Originally, I thought S. Preston Duncan’s The Sound in This Time of Being (BIG WRK, 2020) was about death. It fits, really. There’s a sort of abstract divinity about the work, a groundedness, a certainty. But the more the collection progresses, the more time and breath given to Duncan’s elusive and explorative voice, the more I realize this isn’t the full picture. This book (and accompanying EP) does not parlay with the simple notion of an undisruptive end. Death, scientifically speaking, is decisive. It’s the original binary. It’s exact, it’s final, it’s almost unemotional, just due to the unflinching reality of it. Yet, The Sound in This Time of Being isn’t any of those things. It’s filled to the brim with questions, with duality, with mysticism, with deliberate assertions, with a kinetic grappling of the past, present, and future it’s alive.
The book isn’t about death. It’s about making sense of it. From both sides.
It’s near impossible not to be enticed just by the very language. S. Preston Duncan is all
but a sage, a guide, his voice instrumental in leading us through the ultimate, age-old
journey. In this march towards the unknown, in the crucial spaces of insight and realization, his voice never gets consumed in the ominous, yet it simultaneously doesn’t shy from it. The collection opens with the poem, “This Redhead Death,” in the same prose style that will continue until its declarative end, turning from the confines of form and towards a pointed series of undulating incantations. “Holy are the unheld / hooked to the hoodoo’s hat” he writes, the subtle inward alliteration of the repeated “h” sound mimicking a sort of chant, captivating the reader. The motif of chanting is only strengthened auditorily via the experimental spoken word EP, which begins in a traditionally stylized drum rhythm. It isn’t a calm or relaxed tone that’s se —the beat feels about two or so beats faster than what would convey comfort or ease, the discreetly heightened tempo sparking a certain tension with the listener. It’s reflected in lines like, “Holy is the clutched bannister / wilting veil / boneblack beaded memento mori giggling” where a certain darkness creeps in, adding more layers to the concurrent lyricism. This reoccurs throughout each piece, propelling the collection forward, building upon past quandaries and effectively creating space for exploration in one of the most striking exhibitions into dying, death, and grief I’ve yet to read.
Following “The Redheaded Death” are a myriad of shorter poems by comparison, which react to and perpetuate the tension created in the opening prose. Duncan’s personal processes of death are vast and communicative, and though almost all of the poems approach the subject, the manner in which they do so is decidedly separate. The poem that ensues “The Redheaded Death” is “Oceanography.” It’s comprised of four shorter stanzas in which the speaker questions circumstance, the hypotheticals of a new childhood, a different personhood, another life, and other ever-present “what if’s”. Like most poems in the collection, it could be heartbreaking but isn’t; instead, it chooses to land on the point of resignation, acceptance. “This is the way we evaporate: / Our footprints the shape of puddles / Every desert a memory of the ocean floor.” It is in these softer moments, after the crux of the emotionalism of the past lines, when the tension seems to almost subside, where there is breath, and, pointedly—an epiphany, a revelation feeling not so much new as very, very old. Ancient, and continuous. Duncan does not cloud his poems with over-explanation or analysis, and because of this, the organic nature of these instances feels incredibly authentic and gentle, but never sugar-coating. We trust the truth of them and continue to listen.
The collection crescendos in the final piece, where it takes its name, “The Sound In This Time Of Being.” This journey towards death (of death, for death) is almost complete. Duncan has engulfed us into a world of questions, most of which we do not receive answers to. Our brains are spinning, trying to find them ourselves, yet our narrator seems to subdue us with lines of confident definitives. “Six wands with a crown / Six sides of the star / Six equilateral pronouncements / Between atonement and dying” he writes with calm firmness. We have been led to this moment purposefully, throughout texts that have challenged and embraced equally. Judaism, urbanism, ancestry, post-death practices, addiction—all matters parsed in order to find the radical resolution, at least of this life, that is the end. As Duncan says, “The soft door of dying / The place we must rest in idolatry.” Akin to so many sacred texts of the past, The Sound in This Time of Being is a roadmap to death, a guide against fear that leans into it, a passionate stance against collective panic, a safe resting place for the god-fearing and the nonbelievers alike. S. Preston Duncan perfectly illuminates the complexities of morality whilst never judging it, blaming it, or ostracizing its inherent suffering, and does what all great writers seek to—find peace through prose.
Finnegan Angelos is a self-proclaimed east-coast-love-struck-queer-awakening poet and essayist originally from northern Baltimore County, Maryland. His work has been published in the Beyond Queer Words Anthology, Thistle Magazine, and FRANCES, among others. He loves his dog, hibiscus tea, and the banjo.
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