An Engagement with Oni Buchanan's Must a Violence

by Annemarie Parsons

Oni Buchanan, Must A Violence (University of Iowa Press, 2012)













Human ears never stop hearing, even when we are sleeping. Instead our brains will often ignore incoming sounds. In her third poetry collection, Must A Violence, Oni Buchanan compensates for the fact that humans dismiss so much of what they hear. Buchanan recognizes and extols the sounds that often go unnoticed. Buchanan vivifies the air passing through a butterfly’s wings, a sand dollar slowly scratching its way across the ocean floor, a girl’s hair brushing against her shirt.  With auditory images like these, Buchanan reveals to the reader a new portrayal of their surroundings. This new portrayal is necessary because people tend to only interpret their surroundings through sight, which leaves them with a superficial interpretation of their environment. Buchanan’s work dives deeper into sensory understanding. By focusing her readers on a secondary sense, hearing, Buchanan’s poetry exposes a whole world that is so often ignored. Buchanan illustrates that there’s more to our world than what is on the surface.

Buchanan is distressed by the human tendency to rely on sight as a means of interpreting our surroundings. She finds sight alone to give an incomplete representation of a situation or a person. In “17-Year Diagnosis,” she writes, “…the body? An aberration, an / adaptation? Will you recognize me / by my face? / The filmy carapace / just bursting at the seams?” Buchanan finds the body to be a mere corruption of a person’s true self. The body shows a part of its owner, but it is not a complete representation. This becomes a problem because sight uses something’s body, or its appearance, to obtain a representation of said thing. So sight alone is an inadequate way to interpret an image. 

Therefore, when sight proves inadequate, Buchanan relies on sound to convey imagery in Must A Violence. In “Five Tiny Doves,” she sets up a visual image of the darkness and impenetrability of the bottom of the ocean: “The lightless bottom, where no / distilled ray will ever penetrate. Oh, the sound // inside the pitch!” This image of darkness renders vision useless, so immediately after the image, without even creating a new line, Buchanan switches her focus to sound and hearing. The rest of the poem uses auditory imagery to bring sounds to life and to the attention of her reader. By doing this Buchanan exposes the reader to an unfamiliar interpretation of the scene, one based on sound rather then sight. Things that otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed on the ocean floor, like the movement of a sand dollar, are brought to light. Thus readers experience a scene in a new way.

By making readers experience an image anew, Buchanan is illustrating what is really important within an image. Buchanan argues that the true meaning of an image, or a place, or a person is what lies beneath the surface:

… The voice

comes from the weakness
of the body. It shows a different
angle. It reveals alternative

possibilities. Compassion comes
from watching the gestures
of a body.

In “Sometimes a Body,” Buchanan states that a person is defined less by their body, or the visual appearance of them, and more by their voice. While one can empathize with a person by watching their body, in order to sympathize with a person, in order to truly understand a person, we must listen to their voice. The voice can portray emotion and gives a deeper understanding of a person. The voice, and sound in general, can provide us with context; can give us a different interpretation of something we thought we knew so well. Buchanan uses sound throughout her work in order to provide a different interpretation of the world around us.

Humans have lost sight of what’s important and leave so much of the world unappreciated. Oni Buchanan uses sound as a new way of interpreting the world because humans need to be reminded of what is important, what is below the surface. When so much is left unnoticed and unheard, Buchanan chooses to listen: “How much more can I ignore? / I listened for the doves–”

Annemarie Parsons is a first-year student at the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University. She is hoping to major in Pure and Applied Mathematics and Linguistics. Her passion is for Spanish Literature, Syntax, and Calculus.