2017: Superficial Temporal Absence atomized and the deteriorative sounds of re-membering critical care

Richard Quain, The Anatomy of the Arteries of the Human Body, Plate 18

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

“I’m sorry”
(the aluminum clicks of a walker’s kiss scuff up this linoleum universe, an acidly sterilized)

“we don’t”

(air bleaching breathing into stifled hacks from out of polite lungs. A sniff, a limp, a tightness around the temples: admissions of the unwinding ways down that)

“have a patient”

(strip wind out of our bodies and snuff galaxy from behind our eyes, sending stillness past selves and illnesses and incapacities)

“by that name”

(into urns and Earth. We, nothing, live. We, languished, die. Again and then: nothing)


All this, I think, I feel because that old man slumps his two failing legs into the four metal infallible ones. Leaning on his walker, he is crossing the hospital lobby floor. He’s here to see someone, maybe, to visit his relative health and generous spirit on the falls of failed bodies. He didn’t mean to put dying on my mind.

Hospitals don’t mean to put dying on our mind. Hospitals put a good show of pretending they function like any other worldly and boring institution. The glass clinks and steaming milk hollers of their lobby coffee cafes, the corner gift shops stocked with apparel memento (“I survived double bypass surgery and all I got was this t-shirt!”) and floral or helium-filled tribute; that distractive mallness almost sells a body on a hospital’s regularness. What’s mortality when there’s free Wi-Fi?

But the telltales are there: that sterile smell of bleach and waxed floors, a cleanliness past humanity. People walk around and smile and wave and hold hands, but emotions run haywire; there are more flash tears and snaps in patience than in the rest of the world. Directory signs organize our inching mortalities, shuttering trauma into units (Short Stay, Behavioral Care, Observation) and banishing an Emergency into a single room. Brandished words — like radiology, neurology, oncology — that are half-familiar to us but stand for sciences untouched until we discovered the things inside our bodies that shouldn’t be there. We didn’t have hospitals until we weren’t well. Hospital from hospes, a guest or a stranger. We shouldn’t be in hospitals. Hospitals aren’t health. Hospitals are imperfect occasions for addressing a body’s crisis.

I say my friend’s name again to the man sitting behind the Visitor Information desk. He says he’ll check again. “I don’t think she’s here,” he reminds me.

We lose things all the time. Does losing have a sound? Is it neon like a wail, an enveloping thing to fill our new abscess? Does it bang and rattle without words, a techno throb that reaffirms populous in us, “unos pro omnibus, omnes pro uno?” Will we recognize it when we hear it? Would we even want to? “It’s not for singing about;” it’s always phrased like a question. A hospital visit is not resolution because inquiry (like healing/listening) exists separate of knowing. Absence (and art) reacts like a vaccine, a killed sample of the organism.

In this shaky year of loss, our health eroded, under storm and assault. The reacted resounding sounds are those killed samples of the organisms (love, hate, memory, grief), manifesting a plot through plod as pop music then electronic analog, an ambient into something “barely music.” The deterioration from one to the next is how history works, a whittling language until it’s just feelings, “glimpses of hope in trying times.” Feeling like listening like visiting like missing becomes a sort of vaccination against the ills. An art of absence is. Is that enough?

The man behind the counter clacks more keyboard keys. He’s not a man, really. He can’t be more than 14. Maybe he was dropped off at work today. Maybe he’s missing school today, here interning as work-study. Maybe he’s missing someone too,

(maybe you’re gone already)

maybe here despite it all. What would moving forward feel like? We didn’t have feelings until we injected our humanity into a world. Feelings aren’t health. Feelings are imperfect occasions for addressing a body’s loss, either of joy or of control.

The clacks stop. It’s still now. He speaks efficiently for 14. “I found her. I made a mistake. I’m sorry, sir. She’s here. Fourth floor.”

He hands me a sticker. I write my name on it. I walk off, a guest echo in an unfamiliar space, stutter-moving like that man and his walker. With a destination now, I’m a little lost. What does moving forward sound like? I place the sticker with my name on in the space over my heart. “Go back and tell it.

Richard Quain, The Anatomy of the Arteries of the Human Body, Plate 2

It’s Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart’s left ventricle, brought on by sudden emotional or physical stress. The left ventricle’s apex balloons abnormally while the base contracts normally; the heart, pushed and pulled, begins to resemble tako-tsubo, a fishing pot for catching octopuses. Symptoms of takosubo cardiomyopathy resemble those of a heart attack, but it’s a trap, almost. To differentiate, diagnosis requires attention to detail, especially to a slight but rapid rise in cardiac biomarkers, which get released into blood when the heart gets damaged. It’s a sensational response to bombast. It’s Melodrama, this broken-heart syndrome.

