• In a Field in the Rain, Singing into the Silence of the State

    Roger Reeves

    Spring 2022


    What is the song that can be sung in a bomb shelter, sung to disrupt a State-imposed curfew? What is the necessity of singing—during disaster, whether State-created or virus-induced? Bleary-eyed, my head pandemic-heavy, I ask myself these questions watching protests erupt all over my home city of Austin, Texas, after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer who was white. My daughter sits beside me through this disaster, me fumbling to find a poem to read to her (as I do every morning), a poem that will allow us both to enter the day, which appears much like the day before in this early portion of the pandemic—her huddled over a tablet, watching an Australian cartoon about a family of red and blue heelers; me furiously trying to write on a small pad of paper but distracted by the growing number of deaths in my neighbors’ houses and in the hospitals. How did we get here? And how long will we be here—the purple-blooming crepe myrtle tree tossed by the wind, its branches touching its own trunk as if making sure it is still whole, still there in the ground, and in the city, the people burning and the city burning too? What is the poem, the singing that can console and (maybe console is not the right word), be with (that it’s it be with) us while the city burns, and the people die in the burning, die on hospital gurneys in the hallways, die and disappear because our politicians are too in love with the mirrors of their mouths which they mistake for beauty? But their mouths are not beautiful things. They are the mouths of dogs that run after the trash, pulling down the cans in the alley at night, and, upon hearing the clattering of the can against the pavement, run into the shadows, leaving the trash spilled. They leave, they leave. And, we must be—be with this absence, be with this silence.

    How might we sing into this silence?

    On a Monday in late October 2019, I woke up rather early in a hotel room in Minneapolis after a long day of traveling from eighty-degree weather in Austin, Texas to a milk-white Midwestern sky and its welcoming brick-cold. I was in Minnesota for a conference on human rights, which I always look at askance—these gatherings that remind me more of church meetings where we must whip ourselves into a fervor before we enter the fray of the real world only to find out the real world is gently and not so gently ignoring us. But back to the story. I am not the best hotel-sleeper, often waking throughout the night, stumbling out of bed, groping toward some far-flung wall to fiddle with the thermostat because in one moment I’m covered in sweat and in the next shivering. Suffice it to say, I did not have a restful night so when five a.m. announced its red anathema on the little alarm clock on the bedside table and I could no longer delude myself that a restful night’s sleep would usher me into a long day of forum-going I stumbled, once again, toward this long desk that sat opposite of the bed, opened my laptop, and made my way to my version of morning coffee—drowsily browsing Facebook. I hadn’t been on the social media site long before I came upon a video posted by a former student. Atop the video, she wrote: “The beauty in Resistance,” which was followed by a rose emoji and a Chilean flag emoji. Beneath her titling to the post was a quote, a caption from YouTube. It read: “This is the chilling moment soprano Ayleen Jovita Romero defies the silence curfew, imposed under martial law by the government of Sebastiàn Piñera in Chile and sings the song ‘El derecho de vivir en paz’, (The right to live in peace) by Victor Jara.”

                I clicked the link, but neither the caption nor my former student’s declaration of beauty nor the rose emoji prepared me for what I was about to encounter: a cell phone’s camera pointed at a window; beyond this, night and, across the street, more windows in a high-rise apartment building, the latter full of light; finally, a soprano’s arching, effortless voice suffusing the air. It was as if her voice created a tent of sound that floated up over the buildings and yet somehow found its way into the camera, into this rented room, into my body. I thought to myself, This must be power.

    No, I was thinking nothing. I was too full of sound, and trembling. Her voice was somewhere in the left side of my body, moving up from my stomach into my chest. The ambient noise of the street—dogs barking, car horns bleating, even the shushing of those who try to speak during the impromptu recital—did not interrupt her singing. In fact, it was another iteration of the silence that she was and is singing into, singing with. (In a late interview, John Cage said that traffic is contemporary silence, so the soprano, Romero, sang, sings on into that contemporary silence.) Though you have only the perspective of a single cell phone pointed at a window and cannot see the rest of the city in their kitchens, noiselessly sitting in their living rooms and bedrooms, you can tell the whole city is listening not only to Romero but to Jara.

    Jara’s “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz” was written in 1971 to commemorate Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam, but the song eventually became an anthem of protest against the repressive Pinochet junta (and it’s a song for which Jara had his hands cut off before being murdered by Pinochet’s death squads). This is a double-singing, then, a double-haunting. Through Romero and those musicians gathering in squares all over Chile, Jara sings into the silence of the State, again, sings not only into the curfewed silences of Piñera’s government but also back into the silences of Pinochet’s dictatorship, into the silence the dictatorship tried to make of his life.

