As a site for the expression of audible linguistic and extralinguistic sounds, the mouth is undeniably a powerful apparatus for meaning making. The mouth can articulate the environment and world; it can also fragment them. The mouth can break down and ingest materials; it can also expel them. The mouth can divulge information; it can also conceal it. In Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary (2014), scholar and artist Brandon LaBelle positions the mouth as an integral “contact zone where language performs as a powerful agent” (2) for mobilizing the forces of subjectivity and agency in personal, social, and political spheres. In conjunction with what anthropologist Edward Sapir calls the “organs of speech”—“[t]he lungs, the larynx, the palate, the nose, the tongue, the teeth, and the lips” (7)—the mouth gives shape to outpourings of sonic expression that bring forth the voice and figure the vocalizing subject as an autonomous being within a network of human, posthuman, and non-human assemblages. Remarking on the mouth’s complex functions across these assemblages, LaBelle identifies what he calls “‘modalities of mouthing,’ or methodologies of bodily figuring, each of which contours, interrupts, conspires with, or elaborates subjectivity” (11). These modalities include speaking and stuttering, biting and chewing, reciting and stopping, and so on. LaBelle’s account of these modalities leads him to position the mouth as a site of “extremely vital productions by which the spoken is deeply extended, as well as brought into question.” For LaBelle, the mouth “reveals the borders of the linguistic while enlivening understandings of what counts as language” (11). These “borders of the linguistic,” as they are revealed and obscured, are central to the inquiry of this article.
LaBelle describes his lexicon of the mouth’s movements as a delineation of an encompassing and expansive poetics. He suggests that a poetics of the mouth invokes “beyond the strictly linguistic to that of worldly experience” and “enrich[es] our understanding of all the signifying modalities by which the body comes to perform” (12). The mouth is prominently featured in the oeuvre of Canadian poet Jordan Scott, whose works present formidable case studies for investigating the significance of the mouth in poetry and poetics. Scott’s work engages the possibilities of mouth-based meaning making across a heterogeneity of registers—personal, social, material, and political. It also presents readers with a compelling continguity between mouth and ecology, which forms a through line across a number of his books. To advance this study, I focus on three of Scott’s texts that each demonstrate a distinct and dynamic performance of mouthing with particular emphases on human and non-human registers. These texts are Blert (2008), Scott’s personal exploration of stuttering and “nature poetry”; Decomp (2013), a collaborative text (with Canadian poet Stephen Collis) that rethinks the ontological vibrance of British Columbia’s biogeoclimatic zones; and Lanterns at Guantánamo (2019), his poetry-adjacent online multimedia assemblage that explores disfluency and “speechscapes” at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center. Reading across these texts, this article examines the mouth as it manifests and is mobilized within Scott’s poetry, with a particular interest in how he places language under the pressure of external grammars to challenge the power dynamics of linguistic communication, and in the ways that environmental considerations and verbal expressivity shape one another.
Stuttering Sublime: Blert
Scott’s exploration of mouthing modalities is most strongly evident in his book Blert, which he describes “as a spelunk into the mouth of a stutterer . . . a trek across labial regions, a navigation of tracheal rills, and a full bore squirm inside the mouth’s wear and tear” (64). The poems are comprised of words and sequences that Scott finds challenging to read aloud as a stutterer: “Tonsils click hummocky, sound of hummingbirds drenched in glacial milk” (25), for example. The poems also contain playfully repetitive structures:
Of my mouth and me. Of other people’s fluent mouths and me. Of fluency and me. Of me and my mouth. Of me and other people’s fluent mouths. Of me and fluency. My mouth and me. Fluent words and me. Other people’s fluent mouths and me. Me and my mouth. Me and fluent. Me and other people’s fluent mouths. (48)
Citing the personal dimension of Scott’s compositional approach, poet and critic Craig Dworkin explains that Scott’s “stutter seems to be tripped by initial stressed syllables beginning with nasal stops or plosive occlusives (whether aspirated, partially voiced, or voiced nasals) and exacerbated by terminal fricatives and the repetition of internal vowels across words” (179). By composing poetry guided by the complexity of his stutter, Scott transfers “the etiology of his stammer onto the structure of poetic language” (Dworkin 179). Blert’s poems foreground Scott’s mouth and its inimitable interactions of tissue, bone, saliva, and muscle, while drawing attention to the mediation of stuttering on processes of vocal emittance. This map of his stutter’s logic is downloaded to the reader who, even if they usually speak and read with fluency, necessarily stutter when reading Blert. Open the book to any page to find an example of Blert’s difficulty:
You lambada glyph: cockatiel into calligraphy like your mouthwash swills hurricane. Puke gauze sphagnum and purr: outbreaks will diminish against the chincherinchee festooned on bronchial, you go on go on, urge backwash cha-cha-cha, homily into boomshackalacka like fungi canoodle sequoia: say nosh cricket merengue, your turn, say gnash locust meringue. (61)
The diction of Blert is rife with unfamiliar and invented words. Scott punctuates this language with commas, periods, and colons in a way that resembles common usage; however, the words together are indeed often a “swills hurricane” of nonsense. As Dworkin points out in his discussion of Blert, phrases such as “cha-cha-cha” replicate the stutter’s force of involuntary repetition and delay. “[T]he difficulty of reading Scott’s text,” writes poet and critic Tyrone Williams, “is not due to his rather common use of parataxis but rather its scientific-cum-phonetic lexicon (anatomical, botanical, geographical, etc.), its Joycean neologisms, and its emphasis on the mechanics of pronunciation.” One of the book’s main thrusts, then, as Williams and Dworkin agree, is an enactment of the stuttering mouth.