Hearts are movable, depressive neon rowers running us from out of our chest. Too frequently, we wish for permanence in things: a job to maintain, a relationship for support, a health to lean on. Impermanence encroaches on flippancy, instability, combustibility. We veer and tip over, “Our rules, our dreams/ We’re blind.” “We’ll always have Paris” really means “we’ll never know what else we don’t have.”

Lorde knows what she and we don’t. Melodrama tips off from tripping, the spectacular Technicolor zenith of “Green Light” and the pulse of hip’s arrhythmia in “Sober” pool in the chest of absence. Lorde loses, lacks, misses. “After your heart is broken, music enters you on a new level,” she said in a New York Times interview, insisting in the same piece that Melodrama wasn’t a breakup album. “It’s a record about being alone.”

Melodrama is loveless spelled out letter by letter, the syllabic stretching out of wrecked and wrecking “hard/feelings.” These are what they call being alone, every promise of a pop dream (ful)filling the abscesses history lobs into us. The pop sounds mirror the feelings, imagined rectifications of real loss. On “Louvre,” absence means shouting, “broadcast the boom boom boom boom/ and make them all dance to it;” listening to loss means seeing where the boom comes from, that “megaphone to my chest.” The craft of Lorde, of writing pop songs, is a supercut, a montage and a dream, “this sadness about it, where you feel young listening to it, but you feel impermanence at the same time.” 2017’s radio pop vehicles were scant maybe, but the ones on the road hemi-screamed with this happy-sadness. Taylor’s “New Year’s Day” warned against unguarded mis-memory (“Hold onto the memories/ They will hold onto you”) and Charli’s “Emotional” worked to bridge-up tensions between history and memory, old and new: “We were close, but still so far away.” You will lose and miss, these voices remind us; the melodrama and the ache “let’s you feel something you didn’t know you needed to feel.” It’s superficial temporal, a moment of fluorescent dream resolving real-time loss, an artery to the head that pulses us to move forward.

But being alone doesn’t mandate reconciliation, really. Hearts fail in so many ways. Like pop music, heart failure, that bracket term symbolizing the splits and splays of that most vital muscular organ, is symptomatically movable: can the heart not pump the blood, or does the heart not fill with blood?

Is the heart broken, or could it not be moved in the first place?

Hearts are movable things, good metaphors for this year’s shaking instability; hearts are vital organs and proof that all bodies need care. Given time, it’s tempting to think that ailments and failures fix themselves, that we subject us immune systems and self-reflection. But care isn’t universal. We connect feeling to organ, but while every body has a heart, not every heart gets the same love, gets the same kind of time, the right kind of healing. 90% of takotsubo cardiomyopathy patients are women ages 58-75; a lifetime in a toxic world has to break somewhere. 2017’s pop arteries began to flush some of the poison from out of the blood, but this is about detailing how far we’ve deteriorated, not celebrating catching the octopuses at work. Spaces and abscesses are not created equal. Without love is just that. We break in loss, we lose some sounds. What does the way forward sound like? Is it enough

(in this elevator, I move up in the hospital that I haven’t been in since that first birth day. It and I were smaller then, infrastructures and biologies running alongside time. I’m worried about my friend, on the fourth floor. She didn’t say what was wrong with her. I can’t say what’s wrong with me, but I feel it, somewhere near the chest, somewhere near the cheeks. Something like language can’t help but slip away, aloning us. 2017’s track of absent sounds moves away from the hemorrhaging Louvre into the drum corridors and bass ruins of hurling upward into baseless space. My body reflected black in the ceiling’s mirror, my cords and tendons thrumming, motors and sockets snapping. Cell climbing no human voice. Booming insistence, without love, “LET US NOT BE SILENCED”)

Richard Quain, The Anatomy of the Arteries of the Human Body, Plate 19

“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.”

Cells die when they’re damaged.
Cells die when they kill themselves.

“I got hustle though, ambition flow inside my DNA.”

Cell death is the result of disease and the reason bodies still walk around. Cell death occurs with damage, skin seared under whip or sun. Cell death occurs when the body’s done with these cells, when it needs to make new ones. Our bodies are imperfect occasions for mitigating living and dying; they em-body us, regulating and mistaking our time on the planet. Our capacity for good is matched by our capacity for evil, we the disease of these United States. Like a vaccine then cell death and birth, Black Populous is the bounce of absence, the abscess of presence.

