Monday, May 7, 2007

Language's Carnality (a French postcard)

Dearest reader:

I was hoping — hoping against hope, I suppose, as my hope came to no fruition — that you were also planning to attend the reading/talk held by Robert Kocik and Jonathan Skinner at the Peace on A reading series in Alphabet City. Since I failed to see you there, I assume you failed to attend. Of course, assumptions are sometimes wrong: you may have sat in the back, behind me, towards the kitchen. You may have left the room before I turned around. I, often a failure at the art of recognizing, may have failed to understand your face as familiar, as yours, dear reader, dearest mine. Maybe this is so, and maybe you saw what I saw, heard what I heard; this is my hope.

I bring this up now, in this peculiarly still silence, because some of Kocik's ideas were relevant to — gave voice to, if we can say such a thing without sounding our naïvety — some ideas I've been too exhausted to formulate or raise since we spoke last, last week. I mentioned then that "I often start with sound." I mentioned, and you, as in a silent response, raised your eyebrows into little question marks. I should not — and I'll admit it now, and in no uncertain terms — have used the term "sound" simply, as though it could mean what I wanted it to mean, as though it could mean more than it means. I meant more than mere sound, something more than the rush of syllables. I referred to "labiodental fricatives," "sibilants," and "the liquid L," drawing upon a linguistic vocabulary, as though doing so could speak for me.

This linguistic vocabulary interests me, with its attention to language's sound; I hope it will interest you, too. It gives voice to the qualities of these sounds we use when we mean. And it, in certain cases, at least, describes the manner with which language's sound is made. "Labiodental fricative" describes not only a noise distinct from other noises, human-made and meaningful; it also describes the manner in which the sound is made. Here, we draw teeth to lips, and breathe across the space — a space that is not created, per se, but obstructed. There is a scrape to the sound we draw as an F or and f. And we can give voice to this breath, as when we hum v's vibration into air.

"Isn't it remarkable" — Kocik asks this in "The Prosodic Body" — "that the acoustic fact 'd' can build diverse meanings while tapping at the same place on the alveolar ridge and sending forth the same frequency with the same physiological impact time after time?" When he asks this, Kocik touches on the ideas that I've been trying to explain to you for days, and that I am telling you now, right now. Kocik's desire is to situate meaning within each of the sounds that constitute language — to reinvent (for it would necessitate a reinvention) our understanding and use of English to allow us to regard each of these sounds as meaning-full, even before they are built into words. But I'm rushing ahead of myself, into a terrain better saved for a later letter...

What I am trying, by citing Kocik's work, to remind you — and what he is explaining in a vocabulary different from the one I am able to fully employ — is that meaning, at least inasmuch as it exists within language, is located in the body before it is located anywhere else, be it page or mind. But I'd like to — and I'd like to do this without detracting from Kocik's assessment of sound, if that is possible — shift our attention from the sound itself to those actions that precede and facilitate and allow the sound to come into being. He calls 'd' an "acoustic fact," but I'd call it a physical one first.

Call it langauge's carnality. Perhaps you know what I mean: before syllable or sound, before an explosion of the breath can become phoneme or letter, the tongue's tip flips from teeth to the alveolar ridge, raised and bony just behind those pearly whites, before it drops down so its back can raise and close the throat while the mouth is already closing to let breath — which has been a part of this process from the beginning, and through to the end — hiss. Tongue back up and down again, so lips can close and explode outward like a gasp in reverse and miniature... Feel, don't hear, what Dante says. Read silently, even. You need not read his Italian correctly — mouth it: "Quando leggemmo il disïato riso / esser baciato da cotanto amante, / questi, che mai da me non fia diviso, / la bocca mi baciò tutto tremante."

Let me give you another example — Noah Webster's definitions, in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), of lip:

LIP, n. [Sax. lippa, lippe; D. lip; G. Dan. lippe; … L. labium, labrum; It. labbro; Sp. labio; Fr. levre; Ir. clab or liobhar; … It may be connected with W. llavaru, Ir. labhraim, to speak, that is, to thrust out. The sense is probably a border.]
1. The edge or border of the mouth. The lips are two fleshy or muscular parts, composing the exterior of the mouth in man and many other animals. In man, the lips, which may be opened or closed at pleasure, form the covering of the teeth, and are organs of speech essential to certain articulations. Hence the lips, by a figure, denote the mouth, or all the organs of speech, and sometimes speech itself.

LIP, v.t. To kiss.

Webster's "at pleasure" seems crucial, if not to his purposes, then to my own. Lips slips from the liquid to an explosion of breath, eases in a relaxed and hissing rush. I've suggested you — or I, or we — call this pleasure language's carnality. And, in so calling it, shift attention from sound to the activity — fleshy, muscular, breathy, and tooth-sharp — by which language is made. And, in so calling it, identify a locus of physical pleasure that, in my estimation, is located outside of meaning. Locate it on meaning's hither side; place it prior to meaning. This pleasure is meaning's, and language's, excess. What I mean is this: that this carnality — this pleasure of the flesh — happens before meaning takes its shape, as sound or as process of signification. The pleasure in language's carnality does not return to, nor is it reduced by, the utterance that produces it. It's insistence on — or striving for, or what have you — meaning does not detract from the experience of this pleasure. It is not bound by the economy of communication, though it is at once essential and intrinsic to our speech.

I locate poetry at this interstice of body and language — of flesh, sound, meaning.

Perhaps... Wait. Let us interrupt our communication to take a moment to reflect on the close of that word — perhaps the way the mouth draws to a close after perhaps widening to let the breath flee in an h, only to spring open again for s's slip, perhaps a surprise. Perhaps we cannot let our attention to this carnality get the better of us. We cannot live out our days in this trembling. Like Dante, we must swoon — not "as if in death," but into meaning.

[ADDENDUM: I've made a few alterations to this entry, as the mood has struck, and as I have decided certain elements have merited minor modification and/or addition. I've also added an appendix that examines, through the work of several writers, a single verbal sound, both in terms of the physiology of its pronunication and its (potential and speculative) symbolism.]


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