The Operating System


Stephanie Gray. photo by Christopher Martin.

Stephanie Gray. photo by Christopher Martin.

Stephanie Gray & The Sound
She wants to know how it sounds. The bunting at the bodega. The slow sudden closing of a neighborhood. What shut down to make way for more chains. She is listening to history on the radio. It sounds blue. Blue collar, blue jeans. Ripped at the knees. It sounds like we’re just talking. But how? And who? Boston. Metallica. All of us packed into this same train car and all ears.
I came across Stephanie’s work through hearing her read. Stephanie is hearing impaired and that affects the clarity of her performance. She works hard for the words. One has to lean in, to parse out, to engage fully. I care about readings, so what Stephanie was doing, and doing with courageous warmth, immediately captured me. I began to seek out her work, beginning with her first book Heart Stoner Bingo (Straw Gate, 2007). Her “working class sentences” exploding and exploring the contemporary mind’s moving soundtrack as it circumnavigates capital. Love poems to Van Halen excoriating hipster irony. Breaking up with a city that keeps sleeping with brokers. And then I began seeing her films, which are gorgeous and make space for the forsaken and bring dignity back to the neighborhood. She often performs a live text to go with them, mic in hand, telling without explaining.
Stephanie just keeps moving deeper into this territory I want to call The Sound. There’s that great Ed Dorn novel, By the Sound, and that great Eric Baus book, The To Sound, and then Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs put out Stephanie’s I thought you said it was sound / How does that sound. I love it. I wrote all about it for Boog City so here’s a link. It’s hard to excerpt Stephanie’s labor in the The Sound because it’s all process, accrual, the layering of a certain texture until the end of the poem comes and you’re suddenly wearing it.
Her new work is what I’m really excited about. I mean the stuff that hasn’t even dropped yet. She’s got this new manuscript chock full of brilliant dispatches from The Sound. I have this idea about hearing, that it’s the most ethical sense. Partially how the ear doesn’t close, bears witness. Stephanie’s work feels deeply ethical to me. Witness and conversation. Taking the quest in question seriously, making it an adventure, getting to the bottom of it. Not taking the ear for granted. Stephanie leads with the heart on her sleeve in her ear on the street. The poems get honester and honester. The words are real words, the questions real questions. One poem of Stephanie’s and all the pretension of Poetry flies into the wood chipper. It sounds great.

After Giorgios: “All the backroads changed… I had a job connecting dreams,”

that would supremely fuck me up, did I say I never swear in these poems, that would supremely mess with me if all the backroads changed, I knew each one from point A to B to C to eventually Z out of order, every gravel and stone was memorized just so until someone told me that band Alabama was not so cool, how was I supposed to know, I heard it on every back road in the back of my dad’s pick up, where I was trying to connect the dreams that I had concocted during the day, yesterday, with that classmate who always takes forever to finish that assignment, I was connecting what was falling out of their head, each one strung on a bracelet fashioned from a rubber band, stringing beads but ready to stretch the rubber band when all the dreams and jobs and backroads finally went awry, if the theory busted if you were busted if the dreams busted if the connection fizzled between the dream and the job and the backroad if the unraveling started, just as we began

Here’s a poem influenced by Stephanie’s work, her commitment to sounding out what won’t leave her. In my case, it’s the late great Nate Dogg and his big bass treble.


Like video stain I’m stuck
at the ’94 VMAs
watching Nate Dogg refuse to
let treble go. To be
like that, slip
desire’s letter
in: make tremble, make trance, look
how no one in the audience
dances. Where the rhythm is
the bass and the bass
is the trebllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllle.
Getting licked by that syllable
just like before
Nate Dogg popped
you in his suite
at the Eastside Motel.
Turning murder into sex.
Hitting “I Keep
from the back.
It’s Nate Dogg’s job not
to remember, but
to regulate, to mount you
the fuck up
where bass and treble merge and interlace
so together to bed
in the sliver of an impossible Venn
and rub thought null
as sex equalizes difference through vibration.
Bass and treble breed and revel
in the plunge
of vigilante sex that’s
the flipside of sacrifice.
Nate Dogg rocking his long
beach hat
so in vibrato we
feel all the slipperiness of fucking
a word til its wrong, til
all language fucks
up and long beach
goes lung bleach
lounge bitch
and schlong breach
along each quavering organ
of his held treble. We endlessly add
and subtract as
Nate Dogg holds us
in the willfulness
of his math, sprawled
in treble’s swell where
it drops
into the bass of the basement
where the pink noise
of treble’s neap tide laps
ear after ear. We’re there
we’re here. Even in death
Nate Dogg doesn’t
let go. Mic stuck
to lip. You don’t want
to step to this.

Chris Martin is the author of Becoming Weather (Coffee House, 2011) and American Music (Copper Canyon, 2007).  Last October, Flying Object serially published a chapbook he wrote in collaboration with Cleverbot called CHAT.  His most recent work is collected in a chapbook from Ugly Duckling Presse called enough.


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