Then A Fly Appeared: The Aesthetics of Buzzing Lyrics

Roland Barthes tells us that “listening speaks.” [1] A feature of modernity, for Barthes, listening shows how subjects are urged to attend openly without expectations to another’s desire, and as such, become embroiled in power dynamics. Notwithstanding the problem of modern subjectivity, my focus here involves a similar idea, i.e., a “speaking silence,” “a listening speech.” Listening as an aesthetic category expands our understanding of how lyrics function and makes us heed the lyric construction of sound, i.e., the dynamism of white-space or black noise (sound that is barely perceptible to the human ear) and word-space (utterances). [2] This construction suggests that poems are acts of deep listening—a term coined by Pauline Oliveros to name a practice that brings attention and awareness to the prolific range of sounds in all environments—a kind of meditative sonic exercise enhancing our understanding of what often remains unnoticed in the background. The black noise, or the limits of audibility within a poem, conditions the lyric construction of sound, and enables the possibility of lyric dwelling. The limits of audibility that sustain the architecture of a poem point toward a barely perceptible slush – the buzz of organism. So, there is the listening of the poem (a listening to indices and signs) and the listening to a poem (the speech of listening).

One of the oldest extant Sumerian tablets in cuneiform script recounts the return of the shepherd Dumuzi from amongst the dead. The story is linked to perhaps a more well-known account of how the goddess Inanna allowed her husband Dumuzi to take her place in the underworld so she could escape it. Since Dumuzi failed to mourn her properly, Inanna judged it a fair exchange. But later, the lament of Sirtur, Dumuzi’s mother, and Geshtinanna, Dumuzi’s sister, softens Inanna’s disposition and causes a change of heart. Eventually, Inanna finds Dumuzi again and forges a bargain: half of the year he must dwell in the underworld, and the other half, freely on earth. Geshtinanna will take Dumuzi’s place below while he is gone.

Both in the recount of Inanna’s narrow escapes from the underground and of Dumuzi’s return, flies act in crucial ways. Let me begin with the fly in Dumuzi’s return. Moved by Geshtinanna’s lamentation, Inanna concedes:

Your brother’s house is no more
Dumuzi has been carried away by the galla
I would take you to him,
But I do not know the place. [3]

In this moment of impasse, “a fly appeared.” This resourceful fly initiates a series of events leading to Dumuzi’s salvation. We are told that it “circled the air above Inanna’s head and spoke: “If I tell you where Dumuzi is, / What will you give me?” [4]

The fly “speaks” the location of Dumuzi’s corpse (which is paradoxically living!). He is found weeping, and from then on Dumuzi will fulfill his destiny, spending half of the year in the underworld. What renders the fly and Dumuzi visible, if not a buzzing, the noise of presence? What determines appearance if not the fly’s indexical pointing, which is sound surrounding a corpse? The buzzing is an index, a sign, and points to the corpse as index of rebirth. As soon as the corpse is found, resurrection occurs. The sonic transference from fly to location, from fly to material (i.e. corpse) accomplishes this rebirth. The sonic labor of the fly exemplifies how sound operates, how it can disclose and reveal, and how it is central for the lyric function. The listening of the poem uncovers through the mechanism of sound what seemingly appears invisible. The lyric balancing of sound makes environments salient, noticeable, distinct—in other words, it allows for the all-around and within to appear—the site of a poem is only as deep and wide as its soundscape sketches. Sound suggests place as indices, signs, traces of breath and so draws the line between living and non-living. But also, an attention to sound qua sound highlights the function of poetic speech and brings us close to how a lyric obtains a proximity to environments. To create the conditions for lyric dwelling is to place oneself in relation to life—to buzz with disclosure. The buzzing, central to the fly as organism, joins the world of gods and humans. So, both in this account and in Inanna’s descent to the underground, the fly traces a path toward and from death, toward and from what is inaccessible.

