Listening and self-care in Shazia Hafiz Ramji's 'Port of Being' (2018)

Crop of cover of 'Port of Being'
Source: Invisible Publishing

In A Voice and Nothing More (2006)Mladen Dolar describes listening as a submissive act: “Listening entails obeying; there is a strong etymological link between the two in many languages.”[1] Dolar continues further, fortifying this etymological link, and states that “the moment one listens one has already started to obey, in an embryonic way one always listens to one’s master’s voice, no matter how much one opposes it afterward.”[2] Dolar’s comments may benefit from distinguishing between two modes of sonic stimulation to characterize hearing (as passive, as what he describes in this passage) and listening (as active, as an intent to bring the world's sounds inside). That being said, Dolar has framed the act of listening here as a loss of agency since, as he suggests, we often cannot select what it is that we hear or overhear.

I come to Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s debut collection of poems Port of Being (2018) with Dolar’s comments in mind. The title, Port of Being, gestures toward an openness of the self. Perhaps the port is an ear — an entry point for the reverberations around us, sounds that shape the procedures of daily life. The book itself is partially cultivated from soundbites culled from Ramji’s day-to-day. Each poem in the opening series “Container,” for example, is prefaced by grey, italicized text. These are words and phrases of overheard conversations “on the buses, streets, and port of Vancouver.”[3] “Do you have the time? Twenty forty-eight”[4] and “Ma mère m’a dit d’attendre.”[5] Such phrases are seemingly mundane, but each poem unfurls in fractured lines with a heightened sensitivity to the moment of listening:

           Military time          on a bus to Dunbar

                                stopped at Powell

                                             by the sugar refinery 

 the waterfront                                      for more than a hundred years

The poem continues as the speaker shifts her gaze toward a smiling stranger,

       smelling of rice he cooked 

the evening before                  from the Superstore            by Rupert[6]

The poem unravels in just this way: beginning with an overheard few words and shifting toward an attentive situatedness of the speaker within her surroundings, taking note of precise locations, tastes, smells, and sights. 

In the “Notes to the collection, Ramji confesses that after being stalked by a thief she found herself at the brink of a depressive episode. She writes, “From my past experiences of clinical depression, I knew that I would start to recede into myself if I dwelled on being broke and if I lived in paranoia. Listening to music and making field recordings had helped ease depressive episodes in the past. I knew that I had to get outside myself — I had to bring myself into relation again — I had to listen.”[7] Having this note as a companion to the poems of Port of Being suggests to me Ramji has composed a work that advances a practice of listening that deviates from comments like those made by Dolar, who has characterized listening as a submissive practice. In distinction, Ramji has characterized listening as means to power and self-care. In poems like some of those in Port of Being, actively listening for what might not be meant for us allows us to draw in the world. It is through listening that the speaker of Port of Being is able to ground herself, even in moments of significant duress, and slowly collect details and sensory stimulation that attach us to our environment. Rather than position listening as an act of submission — as though sound is what overwhelms our sense of self in the world — this approach to listening is a step toward world-building, toward compassionate attention to the self as it coexists with others.

1. Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 75.

2. Dolar, 76.

3. Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Port of Being (Picton, ON: Invisible Publishing, 2019).

4. Ramji, 5.

5. Ramji, 6.

6. Ramji, 8.

7. Ramji, 76.