    Romero’s version, then, is a co-performance of resistance against the curfew of silence imposed by Sebastiàn Piñera’s government. By listening, Santiago’s citizens have reclaimed their silence, have repurposed it, leveraging and legislating it toward a subversion of a State-imposed passivity. Their silence becomes resistance in the form of mindfulness, of paying attention to your life, to pleasure, to the anarchy and ecstasy of a voice singing into the mandated silences of the Chilean state, a singing that thrusts the city and the country into the future.

    It is also an ironic resistance, the silence surrounding Romero’s singing, in that it deploys the thing the State wants but does so in the opposite fashion. Their silence does not confirm the government’s power but actually circumscribes it. It is like that moment in Cornelius Eady’s poem “Gratitude” where Eady’s speaker surrounds and overwhelms the bullies, the elitists of poetry. Eady writes:

     And to the bullies who need
        the musty air of
        the clubhouse
    All to themselves:
      I am a brick in a house
        that is being built
        around your house.

    Signifying on Audre Lorde’s famous admonition—“the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”—as well as signifying on the long history of Black people in this country being understood as objects, Eady’s “Gratitude” echoes the subversive silence in the YouTube video of Romero singing into the Chilean night. Similar to Eady embracing his brick-ness, embracing the abject history of being an object with subjectivity (i.e. chattel slavery) and subversively deploying it, the citizens of Santiago, Chile, perform a similar sort of resistance, circumscription, and subversion.

    They build an outside-of, a house, a nation that envelops and swallows the government and its curfew, the State’s “house.” Rather than dismantle or tear down the master’s (the State’s) house, the master’s narratives, the master’s silence, Santiago’s citizens surround and neutralize the State’s control. They leave the imposed silence of the State as an artifact, an emptied and empty memorial, thus removing its power, its efficacy, its control, and run off with the resources. If it were money or a train, one might say the citizens of Santiago remove it from circulation even as it appears to be in circulation. It is a takeover but without hostility or force, without prior agreement, contract, or law. It’s power. The power of the people to decide. It is a co-performance that dismantles sovereignty as well as the State’s belief in its own sublimity, its omnipresence. The curfew, pierced by one solitary, intentioned voice, offers the opportunity for something beyond—a beyond-sovereignty, which the people inhabit if only for the video’s two minutes and nineteen seconds.

    Their silence, even if fleeting, does not require a forever. It is not a failure if in the next night, the military or government’s soldiers in their black Kevlar vests and long guns are rapaciously back in the streets.

    In the soprano singing and the silence that surrounds it, welcomes it, helps to author it, we glimpse the emergence of what Sun Ra calls the impossible. According to Brent Hayes Edwards, the impossible for Sun Ra is “the recognition that the radically different, a radical alterity, is inconceivable, and yet paradoxically exactly that which must be conceived.” Thus, the impossible is unimaginable, mythic in scale, yet simultaneously imagined, worked for, and reified on earth. Sun Ra conceived of the impossible in terms of space travel and the intergalactic; however, the speculative and mythic technology of space travel is akin and cousin to the political, resistant act of imagining and enacting an alternative organizing of community and nation, an out-there, an otherwise; like Romero singing into the Chilean night, an oppositional sound that ushers in a new regime of political reality—the impossible.

    When has a city remained quiet enough that one voice can be heard for blocks upon blocks? Is that cessation of noise not an impossible made possible? It reminds me of Sun Ra’s poem that commemorates Apollo 11 landing on the moon, first published in the July 1969 issue of Esquire:

    Reality has touched against myth
    Humanity can move to achieve the impossible
    Because when you’ve achieved one impossible the others
    Come together to be with their brother, the first impossible
    Borrowed from the rim of myth
    Happy Space Age to You. . . .

    In Sun Ra’s poem, we glimpse not only an encomium for the Space Age but also a political and metaphysical theory as well—how to live and enact the not-seen, the not-achieved. Enacting these impossibilities requires reality to touch myth, put potential opposites into relation; in other words, for the unseen (but possible) to be brought into the banal, into the everyday. It’s a decreasing of distance between the speculative and the present. It’s a proposal of intimacy. In Chile, reality “touched against myth” in the guise of the soprano’s clarion call and its authoring silence. It is a friendship, a brotherhood, but of the most political sort—this intimacy of silence and sound, of myth and reality.

    This intimacy is the beginning of art, which is the beginning of politics. It is the notion that something must be said, must be marked, and that marking, that said thing, listened to (surrounded in silence) as it aspires to collect and articulate that silence, that desire for an invisible, the unspoken but known, future. This dual-authored text brings about a contradictory future, one that seems impossible or invisible because of the current reality; and in bringing the other closer, in touching the other, in this intimacy, it produces an impossibility. Us. And the future—now.

    Roger Reeves is the author of King Me (Copper Canyon 2013) and the forthcoming Best Barbarian (W. W. Norton 2022). He lives in Austin, Texas, where he is an associate professor in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

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