Ada Limón's "The Quiet Machine"

Thoughts on quietude.

The Quiet Machine

I’m learning so many different ways to be quiet. There’s how I stand in the lawn, that’s one way. There’s also how I stand in the field across from the street, that’s another way because I’m farther from people and therefore more likely to be alone. There’s how I don’t answer the phone, and how I sometimes like to lie down on the floor in the kitchen and pretend I’m not home when people knock. There’s daytime silent when I stare, and a nighttime silent when I do things. There’s shower silent and bath silent and California silent and Kentucky silent and car silent and then there’s the silence that comes back, a million times bigger than me, sneaks into my bones and wails and wails and wails until I can’t be quiet anymore. That’s how this machine works.

from Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Books, 2015)

I was reading through the book this poem is from — Bright Dead Things — the other day as I was planning my 11th grade poetry unit for this coming spring. I was struck, as I often am, by Ada Limón’s work, and the way it inhabits multiple truths at once. I’m thinking of her poem, “State Bird,” and how it begins:

Confession: I did not want to live here

The poem cycles through images of bucolic, pastoral beauty, pushing against the idea that such scenery makes one feel safe. But then it lessens its tight grip. It ends:

But, love, I’ll concede this:
whatever state you are, I’ll be that state’s bird,
the loud, obvious blur of song people point to
when they wonder where it is you’ve gone.

I’m thinking, too, of Limón’s poem, “After You Toss Around the Ashes,” and how it ends with three short, blunt sentences:

I am beautiful. I am full of love. I am dying.

Both poems sit in that space of sustained attention that melts away the very idea of contrarianism. If you look at anything long enough, you might concede something that refutes your initial thought. If you admit you are full of love, then you might admit such love will go away. Is mortal. Is ephemeral. If you stare into mortality long enough, you might find joy there, too. And so it goes.

I love today’s poem because it acknowledges the multitudinous nature of something — such as quietude — that is often deemed as having only one way of being. It reminds me of a passage from Ben Ehrenreich’s Desert Notebooks, where he writes:

If we could also see the microwaves and radio waves and gamma waves and infrared and ultraviolet light leaping between and within the galaxies, the dark emptiness of space would seem neither empty nor dark, but teeming.

I’m reminded of that passage not because of what happens when we decide to be quiet, but rather because of Limón’s first sentence: I’m learning so many different ways to be quiet. Such a sentence is a testimony of the myriad ways in which a human can, well, be human. Just as the three-sentence ending to that previous poem — I am beautiful. I am full of love. I am dying. — communicates, we can be filled to the brim not just with contradiction, but with the sheer fact of the many different ways to be anything, even ourselves.

I think I am drawn to this poem today because of its insistence on quietude. I imagine that first line could have been written any number of ways. And perhaps that would be an interesting prompt. I’m learning so many different ways to love. I’m learning so many different ways to be myself. I’m learning so many different ways to be sad. But instead of insisting on one of those avenues, Limón insists on quietude. On Thursday, during my final class of the day, a student laughed at me, shaking me away from my thousand yard stare that was directed at the back wall of the room. I was caught up in the daytime silent when I stare, this quick moment of needed reprieve from the demands of work and life. How funny, that when you catch someone in a state like that — staring off into the distance, frozen on the couch, prone on the bed, eyes on the ceiling — it seems so odd or weird, almost scary even. Such stillness sits at such a remove from the rapidity of this life.

Limón makes distinctions between many different types of silence in today’s poem, but, on a craft level, they are linked. They are linked not just through the choice to structure the poem as prose, which consolidates each moment of silence into the same block of consideration, but also through the ongoing rhymes — “alone,” “phone,” “home,” and “bones.” These sonic cues let us know that each silence, although different, belongs to some overarching need.

It’s that need that I’m interested in. Why the need for quiet? Why the need for reprieve in a world that’s so big, where so many ads beg us to get away? Why can’t we just get away? In her poem, “Edward Hopper’s Office at Night,” Victoria Chang writes:

 I wake in a panic and can’t tell if I am dead or alive

                  this year I dye my hair so I won’t have to die

As Chang’s poem points out, sometimes loudness — and how it manifests itself in appearance, or illustrative volume — is one way of insisting life in this world, which is a world that can be neglectful, or forgetful. A world that can, each day, insist against someone’s existence. As such, sometimes, to be alive is to scream I am alive. And yet, today’s poem wonders about the life of a mind trapped inside a world that can so often be so loud. What is radical about it is the way in which it demands its own quietude. I’m drawn, in particular, to this moment:

There’s how I don’t answer the phone, and how I sometimes like to lie down on the floor in the kitchen and pretend I’m not home when people knock.

