Robin Ekiss

Contemplating Quiet

                      — Dickson Experimental Film, 1894-1895


To contemplate quiet,
       start with the first marriage
of sound and image:

seventeen seconds of film
       in which two men are dancing
to the wheedling strains of a violin.

One steadies the other
       and turns him toward the light.
They hold each other’s waists,

struggling against the convention
       of their weight. The violinist
scrapes out a barcarolle, a song

a gondolier devised to stroke
       the riverbed, mosquito-thin
melody about the joyful, lonely life

of men at sea. No woman’s in sight
       or earshot; her voice,
recorded in smoke, lies still

at the bottom of a drawer, transparent
       and tough as a beetle’s wing
broken off in flight. This is memory,

then: nothing to imagine
       beyond the frame, one man’s song
buzzing the air again and again

like bees bearding the wall
       of a hive, as if to prove
its existence unaltered

by the loop of history.
       What synchronized mystery
accompanies them

to hold us so tightly in their grasp?
       Did they suffer in silence,
or because of it? Underfoot,

the persistent itch of sand
       in a shoe, the circumstance
of who’s leading whom,

the unspoken conversation
       one whispers into the other’s ear
that we’ll never hear—

the taciturning circle that suffices
       when a word will not.
Wedded to wax, quiet’s extinct

as the horn that throws its contrail
       shadow to the sun-struck floor,
extinct as the phonograph’s

flat-scratched cylinder,
       whose cone pulled discord
out of rhyme. In the space between

notes, the absence of women
       is easily accounted for,
but even an echo leaves room

for sound. To contemplate quiet,
       shut your mouth, as they did,
until nothing comes out.



"Contemplating Quiet" first appeared in New England Review, Vol. 29:4 (Winter 2008): 66-67; reprinted on Poetry Daily (August 24, 2008).