Williams expresses some reservations about Blert as an aesthetic representation of disability. He wonders,
[D]oes Scott risk self-exoticism to the extent Blert might
suggest to non-stutterers that all stuttering sounds the
same from the inside, even though Scott has been clear
that the idiolect on view in his book cannot be abstracted
as a general score from which others might perform?
Williams hopes that readers do not conflate all acts of stuttering by assuming that Blert represents what stuttering looks and sounds like. Indeed, I caution readers and listeners to approach Blert critically, knowing that the actions and sounds of one’s mouth are deeply connected to one’s individual subjectivity. Careful readers know that Scott’s text enacts and represents stuttering as a part of his identity. Dworkin gestures to this point when he identifies what “trips” Scott’s stutter. Likewise, Scott alludes to the subjective position he occupies within the text when he writes “word order = world ardour” (13) and “word languor = world rancour” (46)—phrases that gesture toward the dictum frequently associated with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: word order = world order. The language that we know and language as we know it construct our worldview.1 Scott’s playful reconfiguration of the dictum suggests a less than straightforward relation to it, suggesting that the connection between word and world is also highly individualistic.2
Dworkin’s and Williams’ analyses of Blert raise fundamental questions about the relationship between identity, disfluency, and disability. Scholar Joshua St. Pierre unpacks this relationship, urging for a reconsideration of assumptions regarding speech, communication, disability, and their socio-political importance and, thereby, of stuttering as part of a diversity of communicative modes.3 He points out that stuttering is frequently theorized within a medical model that represents it as “unwanted” and “invasive,” which in turn objectifies the stutterer by reinforcing oppressive “abled/disabled binaries” (6). For St. Pierre, stuttering draws attention to what he refers to as the “liminal nature of the stutterer, who is neither clearly abled nor disabled” (3). This liminality highlights “the oppressive forces placed on stutterers, who, unlike many other disabled people, are often expected to perform on the same terms as the able-bodied.” This problem is especially pervasive within the “domain of liberal individualism and American capitalism” (12), wherein disabled bodies are “not capable of meeting expectations of pace and productivity” and “are therefore disqualified from full participation not only in the economic sector but also in social situations” (13). This theorization foregrounds the political and social significance of the mouth and helps us see the radical potential of stuttering for the way it “interferes with established and codified rhythms of communication” within contemporary capitalist machinations. St. Pierre’s conceptualization of stuttering within an expanded context of disability studies works in consonance with literary critic Tobin Siebers’ critical concept of disability aesthetics. As a concept, “[d]isability aesthetics seeks to emphasize the presence of different bodies and minds in the tradition of aesthetic representation” and to refuse “harmony, integrity, and beauty as the sole determination of the aesthetic” (542-43). Based on Scott’s experience as a stutterer, Blert’s aesthetic is characterized by a plethora of interruptions; its language is disjunctive and fragmented, grounded in resistant parataxis, neologisms, and onomatopoeia. It denies readers the possibility of closure through critical interpretation—typically an indication of “efficient” linguistic communication—while positioning the stuttering mouth at the centre of the text.
The poet Derek Beaulieu highlights the radical potential of Blert and, in particular, the way stuttering gestures toward the disruption of capitalism’s emphasis on linguistic efficiency. He remarks upon Blert’s disruptive syntax and diction and reflects upon the opacity of the book’s parataxis and phonemic play. Beaulieu describes Blert’s diction and syntax as “unhinged from a narrative construction” (72), a comment that partially explains some of the thematic content of the text. Beaulieu positions the book in the context of theorist Sianne Ngai’s “poetics of disgust,” which declares a resistance to “the bourgeois morality endemic to capitalism” (Ngai 98). Beaulieu posits that the book’s parataxis informs its worldview and he understands Scott’s worldview, to be resistant to capitalist machinations. Blert enacts a mode of disrupted articulation that exceeds the linguistic conventions of the capitalist marketplace and its frequent demand for the uninterrupted flow of consumable information. Beaulieu’s argument is compelling, but I want to add nuance to his claim that Blert is “unhinged” (72), a claim that Beaulieu makes to underscore the disruptive features of the book. It is important also to emphasize that the vocabulary of Blert is carefully culled by Scott and representative of his identity. Scott draws from his interests in anatomy, geology, botany, marine biology, toxicology, consumerism, and linguistics, all of which he places alongside onomatopoeic words and neologisms. Blert’s interference in codified rhythms and vocabulary is more than a disruptive feature of the work; it is part of Scott’s identity that informs his poetics. This personal connection is highlighted by the Author’s Note, wherein Scott writes,
When I was a boy my father would let me play hooky on ‘bad speech days’ and take me fishing. On one particular day, while watching the tide undulate against the shore, my father offered a precise ecological equivalent to what had been going on in my mouth: ‘You see how that water moves, son? That’s how you speak.’ (64)
In this anecdote, Scott’s father inadvertently recognizes that the equation
“word order = world order” can also be understood in reverse—that “world order” can also equal “word order.” So, while the paratactic arrangement of vocabulary in Blert may be unhinged from capitalist ordering, it is also connected to Scott’s identity and his personal story as a stutterer, both in terms of his inimitable modes of articulation and his diverse discursive interests.