In Inanna’s descent, two flies enter the impenetrable world of the Great Below and initiate a chain of events that allows for the goddess to return from the underground. Enki fashions two creatures from dirt, a kurgarra and a galatur, and orders them to enter the underworld disguised as flies. Once inside, they are instructed to repeat the moaning words of Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, who is suffering the pangs of birth. Thankful for the empathetic chorus that the flies provide, the queen offers them a gift in return. They ask for the “corpse that hangs from the hook on the wall,” the corpse of Inanna, and so succeed in snatching the goddess away from the Great Below. [5] The buzzing flies modulate human affect: “Who are you, / Moaning—groaning—sighing with me?” Ereshkigal asks the flies. Sound is the vehicle of a furtive conquest, of how Inanna’s corpse resurrects. It is also what pierces through the unmoved determination of Ereshkigal. While Inanna may not enter and leave the underworld at her leisure, the flies come and go. Their sonic ability places them between worlds, so their knowledge and motility are a traffic between states. Master the secret of the fly, and you will conquer even death. For the fly is steeped in initiatory rituals, which is an ancient way of describing the feedback loops of ecology:

The corpse was given to them.

The kurgarra sprinkled the food of life on the corpse.
The galatur sprinkled the water of life on the corpse.
Inanna arose…[6]

The circular repetition of action, the stylized authorization of form is an imprint of an observational knowledge that connects flora, fauna, and geology. What does sound entail and what listening, which makes both permeable? One way to think of sound is through resonance or through how listening bounces back and forward, even within a single listening ear. As Jean-Luc Nancy writes: “[…] listening opens (itself) up to resonance and that resonance opens (itself) up to the self: that is to say both that it opens to self (to the resonant body, to its vibrations) and that it opens to the self (to the being just as its being is put into play for itself).” [7] Resonance is the space of sound: the way sound returns to itself as it materializes. Sound begins by differentiating itself so it can affirm itself as sound. It tugs at its own singularity: a beat, a single sound, is the fading of its ring, the fanning out to itself—so, a sound is primary sentience. It begins by listening to its own beat. As life-giving forces, the kurgarra and galatur appearing as flies suggest this foundational sentience of sound. The buzzing of the fly is a projection of resonance, or of how the experience of sound requires a rupture without which consciousness could not become present for itself. Sound bleeds outward. It requires a recognition of its spatial seizing. In this recognition, life begins. Dumuzi’s corpse is discovered, a new ontological structure founded, Inanna is reborn. 

Inspired by “The Descent of Inanna” story, in Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette sound sculpts the architecture of the poem, chiseling the epic form that Notley generates. Using quotation marks, the poem foregrounds the spoken, the oral, the voiced, and establishes epic poetry as what buzzes on the page—the filament sliding through the spacing between words, the rupture that halts syntax and reverberates affect as it disturbs syntactical continuity. Several reenacted moments of Inanna’s text emerge in Notley’s poem: namely the insect that appears and speaks. While in Notley, this speaking turns out to be a false prophecy, there is still an inherent drama suggesting that something transformative may happen. If in Inanna the fly shows the corpse, in Notley, Alette hopes a firefly’s voice will be Mother’s voice:

“going further,” “I heard a faint” “woman’s voice say” “Going
backwards,” “going backwards” “in time “‘Am I closer?’ I asked”
“Can you speak yet?” “Are you our mother?” “A firefly appeared”

“in the center” “of the ribcage” “It floated vibrantly” “before me”
“& seemed to be” “the source of” “her voice:” “ ‘ I was” “a queen,’ [8]

Yet, she will have to search deeper into the underworld to find it. A few pages before the firefly episode in part two, Alette asks ‘“does the Mother”/“have a voice?”.’ [9] At some level, The Descent of Alette searches for Mother’s voice through territories of loss, death, dispossession, dissolution of self, of identity’s recognizable categories, and even of a blurring between the human and non-human. Alette’s journey requires a constant transformation of physical and psychic states to confront the tyrant who is the architect of oppression, erasure, and controls the subjectivity of all who remain trapped and confined to the subway world. The poem can be read as a collective resonance—the blurred confluence of countless voices as the heroine searches in the realm of the dead, a journey whose goal is not revealed or fully understood until the very end. Quotation marks in this poem also function as a reverberation of utterance. Notley claims a mythical and so collective quest. The quotation marks are an important poetic way to suggest this epic range, but at the same time they filter experience through the subjectivity of the singular pronoun. Alette listens out for voices, messages, signs, orders, beings to discover how she should continue. From hollow-to-hollow cave, sound transports her. The fabric of the poem stresses what is voiced. There is no silence. There is only speech. In like manner to the Inanna cycle of stories, The Descent of Alette lays claim to listening in its epiphanic capacity. Sound uncovers the indiscernible, which in this poem is the voice of a collectivity that has revolted against an ideological controlling authority. As Zultanski tells us writing about Notley’s use of voice, the voiced in her poems “it’s just a sound, a vibration.” [10]

The poem may always be a kind of listening. Or at least, the poetic mode is often described as such. What the poem does is listen to what is in it and around it, to the embeddedness of speech, and to how voice resonates internally and externally. Words also joggle against their own inertia, which is a kind of silence within the word. The silence without which a word could not happen.

Poets have often named listening as central to how a poem emerges, and to what a poem does. For instance, John Burnside writes: “In short, poetry as a discipline must be seen as a mixed-faculty sensibility, an attempt, first, at awareness - a listening - and then at speech, whether that speech be audible or not.” [11] Francis Ponge explains that, “for my part—if I examine myself writing—I never come to write the slightest phrase without my writing being accompanied by a mental speaking and listening.” [12] For Barbara Guest, “Each poet owns a private language. The poet relies on the pitch within the ear. The ear is also a private affair, and so is pitch […] Pitch and ear are the servants of language and cannot make their living anywhere else, even by escapades.” [13] In Drift, Caroline Bergvall reflects: “Insistent methods in art are intimately connected to processes of receiving and of following. One loads ones vessel for dream-travel and one follows it into hell. A reciting voice remains simultaneously input and output. Resonance is contact ripple. Everything is connected in the vast chamber of the world, beyond a callous, brutal politics. Everything ripples at contact.” [14] While in these statements listening takes on different hues depending on how the poet positions it within poetic creation, in all instances it embodies a connective tissue between the “input and output,” between the recording of a word and the sending it outward. Awareness or listening reveals the “contact ripple,” which is how a poem shows that “everything is connected.” Sounds are “the servants of language” because in them the act of listening is latent. There is always another side that folds into presence. Silently reading (an internal hearing) or speaking a poem aloud implies a doubling. Each word is an echo of a reply—a speaking and a listening.

In a poem, the written word resists silence. The poem listens to what it sounds out and what is ushered in between sound. It echoes in the tense silence between words. It renders perceptible a kind of black noise: the background of the poem being utterly necessary for the foreground vibration consisting of words. The poem operates in an immersive ecology whereby the poem’s full apprehension occurs through an awareness of what is left out, to the limits of audibility gurgling inside the poem. It listens to its environment, which is a linguistic web, but also a collated breath of word-space and white-space. How does the poem listen to the environment, to what is both within and around a body? It first listens to its own echoing—to the listening of another—but in that doubling it functions as a sensor for the as-yet inaudible sound (the black noise) of the forgotten body. An attentive listening discloses the background, closing the gap between what is within and around, so a poem swells as “the contact ripple.”

Notley again creates a haunting narrative for this happening where sentience is an awareness that happens within sound; and the location of that sentience is the sonic liberation of what surrounds a body. In part one of The Descent of Alette, still confined to the subway, one of Alette’s first experiences of transformation occurs, and in it, collective blood hums:

                                                                            “There is
something in” “my ear” “I pull it out a” “white cord” 

“a long” “silk cord” “I pull it out &” “hear our blood”
“It hums” “a unison one” “note loud a” “sheet of sound”
“It hangs there” “sad insect noise” “insect-like”
“Our blood.” [15]

In the listening to a poem, awareness enacts a dissolution, a washing outward into the everything of drift, water, resonance. The insect-like sound of blood figures as a sheet, a cloak of sound. It carries foremost the collective with it—which is, in this poem, an experience filtered through an ‘I’, shifting in episodic metamorphoses, the way divine forces alone may shift. Humming blood with “sad insect noise” resembles the lowest denominator of existence, that bare life of black noise, the threshold of audibility, but also the internal slushing of blood that vibrates in the “insect-like.” And so, is the “fly” a sign for the primal sound of organic life?

Sound unglues what is left unattended and blends it to what lays obviously present. The resulting unification is the experience of immersion, of being in a body speaking a sound, or of uttering a poem. Also, “We die of the same kind of death as a fly’s” writes Etel Adnan. [16] We are as large as the smallest. We are always at the verge of disappearing, and so is everything both an around and within that at any point may cease to be intelligible. The ephemerality of sound is a sign of this precarity. We too are a resonance listening to itself. Life is a buzzing vibrancy and vibrancies coalesce together in a network of sound. A poem represents a constellation of vibrations—the black noise of the soundless space between words serves as the cosmic background for environs. Nancy speculates on the phonetic proximity of mot and mouche: “Another kindred sound: mouche, musya, muia,musca, Mücke.” [17] Are the sounds of words then a buzzing, “insect-like” and is the lyric construction of sound bringing us closer to that organic buzz of body? Is this why the spaced silences in a poem are filled with a muted black noise? why the poem is littered with sound, and its limits of audibility, the fine appreciation of a poem’s hums, can divulge the spine of sound holding it all together?

Pauline Oliveros often explores the limits of audibility. Attention reveals these limits to which practices of presence and listening seek to make us attuned. So much of the immanent world is left unperceived but also our hyper-industrial society deepens the gap between the sensory texture of inhabited spaces and the human mind. So, in “The Poetics of Environmental Sound,” Oliveros invites us to experiment with a deep listening exercise:

Listen to the environment for 15 minutes or a longer but pre-determined time length.
Use a timer, clock or any adequate method to define this time length.
Describe in detail the sounds you hear (heard) and how you feel (felt) about them.
Include internal as well as external sounds.
You are a part of the environment.
Explore the limits of audibility:
(highest, lowest, loudest, softest, simplest, most complex, nearest, most distant, longest,
shortest sound) [18]

Attentive listening opens a poem to its virtual materiality—what allows the disclosure of the living world in a poem—and what is connected to a poet’s craft. The lyric being—which is both the disclosure a poem can enact and the architecture that a poem holds and sustains—relies deeply on sounds. These may be environmental sounds of all kinds or the background of slosh: the black noise, the breathing a poem enacts in its pauses and starts. While occurring silently in the reading mind, this breathing’s propulsive force is ever more evident in the instances when the poem is uttered aloud.

A poem carries with it an environment built with sound. At an abstract level, the primary lyric materials, the phonemes and morphemes shaping words, build a poem, but also the silence or black noise that separates word from word. At a concrete level, sounds render visible both the animate and inanimate. They turn the silent readers’ attention to focus on a sonic evocation of noise, the dribbling web of background flourish. Ecopoetics, defined as a lyric construct that seeks to rupture focus on humans as all-controlling anthropomorphic forces, relies on sound to disclose a beyond-human consciousness, or at least to represent that consciousness as inextricable from a shared hold on the real. In City Eclogue—a collection of poems that studies the urban environment through the lens of an adapted pastoral—Ed Roberson uses sound to witness the environment, the place around and within the human body. Sound becomes a tool to observe the built environment and reveal its wilderness, ever poised in relation to another, so that “buildings” are “artificial reefs,” [19] “vegetation” is made of “a visual garden of curves,” people are about “a squirrel’s size,” [20] a “street [that] /runs up the walk to the door” is an “ocean teased apart.” [21] The measure that weighs down on the city landscape is the non-built world and it requires an attentive account of the collective sounding of crowds, city sounds, and the hidden silences within each. “Idyll” and “Monk’s Bird Book,” two poems in a section entitled “Ornithologies” are emblematic of Roberson’s sonic construction and how it is undergirded by principles of deep listening. The poems explore the limits of the audible and attend to the subtle resonance of motion. For Oliveros, deep listening uses attention and awareness. She makes an analogy to differentiate between the two: while attention focuses acutely on a narrow point, awareness offers a diffuse range of heightened perception. “Attention and awareness,” writes Oliveros, “may be turned outward toward the environment, or inward to the imagination and memory.” [22] Deep listening and the lyric construction of sound need both. Attention gets directed to what sound renders visible—whether sentient or insentient. Awareness leads us to the mush of black noise, the rubbing of the white page shaping the poem into its own architectural vibrancy.

The subject of “Idyll” and “Monk’s Bird Book” is the very lyric construction of sound. It shows how the deep listening happening in a poem moves from the barely audible to what overwhelms our sense perception with its broad sonic range. Roberson notes that nature is silent. The sounds of non-urban environments are marked by the movement of animal flow. The “owls are so soft” because “their deadly accuracy of flight depending on it/ they are all but silent.” [23] The accuracy of the owls’ flight reveals relation and intent. The wing flows in architectural levitation so it can sustain the body. These two poems form a pair. If the first poem dwells on city silences, the second dwells on the silence of non-urban places. For entirely different reasons, “certain silences are reached” “the more people/the more lidded certain sound.” In “Idyll,” the city is analogous to a mountain and the unexpected surprising open plaza that one finds unveils a moment of silence. To write the environment into the poem is to reveal a sonic background that one can no longer forgo or forget. The lyric construction of sound both reveals the all-around the body and discloses our lyric being—how we position ourselves towards the environment—we are both dot and circle, circled and circling. We are a point floating across awareness. Ecopoetry at is core involves practices of attention and awareness through a dexterous maneuvering of sound. The buzzing of a poem contains the ways it calls to organic life while simultaneously implicating us in our own organicity.


[1] Roland Barthes, “Listening,” in The Responsibility of Forms. Critical Essays on Music, Art and Representation, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), 259.

[2] Charles Bernstein, ed., Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998). Bernstein’s edited collection features several remarkable essays, which foreground the role of performance within contemporary poetry.

[3] Samuel Noah Kramer, and Diane Wolkstein, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 88.

[4] Kramer, and Wolkstein, 88.

[5] Kramer, and Wolkstein, 67.

[6] Kramer, and Wolkstein, 67.

[7] Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening (Stanford, Calif: Fordham University Press, 2007), 25.

[8] Alice Notley, The Descent of Alette (New York: Penguin Poets, 1996), 56.

[9] Notley, 50.

[10] Steven Zultanski, Thirty-Odd Functions of Voice in the Poetry of Alice Notley (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020), 4.

[11] John Burnside, “2017 Berlin Poetry Lecture: Where Executives Would Never Want to Tamper?,” 2017.

[12] Nancy, Listening, 35.

[13] Barbara Guest, Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (Berkeley, CA: Kelsey Street Press, 2003), 22.

[14] Caroline Bergvall, Drift (Callicoon, N.Y: Nightboat Books, 2014), 134–35.

[15] Notley, The Descent of Alette, 27.

[16] Etel Adnan, Sea and Fog (Callicoon, N.Y: Nightboat Books, 2012), 68.

[17] Nancy, Listening, 24.

[18] Pauline Oliveros, Software for People: Collected Writings 1963-80 (Baltimore, MD: Smith Publications, 1984), 28.

[19] Ed Roberson, City Eclogue (‎Atelos, 2006), 41.

[20] Roberson, 18.

[21] Roberson, 31.

[22] Oliveros, Software for People: Collected Writings 1963-80, 165.

[23] Roberson, City Eclogue, 89.

Isabel Sobral Campos’s most recent book is How to Make Words of Rubble (Blue Figure Press, 2020). Other works include Your Person Doesn’t Belong to You (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2018), Autobiographical Ecology (Above/Ground Press, 2019), and Sobriety Crystal (The Magnificent Field, 2021). She is the co-founder of the Sputnik & Fizzle publishing series. A collaborative translation of Salette Taveres's Lex Icon is forthcoming with Ugly Duckling Presse.