By Mary K. O’Melveny

It is very quiet.

I could hear a twig snap

miles away from my door.

I could float on stillness

as if I were cloudbound,

a migratory bird

who has left earth’s clamor

far beneath my wingspan.


I have disconnected

all the plugs, set aside

newspapers and journals,

shut down my internet.

Nothing reaches me now

but sounds of my heartbeat

competing with din of

percussive memories.


1. the sounds of unmistakable laughter


I can hear my mother shrieking

with laughter across our tract house

where things are usually quiet

unless my Dad is home yelling.

So I know this is Big.

No boundaries. It must be hilarious.

I run down the hallway

eager to be part of the secret fun.

Her tightly closed bedroom door

surprises me. I have imagined


her face alight, waiting to share

the wonder of the joke, smiling at me

when I walk in, pulling me to her.

She will share this story that sucked

her up into its gay center, making ripples

in the air, each one a bit higher,

more breathless, overpowering our rooms.

I knock and knock, excitement

increasing with each rap

as I call out to her

Let me in, what is so funny?


Eventually, her door opens.

She stands, slightly bewildered,

her face colored by shame and surprise.

At once, I see there is no joy here.

In the purity of her tears,

all witnesses were forgotten.

I am left to sort through

those raw, unreachable,

suddenly unknowable

sounds of unmistakable sorrow.


2. the sounds of limited options


Sitting in a hallway phone booth,

stomach pitching with fear, I almost miss

my doctor on the other end of the line

saying Congratulations!

Unwanted tidings of joy –

though not unexpected after one runs

wild into some night, breathing

tangy scents of Mexico’s finest, laughing

at inhibitions like they were little polite jokes

people stopped telling long ago.


I consider my limited options as I mumble

No, I do not want to make another appointment

right now, then hang up. My earnest doctor

cannot help me out of my place of no return,

nor can my fellow students

who stride past toward class or lunch or study groups.

I feel the way one does when someone dies  —

suddenly surprised when pieces of the world

remain firmly in place  — no tear-streaked faces; no signs

of fright marked like a third eye on foreheads.


I suddenly think of every “bad girl”

magazine story I have ever read.

Will it be coat hangers ahead

or a home for Wayward Girls?

My mother loves me

but I cannot tell her of these troubles –

she has too many of her own.

She would want to reach out

but I will not add to the din of her regrets

while my own detonate around me.


3. the sounds that bruises make


I cannot really recall blacks or blues.

It is more about the sound –

belt noises swoosh swoosh swoosh

through air as I ran, or tried to run,

from its unforgiving arc,

my flesh it's intended landing point.

Usually, such clamor has been muffled

by time’s passage though my deep dreams

still sometimes fill with it –

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!


Just the other day, that misery rose up

from a busy city street as I waited for a bus.

My father is long dead, his swirling, raging

anger misted over into ancient history,

yet as I turned, I half expected to see him

standing nearby, arm raised in fury.

Instead, a man stood on a nearby sidewalk

clutching a white rope as it were a lifeline,

hurling it against his back where its knotted

ends land. Again. Again. Again.


This man’s face is brown, bearded.

His black woolen cap almost covers

his ears and eyes, as if he cannot bear

to witness the damage. As if no one

else will know, if he does not. As if

pain’s pandemonium carries no more weight

than an old door loosed from rusted hinges.

Passersby and I look up, then away,

as the din of car engines disappears into

a hullabaloo of anguish mirrored in shop windows.


As he rages, I see leather whips, rods,

canes of birch filling spines of former slaves

with jagged scars that spread out like

sea urchin mantles or public squares

adorned by bloody backs of vagrants

as agony’s din rises higher than prayers

to heavens. The rope is still swinging

as the bus pulls up.  Perhaps he worships

like the Flagellants, seeking salvation

by his own hand, other avenues having failed him.


I never thought much about salvation

as I ran through our house shrieking words

that might lay bare the story of our lives –

a clamor I willed my mother to make

from the corners where she cowered

in silence. I gave little thought to pain

of others back in those angry days

when I could only hear sounds of fury,

when everything was all about noise.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!


