Silence is a language,
a bridge between two moves,
space on a page
I described walking into a noisy cafe bar as like hitting a wall of sound. A (hearing) person said they didn’t get it: noise wasn’t physical but auditory. But sound is felt. There’s a poignant scene in “Sound of Metal” (an emotional journey that does a good job of conveying what hearing loss feels like, although there are inaccuracies) where Reuben is sitting on a metal slide in a children’s playground and is absent-mindedly drumming his hands against it. A Deaf child places his hand on the slide to feel the vibrations. When hearing is impaired, sound can be felt and you don’t have to touch the source to feel it. Sound can also be anticipated. If you see a cup slide off a tray, you know it will hit the floor. When someone is moving their mouth (and not eating), it’s very likely they are talking.
Not hearing is the art of anticipation,
what might someone say, what an actor
might mean, what a director implies
by what’s revealed through a lens
and what’s left out.
Lip-reading is an art, rather than a science. It is impossible to accurately read because no two people make exactly the same lip movements when speaking. Differences are caused by accent, pronounciation and the individual shapes of people’s mouths. It takes a combination of educated guesses and perseverance. Context helps. After an event, it’s likely people will be talking about the event. At bar, the person serving is going to ask what you want to drink. In a shop, it will be how you want to pay, did you find everything you were looking for. In some situations, pandemic masks made it easier because there was less small talk, people were more likely to be direct and skip the preamble or hesitations. At a pre-arranged meeting, talk is likely to be about what triggered the need for a meeting. Chance meetings are harder. Being able to read body language and facial expressions help. It’s possible to get the gist of what someone is saying even if not every word.
Even so, those who struggle to hear become adept at creating a narrative for a situation and anticipating what might be said. Noticing when the narrative goes astray. Noticing when intrusive noise (that cup slipping off a tray) might make hearing temporarily impossible. Filtering out background noise to focus on the bits we want to hear. Being aware of noise that might interrupt, noise at a frequency that amplifies tinnitus, noise that triggers a stress response. This becomes instinctive, we don’t consciously think about doing it. Like learning to type, it becomes a natural reaction.
Silence is never completely silent. Something somewhere moves, it might be birdsong, a distance car, the clank of a heating system, a breeze making leaves dance, even snow crunches underfoot. Not responding to someone’s question can be an answer. When not speaking, we are rarely still. We fidget, tap feet or fingers, fold arms, fiddle with clothing or hair, jangle jewellery, clothes can squeak or rattle, we hum, swallow, sniff, breathe. If you’re attuned to body language, you pick up someone’s mood and learn to anticipate their response.
When I read my poems to an audience I look for(“Tracking Sounds, Crossing Borders”)
a smile of recognition, the stillness of true listening,
a fidget of boredom, a clue into how I’m heard.
When you can’t hear your own voice properly, you compensate. I’ve also started a sequence of poems following Rose Ayling-Ellis’s dances on BBC’s “Strictly Come Dancing” and how she manages to dance despite not being able to fully hear the music. It drew out all the compensatory measures I use without thinking about them. I pass as hearing and was nervous that I wasn’t “deaf enough” to qualify for Arachne Press’s anthology “What Meets the Eye”. I am delighted to be part of the anthology with my poem “Tracking Sounds, Crossing Borders”, even if I still don’t know where the border between hard of hearing and deaf lies.
Quotes are from my own poems.
The print anthology “What Meets the Eye” is available here
Videos with BSL interpretations of the poems are available here: