Lawrence English Approaching Nothing

[Baskaru; 2016]

Styles: field recordings, relational listening, l’art du quotidien
Others: Luc Ferrari, Chris Watson, John Cage

En la incierta ribera / —guarnición desigual a tanto espejo—/ descubrió la alba a nuestro peregrino

I’ve been up since 4 AM, which I blame partly on myself, but mostly on the mattress here in the hotel. The manager promised to bring a firmer one up by tonight. From my small window, I watched the mute moon and felt a strange twinge of affinity, she and I both sleepless. Denied such an option, my restlessness slid into compulsion, an urge to wander.

Lazy walks about the village, however, are far from a terrible use of time. Even at the start of my peregrinations, this sleepy town was far from it. Yes, the calls of wildlife were sparse and most signs from the animal world were the sounding shuffles of paws through grass, a Derridean trace if I ever heard one. The real music, however, came from the fishermen, always beating daybreak. They pushed their motorbikes from their houses, so as not to wake the whole town. The soft play of gravel and rubber scored their flight toward the harbor, and when they reached the big hill leading down, everyone hopped on their bike and silently, a parliament of predating owls, glided down the hill. The activation of wind against their loose clothes mimicking the susurrus of a seashell.

Island life is, I think, completely unintelligible to the outsider. The water is in everything, and it drowns everything. Even though the sea right now is fairly calm, it bears an impressive weight. The churning of the water, buffeting the boats, no matter how delicate, is intimidating. To live with that, to live like that.

I only brought one book with me to this island, an uncompleted poem by a famed failure. It’s about a shipwrecked man forced to contend with a strange and unfamiliar world. A common premise, surely, but this was written in the 17th century, so I cut it some slack. I finished it my first day here, but it resonates well.


Muros desmantelando, pues, de arena, / centauro ya espumoso el Ocëano / —medio mar, medio riá— / dos veces huella la campaña al día, / escalar pretendiendo el monte en vano / de quien es dulce vena / el tarde ya torriente / arrepentido, y aun retrocediente.

I wonder what special reverence or fear these leathery men have for the sea, if they feel such a way at all. I have seen a few nazars hanging about and curious bracelets worn by some locals. Perhaps, the complementary churn of outboard motors as a periapt, the boats circling in the water, tracing protective circles about the harbor.

More so prevalent than the grating of wave along shore is the curious mimesis of the motors, demonstrating various stages of tension and relaxation, focus and rest, building to a stentorian growl before whimpering away for lack of fuel.

That’s the other thing about islands: biomimicry. Every culture does it, but on islands, it seems to be complete. I mean to say, if we reduce everything, the only other culture an island has is that of nature. The question then becomes who is imitating who? It isn’t until 8 or 9 in the morning that the motorbikes animate and their snorting and droning rips through the town. Before noon, I’ve mounted the small promontory just outside the village, taking in the far din. It’s the shape of the harbor that carries the boats up here, but the rest of the village noise must fight its way up exactly as I had.

It’s hot today. More so than yesterday. At a guess, based on the sweat pooled in the small of my back, a little bit above 32°C. Hot, and up here, the air is dry. The sun has been warming the rock and forest all morning. Finally, it’s hot enough for the cicadas to begin their performance, contributing their voice to the island chorus. I think of another island poet, this time a Cuban, but also an American.


Oigo un suspiro a través / De las tierras y la mar, / Y no es un suspiro,—es / Que mi hijo va despertar.

No, not a sigh, but the whirring of the cicada. I first heard them two days ago while reading and was instantly enchanted. There are cicadas where I’m from, but not like these. I asked the hotel manager if I could print off some pages about cicadas that I had found online. When I asked him where a good spot to listen to them would be, he looked confused. Then he put his hands up, twirling at the wrists, gesturing “everywhere.”

Navigating the welter, it’s almost as if the bugs and the bikes are harmonizing, modulating their drones in response to each other. It’s a tidal composition. As the motorbikes sound more strongly, the orchestra hushes momentarily. The cicada song is part of its courtship ritual. The little time it has, it spends singing to find a mate. I wonder if they’re hoping to attract the bikes.

My research tells me:

They’re not like crickets that play their legs like a guitar. No, stridulation, as the entomologically minded call it, is a simple mechanism. Cicadas are more complex. They possess a structure called a tymbal built into their exoskeletons. Rapidly expanding and contracting the surrounding muscles generates the tone. Each insect holds it in their body, a natural resonance chamber, before belching it out in a continuous stream of noise. The sound of these creatures is so intense that not only does it drown out birdsong, but it also actively deters local predators from approaching the writhing cloud of sound. These fat little insects, bane to our ears, detonate themselves daily in the name of love.

