Topanga Fever: an Essay on Voice, Poetry and the Senses for Natalie Häusler. Honey

by Matthew Rana

Q: Under what circumstances does the poem emerge?

A: Assuming a world exists? Bodies and a language. A speaker and a receiver who share that language.

Among the earliest known writing surfaces are tablets coated in beeswax or unfired clay. Both materials are highly receptive, and thus well-suited for inscription with a stylus; in addition, marks made in clay and wax are 'erased' with relative ease, and tablets can be quickly resurfaced and subsequently reused. Such malleability made them an economical solution for the scribes, amanuenses and other slaves of antiquity whose job it was to take dictation from their masters, recording and temporarily storing information – such as accounts and inventories – too transitory to either carve in stone or commit to costly papyrus scrolls. Not all inscription was so instrumental, however: personal correspondence, notes and even hymns have been discovered scrawled into these ancient surfaces. Drawings, too.

While archaeological evidence suggests that the use of ceramic tablets began to diminish as early as the Bronze Age, beeswax surfaces remained commonly in use well into the medieval period, and according to some accounts as late as the mid-19th century, by which time wax had been industrially recomposed into petroleum-based paraffin, and given application in different (if not entirely so) methods of inscription.

In his 1919 essay entitled ‘Primal Sound’, Rainer Maria Rilke writes of a science experiment undertaken during his childhood:

our science master… encouraged us to try our skill in making [a phonograph] from the material that lay nearest to hand. Nothing more was needed than a piece of pliable cardboard bent to the shape of a funnel, on the narrower orifice of which was stuck a piece of impermeable paper of the kind used to bottle fruit. This provided a vibrating membrane, in the middle of which we struck a bristle from a coarse clothes brush at right angles to its surface. With these few things one part of the mysterious machine was made, receiver and reproducer were complete. It now only remained to construct the receiving cylinder, which could be moved close to the needle marking the sounds by means of a small rotating handle. I do not remember what we made it of; there was some kind of cylinder which we covered with a thin coating of candle wax to the best of our ability. …what impressed itself on my memory most deeply was not the sound from the funnel but the markings traced on the cylinder.

Several years later, while studying anatomy at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the poet identifies by way of a “rhythmic peculiarity of imagination” an analogous set of markings in the skull’s coronal suture, the junction formed between the two parietal bones and the frontal bone of the cranium. He speculates that these mysterious marks might too be played like the wax cylinder of his childhood phonograph. In this nameless inscription, a poet who thinks the human through the non-human language of things envisions a kind of writing without writers – a primal sound surpassing voice.

Rilke, however, is discontent. For to “complete” the coronal suture's cipher in such a way would present yet another problem: that of the transfer of experience from one sense to another. In order to render the world in sufficient clarity and detail, he argues, the modern European poet must isolate the five senses such that each sector may be individually developed and extended toward the immaterial plane – or put differently, the eternal domain of the poem. As if experience was distributed through human technological innovation and discrete media channels. Knowledge of these sensory rifts is, Rilke adds, the poet's privileged burden. Which is why, remarking on the opinions of “a lady” who perceives in his radical phonography a “wonderful and simultaneous capacity and achievement of all the senses,” nothing short of “the presence of mind and grace of love... the sublime reality of the poem,” the renowned author mansplains that rather than giving proof of love, the transfer of sense suggested by primal sound actually risks the “splendid danger” of the lover who, situated at the center of the known and the incomprehensible, is overwhelmed by an abundance of simultaneous sensory impressions that lack any individual character. More simply put, poems risk becoming noise. Such spatial and sonic dislocation of course will not do, lest poems lie vulnerable to the contingencies of time. Because love (like politics) is fleeting, proclamations made under its influence cannot endure poetry's non-temporal requirements. Nothing real can pass through its filter. But in offering vocalizations to reorient the very senses that it previously separated, the phonograph needle promises a miracle to the poet lost in feeling: the time-stamp of the work of art.

Nearly sixty years later, following the efforts of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs, Canadian sound-poet Steve McCaffery redistributed voice along another axis in ‘Sound Poetry – A Survey': the cut-up ‘voice-time’ of magnetic audiotape. “Voice becomes a point of departure rather than the point of arrival,” he writes. “The tape recorder, however, allows speech – for the first time in its history – a separation from voice.” Whereas the traces on a wax cylinder, and to a certain extent the coronal suture, preserve a certain amount of temporal continuity, the ‘primal sound’ of audiotape emerges from its spatial properties for multiplication and recombination, non-linear recording and playback. (McCaffery's own work, as well as that of The Four Horsemen group in which he was a member, often features aggressive, 'primal' vocalizations that are as evocative of punk as they are of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics with which he is often associated.) Just two years after French writer and theorist Hélène Cixous famously proposed the development of an écriture féminine, writing that inscribes into language the specificities of female embodiment and sexual difference, the modernist male dream of separating speech, voice and body had achieved fruition. Liberated from the particularities of bodies and the real-time of performance – i.e. its semantic content – the poem had at last been overtaken by the machine.

As they encode sound into binary sequences of presence and absence, today’s digital recording technologies transform speech, voice and body numerically, returning them in a sense to the accounts and inventories of antiquity; the master’s voice mingling with the computer-generated speech of so-called ‘digital assistants’ (whose names, not coincidentally, are gendered). More strangely perhaps, the poem has once again found a home in the real-time of live-performance, and a body of sorts in allegory. As Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman argue in their 2009 book Notes on Conceptualisms, if allegory builds toward an idea, then “all conceptual writing is allegorical writing.” To read or otherwise experience a written work, therefore, becomes unnecessary as long as one 'gets' the idea. Like Rilke, who a century before imagined a mechanized reading of the human skull, Place and Fitterman localize a system that transcends the material plane of somatic experience: that of information.

From coronal suture phonography to magnetic audiotape and the algorithm, the history of the poem as a form of storage and retrieval for the human voice is, like so many tablets of clay and wax, smoothed over and resurfaced. Presaged several years prior by Roland Barthes in a well-known essay for Avalanche magazine, the body of the author is supplanted by the image of a reader, discrete and autonomous poems by disseminated and networked texts. Given this historical schema, it is fair to wonder: what became of the reader's body? Under late-capitalism's semiotic regime of value creation, information technologies and data harvesting, sense experience is something of a premium; and the poem's domain is no longer the lofty realm of the eternal, but an earth-bound abjection that is both economic and social (so-called Instapoets notwithstanding). Precarious and fragile, poems at present require communities, architectures and environments to support them. In such a context, any attempts to attest to their reality, sublime or otherwise, may depend precisely on following the voice of Rilke's anonymous “lady” interlocutor. That is to say, by restaging their relationship to reception, the contingencies of embodiment, time, and sense experience – in other words, their “presence of mind and grace of love.” 

In her work, Ecology – Sunrise of the Heart (2018), German artist and poet Natalie Häusler does just this. Viewers are invited to step two at a time onto a hexagonal platform comprising varicolored rhomboidal tiles saturated with organic and mineral-based pigments. Echoing her sculpture Aquascape (Mountain I) (2018), an underwater environment supported by a plinth of hand-painted ceramic tile, the platform resembles a positive cast of a dried lake bed or an ancient sea floor, its surface indexed with what appear to be the fossilized remains of aquatic life: algae, kelp and sponges but also – incongruously – sheets of beeswax. With so many textures underfoot, standing on the platform becomes a challenge (at times painful), as does maintaining a steady balance; one must proceed with care. At various points on the hexagon, men's voices penetrate the installation's ambient soundscape (a separate composition in six-channel surround sound played on studio monitors) of field-recordings featuring chimes and flowing water. Emanating from ultrasonic speakers overhead, these uncannily proximate voices (rendered audible in the interference patterns created when two high-frequency waves collide with a listener’s body) dispassionately recite peculiar strings of words:

A sexual orbit is: the most penetrating of the three basic types of ionizing radiation;

A solar hormone is: the energy in a system that is available to perform useful work;

A daughter cell is: located in the Santa Monica mountains between the city of Malibu and the city of Los Angeles, California, and is one of the world’s largest open space preserves inside an urban enclosure;

and so on. What at first glance appears to be among Häusler's least 'poetic' works (at least in the conventional sense), upon further hearing reveals a series of ecopoetical operations.

Ecopoetics is a term that emerged in the late 20th century to describe a broad range of contemporary approaches to poetry with focus on relationships between human beings and their environment – from work addressing environmental injustice to the human capacity for becoming-animal. Often eschewing traditional forms of Nature writing in favor of “creative-critical edges between writing and ecology,” such approaches tend toward the interdisciplinary and experimental, for instance, modeling non-human communication systems, feedback, or even quotidian practices such as recycling. Described in somewhat simpler terms by Jonathan Skinner, editor of the influential journal ecopoetics (2001-2009), “'Eco' here signals – no more, no less – the house we share with several million other species, our planet Earth. 'Poetics' is used as poiesis or making... Thus ecopoetics: a house making.”

Like much of Häusler's work, Ecology's 'house' is thick with strangeness, pitching the viewer into a field of somatic and lexical discontinuities that replace one another incessantly. For this intermedia environment, the artist has appropriated the geometry of honeycomb, as well as terms from The Dictionary of Ecology and Environmental Science (1993) – a reference book aimed at compiling and standardizing vocabulary around environmental concerns such as pollution, endangered species and waste disposal. Here, freighted pairs such as 'air quality' and 'gamma radiation' (terms that flank the gallery's main hall in the form of silkscreen prints on fabric stretched over stretcher bars) are decoupled and recombined at random by a computer program; these new terms are then re-attached to chance definitions, generating combinations that have no logical, factual or 'natural' consistency. Topanga Canyon, whose definition is cited above, might thus become a device for measuring the depth of the ocean, a type of fog, or a carnivorous plant.

The contradiction staged here between the urgencies evoked by the term 'ecology', and the non-instrumentality embodied by any poem, spans discursive rifts separating our present moment from that of the dictionary's publication, a mere twenty-five years prior. Terms such as 'Alpine Tundra', or 'Arctic Sea Smoke' become as unstable as their real-world referents following nearly three decades of global warming and climate change. Notably absent, moreover, are terms such as 'anthropocene', 'colony collapse', and 'sustainability' that have in recent years entered into the vernacular – for English-speakers, at any rate. Instead, one hears of 'cloud therapy', 'inclusive fitness', and 'conceptual camouflage', a strangely Californian vocabulary at once semiotically abundant, yet semantically deficient. But unlike, for example, poems generated using N+7 – a procedure which substitutes every noun in a source-text with the noun appearing seven entries ahead in the dictionary – Ecology's composition is dynamic. Its 'voice-time' is in a constant state of flux, ensuring that the language doesn't ossify into jargon, or congeal into genres such as satire or critique. Indeed, the combinations that it yields aren't particularly absurd or undermining. Rather, they take on a generative quality of potential as they elaborate new affinities and networks of association.

At stake then in these acts of naming and renaming is not only human relationships to scale, speed, temporality, and complexity, but epistemology as well – our ways of knowing and engaging with the world at large. Points, in Rilkean terms, at which the known and the incomprehensible converge. That Ecology should call into question modern desires to isolate, rationalize and fix objects – including human language, voice and sense perception – within empiricist frameworks is, therefore, fundamental to its poiesis, which owes as much to Ovid as it does to Oulipo. For taken up here are precisely the forms of relationship that are situated by embodied experience: what can be intuited, felt and transmitted, but not exhaustively or quantitatively known. Call it Nature, the unconscious, or even primal sound. Triangulating sight, hearing and touch, Häusler's work distributes orders of attention where such alterity might be received.

However, in its lexical fragmentation, ambient sounds, and disembodied voices, Häusler's environment doesn't attempt to restore, express or simulate the full range of sensory experience; such approaches would be too naïve, coherent or spectacular. The colors and geometries don't symbolize a premodern utopia or model a future homeostasis; if anything, the platform seems to mark catastrophe. Following Jacques Lacan, the Real that it posits is registered in dialogue with cybernetic systems, media technologies, and other 'communication effects' that in his lecture 'Pleasure and Reality' (one of Häusler's references for this exhibition) the psychoanalyst compared to the experience of eating honey in bed. Neither strictly a raw, unmediated mass, nor – as is the case with phonograph needles and wax cylinders – an undifferentiated stream of flows, it is rather a matter of both-and. Not only are distinct sensory sectors brought to bear on viewers' bodies, but the distances that separate them as well – the knowledge of which was once solely the possession of European (white, male) poets. As in meditation practices that cultivate states of bare awareness in which sensation is met openly and without judgment, viewers are immersed in instances of heightened receptivity: an abundance of simultaneous sense impressions that cannot be easily reconciled or neatly resolved in a single idea, term, or 'channel'. On the contrary, oriented and disoriented by these oscillations of surplus and deficit, viewers here modulate between cognitive and affective states. Or, somewhat more lyrically, between presence of mind and grace of love. Sunrise of the heart, indeed.

Sex,” as Häusler writes in her book-length poem ‘Corals’ (2015) “is the ecology of the poem.” When read alongside concerns in Sunrise of the Heart, this rather provocative line suggests that the poem can only emerge in encounters between bodies broadly defined – in the worldly eroticism and pleasure of being-together, to and for one another, that is continually formed and transformed through language. Indeed, it is through such a reciprocity of life and language that poems are realized, and enter into relationship with the different organisms, processes, and structures (more often than not of a provisional sort) by which they are supported. Like coral – or honeycomb for that matter – this becoming-form is radically vulnerable. In environments that localize the poem's agency in the bodies of its receivers, Häusler's work figures it as co-emergence. For voice alone makes neither for a house, nor the mouth's most splendid dangers. As the Needles, California-born poet Alice Notley (a favorite of the artist) aptly puts it, “this is the body speaking – the physiology of my vision is also clouds & sky & grass & paintings. My skin makes words – fingertip and tongue. Let’s touch tongues.”