“One Part of the Main” by Jenny Mueller

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American Telephone & Telegraph Exhibit – Women on phones, New York Public Library

There’s a telephone. Three syllables, telephone, so it’s the kind with the handle—you could bring it from room to room only with the help of long cords, like a medical attachment of saline. Its speaking and listening parts imitated your own. Meeting in a kind of lonely kiss: plastic, teeth, cartilage, bone.

For a few decades in the last century, you would pick it up and be met by a tone, a national noise.

I still hear it sometimes, listening through the ears of people in books. In the early 1960s, in a short story, a teenager who loves music—“boys” singing to their “girls,” radio come-ons she doesn’t yet hear as cruel shill—runs to the telephone for safety. A predator stands at her door. But she doesn’t complete the call, for all she hears in the receiver is a buzzed static, loud as a roar, and she can’t do anything with that sound in her ear, not now, though she desperately needs to, to dial and connect. In a novel of the early 70s, a young rock star in hiding from paranoid noise—from the screams of the crowd and the babbling of management and the whispers of the underground—picks up the phone in the East Village, in an empty room “cold as a penny.” Outside, in city dark, it’s snowing. Our rock idol cradles the receiver; he picks it up over and over again, loves hearing its automatic drone, wordless uttering made by silence.

Images pass. Sounds go obsolete. And with them, the power of some symbols. Why mourn them?

This morning is a Sunday in 2017. Sunday morning still carries an excess of meaning. Its associations imply meaning itself: meaning allowed to arise, collect, distill. I get up to find it on the stoop, shining in its plastic sheath. It’s the only news I still receive in print. I like how the Sunday paper spills apart into its different, folded sections, like a tangerine, under my hands.

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This image and those below, Arabic Machine Manuscript, Wikimedia Commons

In today’s Book Review, two writers address technological pressures on language. One notes a classic writer’s dilemma: capturing the spirit of one’s times means one always courts obsolescence, particularly when timely images involve technology. (This is a double-bind for realist fiction, for what’s duller than observing the life we live typing and watching our smartphone screens?) Facing this piece is a Calvin Trillin essay that begins by musing on the loss of a favorite idiom. Trillin fears the expression “all thumbs,” a succint image of clumsiness, is rendered meaningless by the nimble motion of texting.

I suppose these are luxury problems—dead white problems of the musing, Sunday morning middle-crust. Calvin Trillin problems. Whole languages are marched to extinction, after all, frog-marched there along with the songs of their frogs. The paper has that, too: a portrait of the last survivor of the Taushiro, who lived in the Amazon. Or rather, the last survivor who speaks the Taushiro language, a man belonging to the category called “terminal speaker” by linguists, the last of a verbal species. He has children—they always have children, the patriarchs in these stories, and the children are always sons, presented by the journalists in ironic counterpoint. (They live in the city with children of their own, grandsons in T-shirts with U.S. corporate logos, images from the Marvel universe.) He drinks a Coke, drinks too much alcohol. His name is Juan, though he wasn’t called Juan as a boy. Perhaps the interview is filmed and later, watching YouTube, we might lean forward to listen.

Even the names of the lost languages are wonderful. When they thrived, their people made amazing exploits from an alphabet—as if it was also their bush, with every trod inch known for its resources. Wonderingly, we try the syllables on our tongues, aligning them slowly, as if we were putting together tiny pieces in a large puzzle, showing a small section of jungle. But the “terminal speakers” are called Tommy, Juan, Doris, Johnny—names straight out of the invader language primer. So startlingly common! Until we stop to number those too. How many Dorises do you know?

So no—with whole native tongues thrust to death, mere flourishes, mere meaning-clusters in Big Language can go.

