May 20, 2020
These days, we not only feel for people but for the places where they live. We feel for our own places in ways that we had perhaps forgotten or set aside. We look at maps of cities and regions and then ponder connections—and perhaps see more clearly the relationships between these places and our lives, correspondences between the health of individual neighborhoods and the city as a whole. Meanwhile, with streets abandoned, the world feels both charged and deadened, like a stage before or after the play.
I’ve been going back through old episodes of The Land, an A Public Space podcast, to listen to recordings made outdoors, which feels presumptuous in some ways, as if we could imagine the world before. It featured a poem by Patrizia Cavalli from A Public Space No. 19, “Again It Has Prepared Itself for My Awakening,” translated by Jorie Graham. At the time, Graham sent us a recording of her translation read from the runway at Logan Airport, in the days when a flight was merely a hassle. Cavalli recorded her reading in her coffee shop in Campo de' Fiori, a public square in Rome that is glamorous for precisely how workaday it is: a hurried market in the morning that is low-key square the rest of the day, it started life as a swampy field on the edge of a young Rome and has seen executions, World War II bombings, a disco, and various bakeries. Sam Amidon, the avant-garde folk singer, sent us a recording from the middle of his tour, a description of night in Copenhagen, and Beth Orton, in Los Angeles, described a view of Topanga Canyon and the smell of early summer flowers: “It’s overwhelming, and it’s consuming, and it’s so very beautiful.” Colin Barrett, whose story “Stand Your Skin” was published in A Public Space No. 20, describes his backyard on a misty evening in <a href=""Mullingar in County Westmeath in the Irish Midlands. “I’m looking down on my next door neighbor’s farm, and he’s out welding in his shed, which has a big galvanized roof that’s kind of caved in during some storms in the winter,” he says, “and I can see some light flickering out holes in the roof.”
I live in Philadelphia, and the view from our apartment window is south, towards the still-quiet downtown, where I miss walking and eating, drinking and smiling without a mask. I have been looking out the window while listening to a band, also from Ireland, that seems to offer ways to think about new connections, their sound built on layers of sound and on the idea of a drone. The band is called Lankum, and I was on my way to see them when the pandemic made that impossible. This week NPR put up their Tiny Desk Concert they had recorded on that ill-fated tour, another tantalizing glimpse of before. With voices and traditional instruments—the low notes of reeds from accordions or uilleann pipes—the four players work in an orchestral way. I have heard Lankum referred to variously as drone folk, folk punk, and trad drone (trad being short for traditional) but regardless of descriptor, the album is powerful collection, orchestral in a way that is counterintuitively stripped down while intending to rattle your bones, if not your soul. If the idea of a drone sounds dreary and deadening, it’s not, in this case. I think of it as experimental, along the lines of ambient music by Brian Eno, or as if Woody Guthrie had been hanging around with John Cage. The more I contemplate the idea of the drone in itself, the more I hear it as a porous and flexible sound of winds and vibrations—as watery or tidal even—and the more I see it as offering a kind of guidance as we move to reengage with ourselves and with the boundaries and borders that have gotten us into the fix we are in.
Robert Sullivan's books include My American Revolution (FSG), Cross Country, and Rats (both Bloomsbury). He teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English and is a contributing editor at A Public Space.