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  • Enxhi Mandija

(REVIEW) Coast close: Cascadence, by Sara O'Brien

Photo of the book Cascandence: a dark blue cover with the letters of the title vertically in gold lettering. A hand holds up the book against a dark green wall.

Enxhi Mandija enacts a lyrical echoing shimmer response to Sara O’Brien’s Cascadence (The Yellow Papers, 2023), an essay, memoir and extended poem, which sets out on a journey to research Scottish mathematician, and astronomer Mary Somerville, but pans out as a potent reckoning with the writer’s own self.

We use the same toothpaste. You, me, Mary Somerville.

She was looking for resonance and reverberation.

Sounds pool in an echo chamber. Hollow, we hoard dormant sounds, ready to jump out, and vibrate when a similar frequency approaches. Sounds chime in sympathy, as a feeling together, hosts to an array of traces faint and half-remembered, that may or may not have something to do with you.

In Sara O’Brien’s Cascadence, the writing self remains hazy, in the haar of an ambiguous she. She is writing, she is narrated, she is reflecting and reflective, refracting. The premise of the book: a writer travels to Burntisland, on the East coast of Scotland, the birthplace of scientist Mary Somerville, to write. Perhaps, her: Mary Somerville, her: the unnamed writer. The writer—who is not the narrator—holds herself aloft in the mist-filled space of a third person who never comes into full view—sea foam curling off your feet. Sometimes, she is at the irretrievable remove of a passive mode, she had never been known to understand, she is written about and on. As she becomes enquiry and enquirer, simultaneously escaping both roles, she is more vulnerable than if she had shielded herself behind the spear of an I. And she appears in reverberations.

The book shifts from lyrical memoir in the elusive third person, to short essays, to lyrical explorations into a place, to photographs. These movements, punctuating the text, show distances, blurry edges, playing with focus: what’s near and what’s far become a matter of memory, not perception. The horizon, a melting.

At intervals, the writing shifts into a more recognisable essaying mode, the voices of other writers and thinkers are spun around like conversations. Theory is handled like grit, or the clouds of chalk used by gymnasts—preventing you from falling, keeping you spinning and moving by creating friction. And here, perhaps, is where we are closest: even though she makes no appearance, we can hear the writer through who she thinks with. The proof had to come from outside—away from herself. To be written, a she implies a someone else out there seeing her, even as a desire or a projection. She is labile, she is porous. Is the I that writes beneath the she, is Mary Somerville, is and is not. Embroiled in the conundrum of bearing sole witness to herself. Is a friend, is someone with whom I hold a loose correspondence, is an echo of my own feeling, a resonance and a reverberation.

A conversation: a pouring together, a spilling.

Enxhi 24 Feb

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The voice is a threshold

Sara O’Brien 24 Feb

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pages holding their place like vertebrae

Enxhi 24 Feb

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let the sound and sense be translated at the level of my body

Sara O’Brien 24 Feb

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exceeding yourself in the care of its labour, but within protected edges

And a turning around.

She has the need, throughout the book, to define the space around her, own it and adjust herself to it, through gestures of making space. She arranges items in the rooms she stays in, populates them with objects, reference points so that her new landscape may become navigable, so that she may become freer in it, own the confinement of it. It was a nesting. It was a minor but necessary means of orienteering the latent intimacies of the space. Small rituals followed punctually.

Sara O’Brien’s writing handles space in the same way: it has the rhythm of a breathing that changes to synchronise with someone else’s, of the measured, hovering, quietly assertive gestures of someone making themselves at home, gestures coriacei, moulded by years of repetition, steadfast like the sharp barnacles on a coastal rock. So her sentences are similarly chiseled through strings of synonyms, words affini, affiliated and finely honed, sharpened to a smoother surface or to a point, trying to find their shape in the place.

A calling out that means a voice. A voice that courts an echo and echoes, that configures and convenes a chorus, that leads and might lose itself, that conducts and has the capacity to act as conductor. A voice that whispers. A voice that wails. A body that bellows, or that simply breathes, that follows a series of breaths, both in and out.