The comments from Scott’s father mentioned above highlight another dimension of Blert that requires a pivot from discussions of the disruption of capitalist machinations to its disruption of normative representations of nature. By drawing a connection between the river and his son’s speech mode, Scott’s father recognizes an innate connection between nature and his son’s stutter, emphasizing that Scott’s stutter is natural. Following a similar line of logic, LaBelle reminds readers that “[m]oments of fluid speech are actually quite rare” and that speakers commonly punctuate their speech with small interruptions, pauses, and stops (132). Small interruptions in speech and chronic stuttering are not the same embodied experiences; however, LaBelle’s point, like Scott’s father’s, asks readers to reconsider fluency as the dominant speech mode and gestures toward a more inclusive and varied understanding of speech. Both LaBelle and Scott’s father encourage readers to reconsider what constitutes the natural flow of speech, and in doing so they undermine binary structures such as natural/unnatural but also, by extension, natural/cultural. Blert takes up this issue by problematizing the way the natural environment is rendered in language, which often relies on normative descriptions of phenomena that exceed language. In other words, Scott uses the structure of his speech to present an alternate understanding of the relationship between nature as an external object and language as an anthropocentric mode of organizing and understanding the external world. He aesthetically employs his stutter in Blert to rethink the prevailing conceptual organization of nature as a part of distinctive binaries in a way that is identical to Blert’s explicit reorientation of the categories “natural” and “unnatural” in speech.4 This is not to assume that stuttering affects a stutterer’s innate understanding of the language of nature. Rather, it is to say that Blert’s representation of nature, via a stutter-based disability aesthetic, undermines the dualistic understanding of nature and culture.
Blert, then, is also a text that poetically engages complex representations of nature and ecology. In her essay “Outsides: Disability Culture Nature Poetry,” critic and disability theorist Petra Kuppers contends that in writing from the perspective of disability, “traditional nature poetry imagery becomes transfigured” (22). Kuppers identifies nature poetry within the Romantic tradition, typified by images of poet William Wordsworth wandering through nature, inspired by the sublimity of the landscape, and seeking the ecstatic dissolve of the self. Kuppers claims that disabled persons experience nature and the sublime by their own inimitable means; she writes, “we create our own rhythms, and rock ourselves into the world of nature, lose ourselves in a moment of sharing” (23). Poetry by the disabled writers that Kuppers analyzes emerges from their distinctive experiences, revising and expanding the conventions of what she calls nature poetry. Blert’s aesthetic representation of stuttering and engagement with nature supplements Kuppers’ view: Scott employs his stutter to transfigure the conventions of nature poetry even further.
Blert is resistant to the easily consumable linguistic flows and expressions of the egoistic sublime typically associated with the Romanticist tradition of nature poetry, at least as Kuppers characterizes it. In Kuppers’ analysis, the binary of nature and culture is upheld—nature is a thing experienced by poets and artists, who then render their experience in aesthetic forms. A subtext of Kuppers’ argument suggests how disability alters experiences of nature, thus altering access to traditional notions of the sublime: “[N]ot everyone can see that blueness of romantic worldview, that delimitation, the sublime color to lose a self in” (23). By means of the interruptive force of his stutter, Scott also revises dominant poetic representations of nature. For example, Wordsworth’s conception of the horizon in “It Is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free” demonstrates a hard clarity of image and seeks to capture the sublime spirit entangled with his vision:
[T]he broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea;
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
In comparison, Scott resists appealing to such direct and concrete
descriptions when portraying the sunset in Blert, while also deferring an
invocation of the sublime (“the mighty Being”) as poets and critics might
traditionally know it. Scott contemplates the horizon and writes, “At dusk
the sun ughed against horizon and the finches bruised the sky purple. I put
the spoon in my mouth. Ziplocked lip to tin. I put the spoon in my mouth, incisor chunks bunt, bunt, bunt to Pango Pango sky” (31-32). Wordsworth’s speaker opens his mouth, exclaiming “Listen!” while dramatizing the sunset and picturesque beauty of the scene. In Blert, however, the speaker’s mouth closes, blending site and subject, to instead initiate an inward turn. The speaker’s “Ziplocked lip” tightens against the sky and becomes part of the scene; it is not a force that mediates it but is part of it. For Scott, the poet’s self does not get lost in nature to return and render that experience in flowing poetic form. Instead, the landscape and self are entangled; there is no separation.
Blert’s representation of natural phenomena is more appropriately aligned with “ecology,” as theorist Timothy Morton defines it. Morton advances a theory of ecology without nature to dissolve the commonly held divide between what is perceived as nature and culture. He wants his readers to see ecology as a concept that encompasses both of these terms: “Human beings need each other as much as they need an environment. Human beings are each others’ environment. Thinking ecologically isn’t simply about nonhuman things. Ecology has to do with you and me” (4). Morton’s position designates a more collaborative and interconnected mode for humans to think about and experience the world in a way that combines natural and cultural spheres, which are too often seen as separate in the Western episteme. Blert highlights this connectedness by drawing from the language of the natural sciences and blending it with consumer language: “We rappel, frantic drips to harzburgites, spelunk carpal a soda straw to outwash, we—excess, wine must have gestured influx, bent knee, hamates wicket belay, Roosa light plunder esophagus. We blitz horizon, the Petzl Ecrin sheds its carbon” (14). This excerpt demonstrates how Blert’s phonemic play and syntax resist critical closure, which analogously deny imposing the structural logic of language onto the external world. Scott’s representations of nature are tangles of objects, textures, perspectives, and sensations. Words like “rappel,” “harzburgites,” “spelunk,” “horizon,” and “Petzl Ecrin” are indicative of climbing and cave exploration, locating readers on a cliff or rock side. “Soda straw” and “wine,” though seemingly random, further announce a human presence within this scene. Most notable, Petzl is a manufacturer of climbing and caving gear. The Petzl Ecrin Roc is a rock climbing helmet. Further down the page, Scott mentions “Edelrid,” an adventuring manufacturer known for their ropes and cords. By invoking consumerist language, Scott presents an expansive means of recognizing human presence in the landscape, as a first-person plural voice here represents it. The subject is in the landscape, but the presence of this “we” is enabled by a product made by a consumer commodity manufacturer. In this gesture, Blert recognizes that subjectivity in nature poetry is a much more complex assemblage of human and nonhuman entities akin to Morton’s conception of ecology. The subject is entangled with nature and the internal and external grammars of a subject’s body and consumer culture.
