Mount Eerie
Murmrr Theatre; Brooklyn, NY

Photo: P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.

“I’m sorry to do this to you all. Thanks for coming. It’s complicated.”

To write about Phil Elverum’s performance feels like sharing a secret. Amplifying a whisper breaks the unspoken code of intimacy. Elverum, as he admits, is playing death songs. They do not rage against the dying light, for they know the light is already extinguished. They are confessions of, as he shares, the abrupt realization that absence and death are not abstract, not fanciful observations on pure negation, but real. Loss is absolute. It is nothing. Publicly working through the death of his wife Geneviève, Elverum underscores that to live through loss is to finds oneself surrounded by symbols, previously imbued with life and memory, that slowly become hollow. Their magical values first become echoes, then hums, then silence.

How are we, as the audience, to hear a whisper? What are we to do when invited into such an intimate space? As I watched Elverum perform, I was drawn to his movements: a foot fidgeting back and forth, his eyes wandering to the ceiling, the rapid movement of his sleeve across his face after each song. Elverum’s performance was not performative. It did not reek of staged emotionality. Instead, it felt as if Elverum had invited us into the bedroom where Geneviève died as he penned his death songs to a dissipating echo. It felt intrusive. As I stared at Elverum, I felt my gaze invade Geneviève’s wake. As I write, I wonder if I have broken that wordless trust inherent to secrets. Maybe this is an apology.

Before the show began, I nervously approached Elverum at the merch table. I had nothing to say, or maybe I didn’t know what to say. Either way, I saw a poster of an empty chair overlooking a mountain valley. I was struck by the sense of loss paired with the sublime grandeur of the wilderness. I bought the poster and walked back to my seat. As Elverum played another new song, he spoke of walking with Geneviève’s ashes to the top of a mountain. Slowly, he then poured the ashes on a chair. When he later returned, chunks of bone sat idly, the ashes blown away by the wind.

I decided to not take the bus or train back to my apartment. Instead, I walked alone, carrying my Momento mori. I was overwhelmed by the intimacy of this gift. Elverum had invited me, through the performance and through this poster, into the most private moments of his grief. How can I ever return the favor?

The philosopher and artist Kaja Silverman writes, in the Introduction to The Miracle of Analogy, that “analogue photography is the umbilical cord connecting us to what we have loved and lost, to what is gone because we failed to save it, or what might have been, but now will never be” (3-4). Elverum, in the song “Toothbrush/Trash,” sings:

Today I just felt it for the first time
three months and one day after you died.
I realized that these photographs we have of you
are slowly replacing the subtle familiar
memory of what it’s like
to know you’re in the other room,
to hear you singing on the stairs,
a movement, a pinecone, your squeaking chair,
the quiet untreasured in between times,
the actual experience of you here.
I can feel these memories escaping
colonized by photos, narrowed down, told.
My mind erasing.
The echo of you in the house dies down.

The photography of those we’ve lost cannot liberate us from loss, it only circumscribes us to an acceptance of what is gone. Pure absence. Real death.

As I attempt to write the phrase “public intimacy,” I am struck by its inherent contradictions, yet this is the only way I can describe the performance. A whisper to the audience. A secret that I feel compelled to share. As I grasp for conclusions, I want to wander to a comment on care or community, but that would miss the point. There cannot be a conclusion derived from pure absence. There can only be the experience. Thank you for the gift of this experience.

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