Poems by Alexandria Peary

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Ninety-Three First Person

by Alexandria Peary

From Canary Spring 2016

Alexandria lives near the Merrimack Watershed in New Hampshire where there is an abundance of juvenile finfish.

She listens to the Awakened Mind System. She wears an expensive headset with soft leather cups for the ears to block the clatter from the dishwasher or the squabbling of two children. The headset was a Christmas gift from her husband. In the evening while he is tending the grill, she asks if he’s noticing the sound of the highway. They’d found the charcoal grill, a green kettle type, on the sidewalk with a cardboard “free” sign when they lived in the apartment. The back porch is more sun-soaked than ever because of the padding of trees her husband had removed between the house and the pond, between the pond and the highway. He says he hasn’t noticed the highway for days, not until she asked. She tells him that she notices it more now that she is writing an essay about the sound. He flips a piece of meat and tells her, well, then, stop writing that essay.

She finds the sound of the interstate to be a fine opera, a nuanced symphony. Its complexity far exceeds her ability to track it. “In the early 1880s Wilhelm Wundt conducted experiments to determine the duration of the present—that interval of time that can be experienced as an uninterrupted whole,” says Kerr in The Culture of Time and Space. Wundt “concluded that its maximum limit was about 5 seconds, and one of his students set it at 12…All these experiments provided new information for several philosophers who debated about the nature and duration of what we experience as ‘now.’” She compares herself to someone auditing a music appreciation course—eager yet easily distracted off the path of notes.

Do we have a choice in what we are aware of? Should we have a choice? These are the questions she asks herself as she looks out her studio window where the sounds don’t match up with the visuals.

Because they don’t —orbiting pair of male ducks, steam from melting pond ice, breeze tickling the ferns, all inconsistent with the combustion engines—she is reminded of the Magritte painting, “The Empire of Light,” where the time of day shown in the sky is out of sync with the one visible on the ground. She thinks of Zen master Suzuki, in your mind you created an idea of space separate from an actual time. But if she really looks outside her windows, she has to admit that many of the natural sounds in her yard come from invisible sources. How can she really tell that the chickadee hasn’t been piped in through hidden Boise speakers? The peepers in early spring are not a sound somehow sprayed from an aerosol can? Or in another moment of synesthesia, the sound of wind passing through upper pine boughs after a heavy snowstorm hung from a branch like a car air freshener?

If it’s rained, even the slightest of showers, the sound is thicker. As though a phrase has been emphasized in a handwritten letter.

The sound seems to change with the time of day, heaviness of traffic and the speed of the cars, the season, probably even the type of vehicles (contingent on time of day). She follows a gray strain for a few measures until it introduces a new sound like the yellow zipper of a Harley or the three-note of a big rig downshifting. In turn, this new part is sustained for a few moments until, like a contrail, it loses shape and fades.

It’s a Catch-22. If she discovers she hasn’t noticed the highway for a few days (the most she has gone is about four days), she feels relief, immediately followed by guilt for being so unaware. If she were more mindful, the highway would stripe her thoughts each hour at home.

On other days she listens to Brainwave Music Project, Gamma Meditation System, or Creative Mind System.

On most days I-93 is covered in the first person, ninety-three “I” of mostly single-occupant vehicles.

She pictures trinkets of faces inside cars. Baseball caps, cell phones, white, tan, brown hands which adjust stereo/AC/Heat, light cigarettes, drink from travel mugs and cups. She minces a shallot in the kitchen but feels the vertigo of looking down from a bridge at a speedway.

The huge windows, the decks, the house meant for entertaining, the view entirely of oaks and boulders arranged like in a sand garden and the seasons, the fireplace and the screened-in eating room. You’ll get used to it, say visitors to the new house, holding glass stems. After a while, you won’t even notice the sound. It won’t be part of your life.

This highway begins in Canton and ends in St. Johnsbury. It passes the backsides of many houses occupied by people from three different states. Of its 131 miles, two thirds pass through her state.

For others, the sound of a highway is a sensory deprivation the equivalent of a hotel room view onto concrete, a spent cigarette jammed into a diet soda can. For them, it’s the color of non-, this sound. It’s an odd and never an even sound. Always an exhale, never an inhale. It sounds like a question without a rise of pitch. Grammatically, it is permanently caught in the gear of the subjunctive.

