blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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Deaf Spots

I didn’t know that I couldn’t hear most of the voices, the sound of the rain on the windshield, the movement of my hair behind my ear, the sound of gravel below my feet, the ticking of my car’s blinker, until I got the hearing aids. My husband and my mother knew how much I didn’t hear. My mother, when she spoke to me, held my chin in her fingertips and turned my face to face hers. So I could see her lips.

I knew I had poor hearing. But I didn’t know how truly little I really did hear until my mother drove me, thirty-five years old and eight months pregnant with my second son, to the audiologist for a hearing test and consultation.

You will have two children, she said. You need to hear them.

Now that I have heard with hearing aids, I can tell you that voices, without them, sound like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons: a mumble of non-specific noise. Punctuated intermittently by blank pauses where the voice rises above or falls below a frequency I can detect.

Now that I have hearing aids, the world can feel too much with me. Too solid. Too certain.

Irrefutable, proved.

Bureaucratic, I tell my mother. Like taking a math test: only one answer, which has never interested me.

Without hearing aids, this is how I hear: someone speaks, and I hear the string of sounds and silences. My brain, in an instant, or with a much-too-long pause, translates that string. Using the context of the conversation, the number of syllables, a medium-to-strong ability to lip read, the expressions on the speaker’s face, how loudly or softly, quickly or slowly they speak, and all the gestures and nuances of their body language. . . my brain will translate the string into one or (usually) more possible sets of words.

Then I get to choose which of those sets I think the person actually said.

This is what everyone’s brain does, of course. It’s just that my brain is working with a set of ears that can hear almost nothing, they tell me, within the range of the human voice.

My son, in the other room crying, awake from his nap: I cannot hear this at all.

My back turned to you while you speak: depending on how high or low your voice is, I probably hear nothing.

If the conversation quickly turns to a new subject; if the speaker changes languages; if the speaker moves so I can no longer see her; or if I don’t know who in a group has started to speak next—then I am lost.

Most of the time, before I had hearing aids, people who did not know me well didn’t know when I couldn’t hear them. My un-hearing was perceived, and understood to be a quality of my whole self. I was often told that I was in my own little world, spacey, focusing intently on something else, impenetrable. Unless it was pointed out to me, I obviously didn’t know when I hadn’t heard someone at all. And usually, responding to someone in a conversation was a leap of faith for me—hoping that I had chosen the right set of words from the many possibilities that I had just, without them knowing, considered.

I did not, in conversation, feel on firm-footing. Not because I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say—but because I wasn’t ever completely sure what the other person had just said.

When I was a child, I was told too many times to count that I had the quality of a space alien, a Martian. This is also how I thought of myself.

I didn’t know how little I heard.

I thought, simply, that I heard very poorly, and not without seeing the speaker’s face.

My husband knew. How many times he found himself shouting a phrase over and over, both of us eventually confusing the amplification of his voice for anger.

My oldest son has always known that I can’t hear him if I am not looking at him.

You have, the audiologist told me, the hearing of a seventy-five-year-old war veteran. He couldn’t believe, for example, that I worked as a teacher.

Before I had hearing aids, I had never wanted them.

I felt protective of my mishears, my perceived silences, the distance that I felt from group conversations or from conversations with background noises. I felt protective of my need to look directly at the speaker for the entirety of a conversation. I felt protective of the mistakes in my hearing, the apologies I needed to give for my misunderstandings. I felt protective of my need to be approached in a certain way: not casually, and with time and opportunity for great concentration. These things were, I felt, simply part of me. Part of my relationships and friendships. Part of my quality of experiencing life.

Part, my husband says, of my stubbornness in general, and my vast sense of privacy in particular.

And part of my poetic process.

Yet, I had to contend not just with the string of sounds and syllables to translate into words—I also had the absolute blanks (the caesuras?), which I have come to call my“deaf spots.” Not unlike the blind spot in my car, behind me and to the left, these are the spaces in which I hear absolutely nothing. Not noise, not syllables: nothing.

Deaf spots are the sounds that fall into a certain frequency that my ears and my brain simply cannot apprehend. Deaf spots are the moment that I fall off the spectrum of sound, off the spectrum of understanding, like the airplane that hits a pocket of nothing in the ether and drops straight down for hundreds of feet until it hits, once again, the material air.

Deaf spots are scattered tunnels of zero-understanding that I drop into: trapdoors and rabbit holes sprinkled throughout every conversation.

