Poetry as Haptic Art
“The skin is the oldest and the most sensitive of our organs. . .Touch is the parent of our eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It is the sense which became differentiated into the others. . . .”
“The body image is informed fundamentally from haptic and orienting experiences early in life. Our visual images are developed later on, and depend for their meaning on primal experiences that were acquired haptically.”
Of the so-called five senses – seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting – only the first two have been considered highly evolved enough to support one of the “fine arts.” And yet, for at least a couple of thousand years, physicians in China and other parts of the East have quietly continued to compile a tradition based upon the sense of touch – taking the pulse of their patients for diagnosis – and over time refining this practice into a haptic art.
Recently I was conducting a somewhat “haptic” experiment of my own with two tuning forks, and discovered to my surprise that there is more to this than listening, or even just hearing. Both vision and touch have vigorously inserted themselves into the experience.
As it turns out, Chinese physician Wang Xi in the 3rd century found the process of taking the pulse to be an extremely deep well, both semantically and experientially. He wrote a kind of user's manual to help guide his fellow practitioners through the various ways that the “mo” (term that means “the abode” or the “pathway” of the blood) declares itself to the extremely sensitized hands of the physician.
From a poet's point of view, Wang Xi's detailed instructions are like a whole body immersion into the precision of abstract terms and an affirmation of primal role of metaphor in human speech (see epigraphs above).
So, bear with me if you can, as I unspool the original “aha!” moment that allowed me to compare listening to a set of tuning forks with the act of “feeling” the human pulse.
I would like to offer a comparison between a single tone from a tuning fork, to the single “tone” that the blood makes inside its abode (mo ) when passing back and forth between heart and lungs, plying its daily task of keeping a single human being alive. Wang Xi made a list of 24 major variations in the nature of the pulse that Chinese physicians were feeling in their diagnoses. I will describe the first four and compare them with four impressions of an A-220 tuning fork when it is struck, then matched by a tuner or musician.
1. Floating mo: If one lifts the fingers, there is abundance; if one presses down one finds insufficiency.
1. Singing flat: Sometimes I sing out A-220 just as I'm banging the tuning fork on my knee, and get a perfect match between the two tones. But as I continue to do this simple imitation over and over, some ingredient of the two sounds is no longer there, and I am left singing slightly flat. I do not know how to prevent this.
2. Hollow mo: floating, large and soft; pressing down the center is vacuous and the two sides feel full.
2. Sometimes I am singing a correct A, matching my voice to the fork, yet I can “hear” a kind of segment split off from the tone, like bark peeling from its outermost self, so that the tone feels flat when it is still “true” by some more holistic standard. As if the tone is feeling its way into a future not yet realized.
3. Flooding mo: extremely large under the fingers.
3. The voice is thicker than the tuning fork. It has a tendency to melt into it or over it, or between or around – clinging, dripping, penetrating but never really matching.
4. Slippery mo: it comes and goes in fluid succession; similar to the rapid (#5)
4. What does the voice or instrument expect to happen, by imitating a tuning fork? For the two tones to match one another so closely as to be indistinguishable? Or rather, for them to complement one another like a kind of aural triangulation, a fuller steadiness than a single fork or voice can maintain? But even this – is not achievable.
Congratulations if you have read this far! Warning: I may continue in this vein (!) next month.