AceMo’s rolling roiled Black Populous unfolds without love from above, without words within. It’s the old “New Dialect,” whisked noise and acid hiss, cassette dreck bombed in the street-to-street straight-to-tape master take piece. It’s the bang of the future in the instruments of the past. It’s “The City’s Decay,” a unfurbished reverb-soaked reminder that infrastructures and biologies run alongside time alongside each other. Diaspora squeals, like toxic cells replenishing a virus, systems organized in killing healthy bodies. Balms, like cells dying to become the outer layer of skin. In the absence of life here, our skin asserts our existence.

In his words, the few accompanying the wordless release, AceMo: “Black populous is whatever you, want it to be.”

Maya: “It reminds us that we are not just flesh and blood, and that our hungers are not going to be set aside as just flesh and blood.”

Our hungers, those hopes, embodiments of life in and after loss.
Flesh, dying cells making skins, infrastructures of a living death.
Blood, love to the heart and air to the brain, proof of life when it’s inside, evidence of trauma when it’s out.

James Baldwin, from out of The Devil Finds Work: “This tension between the real and the imagined is the theater, and this is why the theater will always remain a necessity. One is not in the presence of shadows, but responding to one’s flesh and blood: in the theater, we are re-creating each other.”

The theater of flesh and blood is the theater of the body. Our hearts break and our brains forget, but our flesh lets us walk, our blood proves us precious. The tension inscripted on our bodies leads us to hospitals and into each other’s arms. Black Populous, like DAMN, like Kaepernick and Mavis and CupcakKe and Toni, does not settle for shadows. By sending the sounds of the body into the city’s language of drum and bass, Black Populous is absence’s negative, taking it back, giving it away. It will not be silenced.

AceMo, again: “For black is the color of endearment. Black is of pain, black is of freedom, black is cold, black is warm.”

Maya, still: “…indeed, we have souls.”

“I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA:”

We are responsible for our bodies. “We are all each other’s flesh and blood.” This year, mediated and afflicted by loss, saw the same trends and disparities along body-lines. We locked us up. We found new depths to the same old hate. “We are all each other’s flesh and blood.” Not all bodies got the same time to heal. Take a knee. Shake analog. Hold history accountable to itself. Do not make it anything that it pretends it was when what it was was sick. Care isn’t universal, but hope, like cell death, is renewable. We plot a building in the losing, crumble like refracted fractures aching to be stacked again, a new city. An art of absence, a black populous has the bravery to dare hope for what can be, to shine light at shadows and celebrate sounding. Indeed, we have souls, like Langston:

“O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —”

(step out of elevator doors on the fourth floor and remember. Try. I texted hello, you texted you were in the hospital. This morning, my dad said to me, “one of my friends has Parkinson’s now.” I think we were drinking coffee. Then my dad said, “and he says to me, ‘I got all the information Joe, it’s there in my head. It just comes out slowly. Like leaks. It just takes so much to get it out.’” After this, my dad went to work. I texted you. Now the fourth floor. Orthopedics. Stroke. Hospes, guest or stranger, I wander forward in this hallway like a sheaf. I remember, I try: given time, it’s temping to think that ailments and failures fix themselves. But care isn’t universal. We’ve done this before, like a sheaf. And. The way ahead feels lonely)

Richard Quain, The Anatomy of the Arteries of the Human Body, Plate 87

(We lose things all the time. Why test time? Is there a voice to fill that void? What is moving forward? Why won’t it stop?)

“Please listen carefully. I am going to say three words that I want you to repeat back to me now and try to remember. The words are “remember,” “care,” and “beautiful.”

(remember how easy it was then, to exalt, and sway? all that follows is true: before dwindling, before that fall down the stairs, we danced like sheafs. “sheaves,” you said. “sheafs,” I said. the beach. the shore. the place between knowledges, that lapse of water on sand and the furious motion of sediment with every crash. mostly not crashes though. mostly a familiar strain through rising fogs. somewhere back there is what I know.)

“Please say them for me now.”

(what does it matter how my heart breaks! what does it matter my city is ruins! we must erode as we go, holding tight the golds of days, the way a sky over water shines the world back. things have always been the best they can be. it’s us that changed. “now i can’t stand to be alone/ let’s go to perfect places!”

“I want you to draw a clock for me. Put in all of the numbers where they go. And set the hands to 10 past 11.”

(why test time? memory works, an imperfect knowing occasion to see history remembering drifting time misplaced)

“I want you to draw a clock for me.”

(with a destination now i’m a little lost)

“Put in all of the numbers where they go.”