I translate, however well or poorly, the string of sound and syllable.

I struggle to translate the silences.

Those silences—the closest I can describe them is that, in the middle of speech or music or noise, I hear a period of time. A number or a fraction of breaths.

H.D. had table tipping. Sylvia Plath had her tarot cards. Yeats had his wife for a medium. Merrill had his ouija board. And I had, I thought, my own tiny and highly questionable window: mishears and silences: an opportunity for my own unconscious to insert meaning? A place for the collective unconscious to peek through? A wide and liquid personal space? Some divine doorway kept open, always, a crack? And for what to slip in.

My hearing has given me a lifelong relationship with counting syllables, and a lifelong prioritization of tone. My hearing has been an experience of constant and instantaneous translation from sound and syllable and silence into possible, not certain, meaning. My hearing has privileged tone—of voice, of gesture, of anything I could perceive—above all, as a way to begin.

My hearing has been an interpretive act.

I remember my eardrum running out of my ear when I was two—exploded from an infection. I remember the igloo-shaped cast over my ear after they rebuilt the eardrum. I remember the orange popsicle I somehow smeared all over the cast, so that it was sticky and sweet smelling for the weeks that I wore it. I also remember, years later, the searing, grotesque pain from a long, stiff piece of grass that went straight down my ear to the drum when I was running through a field and fell. And I remember the endless ear infections from my years on the swimming team. None of these things, the doctor said, caused my hearing loss: the eardrums are scarred, but work just fine.

My hearing loss is congenital and progressive, like my mother’s. And hers before her.

Like my mother and my grandmother, I identify my hearing closely with femininity, with how I understand what is feminine, with my line of women.

In my family, we share a kind of women’s echo-cradle of meaning-making as we hear and unhear the stories around us.

We share a cocoon of something silent, or unhearing, or unheard around us. Something that appears willful. Something that we experience as space and as time. Something that is connected with our fierceness, for in my family, the women are fierce.

In my family, half of us are nearly unhearing, and all of us are very soft-spoken—you have to look a woman in the face and speak clearly if you hope to be understood. You have to want to say it—and you have to want to be heard.

And if you couple our hearing with the quality of our memory, and failing memory—then story, for my women, has been an experience of liquid and air.

And there is perhaps nothing more powerfully human than story.

Nothing more fundamental to humanity than myth, that solid thing.
That said, my experience of much of the world’s story is one of narrative interrupted.

Narrative with blanks. Story with wild mishears and beyond-logic associations. Strings of sound and approximations, punctuated by deaf spots.

My hearing has given my living a lyric quality, a soft dimension of silence where I step, probably unknown to you, out of consensus space and time.

And yet I believe that lyric is injected, as truly as narrative is injected, into every single life at points along the way: none of us are without either.

Around the time my son Oskar turned three, he began drawing faces. The indefinable baby scratches and lines and blotches turned into a circle, with three circles inside of it for the eyes and nose, and a line across it for a mouth. Soon, the circles had four lines sticking out of them to indicate arms and legs. Then he started to draw bigger circles to indicate adults, and smaller circles for him and his baby brother, Mateo. Then he began to add other lines and circles for ears and chins. The first time he drew our whole family together on one sheet of paper, he drew a tiny little pink oval with unclear features for baby Mateo. A big circle with very distinct eyes and mouth for his father. And he drew a small circle for Oskar: he was the figure with the most detail, including hair and eyebrows. But there was no me.

When I asked where I was, he returned to the paper where he drew not a separate circle with features, like the figure he drew of his father, but a large empty circle all the way around the figure he had drawn of himself. This was how he perceived me: encompassing, entirely, himself. Featureless. Indistinguishable. 

He hadn’t even thought to draw me, as a me, into the family picture until I asked where I was.

I have wondered if the shift in my hearing, now that I have hearing aids, is a cousin to the shift that will happen for Oskar when someday he draws me standing next to him and not surrounding him whole.

A shift from living dipped in liquid to standing next to something crystal and solid. 

From meaning-making at a hazy distance, to absolute words like unchangeable stones right in my hand.

When I first got my hearing aids, I actually cowered.

I cowered in the audiologist’s office and began to spin around, looking for the source of the noises. I couldn’t even tell the direction the noises were coming from.

The audiologist, very kind, and in a whisper, helped me identify the sounds.

That low hum, that is the furnace. The ticking, that is the clock. There is another medium hum in the room: that is my computer.

To me, the hums were as loud as airplanes taking off, and the clock was fucking banging.