It is writing that is constantly remaking itself, a lump of wet clay that your fingers push against. Yet there is also playfulness, the sheer pleasure of taking a word for a spin, seeing it twist and twirl as it goes through various gradual changes, like recited declinations rosa rosae rosae rosam rosa, somebody, her body, any body.

Holding that levity, she writes on monkey bars, swaying in lightness caressing a veneer of anxiety, lined with unease, that mushy feeling, when you’ve gnawed on a word too much. One moment she was in pieces. One minute, in stitches. One moment, in bits. One minute, in creases. She was in tatters. Shattered. Ruined. And so cascading on – a motion trapped in a continuous tense, a spin of energy falling, falling, falling.

I could never do the monkey bars, paralysed by the prospect of slipping and falling, of losing grip, of letting go and being let go of, that gap and that void.

Shimmers in movement, a body of water. Making and remaking its place, its shape, it struggles and stretches to fill a container. Shape follows; writing like water.

Chasing an old refrain, return a coast to a costa: a shoreline a bookspine a rib. Imagine the disparate meanings are perhaps brought together because of their shape, a curved line, the trajectory of an embrace, something that holds close. In the same room of sound, accostarsi: to come near, to rib close, to coast close. To read as a beach walk: keeping close, on the edge of this moving border, the edge of land before it touches sea, the confine between a me and a you.

Your coast is also of the anatomical: It was much later that the blue bled to grey and drew her to the dusky meniscus of the shore.

She writes as a riffing, ‘change within sameness,’ a returning to the same place, the same gesture, the same sound, each time changed by the process of having left, each time exactly the same. A refrain, what returns. Yet also, what holds back, refrains from—the second of unspeakable clarity before stepping in cold water. The unknown and the unknowable are inscribed within riffing: ‘a writer who riffs does not know before speaking the boundaries of the vision and tries to find them through writing.’

Riffing and riptides, both holding within them a circular motion of returning, both waves—then resonances, reverberations. To learn through, with a certainty that does not arise from direct observation. The lingering traces that something leaves, the ripples of actions into the air around them. Which is to say sound. Which is to say, smell. Touch, an oily fingerprint. Ways of knowing that ask you to come close, and keep quiet, which is to say, shush the wanting to gain knowledge, be content in your experience of brushing up against it instead. Collecting it like pebbles and seaglass and seashells.

To resonate is to sound again, to answer sound with sound, another way to say echoing.

She felt like an assemblage of contingencies. And she moved like a collection of shards.

In turn, in returning your sound to you, the echo can be what draws the contours of what’s around you, shaping space, embroiling you in it as a sound. Writing, writing as a response, writing in resonance with, writing as a conversation, could, perhaps, work similarly. As a form of plural echolocation, a whisper in a ‘vaporous flux of vibration and resonance.’

And to think how all these sounds return, and how you can lose track, sometimes. Did you make that note, or was that from someone else? Did you, or someone, say that, or merely think it? At any rate, you’ll keep it. Until you become a collection of such things. The belly of a guitar, the embracing cavity of an ear. Where sounds pool, mingle, then ooze out.



echo chamber

thinking about Oliver Marboeuf’s definition of ‘bodies as echo chambers,’ in ‘Decolonial variations,’ Oliver Marboeuf interviewed by Joachim Ben Yakoub, 2019

a someone else out there seeing her

Adriana Cavarero’s proposition in Relating Narratives (1997) underlies the thinking here

‘The voice is a threshold’ / ‘pages holding their place like vertebrae’ / ‘let the sound and sense be translated at the level of my body’ / ‘exceeding yourself in the care of its labour, but within protected edges’

Excerpts of essays exchanged between Sara O’Brien and myself during a class on essaying at the Glasgow School of Art in 2021.

‘change within sameness,’ and ‘a writer who riffs does not know before speaking the boundaries of the vision and tries to find them through writing’

Emily Ogden, On Not Knowing, 2020 (London: Peninsula Press), pp.48-49

‘vaporous flux of vibration and resonance’

David Toop, In the Cave of Sound,

All other quotes, unless stated, are from Sara O’Brien, Cascadence, 2022 (Glasgow: The Yellow Paper Press).


Text: Enxhi Mandija

Image: Enxhi Mandija

Published: 08/08/2023


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