It’s been a brutal year, and I have been wondering how to speak in a world that doesn’t seem interested in listening to things searingly urgent to me.
Because I wanted to think about that with others, this fall I taught a class on listening and voicing. I wanted to counter our unlistening, and I wanted to think about who gets to voice, how they get to voice, and how we listen to each other. My late friend Akilah Oliver’s notion of the “visible unseen” was one way we framed things. She wrote a poem-essay, “the visible unseen,” as part of her grieving and healing process when her son Oluchi died. In it, she considers how graffiti makes visible the invisible body that made it. She writes,
When I first saw graffiti, I recognized an ugly ecstatic, a dialectics of violence, a distortion of limbs, a hieroglyph. It was only later when I read the names of the dead that I then saw the path of ghosts charted there; its narrative of loss for the visible unseen whose place in history has been fictionalized and rendered unseen under the totalizing glare of history.
There is so much to say about that, but the best thing to do is to read that passage again, and then, if you haven’t already, to read her book, A Toast in the House of Friends.
We read a lot of other poets and writers in that class: Dolores Dorantes’s chillingly beautiful Style, translated by Jen Hofer, Layli Long Soldier’s much- and rightly lauded Whereas, Amiri Baraka’s essay “How You Sound??” We did crazy listening exercises inspired by the late great composer Pauline Oliveros, who wrote things like:
Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.
Loosely translating “the visible unseen” into the spoken unheard, Sappho was another starting point. She is a poetic mother who keeps on giving, maybe (for me) because my great grandmother took her as a guardian angel for inventing a way to be a lesbian in the early 20th century, but maybe just because she’s amazing. In fragment 31 (quoted here in Anne Carson’s translation), all her senses famously flee from her body as she watches, in a cold sweat, the woman she desires talking to some man — “whoever he is”: