“A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music,” Mark Strand wrote in his splendid poemtouching on the materiality of that enchantment: Music is matter dancing in mind. Music has a profound spiritual power over us, echoing what Aldous Huxley called But at the heart of the blessedness is a biological symphony — a sensorial interface between the human body and the fundamental forces of physics, a wilderness of shimmering synapses converting current into the song of feeling. Kierkegaard intuited this as an epoch before the of neuroscience. He located the unparalleled power of music in , and Whitman understood it in celebrating music as .
That precise interplay between nature and the human spirit is what the poet Ronald Johnson (November 25, 1935–March 4, 1998) explores throughout his magnificent forgotten masterpiece( ) — an epic poem of reality radiating the spirit of , partway between Blake and Feynman, harmonizing modernist verse with prose poetry. Tn 1980, a decade after he began composing them, Johnson published the first thirty-three “beams” — as he termed each of the numbered poetic particles comprising the epic totality — ARK: The Foundations. He vector of his life.
To describe his unexampled work, Buckminster Fuller coined the word “philoverse.”Among theis the relationship between science and music — that reverberation across matter and mind, which Johnson hints at from the very beginning with his choice of epigraph, quoting one of Gertrude Stein’s exquisite encryptions of a fundamental truth: “anything shut in with you can sing.” A century and a half after Margaret Fuller scandalized her fellow Transcendentalists with the radical assertion that and a generation before a detected the sound of spacetime with the epoch-making discovery of gravitational waves, Johnson considers the scientific poetics of sound in the seventh of his “beams”:
Sound is the sea: pattern lapping pattern. If we erase the air and slow the sound of a struck tuning fork, it would make two sets of waves interlocking the invisibility in opposite directions. With his poetic ear pressed to the pulses of compression and rarefaction unspooled by the tuning-fork as it pinches matter into the waveform, Johnson writes: These alternate equidistant forces travel at the rate of 1,180 feet per second through the elasticity of air, fourthrough pure steel.
With an eye to the pioneering composer Charles Ives — creator of what may be the first radical piece of music in the twentieth Century: the haunting 1906 orchestral masterpiece, which traveled backward in time by drawing on the sounds of nature before Industrial humanity and forward in time by laying the groundwork for the polytonal and polyrhythmic experimental music that would score the following Century — Johnson writes:
Pattern laps pattern, and as they joined, Charles Ives heard the 19th Century in one ear, and the 20th out the other, then commenced to make single music of them. The final chord of the 2nd Symphony is a reveille of all notes at once; hiss[Variations on “America”, composed when Ives was 17] ends with fireworks of thirteen rhythmic patterns zigzagging through the winds and brasses, seven percussion lines crisscrossing these, the strings divided in twenty-fours going up and down every-which-way — and all in FFFF.
Both tuning fork and Fourth are heard by perturbations of molecules, through ever more subtle stumbling blocks, in spiral ricochet, to charged branches. This vibrating tree is trunked with neurobiology, rooted in the physics of cartilage and “Come Together”: The outer shell leads to a membrane drum — and what pressure is needed to sound this drum is equal to the intensity of at the distance of 3,000 miles in space. (Though sound cannot travel, as light, through the void.) The eardrum may be misplaced at the hearing threshold as little as the diameter of the smallest atom, hydrogen.
Conducting the bone orchestra of hammer, anvil, and stirrup at the membrane drum of the oval window that stretches between the middle ear and the cochlea, Johnson writes: Shut to air, this window vibrates another windowed membrane, tuning a compressed fluid between. Here, also, is couched our sense of the vertical. Resonance is set up in a spiral shell-shaped receptor turned withanother spiral membrane. This is the pith of the labyrinth, and like sound waves themselves, it trembles in two directions at once, crosswise and lengthwise. After a bright sidewise detour to Orpheus and Thoreau, to the synesthetic seeing-ear of the bat and the vernal sensuality of birdsong, to the crucible of matter and mind:
Physicists tell us that sounding bodies are in a state of stationary vibration. When theshook atoms, its boundary was an ever-slighter pulse of heat and hesitation of heat. Matter . Its dreams are the abyss and heaven, and to that end, may , in time, the stones themselves to sing. Johnson’s is a symphonic read in its entirety. Complement this fragment with a constellation of beloved writers on , Nick Cave on , and the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks — who saw biology and Bach as a unified field of experience — on , then revisit the great physician and poet Lewis Thomas on and poet A. Van Jordan’s Feynman-inspired inquiry into .