With its emphasis on human-nature connectedness, Scott’s conception
of ecology is further pronounced elsewhere in Blert. In a section entitled
“Valsalvas” (a reference to a modified breathing method, the “Valsalva
manoeuvre”), Scott writes, “Tethered to seven molluscs, an osteoblast
chomps into the burger of kelp’s wreck; an osteoclast nibbles a puffin’s
scapula in mid-afternoon weight” (11; emphases mine). Words such as
“mollusc,” “kelp,” “puffin,” and even “wreck” conjure a coastal locale.
Similarly, Scott takes readers to another distinctive scene in a section entitled “Jökulhlaup,” the Icelandic term for “a type of glacial outburst flood” (“Jökulhlaup”):
Plankton trek trachea, an ice-packed high-top waltz.
Walrus flop tongue, chomp tusk onto ice sizzle. Air sac
ebb: eco racket dome slow ice furrow, dorsal rip katabatic
overflow, tectonic chattermarks rip-rap frazil ice. Mucus
globs gumbotill until syrup sweet lymph between words. (29)
Here, the language conjures icy ecological zones, like the Arctic Ocean, where walruses are typically found. In these disjunctive lines, Scott is using the affiliated discourses of nature to enact his stutter, but he is also using the interruptive forces of his stutter to aesthetically represent an expansive definition of ecology. These lines gesture toward particular nature images, but the presentation of these scenes is interrupted by the language of other discourses—words like “katabatic” and “tectonic” gesture toward broader meteorological and geological processes while words like “tongue,” “trachea,” and “mucus” imply human presence and reiterate Blert’s preoccupation with the mouth. This paratactic assemblage—this language without coordinating or subordinating clauses—places these words in an equal relation that flattens discursive and hierarchical structures. Analogously, this equal relation inventively disrupts the separation of nature and culture. In doing so, Blert engages the tradition of “nature poetry” to reconsider humans, language, and the world as a profoundly intersubjective relationship.
Blert illuminates the ecological complexity of being an I in the world, admitting that there are many forces that interrupt and comprise an individual’s experience of nature, and destabilizing the conceptual barriers between inside and outside, human and non-human, nature and culture, and the like. In other words, Scott challenges the aesthetic traditions of nature poetry via his “disability aesthetic” to consequently undermine assumptions about what comprises categories of the “natural,” thus generating a more compelling aesthetic representation of ecology in poetry. Blert disrupts normative assumptions about aesthetic traditions of poetry and fluency while demonstrating that “nature” is resistant to standardized linguistic quantification. In Scott’s writing, nature is instead a complex entity that cannot be understood by discursive divides; it is a “Bramble” as it “harmonizes with glottal percussion” (30). Blert suggests that the linguistic expression of nature is better aligned with new materialist philosophies that recognize the inherent intermixing of things, a line of thinking that Scott pursues further in his collaborative book Decomp.
The Mouthing of Worms: Decomp
In collaboration with poet Stephen Collis, Scott intensifies the convergence of the mouth, language, and ecology in their co-authored book Decomp (2013) which draws attention to a different set of mouthing modalities—biting and chewing. The book was created by means of an experiment in which Scott and Collis took copies of On the Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin and placed them within five different biogeoclimatic zones in British Columbia: Nicola Lake, Prince George, Kootenay Lake, Gabriola Island, and Tofino. Scott and Collis left the books within these zones to endure the weather, flora, and fauna, which subsequently acted upon Darwin’s influential text, altering, decomposing, overwriting, and revising it. One calendar year later, Scott and Collis returned to their deposited texts. They photo-documented each zone’s act of creative destruction, finding the texts, in ecocritic Sarah Bezan’s words, “worm-eaten,” “waterlogged,” “buried beneath fermenting layers of vegetation” (241). They had become sites of “a vital partnership between living and dead organisms” (241). Each copy of On the Origin of Species was transformed into heterogeneous ontological matter: from evolutionary study and canonical text to food, habitat, and art object. Scott and Collis’ findings provide the basis of Decomp, which comprises the photographs taken in each zone as well as printed responses to each book-object. Theses responses include meditative poems, reflections, dialogues, quotations, journal entries, and found poems made from the legible portions of the decomposing text. The project, according to Collis and Scott, resists the nature-culture binary that traditionally upholds ecological discussions, reversing “the normal flow of bringing nature into the poem” by “bringing the text into nature” (qtd. in Moss 140). In nature, the text wrote back to the authors but it spoke back too.
Decomp’s prominently featured full-colour photographs document the year-long decomposition process in each of the biogeoclimatic zones. Aside from the unavoidable interventions that photographers make when capturing their subject, these photographs present On the Origin of Species before the authors’ poetic interventions. The photographs capture palimpsests created by layers of soil, dust, leaves, needles, and branches, as well as the erasures and omissions made by rain, sap, and, most notably, the chewing and biting of insects, worms, and birds. The photographs do not let readers forget that humans are involved in the process of creating this text; Collis and Scott consistently announce their presence by including photographs of people likely the authors themselves—as they move through each zone. These photos are often candid and frequently capture these persons in motion to remind readers that—like the creation of Decomp—subjectivity and identity are processual.
