Reading Life Aloud

Late in the evening the wail of a siren.

We had not heard any gun shots, though they are frequent enough these days to elicit shrugs. Neighborhood dogs start to howling, echoing the alarm, filling in their own parts in harmony. The air is stickered with it, like a collage with scraps of noise, pasty smears of sound. But it’s nighttime and the sounds make their way sightlessly until they find an ear, any ear. The noise of day with its throngs of listeners is retired now, and the evening runs things its own way.

Lacking earlids we live with sound’s endless impressions. We are always hearing, always soaking in sound’s pressing embrace. I like to tap on glass to hear what it is, to hear its clarity. In the seashell we hear the sea. In the wind rustled leaves, music. Halted in traffic, the signature of a culture comes booming from a nearby truck. Idle chatter or clarion calls, these pings and flourishes are themselves the markers of silence.

Out in the desert, away from roads and towns, the markers come from another quarter. It’s the yips of coyote or the serrated hum of insects that mark the silence. A pause in the mute dark recalls the ghosts of the sounds that had once passed this way.

Sirens or crickets, a gap, a faint distant ring. Like prospectors, we pan the grit and soil of our hearing, looking for specks and nuggets of silence. But a simple lack of sound is an artifact of subtraction. The quiet we found was there all along. We are to silence as fish are to water.

And the city, weary of its own bleats and braying, finally settles down. The dogs too, now that they’ve had their say.


There is wildness in the mechanical lurching of interleaved parts. Eagerness in the hum of transformers. You can feel it in the finger gliding sheen across chrome steel and in the abrasions of puckered tree bark. It all plies soundly in the aggregate. I see as beached waves, their edges traced in foam, the mark and sign of the human. The beasts we call tame reflect the wilderness of an unchecked procession. I do not condemn it. I take delight in these civil surfaces with their attendant racket and classify the most garish of artifice as natural.

I have looked for the dividing line between nature and us. It is ambiguous and replaceable. It is indistinct. There is always the wild, partisan little weed erupting from a crack in our concrete cornucopia. There is no edge to the wilderness, any more than you can assign a shape to infinite space. There are no sounds outside of silence. There are no unwild things.


World views define the qualities of nature, and a world view always selects one thing over another. But nature itself has its finger in every pie. Nature is its own nature, and we the curious, eager to understand, confront the absurdity of cataloging it all. It is troublesome that understanding lacks closure, that it’s always cutting another notch. But how we love the language, with all its baggage, hailing a taxi, catching a plane, late as usual for another explanation.

The manuscripts, tucked away in a folder, are themselves mute. The stamps and sprinkles of ink rest upon the paper, waiting for us. Waiting for our eyes and mouths. Then, to complete the purpose of language, we are born, we come to letters. But first, we come to know by reading life aloud.


About the image: I had placed some red wine in a small blue ceramic cup on the offering shelf and days later found it had dried to form a tiny crystalline planetarium.


the Stradivarius is
a pull chain, and
any light is a continuity

of every light and
sound, a foundling set
to fret, on every vibrancy

and a touch continues
where every other
touch let off

in the pit, tuning
all singular things, aching
to be in concert

Peace, Break Thee Off

The Texas live oak sheds in the Spring
In June you’ll hear me raking in the street
The rot underneath the mat already composting
Awakened by a metallic scraping, but now

A crew with weed-eaters, whining like
Perfectionists, lawn mowers taming the wild
A chainsaw loath to start, sputters
Undoing the hackneyed silence

Oh, prattle on about how great
Back in the day, the silence used to be
By the house cat’s vacated sun-trap
In the porches of our once-napping ears


breath of the ear canal
    shouting self-like, clanging ear-sounds
    shatter an insipid sleep
    secure in the comfort
    of its own noise
    the space of thoughts, ideas
    and the space in front of your own nose
    one space, one knows
come thunder to rattle it all
    we answer with a wild-eyed roaring
    to frighten the wrong away
    then laugh into the void of
    an imagined victory
    nobody can tell you anything
    one knows
so the world becomes
    a self-archiving relic
    the moment I say me
    or you say you and
    some wag-tongue's history underwrites
    then undermines our stories
    propping up a sagging gallery
    fortifying a cherished position
    stories, the ones we know
say it isn't so
    but things are happening
    in the space where intentions form
    before the buzz saw of thought
    gets busy building another shanty
    from the scraps that history
    had no use for
and eyes would not function
    if they sprouted late
    sensors, lumen readers sprout
    bud-like on an old spud head
    full of stuff already seen
    and imagined, but instead
    opened on the face you had
    before our forebears
    before your grandmother's wedding
    before the rise and fall
    of anything you care to name
folds, the map came later
    we used to wing it
    in space, where the offerings
    multiplied to fill the spheres
    before sentient beings
    learned to lose their minds
    in transactions of sum zero
we, who seeing the power lines
    strung above a highway
    full of idling automobiles
    on our way to a dental appointment
    felt struck by a sense of futility
    and reacted in sadness
    instead of madness
we, who run ourselves ragged
    marking the tally of infinity
    stocking the shelves of selves
    in a state we sometimes
    call love, Sangye Menla at the center
    of the mandala of all who live
    and take refuge
clang, the bell emitting clear light
    a sustained glow
    in that space before
    knowing knows it knows
    and recognizes the grasping
    in a moment so sudden and pure
    you will spit your drink
    all over the table
urge, the will to movement
    blind to the calendar's map pin
    always next year's calendar waiting
    seeing the bouquet of youth
    as a fleeting folly
    smile token acknowledgements 
    to fashion a sense of honor
    out of scraps of guilt
    thinking about not thinking
    about it
a stack of bison skulls
    white as sheets
    like a pyramid by the
    railroad stop, taller
    than a courthouse facade
    brittle, sun bleached cone of
    calcium, the milk
    of human kindness
follow, go where others go
    but fight along the way
    and don't give an inch
    unlimited compassion, the Buddha
    herself, at the center of
    every shoving match
    every dirty look
    every soup kitchen brawl
    beneath the flophouse carpet
    and dripping shingle cracks
home bound, where hobos got their name
    war vets, civil conflagrations
    hopping trains and traveling
    the sense of home
    not yet occurring to anyone
    as the here and now
    but do hop a train
    and see for yourself
    everyone makes war, but
    no one wants to call war home
    so go we go, go ahead and go
innocence, no one believes in it
    not really, the castings
    of first stones, in our hearts
    know the knowing, gnawing
    defending the innocent, we
    defend ourselves, side step
    if we can, what we ourselves
    have to answer for
clang, a bell struck once
    rings and rings, and sure
    it fades, a neon-lit arrow
    pointing to the silence
    and that's the mark
    we're far off Broadway
    in a district we call home
    so let's try it once again
    places, and action.

    Maha Shramanah Svaha

The Wake of Hearing

cut string zombie ukulele
banging out the merry dirges
at the wake of hearing aids
the silence gathers dusty motes
the melodies deprived of notes

rest in peace thy merry tunes
unseen by eyes that listened for
a scent up-wind of rustled leaf
the smell of rusty midnight blue
unstrung by time and played by you

kite string whipped by windy gust
swings and sings and puts on airs
you heard it back when you were small
that trick sound plays in foggy din
record it, play it back again