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The Sounds (Beneath the Sounds)


Tat-tat-tat. Tat-tat-tat. With a flick, a yank, or a push, the noises rip it up. Sensurround, Leatherface-style. Nerve-racking, as the Doosan hydraulic breaker, fitted to a small excavator, drills into concrete. Full throttle. Tat-tat-tat. Tat-tat-tat. The worker, probably a Bangladeshi, sits at his throne, the wheel of the machine; empowered for a day’s shift, he’s the one to rule them all. Tat-tat-tat. Tat-tat-tat. Tat-tat-tat. A few feet away, a sidekick/compatriot monitors, strapped with a neon-yellow safety vest emblazoned with “Traffic Controller” on the back. Work has resumed on the re-pavement after months of lockdown. Just like that, the staccato assault zaps the delusory lull, everything zipped into focus. Is this the sound of the new (ab)normal? Where have the workers been for the past few months? Were they quarantined, as the coronavirus sieves through easy prey in the dormitories? Lit, a koel’s crescendo shreds the semblance of a morning idyll. In place of a fog, the air now rings with purpose, whatever that is. Where are we, what should we do? Do something, do something, may well be the mantra typed out in Morse code by the propulsive breaker. Accordingly, a genial conversation between two sane and sensible individuals emits 50 to 60 decibels; a busy street 78-85 decibels; an electric drill 95-100 decibels; a hammer on nails 115-120 decibels; and a power drill 125-130 decibels. What about this bleeding steel breaker currently boring through my cranium, each tat-tat-tat, tat-tat-tat intensified a trillion times over by the acoustic layout of the amazing bell jar we find ourselves in: the slab block, from which one peers down diagonally to the car park, the location of the asphalt tumult; directly facing a three-section residential block, its left and right sections folding inwards at acute angles? The set-up, in a stroke of delusional whimsy or, more likely, pandemic anxiety, can be compared to an exemplar of devotional art, The Garden of Earthly Delights, an oil triptych on oak panels painted between 1490 and 1505 by the Early Netherlandish artist Hieronymous Bosch (the work, measuring 205.5cm × 384.9cm, is housed in the Museo Nacional del Prado, in Madrid, where bar, restaurant and nightclub owners, devastated by Covid-19 measures, have been up in arms, holding banners reading, “Help!” and “We are not the problem”.) Tat-tat-tat. Tat-tat-tat. As the drilling ensues, so begins the penetrating, deeper and deeper, into the heart of the dark garden. Closed, the exterior doors, rendered in grisaille, depict the world as a translucent orb, a snow globe, or a fish egg of indeterminate origin. Open, and the left panel is Eden. In the distance, strangely-shaped, blue mountains rise, shoot up high, weave like tendrils, while a murmuration of birds – a formidable army united in creed – thread through edifices and form aerial manifestos, unleashing a stentorian squall that can be heard throughout lands far and near. In the middle of the panel, a succulent-like Fountain of Life, perched on a mound in an azure lake, is the cynosure. At the base of the fountain, a wafer-like disc with a hole in the centre, housing an enigmatic owl which occupies the dead centre of the panel. Closer, God plays matchmaker as he introduces a demure Eve to a sitting Adam, surrounded by creatures big and small (exotic trophies from voyages of discovery to new and future colonies), and lush flora including an engorged dragon tree entwined with a vine whose leaves resemble wafers of the Eucharist, and a palm tree with a serpent slithering down its trunk. Let the sound of the drilling subside, and be lulled instead by a spa soundtrack of chirps, chirrups, hums, bleats, mews, caws, coos, and squeals, accented with water burbling and the susurrus of leaves in the cool breeze. A white unicorn drinks at a nearby lake, horn dipped into water, cleansing it. What sound would the mythical creature make? A gentle neigh? Everything is hunky-dory, orderly and symmetrical, as is our wont to overlook early signs of unease – a murky pool in the foreground where odder wildlife (ibises, salamanders, unidentifiable animals) emerge, frolic, feed on one another. Move to the central panel, the pleasure garden, and, O, we are seduced by peals of laughter, unabashed and familiar, ringing through the ages. How we’ve missed such carefree freedom, and who, among us, isn’t complicit in the Anthropocene of unbridled lust, sucking, swallowing, grabbing, groping, probing, poking, swapping liquids (and zoonoses), in rites and transgressions, some scrupulously hidden from public sight? Meanwhile, the Seven Sins ride in, pride on a dromedary, greed an antelope… for what price free will without accountability? In thrall to instant gratification – stretch, twist, snap! – we pluck apples from trees, revel in pageantry, plunder nature’s munificent gifts as we roam far from the “hortus conclusus” (Latin for the “enclosed garden”, the Eden in question). Over the centuries, we’ve magicked space ships, raised towers of wild imagination, trampling on other sentient beings along the way. Amidst the carnivalesque display stands the Fountain of Youth, erect and fleshly, protruding from a bulbous, blue sphere; and inside the finely fracturing sphere, are, in place of the owl, a fondling, naked couple. Close your eyes and take in the orgy – smacks, slaps, slurps, cracks, thumps, thwacks, slugs, spanks, raps, clips, bops, dings, dongs – which segues to the right panel, the Last Judgement, where the sounds, vocodered, become increasingly warped, and at whose expense? How, in this age of enlightenment, are we to make of this phantasmagoria featuring, among a litany of punishments, giant ear lobes pinned through with a needle or an arrow, and a knife jutting out from them; an avian-headed insect-man gulping humans who are then excreted out into an abyss of what has to be mewling miscreants; a sow in a nun’s habit; and a tree-giant gazing back serenely, his egg-like torso cracked open and hollowed out to host an inn of gluttons attended to by assiduous varmints? Another fool has sheet music branded onto his posterior (the score miraculously transcribed and performed in 2015 by then-Oklahoma Christian University student Amelia Hamrick as ‘The 500-Year-Old Butt Song from Hell’). By spell or blood, one is drawn to the ominous, cinematically lit background, outlined by silhouettes of what could pass off as modern-looking factories, gas chambers or crematoria, augmented by flames, smoke and Hollywood strobe lights, and what must be the regular heaving and hissing of industrial gyres, not unlike the tactile sound design by Tamás Zányi for László Nemes’ harrowing holocaust drama Son of Saul – ceaseless shovelling, the steam of boilers at maximum capacity, the desperate banging on walls and doors, tat-tat-tat, the shuffling of clothes and suitcases, the dragging of feet, the cyclical trudging of trains arriving and leaving... Tat-tat-tat. Tat-tat-tat. A horned fiend (demagogue, inner saboteur, or traitor) leads a platoon – thud-thud-thud, thud-thud-thud – across the bridge at the city gate; some souls, felled, float or sink in the moat. Tat-tat-tat, is this rumbling under our sutured skin, “footfalls echo in the memory”? Seeping through sleepless seams, sometimes shrill as a civil defence siren blaring across the island to warn the country about imminent threats; other times soft, tat, tat, tat, tat, as rain on windowpanes. Beyond the gates, past the triptych, who are but agencies or disruptors in each other’s lives,

a baby bawls a doorslams

a car alarm or a gunshot goes off…

keeps you

awake

cranked coiled

ready to

bolt

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© University of Canberra | Poetry on the Move 2020
Poetry on the Move is a major initiative of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research in the Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra.

The University of Canberra acknowledges the Ngunnawal people, traditional custodians of the lands where Bruce Campus is situated. 

We pay our respects to all Ngunnawal elders - past, present, and future - and to their continuing culture.