The photographs in Decomp highlight the many processes and co-authors that contributed to its creation. In one particularly dramatic photograph from the Prince George section, for example, a thin shaft of light illuminates the words the and idea, making them more visible than other bits of text in the photograph. In this instance, the photograph asks viewers to consider the concept of “the idea” as an anthropocentric invention. Humans historically distinguish themselves from other living beings for their capabilities of critical thinking, ideation, and creativity. This photograph in Decomp captures a non-human entity, a beam of light, as it seizes upon “the idea.” The photograph is the result of non-human and human interaction: the decomposition of On the Origin of Species in the biogeoclimatic zone of Prince George, the plants and undergrowth whose positions in physical space made room for this particular beam of light, and the cosmic alliance of these circumstances with the forces of the solar system, all of which allowed light to shine down on the book at the time that the photographer approached it.
Despite the emphatic ocularcentricity of Decomp, spectres of sound and speech are also present in the text. The authors hint at the sonic dimension of the book, referring to the final section as a coda (rather than an afterword). In so doing, they gesturally figure the book as literary, performative, and musical since coda is meaningful to each of these artforms. I am compelled to read the photographs as documents of sound—specifically, as evidence of sonic events that can be heard in the aural imagination. In Hungry Listening, xwélmexw (Stó:lō) artist and writer Dylan Robinson refers to this form of imagination as audiation (1), a term for the sounds that are heard in one’s mind when reading descriptions of sound. Recall here, too, sound theorist Jonathan Sterne’s reminder that “the tree makes a noise whether or not anyone is there to hear it” (12). Thus, readers of Decomp may not literally hear the sounds of worms and insects chewing Darwin’s text, of birds tearing a verso for nesting, or of pine needles falling into its margins. However, the photographs trigger the reader’s audiation so that each zone can be heard as it slowly engages the source text over the course of the year. These photographs capture these sonorous sites, charged by the chewing and biting of nature that is forever delayed from our ears but, through the power of audiation, immanently within our consciousness.
The photographs powerfully facilitate further inquiry into sounds and mouthing, prompting questions such as, What do the voices of these ecological zones sound like? Who or what speaks from within them? How do humans meaningfully engage and understand these sounds? Every bite mark, gnaw, and tear is also a para-speech action. Some critics may not consider ecological degradation to correlate to a form of vocal emittance as it is conventionally understood; however, given the active involvement of biting and chewing as a contributing force to the creation of Decomp, it is a text that, in part, captures processes of mouthing. “[T]he mouth,” as LaBelle writes, “wraps the voice, and all such wording, in its wet and impressionable envelope, its paralanguages” (7). Further, he suggests that “what surrounds the voice proper—the paralinguistic, the sociolinguistic, the glossolalic, etc.—contributes a vitalizing base to the spoken by extending, problematizing, and saturating its communicative aim” (9). The mouthing of worms and insects provided the altered source texts that form the basis of Decomp, which, in turn, shaped the authors’ voices as they composed the corresponding text.
Given the agency that Scott and Collis give to the conditions and organisms of each biogeoclimatic zone as collaborators in Decomp, philosopher Jane Bennett’s theory of vital materialism is resonant within this context, particularly for how it extends the possibilities of speaking and communication by striving to “give voice to a vitality intrinsic to materiality” (3). Bennett undermines the subject-object binary “to conceive of [non-human] materials as lively and self-organizing, rather than as passive or mechanical” (10). She prefers to refer to all things not as subjects or objects, but as interveners. Such a decision decentres anthropocentric thinking and deconstructs hierarchies of materiality to destabilize the divide between humans and non-humans. In Bennett’s words, vital materialism generates “newfound attentiveness to matter and its powers” (13). It inspires “a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations.” Bennett’s reconsideration of materiality does not retract agency from human beings; rather, it encourages more generous ways of thinking and interacting with non-human materials, recognizing them as collaborators in structuring and engaging the self and world.
In her chapter “Political Ecologies,” which focuses on the political dimensions of a vital materialist philosophy, Bennett—like Scott and Collis—addresses Darwin and his particular fascination with worms. In this chapter, Bennett’s vital materialist perspective significantly resonates with Decomp, especially in its attention to the mouth and voice. Making a case for the political participation of non-human interveners—like worms— Bennett suggests that her vital materialist perspective “can uncover a whole world of resonances and semblances—sounds and sights that echo and bounce far more than would be possible were the universe to have a hierarchical structure” (99). Vital materialism advocates for developing a polity with non-human matter (living and inert) and “with more channels of communication between members” (104). Building from Jacques Ranciére’s theory of democracy and the political act as a disruption, Bennett asks, “Is the power to disrupt really limited to human speakers?” (106). Thus, Bennett extends speech and democratic political participation to non-human matter. By giving this kind of agency to non-human matter, Bennett suggests that matter speaks through and with its interventions to “transform the divide between speaking subjects and mute objects” (108). If the mouth is the site from which speech is, in its most basic terms, expressed, and acts of nature are how non-humans speak, then Bennett’s theory challenges the limits and boundaries of the mouth and what it means to have a voice.
Worms, for instance, have their own mode of communication that relies on chemical signals to exchange information. With Bennett’s theory of voice and speaking, the vital materialist may recognize Decomp as a text that carefully documents the para-language of non-humans such as worms. For Decomp, Scott and Collis recognize that the bodies and biomes of each biogeoclimatic zone are always already speaking. These mouthing interveners, speaking in their way, disrupted and recreated the source text. When reading the text, and specifically when reading the photographs, readers are encouraged to engage their aural imaginations, discerning the sounds made as each zone intervened into Darwin’s text. As human interpreters, we may not yet fully understand the para-speech mode of non-human interveners. For now, we can recognize that each biogeoclimatic zone engages Darwin’s text, and that those engagements are meaningful. Perhaps these zones have minutely and performatively enacted Darwin’s evolutionary claims as they transform the source text into complex ontological forms that diversely express their non-human subjectivities.