Yet we can at least maintain a vigil when our own sounds and images die, those formerly vital signs. For instance, the dial tone noise now fades from our sonic environment. But when its hum came often to our ear, it made an equally reliable, immediately suggestive literary image. A man in Stockholm, a psychologist who works with juvenile offenders in the city and who is also a great poet in the country, puts his phone to his ear. He hears the same noise as in shells. This is Thomas Tranströmer in the 1960s, making an image of the telephone’s inner voice, at once animate and mechanical, an unsettling hiss. The figure invokes immediately this poet’s particular loneliness, that of “modern man” with an animist, metaphor-making soul; a man on the perimeter, his technological milieu bounded by a sort of membrane of mystery—as if the vehicle literally could drive to the tenor. Tranströmer’s speaker is so often in his car, brought up short behind the wheel. He hears his unsettlement in dial tones.

Distance, depth, interiority, and longing. These were associations summoned to our heads by the dial tone’s mechanical sound in our ear, and hence by its naming on the author’s page. The telephone ventriloquized our voices, but the apparatus also had this voice of its own, coming from within the device and in turn suggesting a mysterious unseen body. It made a shockingly loud roar, much louder than seashell resonance—but because we cradled it to our ear like a shell, we could transfer the association and hear an oceanic depth. Then we thought of the cables routing the floor of the sea, and the travel of our voices seemed the longer. Too, we were holding the sound of time in our hands: a drone that stretched out the seconds, confusing micro and macro. This material sound-of-dial-tone-time was recognizable by its very suspension, as was fitting for a noise that occurred only while one lingered, at the thresholds of connection. When the tone pulsed fast instead of stretching, we knew that connection was already blocked.

Then “we” (that is, I) spoke into a handle with orifices, reminding us of the permeable ear. (Alexander Graham Bell’s early work included experiments with a recording device called the phonoautograph, which, in Bell’s design, actually incorporated a cadaver human ear.) Because the dial-tone voice suggested an interior body, and the handset an ear, we imagined the grand physiological adventure we had studied in school: the arduous expedition of sound as it navigated from the outer ear and the eardrum through those famous obstacles, the Hammer, Anvil, and Stirrup. After that it traveled deeper, into the paired Labyrinths of the inner ear. (Hollywood sent a microscopic Raquel Welch into this inner-ear space in the 1960s, during the period of the dial tone’s American heyday. Welch played an assistant to a crew of miniaturized scientists, traveling perilously through the human body in the movie Fantastic Voyage, which I remember re-running on Saturday afternoon TV.)

In suggesting a voiced body found in the “depths” beyond the earlike receiver, the dial tone gave a form to the telephone’s function: to vibrate our faith in physical intimacy though no such closeness could be seen. Orality’s mystique, the belief that sound was superior to sight or to graphic text in revealing presence, lay behind the old AT&T jingle: Reach out, reach out and touch someone! But this mysticism played both ways. If the dial tone was a kind of prologue, a loud buzz that announced one might soon join the warmer circle of voices like a child admitted to the ring of play, it also sounded the pain of exclusion. For with every pre-connection one risked the chance of disconnection; of misconception, alienation, and expulsion; the other children refusing, running from our touch. Brought into the magic ring or left out, one still only clutched the dummy body technology proffered.

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Back, then, to Tranströmer. And back to the heartbreaking ending of Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” that old warhorse of high-school lit. How do teenage readers for whom calls are largely visual affairs understand the “roar” Connie hears through her phone, which overpowers all the silly, dreamy music in her head? Do they imagine the sound that’s supposedly made by tigers they’ve seen in the zoo? By what vehicle can they travel to Oates’ tenor? Who will even ponder the question, when a dial tone speaks in an old story or poem?

You might as well call up old Doris or Juan, terminally jabbering at some antipode.

