‘moon before the sun pronounces’

Dictee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: 1982 [University of California Press, 2001] p157

Super Blood Wolf Moon ~ 21 January 2019, 05.11 GMT

One of my favourite sections of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee is TERPSICHORE CHORAL DANCE, which receives relatively little critical attention. The section opens with the ten elements of the Daoist cosmology, written in Chinese script, which is repeated in English in the following section POLYMNIA SACRED POETRY.

TERPSICHORE’s ritual language and rhythms – such as in the extract above from page 157, detailing the moment and duration of an eclipse – invite our participation as readers. First we breathe. We breathe with the rhythms and cadences offered up by the passage, without – perhaps – much sense of what it means. In this ritual, we begin with breath. Full stops, spaces between words and paragraph breaks punctuate the flow of our reading. ‘All. This. Time.’ slows us to consider each word, each moment, to experience all this Time as we read. Disrupting the reading process slows us down to participate in the duration of the reading, as the strangely timeless duration of an eclipse is presented. In this passage, duration is not only described, it is enacted – and we, as readers, are invited to participate in that enactment.

Lulling sounds engender a softness in this passage. Repetition of soft consonants, such as ‘f’, ‘m’, ‘s’, sounds, including more soft ‘c’s than hard, provide a wavelike ripple to the rhythmic movement. These are consonants that do little to impede the flow of breath / air / sound and instead provide the softest of breaks, suggesting a gentle back-and-forth rocking motion. There’s an unusual proliferation of softer and harder ‘u’ sounds, such as the harder ‘u’ in ‘Lentitide’ and ‘Plenitude’ – are these, then related? Is the eclipse’s plenitude (its generous abundance) dependent on or equal to its lentitude (the slowness of its progress, its duration)? While the softer ‘u’s in words such as ‘full’ and ‘fulmination’ suggest the minimum sound it is possible to produce by moving air across the larynx and out through the mouth. Softness.

A third ‘u’ sound is present in words such as ‘Utter’ and ‘Undefinable’. This is not quite the softest nor the hardest sound that ‘u’ can make, it’s more assertive in its prominent position at the start of each word here, yet it’s still the softest of all possible vowels. ‘Utter’ suggests the completion of the eclipse event (as in ‘total’), yet the insertion of a space between ‘utter’ and ‘most’ invites their consideration as two distinct words, whereby ‘utter’ also suggests the act of speech and speaking. The passing of air over the larynx and through the mouth to create sounds modulated by the force of breath and the position of the tongue.

Reading the text in this way becomes a tactile and embodied experience that requires the active participation of breath and body in the reading process. We are invited to linger for the duration, to experience all. this. time. The time of reading, the time of being.

It’s an experience of proliferation – multiplicity and simultaneity – where a single word, or a group of words in proximity within the text’s field – may mean different things at the same time, and neither reading is excluded. We’re invited into the openness suggested by the phrase ‘moon before the sun pronounces’ as active participants in the co-creation of meaning. There’s the suggestion that during the eclipse, it is the moon’s time to speak (to pronounce) before the sun, that in this dreamlike time of the eclipse’s duration the usual order of things is suspended and momentarily reversed. The proximity of the words ‘Utter’, ‘tongue’ and ‘word’ in the text lend weight to the idea that ‘pronounce’ is related to the act of speaking. Of declaring one’s presence. Equally, the close proximity of ‘sun pronounces’ could suggest that it is the sun pronouncing its presence here. It isn’t clear whether this is a lunar eclipse – in which the earth’s shadow is cast over the moon by the sun – or a solar eclipse – in which the moon passes between the sun and the earth and briefly covers the sun. What is it that’s being pronounced? ‘All. This. Time’? Sun pronouncing time as the daily rhythms we live by? Moon pronouncing time as the monthly cycles of our oceans and bodies? The pronouncement is made ‘without prescribing purpose’ – time is. It does not dictate what we do with it.

Yet the text itself also ‘prescribes nothing’ – it does not tell us what it means, it only asks us to participate. To be and to breathe. To enter into its rhythms, its sounds, its possibilities for meaning. To enter and to engage. To be present for the duration.

The ritual of the eclipse, the ritual of the text, becomes our ritual. We participate in its duration as actively engaged readers, entering into relationship with its author Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and with each other as we do so.

And this, to me, is Utopian Poetics. It does nothing to describe what a better world might look like. But it invites us to participate briefly in what a better world might feel like, as we experience ourselves in relation with the text and with each other while we read. In so doing, we not only feel what it’s like not to be separate (alienated) from each other and the world, but we participate in actively co-creating a world in which the experience of non-alienation is a reality.

There are many more readings of this passage available – it’s practically impossible to exhaust such an open text as this. So I invite you to participate by leaving a comment with your reading of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s eclipse passage from Dictee. Alternatively, I’ve only just begun to touch on Utopian Poetics – which I will begin exploring in more depth on the blog throughout 2019 as I work towards completing my PhD and writing a book to share my research – so I invite your questions and comments on this too.

Enjoy the eclipse ~


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