4. the sounds of time’s up


We have been texting

and sharing

and shouting.

It is quite perplexing

how not hearing

and always doubting


long defined these vexing

issues. How fearing

humiliation from the outing

kept us from flexing

our formidable bearing

to demand an accounting.


We know the feeling

of disbelief

after we survive,

when we are still reeling

from acts by some thief

acting out his macho jive,


as we are kneeling

down out of relief

at still being alive,

as we try healing

in darknesses we have

honed into a tragic archive.


We are not surprised

as our voices grow,

though some are still silenced.

We still shudder as losses rise

like soldiers from shadow

taking us down in violence.


Bruises don’t always baptize

our skin but even if they don’t show

we patch ourselves up with little guidance.

So of course we recognize

how communal cries are quick to flow

until we have a serious audience.


We are sick and tired, we say,

of the agonies of men in power

who pretend to care

as their heads turn away,

expressions quite dour,

to new issues affecting their welfare.

We demand that you hear us. Today!

No longer will we quietly cower.

Hold on as our grievances blare,

multiplying numbers on display,

via every cable channel and cell tower.

We have no more time to spare.


5. the sounds of our madness (Las Vegas) 


It sounded like firecrackers

said the witnesses and victims

as bullet-ridden bodies piled up

and, later on, teddy bears and bouquets

of flowers in pink, yellow and red.


He was just a guy

said the shooter’s brother

as he was hunted down at home by

news cameras and microphones

where he had hoped to hide instead.


Let’s not talk gun policies today

said the president’s press secretary

as she stared out from her lectern

and told us everyone was sad

and needed time to mourn the dead.


I really didn’t want to die

said a concertgoer as he lay down

on the ground next to a lifeless man

whose days, like country music, had ended

in tales of heartbreak and bloodshed.


We saw nothing nefarious

said the hotel manager about the guest

whose suite held ten suitcases and twenty-three

weapons capable of dispensing death

from thirty-two stories overhead.


He passed all necessary background checks

said the gun store owner, opining

on the shooter’s mental fitness

as he spoke to law enforcement,

assuring that he was not misled.


I can’t get into the mind of a psychopath

said the sheriff as he tried to explain

how things could turn out

like this, while tolls of lost and injured

grew ever more widespread.


This is your life now

said the young neurosurgeon

to the newly quadriplegic

grandmother as she tried to imagine

the future as seen from her sickbed.


I cannot breathe anymore

said the new wife, whose medic husband

saved her life but died on the ground

before her, as she stared out at

the long arc of widowhood ahead.


6. the sounds of truth vanishing


In the end, truth vanished too quietly.

There was a certain wonder to it all.

We stared down at distant specks of light

as though we had drifted into space.


There was a certain wonder to it all

as we imagined it still flickering

as though we had drifted into space,

while once familiar places faded away.


As we imagined it still flickering

like echoes of a gentle chorale

while once familiar places faded away,

we struggled to recall the journey.


Like echoes of a gentle chorale,

we began to keep tiny secrets.

We struggled to recall the journey,

starting with small adornments to our own histories.


We began to keep tiny secrets

long before PT Barnum stepped onstage,

starting with small adornments to our own histories

as if crocheting rubies onto a hangman’s rope.


Long before PT Barnum stepped onstage,

we tried to add hints of hopeful sparkle,

as if crocheting rubies onto a hangman’s rope,

mournful ends traded for cheery platitudes.


We tried to add hints of hopeful sparkle,

discarding facts like childish thoughts,

mournful ends traded for cheery platitudes.

Soon we could only hear what pleased us.


Discarding facts like childish thoughts,

we chose nicer words to match new visions.

Soon we could hear only what pleased us

as the known world slipped away.


We chose nicer words to match new visions.

Amazed at how far we had traveled

as the known world slipped away,

we sometimes said Remember when …


Amazed at how far we had traveled,

we met those who did not understand why

we sometimes said Remember when…

In the end, truth vanished too quietly.


What sounds do you hear?

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