Distance, depth, interiority, longing, awe—and terror. The dial tone’s fuzzy drone was a small specimen of the technological sublime, both Kantian (suggesting the incalculable) and Burkean (inducing terror and awe). Incalculable and terrifying, too, is the length of the list of sonic details that go dumb or are being crowded out. Radio static, through which one traveled in search of voices. All kinds of whistles: train whistles only heard now when the world holds still, the tuneful and intricate whistling by which our grandfathers privately concertized, steam gathering to its whistle on the stovetop. (So much scale building up in the kettle! So we microwave.) Steam knocking in the radiator; the steam-blasted hoots of vessels that sailed, fed in their depths by obscure stokers. Then all the noise hanging on the life of a “stoker”—for so many other sounds depend on his existence: the sighs of his children and the angry complaints of his wife, the names of the girls working on the ship and with whom he falls in love, names of the ships themselves, names of the other stokers and the work songs of their crew, the clanging of shovels and scraping of coal, the noises the sea can make only to the ears of someone working with the engine at ship’s bottom. The whistling of several steaming ships in concert (melancholy joy to the coastal city and the dawn lovers of Hart Crane) and the cries of the doomed passengers, as remembered by the Titanic’s stoker—Shine, mighty fast swimmer, already “damn near drunk” in Harlem when the ship goes down. Or so we are told in a poem, Etheridge Knight’s “I Sing of Shine.”

Science now talks seriously of de-extinction. Nearer than ever to realizing the last century’s science fictions, we might now bring back woolly mammoths and passenger pigeons. We can easily re-create the call of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was recorded in 1935 and sounds like a child’s tiny, toy airhorn. Of course they would not truly be “back” so much as they would be automata, for their supporting worlds are gone. Likewise, some endangered languages are studied by the grandchildren of those who once spoke them naturally, but their survival will take heroic group will, then the speakers’ passion to arouse the brave new and warm-blooded words. Passé technologies may also be revived, and not always as preserved specimens in a hipster zoo, à la the typewriter. Printed books persist; vinyl has been reclaimed as an instrument of sonic creation. But vinyl re-issues are mere sonic exhibits; what can new hard copy of Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure be except a museum replica? I cannot dig on Google Earth for the fossilized surfaces of 1973. And I do not enjoy nostalgia, which cheapens memory by recasting it as diorama. (Not long ago I saw a show in which an artist re-created his old bedroom, including pieces of old Roxy album art—memory was installed, quite literally, as cover version.)

Imagine bringing the dial tone “back” from its current position at the brink of sonic extinction. Simple enough to record it and play, but this would not truly revive. Would we also bring back its street access, and thus the streets themselves?

I think of London telephone boxes. I haven’t been to England in decades, and I must have seen those boxes then, as I walked around for days with my now-dead poet friend M.D. But memory serves up fictions, so I picture the red English boxes of Blow-Up—shot when I was a child of five in Illinois. They were not “real” even then, in that Antonioni had the boxes new-painted and specially installed for his “swinging London” locations, which were also fresh-painted for filming—even the pavement and grass. Those perfectly composed “street’ images! And their foils—the park trees filled with disquieting wind, the granular depths of the black-and-white blow-ups that Thomas, the photographer, tacks to his studio’s white walls.

I would like to bring back those phone boxes and stand inside one with Thomas.

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John Cage, in his program to include “unintended” sound—what most call noise—within the field defined by “intended” (composed) music, described his time in Harvard’s anechoic chamber. There, he heard not the silence he had expected, but the sounds of his own body, his own nervous system and circulation. It is impossible to make a silence, Cage concludes, but one must draw a further essential lesson: “where it is realized that sounds occur whether intended or not, one [must turn] in the direction of those he does not intend.” This is Thomas’s crossroads in Blow-Up, involving both sight and sound. Favoring the “intended,” camera-assisted sight with which he makes a living, he mistakes the view that he consciously frames with camera—what he describes as a “peaceful” scene of lovers in a park— for a vision of what is actually there to be seen. In doing so, he misses the unintended sight of what might be a killing in process: a murderer hidden in the bushes, violence in the pastoral, the body on the grass. And Thomas hasn’t seen with his own body, its full gift as an instrument of apprehension having been usurped by the technology of his camera—a proxy body—which allows him to “focus” and compose his intended illusions but which also records and preserves the unintended details of the visual field. Later, he blows up his photos and looks at what he did not think to see.