Fact too that only bad occurrences dampen it (not holidays or days off) —the Boston Marathon bombing and city lockdown, or what it sounded like on the morning of 9/11. Though she did not live near the highway at the time, she remembers a neighbor in her building describing how on another highway everyone suddenly slowed down to 20 mph, heads tilted, listening. Not Christmas, not New Year’s or Thanksgiving, not even at 3 am—it might even be louder at 3 am. She floats in the canoe of her bed wondering about the lives of people who are driving at that hour, the three-step sound of a big rig gearing down.

The sound of the interstate is her prayer call to employment. Five days a week, she is separated from her family by 54 miles and 120 minutes at an average (excepting Friday afternoons) speed of 40 mph. She works between states: motherhood and family on one side, her profession on the other.

Before I-93 slunk underground, it was built as an elevated structure in Boston and was “greatly disliked by the citizens of the city because it cut the heart of the city in half.” After 1954, the interstate retreated underground but not before “cast[ing] long, dreary shadows” and acting as an “eyesore to the community.” It went on to become part of the Big Dig (1994-2006).

The whole situation is a koan. If she is one of the sound makers, a commuter, she does not hear the sound, but if she is standing in her kitchen, mincing shallots, she can most definitely hear it.

She listens to OM and Song of the Ecstatic, both from Master Charles Cannon.

When she and her husband had first seen the house, it was February, and all the windows were shut. Together they looked out the glass slider and saw a litter of vodka bottles and snuffed-out candles on the hardened snow around the jacuzzi and slatternly above-ground pool. They thought of the distressed lives of the sellers, some final frenetic fireworks set off for their foreclosing lives during a January bacchanalia. It was only when her husband had come back on his own and walked around the outside of the property that he had noticed the noise. They had saved their money for seven years by living in an apartment beside a busy main street in a place with a town oval and churches. If they opened their windows, soot from the exhaust turned the bedroom linens and especially the curtains dingy. They looked across at the space of the house and thought they could tolerate the highway. They had also seen houses with radon equipment in the basement, bad roofs, mold problems, and hastily-covered up water stains.

Searching for a sonic perfume, dye, or aerosol to cover up a noise is harder than an odor. For bad smells, there are fruity candles, college incense, bread baking in the oven. For wishing a sound in the environment to go away you need taller, faster growing oaks, faster growing technology, skinnier people biking to work, more Prius, more Volt, more Leaf. She noted the three scented candles lit in the upstairs bedrooms, the rooms which would go to their children. The candles were obvious compensations for pet cages—one varmint and one bird—and a later discovery, dog urine in the sunroom floor.

The streets in the neighborhood are named after the seasons, Seasons Lane, Autumn Lane, Summer, Snowflake. The houses are mostly earth-toned contemporaries designed with similar layouts and a yard plan that includes either oak trees or pines. The residents moved here because of convenience, good schools, safe neighborhood but mostly because they are commuters who live in one state but work in another. For the most part, they live here because of the proximity of the highway.

The irony is not lost on her that they had purchased the house from the owners of a struggling car dealership. She still spots the name of the dealership on the tailgates of vehicles which increasingly are becoming aging vehicles as the years pass, more “pre-owned” than “off-the-lot.”

She feels a constant low-grade outrage at the environmental damage. Along with the sound of the highway, this indignation hums around her days like a gray band around a plain room. She catches herself trying to transcend. This will be said to be one defining characteristic of our time: we were outraged as though we stood aside from it.

On a walk with her children, they came to the point in the cul de sac bisected by the shaded path which led to the power lines and a closer sound of the highway. The terrain had the look of land turned over to utility companies—double lanes of electricity poles in the extra fill, broken glass, and sand that supported scrub trees. A pine resembled a toothbrush and was actually a cell phone tower. They stepped closer until she could see the highway that was causing the noise in her house—a hole in the woods through which this other place was visible. They moved forward together, more like a group of cautious deer than the sort of people they’d seen who live on busy streets and set out lawn chairs to watch traffic.

Material borrowed from Stephen Kern's The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918 as well as I-93's entry on Wikipedia.

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