(i don’t think she’s here)

And set the hands to 10 past 11.

(i’m sorry)

And a nurse helps him bend his arm at the elbow. He shakes, (“thank you.”)

All sounds won’t end in oblivion. Help helps. The Caretaker’s relentless and ugly project traces an arc of plaque, but it does so to extend empathies and imagine new ways of treating bereft consciousnesses. Memories Overlooked means unseating reality revision, nostalgia-sale, and selective national memory loss as king, means treating dementia not as inevitable, but as a thing to be addressed and understood and, ultimately, cured. “100% of the digital proceeds of [Memories Overlooked] will be donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.” We break and lose. Bodies get better. When they don’t, we help them.

Memory isn’t health. Memory is that imperfect categorizing of history into moments. Remember: History always favours the winners. Remembering favours a humanity. We must confront what we can’t bear to lose, those fourth floors of our selves and our loves. Caring for the caregiver takes a lot. Care isn’t universal. Health isn’t forever. Deterioration isn’t beautiful. Deterioration isn’t reversible. Between those sentiments, in the cracks of a tape pop and a brain’s hiss, Everywhere at the end of time weeps a unknowing grace for what it loses, for what it gains in losing. Take care and give it. The way ahead, worth it.

Richard Quain, The Anatomy of the Arteries of the Human Body, Plate 43

You didn’t die in that hospital room. That has to be said now. Attaching “death” to your pronoun is like imagining a dog’s permanent flight, winter temperature forever, silence. Death isn’t for compelling narratives, a detail to be withheld to heighten tension. Death is real. You could try to put it in an essay, but there’s no words for death that a body doesn’t already know as soon as it’s awake.

When I walked into the hospital room, the fourth floor, the sun wooing window heat onto curtains separating the room in two, onto the robot bed that wouldn’t stop beeping, your mom walked out. Legs want motion. Hospital rooms want stillness. We don’t belong in hospital rooms. You said that to me. We were trying to be brave. You joked about the miniature can of Generic Luxury Brand Ginger Ale. I mentioned I was driving to Matawan New Jersey that night. We laughed. No body belongs in Matawan New Jersey.

You mention how much that old woman coughed and complained. She slept here for a night, now she’s gone. We say we hope she’s okay. “October wind blows.” They have nice blinds in hospital rooms, horizontal and clean, but welcoming of light. They have nice blinds in hospital rooms, I say to you. You look out the window. It’s too gold in here, I think. You say how weird it is to be in a hospital, the age you are, the age I am, the way we’re in this hospital room now. I nod.

All poetry is lost. We ache in loss, but we are not lost. Death is real. Life is real. Geneviève Castrée drew comics, made sounds, died. Phil Elverum, her husband, lost her and can’t forget. These words are not meant to be pat or diminishing of two humans’ story. The songs on A Crow Looked At Me aren’t simplistic or reductive of the monumental collapse loss has inflicted on a human being. “Please don’t come,” Phil urged; “this new album is barely music.” Real death is supposed to be the end, at the very least the last words on the subject. A Crow Looked At Me breaks and re-breaks, because it’s a life’s words trying to make sense of irreparable loss, over and over.

“I’ll speak to your absence and carry our stories around my whole life” is sibling sentiment to “I’ll speak to your presence and carry our stories around my whole life. A Crow Looked At Me is non-song and barely music. But by its existence, it reaffirms the negatives its existence stands for. Bodies get better and better. We all end up together. Life is real. Babies get born. Hospitals save lives that humans make.

In the release of such hopeless losses (love, body, self, life), we re-member the sounds of 2017 as vaccinating reminders of what those losses feel like and how we can reconfigure them into stepping forward. Moving through this cycle of crumbling sounds reminds us that memory is a deconstructive process striving to reconstruct, that there is healing in a losing sound: Lorde’s neon-alone radio-glow gives way to the dusty unshackled analog techno of AceMo, gives way to the constantly untying and affirming sounds of The Caretaker that follow time’s arc. It all ends with something like Mount Eerie’s non-music that can’t help but reconnect us back to the love that Lorde eulogizes and memorializes, that Phil misses and holds closest to his heart, that drives AceMo to herald his body’s voice, that reminds The Caretaker it’s okay to cry. History and memory, loss and memorial, are circles to circulate our years, reminders that humans are (and always will be) at the center of our body’s traumas and joys. Will we survive us? An art of absence, a re-membering of loss says yes. Is is enough; the way forward is precious. We listen, wrecked and healing, swept and stepping, before and after and always past now.

(They have nice blinds in hospitals. We laugh.)

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

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