dearest Sister, Let’s not pretend there are no bad questions.”).
The everyday ordinariness of Baus’s epistolary syntax and grammar, which reads like the voice of a reticent Midwesterner, throws the challenging content of these poems into stark relief. For example, the following lines sound like a well-therapized speaker sharing his feelings with someone, but the bizarre content of those feelings incites readers to dwell more thoroughly on the possible connections among these seemingly disparate things: “When you said you were tired of living like a silhouette I could feel every naked bulb burning in the house. I could taste the mercury frozen in all my fillings” (36). This statement’s syntax is common, but its content is perplexing. This substitutive aphasia is even more jarring elsewhere: “When you said your densest glass was melting, I could see the place between matrix and maxillary in your brightest mouth, I could feel my pupils shrinking” (29) and “When I hear you got your vitamins through half-drawn curtains, I could feel your deepest crescent turning, I could trace your trajectory to a split open listening, the straightest cut of parchment.”
Although we are initially inclined to figure out the precise relation among the odd array of content populating the poems, I think that Baus is making a larger point, independent of the content of his poetry. Rather than pinpointing the interconnections among melting glass, the geography of a mouth, and pupils, or among vitamins, crescents, trajectories, and parchment, Baus seems more interested in suggesting the possibility of a super-logic that uses bodily senses (notice the preponderance of “I feel”) to connect the inner world of thought and the outer world of appearances. This becomes clear through more egregious examples of this substitutive aphasia: “‘weight takes over a wing’ comes to my lips when I pass a downed powerline” (22) and “Your vowels have been spreading since I notarized the ‘ancient am’ under your arm, and your tilted diction suggests a torch of arid bladder syndrome” (45). In these apparent non-sequiturs, one thing leads to another in the same way that the curious content of these poems is substituted for the more ordinary and banal claims that would typify the plainspoken form of this writing. The concluding line of the “arid bladder” poem nicely captures this effect: “I assuage you, this aphasia will swoon.” The line is syntactically, grammatically, and even sonorously similar to, “I assure you, this ____ will end soon,” but this line about aphasia, like the majority of Baus’s poetry, is itself aphasic.
Instead of precluding understanding, however, the aphasia highlights the interconnective function of the body; “random thing x” is related to “random thing y” because feeling, taste, smell, and sound intervene to translate one into the other. In other words, the body becomes the syntax that holds the worlds, inner and outer, together, an effect that Baus’s own poetry performs as the syntactical units function perfectly despite being laden with seemingly incongruous content. Perhaps this is why in Baus’s cosmology, the syntactically functioning body is also the site of all those throw-away bits of language that do the hard work of making it meaningful in the first place: the “ancient am” of the arm, the “The arteries of am or spilled tongue of a,” the crushed “the” in the lungs.
This correspondence between the body and rudimentary parts of speech culminates in the final and eponymous poem of the collection. Riffing on the individual words in the phrase “the to sound,” Baus writes, “I know I can never understand the. Even if the was powder on my lips.” Why worry about understanding the relation between powerlines and weighted wings if you cannot even understand “the”? And “the” in this collection is not to be belittled. It is pure definitiveness, it is what “to” gives to “sound” in the phrase “the to sound,” and it is a word that must be heard:
You are a. Too. Tuned to has. Ash.
You are the you and. The to sound. The utter the.
If I have to spit out all my teeth to stay in the.
The. Is it all to say the weight of the?
And so the descent into substitutive aphasia proves to be an attempt to refine our attention to the parts of speech that do the real work of meaning making. Nouns do not relate to each other simply because they are objects with a distinct set of characteristics that can be described as similar or different. It is only syntactically functioning words like “the,” “to,” “of,” and “am” that make connection possible, an important point in a literary and theoretical world that still uses a representational paradigm to critique language and its ability to communicate meaningfully. The apparent madness of the representational content of Baus’s work proves to be divinely sensible once it shifts our attention to the bodily syntax of physical relations.