Tag Archives: voice

The Venus Flytrap: Frida & The Finches

Standard

If the finches of the Galápagos islands can’t sing in key, they may go extinct. The males trill to draw their mates to them, and their courtship songs vary based on the physiological differences of their beaks. Through the ten thousand years or so of their existence, their beaks evolved in distinct variations to best suit the sustenance available across their habitats. Diverse shapes, sizes and sharpness for seeds, insects, or cacti. The birds are also known as Darwin finches, after the scientist whose work was heavily influenced by encountering them.

But a human-caused parasitic infestation is affecting their beaks, and thus their lovesongs. Their nostrils are being deformed by the larvae of a blood-sucking fly, which feed on tissue, keratin and blood. The songs of misshapen beaks, off-key and therefore off-putting, have ceased to have their intended effect. Not only are chicks dying from the parasitic attacks, but the survivors cannot sing their lineage into being. The mates cannot be seduced.

A line from of one of my favourite poems, Anne Sexton’s “Sonnet XLIII”, haunts me as I think of those birds – broken into, their faces and voices mutilated, still desirous, without having that yearning be met. And the thwarted mates: where does their disenchantment go? Beyond some point of no return, loveless but ripe with memory, Sexton wrote: “I only know that summer sang in me / A little while, that in me sings no more.” I sought the finches’ songs, and instead found words – reams on their voices and their bodies, but not enough of their music.

Amidst this silence, a resonance. The National Sound Library of Mexico has just discovered and released the only extant recording of what may be Frida Kahlo’s voice. I had never known that I had never known what her voice was like.

In the recording, a woman reads a passage in intimate praise of Diego Rivera. The reading seems practised, with an easy rhythm. The motifs are familiar; the words seem to be Kahlo’s. Rivera the toad, the baby, the great artist whose hands are ever working. At first I wondered what her natural voice must have been like, especially if she had been coached and made a few attempts to perfect the audio. A little moodier, maybe. A little smoke-laced. But this voice is bell-clear, ebullient. Strikingly so when we learn that the recording was aired on radio in 1955, the year after Kahlo’s passing. This would complicate the possibility that it was her, except that the recitation was enigmatically described as being by “a painter who no longer exists”. Researchers believe it was made in the last, painful years of her life.

For a dying woman she sounds buoyant. Even rehearsed, this was Kahlo’s true voice then: her voracious desire to live and her adoration of her beloved both vivid. Having had an amputation, she had written in her diary of not needing feet, being winged. Thus returns the sorrow over the vanishing finches, so misunderstood. I wish for them mates who can perceive their true voices. Even in mutilation and dissonance. And for love or something like it to carry their timbre through.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 20th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Voice In The Shape Of A Blood Clot

Standard

A blood clot in the shape of a bronchial tree, a tree in the shape the air takes as we draw it into ourselves. Two trees, actually – one for each lung, upside down like branches reflected in water. (We are bodies of water too, mostly). A dying man in California, bringing up small clots of his own blood in a hospital suddenly, violently, coughed out a perfectly-formed, arboresque one. A cardiothoracic surgeon who attended to him called it “beautiful anatomy”. It is beautiful –  and horrific – the way his blood filled the shape of his breath. I know we should not keep staring at this blood clot like it’s something between an art object and a talisman, without thought for the person who coughed it up in his final days, after his heart had failed but he was still alive. But as this strange year dwindles to a close, it feels like a perfectly-formed clot of blood is as worthy of meditation as any other symbol.

“A woman in the shape of a monster / a monster in the shape of a woman”, begins the Adrienne Rich poem for the astronomer Caroline Herschel and other unremembered women in the field. The delicate, brutal branches of that blood-sculpture evoke it. What shape would your truth take if it was expelled, whole, into the light of day? Would it be so monstrous, would it be so beautiful? (The two do not cancel each other out). The poem ends: “I am an instrument in the shape / of a woman trying to translate pulsations / into images for the relief of the body / and the reconstruction of the mind.”

For myself, I am perhaps hoping to do the reverse – to translate, relieve and reconstruct in ways so that image and thought become pulsations once more. I have been cerebral so long, and this being cerebral has compensated for what is in truth a loss of voice. I told an old friend: I lost my voice when my heart broke in the year I claimed my life back, and that helplessness manifested itself as thyroid disease. She didn’t know what I meant. She counted the evidence against my claim. And I said to her: I have not yet expressed what is truly within me, I have only brought forth echoes.

Echoes lack embodiment. I ground myself by considering the malfunction of the butterfly-shaped gland at the bottom of my throat. I place my fingers there and feel my pulse, the pace at which my blood fills me. I draw the infinity symbol in that place with frankincense oil. My friend went to the Pyramid of the Sun and the Moon in Teotihuacan, and she said that endangered monarch butterflies – those “daughters of the sun”, spirits of the beloved dead – throng and thrive there now. Our voice notes, disembodied, erase the distance between continents as if through flight. And one of these days, my voice will fill me again in the shape my breath takes when I speak, the shape of my secret passages. Arboresque like forking lightning, like the fractals of desert rivers. Fill them like liquid, like light.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 13th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Calling To A World That Isn’t Listening

Standard

Deeply disheartened, I stood before a lit lamp and tried to find a reason to raise my voice in a world made deaf by its own silences. A line flickered to mind, and I recognised it as the title of a book I’d wanted to read, but had never purchased. That line was: “finding beauty in a broken world”. The environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams wrote a collection of essays by that name, on seeking a way of being that integrates all the fragments shattered by human brutality. I yearned for the book suddenly. I have buried myself in language for as long as I can remember. It salves me. It puts me, too, back together.

I sought an excerpt online, the way another person might view a movie trailer. In the first page, Williams writes – “…I faced the ocean. ‘Give me one wild word’. It was all I asked of the sea.”

That was how I had felt, at my altar – and that page led me to this page you read now.

All libraries carry the memories of trees, and sometimes it is to the source that we must go. The summer streets are carpeted with the yellow flowers of rusty shield-bearer trees. I recall the closing lines of Adam Zagajewki’s poem: “Praise the mutilated world/ and the gray feather a thrush lost,/ and the gentle light that strays and vanishes/and returns.” This is what I try to do, in the evidence of the lines that precede them: “You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,/ you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully./ You should praise the mutilated world.”

As I write this, my voice hurts – both spiritually and physically. For the latter, I drink a kashayam, and for the former I seek the balsam of words. And as I do, I remember something: not too long ago, I was a part of a panel on women’s issues. After the event, one of the other participants asked me, “So, did you never fight with your parents as a teenager?” Of course I had, I said lightly. “Oh really? How is it fighting when you have a voice as soft as yours? Not possible.” The indignation I felt was at once blunt and sharp, like a pair of precise surgical scissors. But in the interest of politeness, I said nothing. I looked her in the eye and allowed a tactful bystander to laugh the situation off with a “that’s just her voice!” How little the person who had insulted me knew of war, I thought, to not be able to tell a fire from a blown fuse.

Tonight, through my bedroom window and yours, the first full moon of the Tamil year will blaze. Perhaps you’ll see it, awoken by mosquitoes or misery (or just the stealth of moonbrightness). And if you do, remind yourself. To sleep well is an act of self-care, and those of us accused of caring too much frequently forget to tender ourselves the same. A mercenary measures steps in blood, a soldier in miles, and a warrior in how gently one’s footfalls shape the earth. Were we only so gentle with ourselves, too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

“The Lovechild of Anaïs Nin and Johnny Cash. Pure Sin on Amphetamines.”*

Standard

(Or, Contrary to popular belief, I am not in love with the sound of my own voice.)

But I enjoy using it, especially in artistic expression. And there is some evidence (occasionally culled from speaking to distracted drivers from the backseat…) that shows that there are folks out there who kinda like it too.

No hidden brag posts here, just a nice dose of the shameless usual. I resurrected my Myspace account as a musician one, so as to upload spoken word recordings. You can find me here. Two poems are up now: Karna Considers Yuanfen and And If You Still Must Leave, both recorded by Kieran Kuek at 2am studios, Kuala Lumpur, last year. The latter poem is up in two versions — the violent rendering, in which I usually perform it, and a colder, more controlled one, which Kieran encouraged me to explore as an alternative method of delivery.

To be honest I wouldn’t say that it’s these two poems that should introduce people to my work, but those are the ones I have good recordings of.

I’ve found that I don’t enjoy recording in studios, or for the sake only of recording, very much at all. I slip up more. I feel less in my element. There is an absence of a certain haphazardness, which gets lost in multiple takes. I remember something I read in a magazine maybe a dozen years ago, when I certainly could not relate but was intrigued enough to keep it in mind — the singer Jewel in her pre-sellout days likening recording in a studio to faking an orgasm.

Nonetheless, there are more recordings in the works. The final cut of Poem, which I did with Kieran and also in a different persona, hasn’t grown on me enough for me to upload it. I did some recordings for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last month, and if any of that is workable, will definitely upload.

I recommend using headphones, and listening to them loud.

Find me. Add me. Listen. If you like.

* That would be a quote. The subject line is because I think Jerome’s line, “poor man’s Kylie in shorts” is way cool. My friend the actor and credit card abuser Branavan Aruljothi offered me the above for a “sounds like…” comparison. It is not nearly as cool. But neither am I.