Carceral Speechscapes: Lanterns at Guantánamo
Like Blert and Decomp, Scott’s poetry-adjacent multimedia project website Lanterns at Guantánamo further extends his visceral engagements with disruption, ecology, and the mouth. The materials housed on this site document Scott’s research into stuttering and disfluency as a poet visiting the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center. The website is comprised of an assemblage of materials, including sound compositions (made by collaborator Jason Starnes) of Scott’s field recordings, audio interviews, photographs of the prison (taken by Scott), photographs and scans of the art made by detainees in 2009, a multimedia chapbook entitled “Clearance Process,” and numerous administrative documents (including scans of Freedom of Information Act requests, media visit information, operating procedures, policies, rules, vitals forms, and a press kit). As a poet cognizant of the power of aesthetic frameworks, Scott’s choice of an assemblage structure for Lanterns at Guantánamo may be partially informed by the ethical quandaries posed by the project. Rather than poeticize his experiences, Scott creates a collage that readers engage by their own inimitable means. In a text adapted from a 2016 lecture, Scott reflects on what he sees as the ethical responsibilities of his research into disfluency at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center. He writes, at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center. He writes,
When I watched those men pray and eat behind two thick panes of reflective glass in Camp IV, was my position ethical? What would be an ethical response or reaction to that experience? To this lecture? Can poems possibly emerge out of such an encounter? Should they? (“Lanterns” 11)
Similarly, should literary criticism be written about Scott’s encounter? There are no easy answers to these questions. However, as a seeing and hearing witness to the conditions of the prison, Scott serves his readership by sonically and visually illuminating the conditions of this prison. His work highlights, explicitly and implicitly, the iterations of power that are executed within this space, demonstrating how voice and mouth are bound within these dynamics.
After a year-long application process to secure his visit, Scott was granted five days of access to Guantánamo Bay as the only poet known to have visited the detention centre. Scott was subjected to numerous reference and background checks, and he completed and submitted a number of documents and forms that were a standard part of the application. As part of the process, Scott was informed of the allowances he could take while visiting the centre. For example, officials at the prison could dictate whom he was allowed to interview and the kinds of photographs that he was allowed to take. It was clear, then, that Scott was subjecting his creative process to the design of this infamous carceral facility and that its logic would likely pose significant limits and challenges to his ability to articulate—in speech, writing, and image—the experience of the prison. Scott admits that he sought access to Guantánamo Bay to bring himself “closer to the apparatus of state interrogation,” knowing full well that it would also bring him “to a place of uncompromising hostility toward dysfluency” (“Lanterns” 3). According to FBI interrogators, disfluency is a bodily signal of lying (3). Thus, a space like Guantánamo Bay pursues the “desire for speech to greet the ear smoothly and clearly, and for subjects or suspects to make themselves both understandable and believable” (3). As a lifelong stutterer, Scott clearly objects to this fiction that posits a linkage between stuttering and lying since the fallacious extension of this logic is that persons who stutter are liars. Scott refers to this logic—which informs interrogation processes in a space like the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center—as the “regime of fluency” (4).
Scott’s interpretation of the power dynamics at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center are prominently displayed on the Lanterns at Guantánamo website. When visitors reach the site’s home page, they are presented with an image of a makeshift guard tower elevated above a chain-link fence and topped by coils of barbed wire. In the background beyond the fence, vegetation browns and steel structures rust. This image establishes the contours of the power structure and hierarchy inherent in the prison. The centred and elevated tower symbolizes the power and control of the prison guards. This is contrasted by the apparent decay of the buildings and vegetation and the absence of human subjects—a testament to the prison’s particular form of corrosive power. These combined features attempt to recreate the ominous and spectral feel of the prison as an environment and its anti-human ideology.
Below this image of the prison, Scott places a compelling epigraph, a quotation from the late Canadian composer and sound theorist R. Murray Schafer: “Noises are the sounds we have learned to ignore” (Schafer 4). The quote gestures toward Schafer’s theories of acoustic ecology, wherein he appeals for the need of noise abatement laws to reduce the prevalence of noise in everyday life. For Schafer, noise as sonic phenomena is broadly defined as both problematic noise pollution and unwanted sound: “When the rhythms of the soundscape become confused or erratic, society sinks to a slovenly and imperiled condition” (237). Finding a means of returning society to the premodern soundscape, wherein noise is significantly reduced, is one of Schafer’s key aims.
