here is the beginning of some work on a new paper, about the sound of boat engines. wondering what y’all think….
listen to the engines
the sound of boat engines fails to resonate with neo-traditionalist ideas of what indigenous people should be, but it’s with listening to boat engines that we begin
we begin to listening to the engines, as many songs in sowal no ‘amis have instructed, idangaw tengil han ko soni no kikai no tamina, friend, listen to the boat engines. you may have heard them already, in the night’s quiet, even if you do not see the lights, the clack of the engines carrying over the fog. clak, clak, clak, clak
for men on far ocean fishing boats, the monotony of vision on the open ocean and the confinement of the berths belowdecks attenuated vision as a means to sense, apart from that time focused upon work. although the broad ocean could be like one’s front yard, the boats could endure months without sight of either land or other boats. the metronomic stroke of the engines and the thrum of the propellor, constantly sensed, situated one as a mifotingay, a far ocean fisherman, a reminder, in case one forgot, of one’s life. Evening below deck, the mumble of engines through the hull could conjure voices, would resolve into a mother’s songs and tears, a beloved’s anxious nagging to keep one’s body safe on the long journey, a child’s pleading to return home before longing took its inevitable toll. murmuring through the night, the voice of the engines whispered in familiar voices, a comfort, perhaps, but also a burden heavier than work on the boats. it would be better to sleep than to listen to these voices
a constant reminder of distance from home ironically conjured loved ones’ voices on calm days. yet, the sound of the engines also alerted the dangers of the open ocean, rogue waves and massive storms that could carry the boat the the ocean’s bottom. when telling stories of storms at sea, men who have been on the boats imitate the sound of engines as they narrate the heights of the waves. kok kok kok they begin, hands gesturing in an upward slope, kok kok kok kok kok, then a suspension that feels like an infinite silence as the boat slid down the swell, across it so that the wave would not break across the decks. a sibilant rush as the boat slides, drowning all sounds, the groan of the hull as boat twists in waves, shivering before the strained passage upward, kok kok kok kok kok repeated now, as the boat climbs. the return of engine’s metronomic clatter signaled if not safety at least the continuing struggle with the ocean, a brief respite from the writhing boat’s groans of terror
the boat’s engines never ceased during the entire time at sea. Any changes in the engine’s tempo or its disappearance altogether was a sign of concern if not alarm. yet, the engine’s constant stroke reminded the men that they were at work far from home, far from port. to ask listeners to mifotingay songs to listen to the boat engines situates the listener then as a specific kind of person: it places us listeners on the boats, as those for whom the engine’s sound was the sensed place of mifoting
the sound of boat engines also replaced the sonically dense village and home spaces of east coastal taiwan, birdcalls, barks and cockcrow, shouts and songs, music broadcast from radio speakers or public address systems. the analogy of ocean to patio, engine stroke to lover’s voice transmits a sorrow of longing, ka’iwilan, becuase the mimesis is failed, impoverished, clearly requiring a great imaginative effort to hold. it hardly works as an icon. how could the empty ocean stand in for the space in front of ‘amis houses where people sit in the evenings to converse, sing, and dance? what is there but a bioluminescent stillness? we only need to look closely and the metaphoric magic vanishes. this failed mimesis can only point inwards to the work of imagination, the longing body that conjures an image of courtyard, evokes a trace of the lover’s voice, but without the body that produced it: another kind of schizophonic mimesis? the voice image resolves into the engine stroke, we awake from our reverie, and the engine stroke redoubled as engine and not voice intensifies the ‘iwil, brings us back to the reality of work on the boats: listen to the engines