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).