Silence Is My Playlist (On Being Asked For One To Go With My Work)
Some drinkers drink mainly for a mood.
Some days offer up a mood before you even get out of bed.
Some moments of childhood establish a mood so elemental you’ll recognize it everafter, unbidden, in unlikely places. That grey sky, deep cold, scent of snow coming, far off flagpole in the park catching the day’s early light can reappear anywhere—Cleveland: walking home after work, chicken frying in a neighbor’s kitchen. Or Warsaw: bustling market, jars of honey and horseradish clanking in backpack. Such eidetic moments reinstate, reconstitute, whatever it is they do, by way of a micro-moment’s alignment. What they need is silence to find their way back, a crack, an opening, an alertness bestowed.
Some moods, sure, you can conjure and feed—say when driving. Music works to solidify those (Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town. Howling Wolf: Smokestack Lightning.) Alone in a car. Missing him. Missing her. You and your music together. I do this, too. All the time: mood-arranging. Which isn’t real listening, but ok, who doesn’t want to tend the aches of distance and desire, animate and lavish them.
But my work is not a drive at night that wants musical accompaniment.
My work wants you.
Let’s discuss bravery. Sunday, the steepness of midafternoon. Late fall, alone in the house with a few minor chores (fold laundry, wash lunch dishes): should you pick up a book in the depths of that stillness, you are a brave soul, indeed. Because there it is, stay with it—it’s in the chair’s weave, the crumbs on the toaster—the question, masquerading as slant light, stillness, quiet: who am I? Or even: why am I here? How to withstand them? By what means fortify yourself?
Realize, each essay’s received from who-knows-where, a thing constructed within the limits of whatever capacity I may have for sitting down to it. Each poem is a record of an attempt. Each letter or sketch, a proximate, made thing. A provisional hold. For months, sometimes years—very rarely, days—I work with words. And in that time, words shape me. We perform a mutual kind of construction. It’s a way of being that’s full of surprises. It’s also incomplete until firmed up, rooted, stabilized by you, reader, balancing, triangulating.
A soundtrack overrides all this. Asserts another offering—say, music’s emotional inflection. Are you afraid, with no soundtrack, words will be lost on you? That you’ll have to follow, and may want to stop, think and weigh, and maybe hold some sounds in your very own mouth—which takes time, and you haven’t got time? Or that you’ll feel strained, not sure of the point for a good while? Or there are so many other things to get done, that sitting and reading makes you nervous?
I understand these concerns. But listen, silence is more than it seems.
Silence invites. In silence, there is ambient sound galore. Right now? Plane going over, neighbor’s dog barking, deep sigh then light, steady breathing; low, whining saw a few streets away, squirrel chattering, garbage truck braking and grinding—really, not much silence at all. Radiator kicking on. Crow call. So much makes up a moment of silence! How the creakings of floorboards, tires on asphalt, leaves-in-wind accompany. Is this not enough of a soundscape—an unfolding day, into which you could settle, with words? To be satisfied means you’re able to be still—maybe just for a moment, before need asserts again.
I recently saw a clip of would-be young actors interviewing Kevin Spacey. One earnest guy wanted advice about entering “the lean years” as he said; he wanted “help appreciating the lean years leading up to the ultimate prize.” Spacey says, immediately, “there is no prize” and then, pointing to his own chest, “the only prize is this one—and what you feel and what you want to accomplish.” He talks for another few seconds about growing up with your colleagues, relying on and learning from one another, and then says “if you feel your particular talent is worth developing, is worth caring for …” then it happens. The music comes. Someone cued the damn music, some variation on Samuel Barber, but milder, not so sad. “ … then there is nothing you can’t achieve.” The music continues as the camera pans over the audience of earnest, slightly teary, attentive faces.
To me, that soundtrack says “we already know what we want to feel.” And “reinforce what I’m supposed to be feeling here.” Why might this be desirable? Because it’s not easy to be alone with your thoughts. The presence of a soundtrack stages experience, so you can sit back and watch it, not have to be in it. And who doesn’t want to be so confirmed. To have an experience wrapped up and returned, an empty space populated. But that isn’t a gift. That’s no surprise.
Let me update here Frost’s famous dictum, “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” in this way: “No silence to read by, no surprise in the reading.”
Consider Spacey’s words again, without the music. “If you feel your particular talent is worth developing, is worth caring for … there’s nothing you can’t achieve.” Right at the outset, he suggests: weigh your gifts, take stock of your goods. Heard without soundtrack, the emphasis lands on the first part of the sentence and not on the trumped and triumphant end of the phrase. That “if” grows large, and so does “worth” (repeated twice!) Such a question, misguided as it is, deserves a well-considered response. Spacey offers a question in return: Have you looked thoroughly at your materials? Who relies on a soundtrack overrides the silence in which one might hear one’s own best response.
Doing only one thing at a time is scary, and practically iconoclastic these days. What you feared might be true, though well-masked by the multi-task, is true: you are small, limited, finite, and over too soon. The paradox is, of course, that such focus—on one thing at a time—enlarges, makes you feel part of being in a different way. Attention paid allows you to exist better, by entering into a moment, a task—not by forgetting yourself, letting a playlist take your hand, take you away, hand you a feeling—“poignant” or “moving.”
Anyway—and here’s the eros of it all—when we’re together, I want to be only with you. I want you to be only with me. I’m possessive that way. Demanding/responsive. Jealous/abiding. I want you to be with my ideas, points, cadence, leaps, speculations—with the words that burst on me and here I put down, and work through and work over, for you, whoever you are, just you.