Commentary - The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Originally published 11/2001)

I chose this topic this month knowing it would be difficult to write about, and more so to read. The sound of one hand clapping is an expression everyone has heard, evoking the lucid ideas of great thought as it does for the young. Sounds are mapped directly into the brain, where they do their work upon the subconscious most often. In the brain, words are not sound, though in poetry, it is difficult to separate the sounds from the words, or often to decipher the words from the sound.

The sound of a the sudden flight of a thousand birds, ducks, pigeons, blackbirds in migration, a great tree when falling in the woods after having been sawn, a great waterfall, the Niagara, or the wind of a tornado, like a great freight train, which even if we've never personally heard it, we know them all instinctively, what they are, their intrinsic value and their place in our world, our own small universe.
Fathers know the sound of a crying infant. Mothers do too. These are primordial sounds, like the last gasp of death, the first cry of life, the crack of a gavel, a gunshot, a canon blast, or men when they are angry, or, imposing their awful will, like the sounds of women chatting, and sea birds in flight before a distant gale. The sound of war being rallied, in a loatheful disdain for all humanity that shares not the thought.

The sound of the first building falling September eleventh, heard through the TV set, or the glass of the second building was not something many of us had ever contemplated within the psyche of our instinct, but, the sound of the second building falling, the sound from within it, on the tenth floor, as it came down upon some, forever falling for the eternity of those many slow seconds upon those who were there, the folly, the air still in awe of the sound of an ending of personal worlds should inspire us all to contemplate the brevity of our lives, and the special beauty and wonder of all the other sounds we've heard elsewhere during our lives; the sounds of distant children laughing, playing, the crack in the voice of an elementary school teacher on her very first day teaching a class of gleeful but unruly third graders, the sound of a sporting event when great feats are being accomplished, and defeat, the sound of a hot air balloon, and its absence of sound, the sound of wind blowing through the white pine, and a young woman, a girl really, not quite a woman, calling her first love for the first time on the telephone, the sound of your own children, and your own wife, in labor, the sound of age approaching slowly, inextricably, cracking in your back, knees, neck, the sound of the first day of school, and the last, the sound of geese in an evening autumn sky, and of the sun rising brought up by the song birds of the morning, and of a blizzard howling through an opened and, then, unopened door, the moan of an unsettlingly disappointed crowd, the sound of a great factory, of great deals being made on trading floors, of carpenters hard at work, of a dog fight, and rain on a metal roof, a teenager's party, the sounds of an accomplished prank, and, politicians working a large crowd, a jet fighter breaking the sound barrier, the sound of glass breaking and your own heart, there, your own deep breathing, the lake's lapped shore, and the sound under water.

Sit still, and listen just to the sounds. You are not so young and your life for you will not last forever. Sit still and listen. Sit still, and, listen youthful and often youth-less fools. Listen well to the world's sounds during your life, and hear not just the utter foolishness man's words provide. When life is gone for any one, or for all, then, there will be nothing but to hear the sound of one hand clapping.

Don Robertson, The editor, Maine Before Dawn (November 2001)

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