Blanket of Sound

There is no such thing as silence.
Even when still, our blood pumps,
our heart beats, we breathe, we are alive.

A consistent noise can be tuned out.
It’s the unpredictable ones that distract:
water drips with tortuous, uneven gaps.

In a still hotel room, guests move in the corridor,
the traffic hums, revellers whoop, heels clatter,
keypads are pressed, electronic locks bleep.

The closest we get to silence
is that swallowed cry, a mark of respect
for someone robbed of life.

Or that briefest of moments
after a gasp at a sheer granite rock
or breath-stealing waterfall.

This room has a speaker that plays
white noise, thunder rumbles (distant),
waves on a beach, constant rain on a roof.

But when I curl on the bed, I don’t want
the disconnect of soothing sounds.
I want the city’s distractions to drench me.

(originally published in The Stares Nest)

True silence will never be completely achievable. In a sound-proofed room there will be faint noises of our internal systems, a heartbeat, a breath, that confirm we’re still alive. When individuals chase silence, what they are trying to achieve isn’t necessarily silence, but an environment where they are in control of any noise and that space is not infiltrated by noise created by someone or something else. You don’t notice the dripping tap if you have a playlist of favourite songs to mask it. You’re less likely to be irritated by the random noise beyond your hotel room if it’s masked by pleasant sounds that are consistent, rhythmic and predictable. You don’t notice neighbours who move to regular rhythms as they go about their lives. You do notice the unexpected party with loud noise, the noisy chatter from guests in the garden, unusual car engine noises from an early start that you didn’t know about.

The hotel room speaker with its choice of reassuring white noise was designed to soothe unpredictable and unfamiliar noise to enable hotel guests to sleep. This masking of unpleasant noise with pleasant noise is the only current treatment for tinnitus. There is no cure and hearing aids can worsen the problem by making the tinnitus louder so are only used if there is also underlying hearing loss. However, when everything you hear is competing against the constant ringing/buzzing/static of tinnitus, hearing is frequently difficult.

Even a relatively quiet room can seem noisy depending on the frequencies of the background noise. If you are trying to hear someone speak against background conversation and tinnitus, separating out the noises and focusing on the one you want to hear takes a lot of cognitive effort. Staying home and using text based chat is easier but feels isolating. Not everywhere can be made library-quiet and background can help even out the unpredictable, irregular noise that interrupts a conversation.

This week is Tinnitus Awareness Week. I will never know silence. But I will never be alone either. My tinnitus is always there, but it’s not constant. There are loud and quieter periods. It is not always the boring static I usually have. Sometimes it mimics other sounds or has a rhythm that can be interpreted into song. A companion.


Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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