Leaning forward, we look with him. These recorded images are granular, erasing the sharp contrasts of black and white; it’s as the blow-ups penetrate light to its very particles or visualize the impulses of the optic nerve. Now Thomas believes he truly sees; he composes from the particles the story of a murder. Watching along, we aren’t sure. Into the silence of Thomas’s studio—where he looks, where we watch—Antonioni introduces sound. It is the sound of the park trees blowing, hissing in the wind. It is sinister now to our hearing, in the moment we recognize as an existential, “Antonioni-esque” symbol, where failure and reality simultaneously manifest, where the self disappears into the physical world of noises and objects—leaves blowing in an English park, streetlights turning on in an empty Italian square. Or it is just a noise of leaves rustling in breezes? Perhaps it is the sound of the photographer’s nervous system accelerating. In the end Cage concluded, “Until I die there will be sounds.” Antonioni adds that death is sound, is sight—the raw physical data of the body reasserting itself where the ghost, at last, give way.

Hard to resist, this faith in the persistence of sound. It’s rooted in our notion—our suspicion, our intuition—of experience beyond language, both within us and without, ineluctable. The call. And everyone will tell you that hearing’s the last sense to go. But what, besides my body, will I hear? Not frogs; they are going away . . . can I hope for a buzzing fly? Will I listen, or will I just passively hear? Will I reach for an old-fashioned telephone like Bucky Wunderlick, DeLillo’s rock ’n’ roll star hiding out in his cold room? Bucky picks up the handle to listen to the dial tone. Within it, he hears “music of a dead universe,” “silence endowed with acoustical properties,” “pleasure and fear never before explored.” Something authentic; something understood.

I am standing in a phone box with Thomas. David Hemmings, the young actor who plays him, is so lovely—all light, blonde motion. We are parts of the director’s careful composition, but I hear myself thrum, blood and nerves. It’s like hearing ‘the sea’ in a shell, which is only the shell’s body-noise. Until I die there will be sounds. Thomas!, I say, you missed the matter. You couldn’t see the body that was your very own. Thomas, apprehend the instrument! Now I lift the receiver, put a coin in the slot, place the handle against Hemmings’s beautiful, outer ear.

(Outer ear. Cellar door. What sounds!

But a class of college juniors tells me they don’t know cellar. I say please, play it at least on your phones.)

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Now Thomas looks at me: an old woman babbling of bodies and vigils. I am not old. But nor have I learned Cage’s lesson. If sounds will go on, if our ears will compose them so long as our own bodies vibrate, phoenix-like, upon the pyre of “silence,” then there’s little point mourning the loss of a single sound source, such as a dial tone. Likewise, if metaphor is essential to human language, then the animist imagination that insists on endowing a dial tone with a “voice” goes on too. And with it goes on poetry. Until I die there will be metaphors. But here I grow unsure.

After all, I am an old woman, speaking my piece about dial tones, stokers, and stovetop kettles, of print newspapers and cellars and forest-night dwelling tigers burning bright, speaking my piece to smooth faces. To a digital face, furrowed only by incomprehension. Out of what language does it build the world? Out of what world does its language ascend? What do cyborgs hear in anechoic chambers?

Thomas, Tommy, Doris, Juan, and Jenny! The bell tolls, the device is buzzing. Blue, uncertain, stumbling. Listen. Speak

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Jenny Mueller is the author of two books of poetry, State Park and Bonneville, both from Elixir Press. In 2017 Fence Digital published Moonie, a book of poetry by the late Brian Young, which Jenny edited and for which she wrote an afterword. Currently, she is working on her third book of poetry and on a series of essays about sound imagery. She continues to archive unpublished work by Young and by the poet Lisel Mueller, for whom she also serves as literary executor. Jenny is professor of English at McKendree University.