By Michael Neal
When experiencing multimedia composition for the first time, I absorb it as much as I can. Read. Listen. Look. Experience. Enjoy. After the initial aesthetic response, I bring in a more analytical lens, specifically asking how the parts of the multimedia project function. What work do the different parts accomplish, and what happens when they come together in this particular piece? Gunter Kress in the first chapter of Multimodality does such as analysis of a simple street sign explaining how to get into a parking lot. In this particular case he notes that writing names, image shows, and color frames or highlights (1).
Using that lens I turn my attention to multimediated version of the poem “Loneliness” by Katherine Mansfield. The first several times I viewed this digital text, I soaked it in. I listened to the voice reading Mansfield’s poem and considered the words. I took note of the visual metaphors that complemented the linguistic text… the visual of extinguishing the candle to the words “I watch her softly blowing out the light”; the footage of the gentle lapping of waves on a rocky shore while hearing “The ebbing tide breaks on a barren shore, unsatisfied”; and finally, the sight and sound of falling rain blending with “Waiting ‘til the barren land fills with the dreadful monotone of rain.” In these I see the reinforcement between linguistic and visual texts, and none are particularly unexpected because of the literal connection between the words of the original poem and the multimedia adaptation. This isn’t necessarily easy work, though, because the composers still needed to pick the right images, figure out the pace of progression, and synch it all together.
Other visual metaphors, however, don’t have a specific linguistic corollary, and these—in my view—are more important to the vision of this multimedia project because they are additive in nature. Bringing in visuals that go beyond the scope of the written poem involve a more complex interpretive layer to this project. The empty rocking chair moving by itself is my favorite visual in the poem in part because it’s nowhere to be found in the linguistic text of the poem and yet it fits so well into its vision. I also like the subtlety of the unknown woman standing in the field. I first took special note of this image because it bookends the poem, and I assume that the composers starting with that image and circling back around to it toward the end signals that it is particularly meaningful, as when Mansfield repeats linguistic texts: “weary, weary, droops her head.” But in a subsequent viewing of the project, I noticed the figure roll her foot to the outside just a bit (see 1 minute and 20 seconds). That simple roll brings with it layers of meaning: insecurity, nervousness, perhaps indecisiveness. Part of the point of the visual of the woman, I think, is that we don’t see her face. We see the field from nearly her perspective: its emptiness stretching out before her. But we don’t know her in the way we would (or think we would) if we saw her face. And then the foot rolls out slightly, and we get a glimpse into something deeper.
Those subtle moves are important linguistically and visually throughout this poem. As the title suggests it’s about loneliness, and loneliness is even personified as if she were a companion, but one that doesn’t break her own bondage. I’m struck by the small but important distinction between being alone and lonely. Even the spelling of the words is close. To be alone isn’t bad: it’s peaceful, rejuvenating, refreshing, reflective. Some of the visual metaphors that composers of the multimedia use for loneliness could be repurposed in a more positive way if the poem were merely about being alone. I love watching and listening to waves break on the shoreline, standing or walking in an empty field, watching the flicker of a flame even as it’s being blown out, and perhaps my favorite is listening to monotonous rain. That’s alone, but it’s not lonely. And, that’s why the subtle nuances of the visual metaphors are best when they work like the linguistic text. The adjectives and other qualifiers Mansfield uses throughout the poem demonstrate this distinction. “The tired child.” “Weary, weary, droops her head.” Perhaps the two most significant: “sad dark the slowly ebbing tide breaks on a barren shore, unsatisfied” and “waiting ‘til the barren land fills with the dreadful monotone of rain.” Mansfield’s words anchor the linguistic metaphors to the tone and purpose of her poem, and they capture something that is distinct from merely being alone. The authors of this project are most successful when their visual and oral metaphors do the same. From the opening line of the poem with the black screen to the bookended character in the field, the visuals seem to capture the same subtle nuances of loneliness as Mansfield does with her words. The complement between sight, sound, and word is perhaps the most important consistency in the project.