Scott’s field research at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center draws Schafer’s premise into question and draws attention to the unsettling implications of ambitions to dampen or reduce “unwanted sound.” The carceral soundscape far exceeds Schafer’s considerations of the soundscape of primarily urban and rural spaces. Scott, however, brings the implications of Schafer’s quest to the fore in his documentation of the carceral soundscape, highlighting the unsettling effects of rules and conditions pertaining to sound, and poignantly outlining the way that sonic expression is permitted and denied. The carceral soundscape is a site of control over the human ability to sound. By acknowledging this fact, Scott’s recordings throw the audible sounds of the prison environment into stark relief. For example, in the prison, Scott “was not permitted to record what one Public Affairs (PA) representative referred to as ‘non-permissible human voice’” (“Lanterns” 9). Scott offers another, slightly more oblique example when he recounts interviewing the warden at the prison:
He replied that on a typical day, when he walks into the prison he hears nothing; it is mostly quiet and unremarkable. The warden made sure to tell me that if I were asking whether he hears screams, then the answer is no. He then paused and said that what he hears all the time is the sound of air conditioners. At Gitmo you hear the air conditioners before the cooling begins. The sound is all drone. (24)
Here, the warden provides a machinic characterization of the prison’s soundscape, describing how the ambient sound of air conditioning dominates the environment. Scott points out in the transcript of his 2016 lecture that the air conditioners are used as torture devices at Guantánamo (“Lanterns” 25). He cites Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritania-born man who was detained without charge in Guantánamo from 2002 until his release on 17 October 2016; Slahi explains in Guantánamo Diary (2015) that
[t]he interrogators turned the A/C all the way down trying to reach 0ºF, but obviously air conditioners are not designed to kill, so in the well insulated room the A/C fought its way to 49ºF, which, if you are interested in math like me, is 9.4ºC—in other words, very, very cold, especially for somebody who had to stay in it for more than twelve hours, had no underwear and just a thin uniform, and who comes from a hot country. (242)
Thus, there is an especially sinister kind of malice underwriting the warden’s seemingly innocuous description of the soundscape. Further, embedded in the warden’s comment, there is the powerful implication of the prison’s powers over the mouth—voices are forcibly concealed, and the prison is generally haunted by an absence of vocalization. These implicit and explicit controls over speech define Guantánamo’s carceral soundscape.
Lanterns at Guantánamo also comprises the multimedia chapbook “Clearance Process” (2016). Visually, sonically, and linguistically, this chapbook furthers consideration of the prison’s paradigm of control over the voice and mouth. If Blert is a book that, as Tyrone Williams suggests, captures the “momentary loss of control, of agency” in the moment of the stutter, then “Clearance Process” engages different losses of agency. In “Clearance Process,” these losses are voluntary and forced, though both are products of the systemic operations of a space like Guantánamo. “Clearance Process” comes with a soundtrack by Jason Starnes made from Scott’s field recordings. Starnes’ composition in the chapbook captures the prison’s hauntingly sparse soundscape. The soundtrack is composed of textures and ambient sounds—crackles, echoes, chirps, and buzzes from the prison space. The few voices on the recording are distant and muffled, interrupted by hums and percussive clangs: “This goes through the nose and down into the stomach to provide the [inaudible]” (00:01:41 – 00:01:47). What few voices there are in these recordings drift in and out of audibility. They are vulnerable to interruption by other sounds in the space as well as to the restrictions imposed by the detention centre’s policies.
“Clearance Process” positions the voice in a soundscape like Guantánamo as that which is both silenced and forced to emerge through the interrogation process, thus materializing the the space’s anti-human ideology. Representations of human life in “Clearance Process” are spectral. Many of the photographs are void of human subjects: nearly empty skies, flat stretches of concrete horizons, empty facilities, and piles of coiled barbed wire. The few images of human subjects that are present in “Clearance Process” are partial and fragmentary: a silhouette of a body on concrete, a barely visible body blurred by an unsteady camera, a body obscured by thick sheets of glass. There are cropped bodies too: hands holding a camera, a hand holding a bottle of liquid meal replacement, the lower half of a Guantánamo guard in military attire. Bodies in “Clearance Process” are presented as faceless (obviously cropped in accordance with Operational Security [OPSEC] protocols).
While, like Decomp, the collection is emphatically ocularcentric, Scott’s “Clearance Process” draws us toward two related configurations of mouthing and vocalization: the voice that is silenced and the voice that is forced from the body. We know from Scott’s introduction and the few audio compositions made from his field recordings that OPSEC limits whose voices can be heard and who can hear them. “Clearance Process” opens with a heavily redacted excerpt from Guantánamo Diary. These elements of the text gesture toward the mouth that is stopped and not permitted to speak, that is erased from the record. “Clearance Process” also subtly gestures toward the other mouth modality, the mouth that is wrenched open and forced to vocalize. There is a quiet violence to Scott’s photographic assemblage that signals the physical violence and inhumane atmosphere of the prison: images of rusted barbed wire, specks of blood on rocks, a lurid red heart carved into a tree trunk, and lots of debris. These images indicate the greater violence that lurks inside the prison: the interrogation and torture of the detainees. Without actual images of torture and violence, Scott’s photographs point to these elements of Guantánamo, leaving us to imagine the various forms of violence that the state uses to coerce speech from prisoners who are unwilling to speak. The “quietude” of Scott’s audio and visual materials invite the violence, screams, and pain of this space into the viewer’s audiation.
In his introduction to “Clearance Process,” Scott notes that the “speechscape” of the detention centre “was one of feedback loops and evasion, repetition with variations on an echo-forming language strategy,” a voluntary stoppage and circumvention of what otherwise could be said (10). The strategy here is to always deny and delay the arrival of the requested information. Scott compiles a series of quotations of overheard speech during his visit:
That’s not in my lane. I don’t know what they’ve done or what they haven’t done. I’m not privy to that information. I’m not authorized to tell you that, sir. I can’t speak to that. But I’ll see if I can find someone who can. Sir, you’re not allowed to ask that. (10)
Each seemingly scripted line, presumably uttered by one of the staff of the detention complex, is not necessarily a stutter, but a stoppage, a distraction, a deviation from speech to purposefully limit or stop the flow of information.
