The Sounds of Catherine Pierce's The Tornado Is the World
Review & Audio Recording by Julia Koets
When we think of tornados, we often think of their sound as much, if not more than we do their shape. Kids that grow up in places where tornados can appear suddenly in a field are told to take cover if they hear a freight train when it storms. It makes sense then that we see (hear?) such close attention to sound in Catherine Pierce’s 2016 poetry collection The Tornado Is the World.
We are given a litany of sounds in this book:
“the birds are calling / with June-hot abandon”
“This / singing winter is an unhinged sweetheart— // all gloss and lilt, until the shift.”
[See here how Pierce’s attention to sound is echoed in the sonic texture in the words themselves: “all gloss and lilt, until the shift.”]
“It’s thrilling, isn’t it, the siren’s howl?”
“the tornado is made of buzz saws”
“In the space left by the ceasing / of the sirens and her baby’s howls, / she hears everything. The cottony sound / of her own breath ratcheting in and out.”
“The animals call and call, / their voices echoing through the rattling aspen.”
One poem in the collection is made up entirely of sounds a tornado hears:
“A dryer tumbling an old man’s one dress shirt”
“An empty stadium”
“A thousand trees cleaved suddenly in half”
(lines from “What the Tornado Hears All the Time”)
Sound has the ability to comfort and to break us, just as before a tornado hits “[t]he sky / darkens and brightens at once.” Sound is complicated, contradictory. In one poem sound takes on a body, a human form:
“Once, the songs slept soft beside me.
Their eyes were like moons
and they never closed them,”
(lines from “I Used to Be Able to Listen to Sad Songs”)
The “I” in the poem used to be able to listen to sad songs, but “Then I learned that we’re born with more bones than we die with.” It’s lines like this one that surprise me in the collection, that teach me things I didn’t know.
These poems aren’t just about tornados—they’re about fear, anxiety, and ordinary sadness. The poems do not offer simple answers to disaster or pain. We are reminded that silence is just as much a sound as any song:
“Silence, because what birds could sing
in those leaves flashing
their milky underbellies?
The wind is sweet but serrated,
like cider slipping over to vinegar.
Our bones weren’t built
to carry this quiet charge.”
(lines from “What the Hour Before the Tornado Feels Like”)
We are reminded that good poems can teach us to listen:
“You’ll hear a steel drum band at some Ohio dive bar
and your chest will open into joy.
Joy—remember it? It’s that feeling
you have when a red sun rises out of a place
you never thought could house a sun.”
(lines from “Get Out”)
When I read Pierce’s collection, I knew I wanted to respond to her work in some way that incorporated sound. So I recorded myself reading one of Pierce’s poems ("The Mother Hears the Tornado Sirens Stop"), used audio software to add echo effects to sections of the text, and then mixed the track with a recording of a tornado warning siren.
Julia Koets’s poetry collection, Hold Like Owls, won the 2011 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize and was published by the University of South Carolina Press. Her poetry and nonfiction have been published in journals including Indiana Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Carolina Quarterly. She has an MFA in poetry from the University of South Carolina and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Cincinnati.