Friday, March 18, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 38: “Cell/(ph)one (A simultaneity in four voices)”

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 38: “Cell/(ph)one (A simultaneity in four voices)”

The Jews picked up rocks to stone Jesus.
Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from my Father.
For which of these are you trying to stone me?”
The Jews answered him,
“We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy.
You, a man, are making yourself God.”

To which he replied, but I am God. Or something like that. (Actually, he replies that the law says that you are gods, quoting Psalms 82:6.) The Jesus of John’s Gospel seems far more divine than human, and I’m annoyed by him as a character, as if he were an extra from an Ayn Rand novel. I keep expecting him to shoot lasers out of his eyes or something. The point is: Jesus’s humanity is not easy to see in John, in all his proclamations of his divinity. He’s harder to hug here than in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). So he’s harder for me to see. The question may well be, how can we see people as God sees them (or, if the God language isn’t your thing, as they might be seen by loving eyes) not as we want to see them? And similarly, how can we hear the voices of others with the ears of Love? Today’s poem is the chorale poem, “Cell/(ph)one” as well as Paige Webb’s commentary on the text performance.

“Cell/(ph)one (A simultaneity in four voices)” commentary by Paige Webb

The instructions say: “Read line breaks as slight pauses, space breaks as silences.” But silence is emphatically impossible during this poem’s performance. When one reader pauses between stanzas, other voices overwhelm the absence. The listener’s focus splits, unable to discern any one for long.

In a video performance on Youtube, the camera faces the shadowed backs of the reader’s heads. It seems appropriate, the facelessness. In that recording, “[Breaking Convo]” is the loudest voice; what he says, the most insignificant (“Huh?”). It’s a conversation broken by distraction, a distraction itself. Dilililiililillililiililli.

Hidden somewhere in there, a prisoner at Guantanamo relays a message to his wife—a fragment of real intimacy swallowed by cacophony. I replay the video, listening for his voice. All I can pick out is “That I love her.” What can break through the static, and how far do we need to lean in to hear? One factor is context, that we live in this particular time, in this particular country, and not another. The question is how we participate, how we listen.

This is (still) the era of Trump’s campaign for more power, with his reductive phrases and their racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic subtext; with his supporters’ violent acts and threats on Muslims, Hispanics, and African Americans; with his manipulation of fear and anxiety that in turn has raised my anxiety and confusion about this moment in history, after all that has happened. On my route home, the flash of a new billboard: “We, Muslim Americans condemn terrorism!” Black letters thrown against a white background, beside an image of the American flag. All that its existence implies, the individual experiences that led to that statement.

On another highway in St. Louis, protesters blocked traffic this past August, on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. An SUV drove through the crowd. Below the news story someone posted: “Agreed. Do not fuck with the evening commute.” The protest was against a constant, an aim to break it by a shift in attention—“Ferguson is everywhere” the yellow roadblocks said—a shift away from the small want to get home now, from the radio, the sound of the kids’ T.V. in the back, the cellphone in one hand, the other on the wheel. I watch that SUV drive through again: Dilililiililillililiililli.

In Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the image of a T.V. in static mode recurs, while the phrase “this is the most miserable in my life” punctuates throughout. Static, loneliness, and what breaks through. Under [Cell/phone]: “You are wanted. You are not / alone.” That’s the promise of digital communication—its sheen of connection without the messiness of actual intimacy. [Cell/phone] ends the performance alone with compulsive repetition of “I have to take this call.” I imagine it read to the beat of someone reaching for his phone, driven by the human need (anxiety) to feel valued, wanted. This is the need books like Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products exploit. I say this as a person who owns a smartphone. Who checks it too often.

Another instruction: “cut [the poem] into four columns for four readers.” Divide the page; don’t let your hands touch the same text; speak over, rather than to, one another. In the video, the four readers haven’t cut the poem—and of course not, it’s a beautiful book. Regardless, the visual of each holding up Sand Opera with a hand or two somehow feels like a quiet defiance to the noise that overwhelms a single voice, that pushes out empathy with an individual’s speech, that kind of intimacy. That’s what Philip Metres offers in Sand Opera—a break in the static, a shift in attention, a space through which we can lean in and listen.

“That I love her.”

Paige Webb is an MFA candidate at Washington University, St. Louis. She serves as an instructor for The Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop and is an editor of February


Maureen said...

Good commentary by Paige Webb; I like how she relates "Cell/(ph)one" to recent events, particularly the campaign; also how she underscores in all that noise (good reading, btw) the most telling detail(s).

Just as "That I love her" stands out here, so, too, in "Guantanamo Diary" does Slahi's "I smelled the odour of a letter that had touched the hand of my mom...." I haven't been able to forget that sentence since reading it. So personal - something readers cannot share with Slahi - and immediately humanizing. It is, for me, one of those moments when everything changes; the "enemy" isn't abstract anymore.

Philip Metres said...

Love this. Thank you! I still am planning to write to Slahi at the end of this meditation.