Restrictions on speech are found elsewhere, particularly in the audio recording “The Camps Are Good” on the Lanterns at Guantánamo site page. This recording contains an interview with a prison guard by Joan Faus, a former Washington correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El País. There are three voices in the room: the guard, the interviewer (Faus), and a mysterious voice, presumably of a senior official, that occasionally interjects into the conversation. It is important to note here that this third mysterious person is not the subject of the interview, as indicated by the way Scott identifies this recording: “This interview with a guard was conducted by Joan Faus EL PAÍS U.S. Correspondent.” He does not mention that this is an interview with a guard and a senior official. The conversation between Faus and the guard mainly focuses on the day-to-day operations of the centre. Strikingly, however, the third voice intrudes at crucial moments, particularly when the conversation begins to veer toward information that is classified. For example, when the guard is about to reveal the time of day that the detainees receive their meals, the third voice interjects to stop the guard from revealing this information (00:02:25). Similarly, Faus responds to the third voice in the room, which has seemingly gestured that the interview will be wrapped up soon (00:06:34). This occurs at the 00:06:34 mark of the recording. The interviewer holds to the initial terms of the interview, reminding the third voice that they had agreed on ten minutes. The power and presence of this third voice are notable since the person to whom this voice belongs is not the subject here. Yet, this third voice’s influence is central to understanding the powers of the mouth and voice in the prison. As a mouth and voice of absolute authority, the third speaker intervenes in the discussion to delay, stop, and pause the flow of vocalization at moments when the information carried by those voices threatens to become too revealing. It is this all-powerful, unidentified voice that is indicative of the veiled authority in carceral spaces that controls the flow of vocal emittance.
Shutting Up: Conclusion
To return to my proposed investigation of the “borders of the linguistic” as represented and traversed in Scott’s poetry, I now draw attention to one of the core tenets of his work. The mouth is, as LaBelle reminds us, a passageway from inside to outside. Thus, if we pay careful attention to the mouth and its many modalities, we can learn a great deal about our relationships to the external world—how to express it, relate to it, navigate it, ingest it, and expel it. Each of Scott’s poetry collections under discussion confirms LaBelle’s claim that the mouth is a “contact zone where language performs as a powerful agent” (2). Across these texts, Scott examines the mouth as it stutters, bites, chews, speaks, and stops to articulate complex relationships between humans and non-humans in aesthetic and systemic configurations. Scott’s varied investigations into mouthing modalities are linked by his thematic interest in diminishing the division between inside and outside, as demonstrated by a frequent invocation of ecological themes—natural landscapes and carceral soundscapes. As works of poetry, they specifically demonstrate how language is shaped by the mouth, and subject to many forms of disruption, reconfiguration, and erasure. Most importantly, Scott’s poetry demonstrates the necessity of expanding assumptions around the processes of poetic meaning making to accept that these processes often involve a range of bodily communicative acts, that the utterance is more than words written or heard, and that the communicative act exceeds the logic of language and normative assumptions about speech. Scott’s poetry powerfully and persuasively testifies that not all that needs to be understood can be said.
- Anthropologist Edward Sapir is notable for his relativist theory of language and perception, which claims that the structure of language that is known by a person shapes their understanding of the world. In turn, this suggests that a person’s experience of the world is relative to the language they know. See Sapir, Language.
- Derek Beaulieu also highlights Scott’s Blert in relation to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a way of exploring what he refers to as a Calgarian poetics.
- This thinking also underlies the important work of projects such as the Did I Stutter? project, a community-focused group dedicated to hearing the “diversity of sounds present in the human voice” and whose mission is “to challenge assumptions about speech-disability and . . . to open a conversation about how much of the anxiety related to dysfluency is produced by oppressive social structures and values.”
- Scott continues to approximate a relationship between disfluency and nature, most recently in his bestselling children’s book, I Talk Like a River (illustrated by Sydney Smith). The book has received much acclaim, and it was featured on the BBC’s CBeebies Bedtime Story program, where it was read by popular singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran.
Beaulieu, Derek. “Linguistic Fragmentation as Political Intervention in Calgarian Poetry.” Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses, no. 56, Apr. 2008, pp. 69-79.
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Bezan, Sarah. “A Darwinism of the Muck and Mire: Decomposing the Eco- and Zoopoetics of Stephen Collis’ and Jordan Scott’s Decomp.” Texts, Animals, Environments: Ecopoetics and Zoopoetics, edited by Sebastian Schönbeck et al., Rombach, 2019, pp. 241-51.
Did I Stutter? www.didistutter.org/about.html. Accessed 20 Nov. 2021.
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—. “Clearance Process.” Audio composed by Jason Starnes. Small Caps, 2016. Lanterns at Guantánamo, indd.adobe.com/view/9553ac0e-12fd-4ede-8492-e9a0010abc68.
—. I Talk Like a River. Illustrated by Sydney Smith. Penguin Random House Canada, 2020.
—. “Lanterns at Guantánamo.” 2017. Lanterns at Guantánamo, lanternsatguantanamo.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Lanterns-at-Guanta%CC%81namo.pdf.
—. Lanterns at Guantánamo. www.lanternsatGuantánamo.ca. Accessed 24 July 2020.
Scott, Jordan, and Stephen Collis. Decomp. Coach House, 2013.
Siebers, Tobin. “Disability Aesthetics.” PMLA, vol. 120, no. 2, Mar. 2005, pp. 542-46.
Slahi, Mohamedou Ould. Guantánamo Diary. Edited by Larry Siems, Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
St. Pierre, Joshua. “The Construction of the Disabled Speaker: Locating Stuttering in Disability Studies.” Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, vol. 1, no. 3, Aug. 2012, pp. 1-21.
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Williams, Tyrone. “Aestheticizing the Stutter.” Poetry Foundation, 14 Apr. 2017, www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2017/04/aestheticizing-the-stutter. Accessed 24 July 2020.
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