Attuned to the Frequencies of Things Other

'Tonometer (1876),' by Flickr user 'D_M_D'

[Image: “Tonometer (1876),” by Flickr user D_M_D (a/k/a sublimedutch). (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

The Night House

Every day the body works in the fields of the world
mending a stone wall
or swinging a sickle through the tall grass—
the grass of civics, the grass of money—
and every night the body curls around itself
and listens for the soft bells of sleep.

But the heart is restless and rises
from the body in the middle of the night,
leaves the trapezoidal bedroom
with its thick, pictureless walls
to sit by herself at the kitchen table
and heat some milk in a pan.

And the mind gets up too, puts on a robe
and goes downstairs, lights a cigarette,
and opens a book on engineering.
Even the conscience awakens
and roams from room to room in the dark,
darting away from every mirror like a strange fish.

And the soul is up on the roof
in her nightdress, straddling the ridge,
singing a song about the wildness of the sea
until the first rip of pink appears in the sky.
Then, they all will return to the sleeping body
the way a flock of birds settles back into a tree,

resuming their daily colloquy,
talking to each other or themselves
even through the heat of the long afternoons.
Which is why the body—the house of voices—
sometimes puts down its metal tongs, its needle, or its pen
to stare into the distance,

to listen to all its names being called
before bending again to its labor.

(Billy Collins [source])

and (italicized portion):

I lie here, expanding into the blackness, letting my body rest, my mind open. Oceanically, I feel waves of emotion—fear, joy, sadness—wash through me, and I feel connected with every living being. Somewhere this very moment, babies are born, fathers are dying, mothers are grieving. Yet, pervading all is a groundless awareness, delicate and strong at the same time. Everything becomes we, a beating heart with a transparent, radiant smile. And we are awake.

(Judith Simmer-Brown [source])


If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—not all of whom are modern… I mean, if you are willing to make allowances for the way English has changed, you can go way, way back with this—becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul…

So probably the smart thing to say is that lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.

(David Foster Wallace [source])

Not from whiskey river:

When you get out of the car, the first thing that strikes you is the sound. Through the windshield of your car you have already seen the spectacle, tens or even hundreds of thousands of snow geese rising and falling to and from the lake, cyclones ascending and descending as if it is here that the secret sorcery of the world to come is being performed. And it is a phenomenon, all right; it stills your heart, mesmerizes you to see so many birds in the sky.

But the sound is what floors you. Even from a thousand yards away, you feel it as much as hear it. It comes in waves and pulses, like magnificent applause: a quarter of a million geese braying joyfully at the tops of their lungs. The marshy soil vibrates with it. You vibrate with it. It doesn’t matter how long or hard a winter it’s been for you, when you see and hear that many geese singing, calling so enthusiastically, with all of their struggles behind them, there is no way you can any longer hold onto your own.

(Rick Bass [source])


Over and over Tune

You could grow into it,
that sense of living like a dog,
loyal to being on your own in the fur of your skin,
able to exist only for the sake of existing.

Nothing inside your head lasting long enough for you to hold onto,
you watch your own thoughts leap across your own synapses and disappear—
small boats in a wind,
fliers in all that blue,
the swish of an arm backed with feathers,
a dress talking in a corner,
and then poof,
your mind clean as a dog’s,
your body big as the world,
important with accident—
blood or a limp, fur and paws.

You swell into survival,
you take up the whole day,
you’re all there is,
everything else is
not you, is every passing glint, is
shadows brought to you by wind,
passing into a bird’s cheep, replaced by a
rabbit skittering across a yard,
a void you yourself fall into.

You could make this beautiful,
but you don’t need to,
living is this fleshy side of the bone,
going on is this medicinal smell of the sun—
no dog ever tires of seeing his life
keep showing up at the back door
even as a rotting bone with a bad smell;
feet tottering, he dreams of it,
wakes and licks no matter what.

(Ioanna Carlsen [source])


About the image: A link from the image’s Flickr page takes us to the Cooper Hewitt Museum site, which explains:

A tonometer is an instrument that determines the frequency of sounds. It provides carefully measured standards against which other sounds can be compared…. the tuning-fork tonometer was brought to mechanical perfection in the late nineteenth century by Parisian acoustic-instrument maker Rudolph Koenig.

The so-called Grand Tonometer shown here, itself built by Koenig, includes some 670 tuning forks ranging in pitch from either 16 or 260 hertz (depending on the source) on up to 4096 hertz . Says a page at the site of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History: “Koenig’s great tonometer was exhibited at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 and was widely regarded by American scientists as the most scientifically important instrument at the event.” (Simpler times, eh?)

Here’s a video from the National Museum about the science behind tuning forks; it features the Koenig tonometer for a short segment:

Looking into the history of all this leads one down a rabbit-hole of sizable dimensions. See, for example, this “history of pitch,” and this detailed discussion, from 1877, of the metrics behind Koenig’s Grand Tonometer vs. one used in establishing the diaposon normal — the official French “standard pitch.” (One self-styled sound artist has also done a recording of all the tuning forks in the Grand Tonometer, while on a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution.)

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  1. I love the Billy Collins poem. It speaks to what I’m working on right now as I prepare to teach a series of webinars on the writer’s voice, and to me.

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