Will Montgomery

Contact-mic’d fence

Will Montgomery
Walking in Air de Chez Soi
September 2021

In the days before September’s ‘Walking in Air de chez soi’, I had been reading the American poet Peter Gizzi’s ‘Poem Beginning with a Phrase from Simone Weil’, which begins with the following lines:

        There is no better time than the present when we have lost
        everything. It doesn’t mean rain falling
                  at a certain declension, at a variable speed is without
        purpose or design.
                  The present everything is lost in time, according to laws
        of physics things shift
                  when we lose sight of a present,
                 when there is no more everything. No more presence in
         everything loved.

The poem is set in motion by the phrase from Weil and it works through variations on the themes of presence, loss, velocity and time. I was struck by the odd word ‘declension’, which hitches grammar to descent. In my first Walking in Air outing in January 2001 I had thought about the following words from an essay by Susan Howe: ‘Maybe the nature of a particular can be understood only in relation to sound inside the sense it quickens. Setting sun. A mourning dove compounds invisible declensions.’ As I prepared for my second walk in air, I thought about the Gizzi poem’s preoccupation with encountering the present. And about an article on Weil, in which Sharon Cameron suggests that the French thinker asks us to reconsider how we attend to the world:

         Insofar as contradiction is repellent to what would make the
        world intelligible, resting in contradiction (indistinguishable from
        resting in attention) implies relinquishing understanding, along
        with the recognition that understanding is an operation that can
        only be performed in a vacuum isolated from the real, as on a
        plaything. Thus attention is regard that is innocent of desire or
        aspiration, hence innocent of either masochism or sadism, and
        not to be explained by a psychologizing vocabulary.
        Cameron, ‘The Practice of Attention: Simone Weil’s Performance
        of Impersonality’
        Critical Inquiry , Vol. 29, No. 2 (Winter 2003), pp. 216-252.

Cameron finds in Weil a forceful commitment to the value of the unintelligible, endorsing instead a disinterested mode of attention and an acknowledgment of indeterminacy. Getting ready to walk, I thought about this and the Gizzi poem alongside the discussion of knowledge in Tim Ingold’s article ‘Footprints through the weather-world: walking, breathing, knowing’ – Ingold argues that the walking ‘wayfarer’ encounters knowledge in a way that is ‘not classificatory but storied, not totalizing and synoptic but open-ended and exploratory’.

I decided to walk on Wolstonebury Hill in Sussex. The summit was once the site of a late Bronze-age hillfort. Open-cast mining activity in the 18th-century punched a series of declivities into the ground at the top. From the hill, one can look out over the flat plain of the Weald, which runs to the North Downs in Surrey, or East or West along the ridge of the South Downs Way, or at the wind turbines in the sea beyond Brighton.

In the first section of my walking in air, I moved upwards over a section of the ridge, following a chalk pathway running between two gates. To the north, on my right, there was a steeply curving drop. There were white sheep in the field to my left, white chalk underfoot and white clouds overhead. As I walked, I thought of a line from another Peter Gizzi poem that I had with me, ‘How to Read’: ‘A textual nimbus, air born’. Gizzi’s ‘textual nimbus’ seemed to accommodate the interpenetration of thinking and landscape as I moved along the chalk pathway.

After the second gate, I came to a wire fence that was humming in the breeze, moved by the air. I attached contact mics, plugged them into my audio recorder, and lay down in the sun. The sound of wind on wire, only faintly discernible to the ear, became deep and resonant when captured by the microphones. The occasional jogger or rambler stopped to chat, usually remarking on the warmth of the day.

After a time, I moved on towards the top of the hill. I tried to imagine what it might mean to ‘relinquish understanding’, even as I engaged in an activity that was surely guided, in one way or another, by ‘desire and aspiration’. At the top, I found a sheltered spot to lie down in – one of the bowl-like mining scars that pockmark the hill. There, I set up my recorder again. Every time an aeroplane passed overhead I sounded a note on an old pitch pipe. I addressed the huge metal machine roaring through the air above by means of air sounded as it moved through a short metal tube. (When I listened to the recording later, my piping had been so quiet that it was entirely effaced by the sound of the jet engines.)

Some time later, I made my way back to my starting point in two stages. In the first I watched a cluster of skylarks wheeling around the hilltop. Pulling out my phone, I learned that the collective noun for these birds is an ‘exaltation’. I thought again about how passing over the variegated terrain, moving though air that was soft and invisible but full of the sounds of cars and aircraft, my thoughts were modulated by my surroundings: the textual nimbus.

In the final stage of my walking in air, I passed down the easy slope of the ridge, now in declension myself. I tried to attend to the asynchronous patterning of my walking in air: footsteps moving more quickly than breath. Gizzi’s Weil poem ends:

        A certain declension, a variable speed. 
                Is there no better presence than loss? 
                  A grace opening to air. No better time than the present.

I ended my walking in air and walked home down the hill.