The working title of my under-construction novel is Whalelight: A Sounding. Both parts, title and subtitle, are inspired by poet Dylan Thomas. Or not exactly. The title was inspired by a mistake of memory. Although I wasn’t reading Thomas when the title arrived for me, The title that arrived some years into the work was The Moon by Whalelight, which I took to be a line out of one of his poems, and I was reading him heavily when I had the originary conceptions of the novel. It came first as a voice, a sick whisper that babbled sinisterly in and out of sense, the voice of a murderer who would depopulate a city. Then, his name came, scratchy jack cutter.
I searched for the Thomas line, first with the tools of the age, and then I did the analogue thing, rereading all the Thomas poems and plays I could recall having previously read, and reading several I had not read before. The only thing I uncovered I uncovered immediately—like, googlefast—at the beginning of the search—The Moon By Whale-Light is a title by Diane Ackerman (also a poet), a popular science or a collection of essays on the author’s encounters with animals. I haven’t read the book, and Ackerman’s title still feels like a line out of Dylan Thomas to me, as if she were channeling the Welsh bard (or one of his word-warped and sea-roving characters). What Thomas did write is a poem titled “Alterwise by Owl-Light” (~1937), from which comes this:
Hairs of your head, then said the hollow agent,
Are but the roots of nettles and feathers
Over the groundworks thrusting through a pavement
And hemlock-headed in the wood of weathers.
First there was the lamb on knocking knees
And three dead seasons on a climbing grave
That Adam’s wether in the flock of horns,
Butt of the tree-tailed worm that mounted Eve,
Horned down with skullfoot and the skull of toes
On thunderous pavements in the garden of time;
Rip of the vaults, I took my marrow-ladle
Out of the wrinkled undertaker’s van,
And, Rip Van Winkle from a timeless cradle,
Dipped me breast-deep in the descending bone . . .
Which is crunk with religion and dense bodies, like you could lick the sweat, rough-tonguing these animal shapes you nearly can’t see. It’s a beautiful poem, its hands never leaving the earth. Interestingly, too, the kinds of compounds and neologisms Thomas makes (along with my misattributed “whalelight”) perhaps function like the serial objects in an Ian Bogost’s Latour-Shore litany-ontograph (35-60). That is, the compounds seem to highlight the stark separation of the elements that make their terms (marrow and ladle), drawing us into their discrete concreteness, and simultaneously raising a question about the elements’ mysterious intersubjectivity.
It may be that Ackerman riffed her title off of Thomas’s, but that’s only speculation. I’ve glanced at her poetry, and I get a just-so-sour taste. Her verse runs too safely for me—pretty at times, at times almost heavy, but mostly it quietly exhibits a middleclass piety, the kind of reverence founded on a pre-executed notion of religion and funded by money in the bank. (Martha’s Vineyard and Krishnamurti, anyone?) I am unkind (and an envious bastard)—I suggest you look her up for yourself. In the meantime, a slice:
So I dropped the first title I had (it being Ackerman’s original), but I kept returning to the compound whalelight. It spoke to several visions endured by one of the novel’s three focal characters. It did more. “Whalelight” sonared what I felt only as the unexpected elasticity of the novel. Huge vacancies like a hollow earth. Oceans drained of sea. Am I making sense? There has always been another side to the novel. And this word moved through the other side like a wave through water. Outlining dark objects.
Also fitting, I did most of the drafting according to constraints I drew from the works of Joyce and Thomas: Free indirect discourse is the narratological nickname for the Uncle Charles Principle. Eponymous with Uncle Charles, a character in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915), the principle describes the effect of the narrating voice taking on speech patterns (vocabulary, rhythms, thought processes, objects of attention) of a story’s character. For instance, describing the actions of one character, the narrator might say, “He hid out in the crapper”; but describing the same actions performed by a different character, “Uncle Charles repaired to his outhouse.” The third person narrator (which is not an intelligence, not a character in the diegesis proper) is taking on the language and sensibility of whichever character it is “closest” to at the time.
Thomas’s Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices (produce first as a radio play in 1954, and later adapted to the stage) pushes the Uncle Charles Principle further than Joyce ever did. Under Milk Wood has a cast of narrator-like voices, First Voice, Second Voice . . . but primarily the voices are the characters themselves, and they tell their own stories. Although Under Milk Wood was performed by multiple voices when it first aired, its voices are so distinct that the play could have been read by a single actor, a single voice, and a listener would have had no problem discerning between characters. Its voices are this strong and distinct: Read Under Milk Wood aloud for twenty minutes and you’ll feel like the jaw-clacking guest of honor at the Depraved Ventriloquists’ Biannual Circle Jerk. But in a good way.
Here is a sample, two narrating voices, both entrained to the sensibilities of the character currently focalizing the play:
Captain Cat at his window thrown wide to the sun and the clippered sea he sailed long ago when his eyes were blue and bright, slumbers and voyages’ ear-ringed and rolling, I love You Rosie Probert tattooed on his belly, he brawls with broken bottles in the fug and babel of the dark dock bars, roves with a herd of short and good time cows in every naughty port and twines and souses with the drowned and blowzy-breasted dead. He weeps as he sleeps and sails.
One voice of all he remembers most dearly as his dream buckets down. Lazy early Rosie with the flaxen thatch, whom he shared with Tom-Fred the donkey-man and many another seaman, clearly and near to him speaks from the bedroom of her dust. In that gulf and haven, fleets by the dozen have anchored for the little heaven of the night; but she speaks to Captain napping Cat alone. . . .
And you can hear samples of it beautifully read here (performed by Richard Burton and others):
Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices. Not a play for eyes, not for actors, not even for an audience. Elsewhere, I wrote, “Whalelight attempts to disembody voices as a gesture towards nothing—the senseless ache of senselessness, the haunting—from and to which our ghosts, sad or angry or radiant, call us.” I wrote that in part to ask for money (Martha’s Vineyard, anyone?), but it’s a fair description of what I think the novel is attempting to do.
A Sounding . . . So I took the technique of free indirect discourse from Joyce. From Thomas I got the idea of pushing the technique even further, but unlike Thomas, my characters never narrate their own stories. Whalelight, to be clear: I wrote this while ventriloquizing myself, while in possession of and possessed by the voices of the primary characters. In attempting to push Uncle Charles Principle, something else started happening though, a result of that constraint as I conceived it: At times, the narrating voice was so completely taken over by the characters’ voices that all that remained for the conflation to be complete would be to add an occasional “I” to the narrative voice—which I did. Thus there are moments in the text which raise metaphysical concerns about whose story it is, which voice belongs to which entity, and the energetic or noetic relationship of these beings. What kind of subjectivity do they have if their voices take over the world-voice and occasionally each others? The subtitle, then, speaks to the title, to the sonar-like feeling that the title performs on the mystery, diegetic and otherwise, of the novel (if only for me). It also speaks to the technics of the novel directly, and I hope it will alert the reader, suggesting that even if the book is read silently, for a full effect, it is meant to be heard.
Recently, I have been considering making an audiobook of Whalelight. In my initial considerations, I thought I would wait until the book was thoroughly polished. But I find myself currently in the company of several sonic researchers and sound artists, and while some parts of the book need a lot of work yet, this is a unique opportunity to think about and discuss some of the technical and aesthetic questions I have (and I’m sure more will arise) as I attempt to translate parts of this very sound-driven book into the actual medium of sound recording. Those questions are to come . . .
Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It Is Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.