When I was in college, my best friend and I wanted to take mushrooms. Her boyfriend had taken them before and acted as our “trip guide.” While Cathleen and I passed the hilarious and touching hours of Deeply Communing and of understanding The Entire Truth, her boyfriend helped us anticipate how long the trip would last, and at what point we might start to feel what. He was our guide. Without judgment or comment, without making us feel self-conscious, he was there with us as we watched each other grow very, very, very old before one another’s eyes until we were each the other’s most gorgeous, ancient crone. Our trip was beautiful.

I started to refer to my audiologist as my trip guide. And hearing, to me, felt like hallucinating.

Hearing, to me, felt like being invaded.

Often, I hated hearing.

Hearing with aids, I told my trip guide, felt like being yelled at by bureaucrats.

My brain, she said, had not recalibrated itself for the new volumes or nuances that I was experiencing.

Just as the brain compensates for hearing loss, the brain will take weeks to compensate for hearing gains. The noises that are usually automatically filtered away—small, unimportant, repetitive noises (my hair behind my ear) that do not need the attention of the hearer—these noises are not filtered when you begin to hear again. My brain was receiving billions of noise pieces from my hearing aids that it had never before received, and for weeks I was obliged, in a kind of panic, to pay great attention to every single noise. My hair behind my ear had the quality, every few seconds, of a shower curtain being ripped open. The sound of the gravel below my feet, each step, the quality of a minor earthquake. I was exhausted.

I was over stimulated. Several times I cried for exhaustion and for the sadness of realizing how little I had actually heard my whole life. I got headaches. I became unreasonably angry with my two year old son whose voice was of a tenor that my hearing aids amplified beyond comfort. I was ashamed to find myself, truly, enraged and assaulted each time he spoke.

As time went on, my trip guide tweaked the programming on my aids until the sounds didn’t hurt.

As time went on, my brain filtered out the refrigerator hum, my own hair, the air conditioning, the wheeze of electricity.

As time went on, those around me began to gently insist that I always wear them.

Mama have your hearing aids? my son would ask when I didn’t hear him.

Love, my husband would say, and nothing else, when I couldn’t understand what he said. When I didn’t have in my hearing aids.

And as time went on, I stopped whispering when I wore them (my own voice, at first, sounded like shouting).

It’s no wonder to me now that my poems have begun as a tone, not as a word.
They’ve begun as tone, then as rhythm. Then as some image. Later, the words filled in.

The words poured in and out until the poem cohered around the initial tone that I heard—just as the words had poured in and out of my deaf spots for thirty-some years.

Right now, I have no idea how my poems will begin. I’ve hardly written since I began to wear my hearing aids, and I do equate my not writing with my new hearing. However, I also gave birth to our second son just a couple of weeks after I began wearing them . . . my life is full of very loud sounds, sensation, experience. I’m unsure how to begin a poem here.

Truth be told, I don’t like to wear the hearing aids. I never wear them when I am alone. I never wear them when I sit down to write. I wear them as a courtesy.

Truth be told, I often miss how I used to feel. As if sound took a longer time to travel toward me, as if meaning softened and loosened itself through water . . . before it surfaced to my understanding.

But then my husband will say: Love.

And my son will say: Mama have your hearing aids? And I know they want me to hear in crystal.

I know that they are tired of me dropping into a deaf spot when the words they’d said mattered to them, and where I’d completely missed them.

Truth be told, I am glad that for most of my life I lived in a space of liquid meaning, undercut, spiked throughout by, circled around with hard and gorgeous shreds of absolute and solid myth.

I am glad for thirty-five years in which spaceships of hard fact have floated around in the possibilities of my Martian-esque brainspace: infinite bits of information swirling into and out of my deaf spots. My brain has spent its life offering up its changing and uncertain proposals of which exact words might have filled that infinite space. This is a hearing, confusing as it has been, that I have loved.

And that has let me, my husband points out, tell the world to gently or greatly fuck off. Also a part of my poetics.

But I am very interested in this irrefutable aspect of my new hearing—and what it might mean to poetry for me. To narrative, to story. What it might mean to how I will read the poetry of others. Will a more solid quality enter for me—the solid gong of poetry?

When I take out my hearing aids, it’s that liquid-private-gray space that I want to reenter. The swimming underwater quality of my life, the walking in outer space quality where words are simply one long string of noise and silence to decipher.

Or misdecipher.

Or to not decipher at all. Gently, fuck you.  end

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