During my descent, all the noise from the town dies down for a moment as a church bell rings noon. Each successive peal breaking and drifting languidly like a feather falling from one of those countless startled birds taken to the sky. It’s an uncanny and subtle exchange, swapping the natural sound of the promontory with that of human life. I hear the water again, much clearer than in the morning. My knees, punished enough by this trip, make their complaints known.

I settle down at a table, beneath an awning, in front of what I assume is a café or restaurant. The proprietor comes out, more assumptions made, and we search for a common tongue. After the strange ballet of cellphone-mediated conversation, I learn that this is in fact a café, but he must step out for some time. He says I can wait there, if I’d like a coffee or something to eat when he returns. I point to my wrist, asking for the time. He holds up one finger, then three.

The cicadas are less pronounced from this position, and I hear some birds chiming in the short trees. Motorbikes are sparse at this hour, too — a coincidence of some note. From the shade, the village is hypnotic. The gentle scrape of feet against the stony path, the creaking of boats and distant fisherman chatter. An old man with tightened skin like the rest of the seagoing citizens rides past on a bicycle, a pocket radio in his basket dusting the street with a grainy folk song.

This is the attractive part of island life. The simple familiarity of a place and people you know nothing about. The position of shade from which a life of everyday living flows easily. But only I can say that, and even as I say it, I know it to be untrue. I cannot bleed for such a place. Another island poet, this one an apostate.


Îles annelées, unique carêne belle / Et je te caresse de mes mains d’océan. Et je te vire de mes paroles / alizées. Et je te lèche de mes langues d’algues. / Et je te cingle hors-flibuste / Ô mort ton palud pâteux! / Naufrage ton enfer de debris! j’accepte!

There’s a story about this poet. He left his island behind for one of a different sort. However, he took a trip to a place not too far from where I am now. He was along the coast and he spotted a mass of land close to the shore. He turns to his friend and asks for the name of that place. His friend replies, repeating the name of the poet’s home.

Neither born nor stranded am I. I simply lack the language for islands.

Two women come down the street toward the café, a gaggle of children in tow. Weaving in between their guardians, the children test the boundaries of their play, and, consequently, the women would interrupt their chat with a command to bring a rebellious satellite back into orbit. I watched, enjoying the natural charm of the scene, the gentle comedy of gentle chastisement. Earnestness, authenticity, an everyday that is somehow more than anyone else’s. They passed and kept walking, the distance starting to stretch their noise into silence. Right before they entered nothingness, I heard a word I recognized.

Or rather, a name. Athena. My mother’s name and the name of this little girl slipping like a waxwing down the street. My thoughts lost tone and my skull felt syrupy. A strange feeling of displacement. Slotting particularities into new places. Dissonant is probably the best way to put it. Perhaps it’s an issue of poor calibration. No overlap between time and space and myself.

Crows started cawing. They helped clear my head, dispelling pollution like the church bell before them.

I caught the proprietor making his way back to his shop, from the same direction as those women and their children. He greeted me warmly as if knowing I would not move from that spot. He placed a menu down on the table.

Miming for a cup of coffee and gesturing vaguely at what I hope was food, the owner disappeared inside the café. The lesson of the day: the island has its own resonance, the break of day striking the tuning fork. Each man, woman, and child, each bird and bug, each clod of dirt, and each paving stone hums along. I can hear, but I don’t think I can hum.

Todo es hermoso y constante

Maybe that’s not important, though. Maybe I’ve just convinced myself it is. It’s all experience. What do we select, take away, package for ourselves and others? Nothing? No, but almost nothing. Still, that’s enough.

What I’ve taken from this island, the artifact excavated from the salty air, the token I may exchange for some small bit of humanity, is nothing more than a listening. I suppose that makes me an auditor in both senses. Yes, my investigation has concluded. Now I can take this insular calligraphy, rilling along the surface of every street, every face, and every sound, and translate it into my own clumsy script. A real souvenir.

Todo es música y razón

From inside, leaking out, the scrape of metal on metal, the clinking of cups, the owner puttering affably like a motor, and a curious, crackling hiss.

Links: Lawrence English - Baskaru

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