Though I love people and their myriad ways of inhabiting the world, there are moments when I have to pretend I do not exist. I’m struck by how often this happens — how often I, even when I have the time and space, don’t respond to a text message I just received. How often I’ll ignore a text, a phone call, an email. I think that often our individual needs for quiet have nothing to do with people. Rather, they have to do with the ways in which we are so worn down by the demands of work and life that we cannot make room for people.

The almost idiomatic phrase — pretend I’m not home — takes on a massive degree of sadness within this context. To pretend you are not home is to resist the deeply human association with home, the very idea of home as a place of refuge and safety. To pretend you’re not home while you are home is to pretend you are not safe while you are in a place that is supposed to be safe. What does such an act reveal about our world? What does it means that sometimes, even when we are supposedly safe place, we have to pretend we are not in that safe place, just so we can be safe from whatever inconsistency or love or need or want a fellow person might bring our way?

I’m thinking again about that passage by Ben Ehrenreich. If we could look at our systems of communication the same way one might stare up at a night sky in order to adapt their eyes to even more stars, we might see so many lights speeding across the technological avenues of our collective landscape. We might see the way in which we are always — and by always, I mean literally at all times — engaged in the process of communication. At any moment, a new call, a new message, someone reaching through the dark to find another person. Who can blame someone for wanting a moment of quiet in the midst of all this noise?

I think frequently about an article from 2020 — “Why Do Corporations Speak the Way They Do?” — and how it details the rise of what has been called garbage language, this mindless, buzz-word-filled idiomatic slang of the business world which has seeped into the language of our everyday life. Molly Young writes:

One reason for the uptick in garbage language is exactly this sense of nonstop supervision. Employers can read emails and track keystrokes and monitor locations and clock the amount of time their employees spend noodling on Twitter. In an environment of constant auditing, it’s safer to use words that signify nothing and can be stretched to mean anything, just in case you’re caught and required to defend yourself.

That notion that we live in an environment of constant auditing — it’s true, right? We can tell if a text message has been read or not. Can tell if some photo has been seen. In all times, perhaps, we are engaged in the act of assessing others and assessing ourselves. Perhaps because there is just, well, so much to assess. So much non-quiet. So much noise. It’s why I’m drawn to the title of today’s poem. To build a “Quiet Machine” inside of you feels like an act of resistance in a world that renders so many of us into machines of various acts and ideas and outcomes. Noise machines and data machines and nonsense-information machines and driving machines and service machines and unrecognized machines and over-recognized machines. To be a quiet machine in today’s world is to resist the urgency of today’s world, an urgency that says you must be on at all times. And yet, as Limón writes, the quiet machine sometimes fails:

and then there’s the silence that comes back, a million times bigger than me, sneaks into my bones and wails and wails and wails until I can’t be quiet anymore

Though solitude can serve as a retreat from the loudness of the world, it doesn’t perhaps protect you from the world’s senselessness. And it’s that senselessness that sneaks into the bones of this poem’s speaker, forcing her to un-quiet herself. What sorrow, that it is impossible sometimes to even be quiet, or alone, that it is impossible sometimes to even be entirely what we need.

This, though, is why I love Limón’s poetry. It asks that we consider the ways in which being alive is a deeply complex affair. Today’s poem asks us to consider the many different types of solitude, the myriad ways in which a human can withdraw from the world. To love is not just to love. To be alone is not just to be alone. Each is caught up in the particular circumstance, and what each circumstance asks of us. There is this big world, yes. And there are different types of quiet within it.

There’s a poem, “Vespers,” by Timothy Liu, that begins:

So many want to be blessed.
I only want to kneel in a quiet room.
To love what we have or not exist
at all.

Where is your quiet room? Do you have one? How big is it? Is it small? Is it somewhere buried inside yourself? Is it your couch? Is it bordered by the thin walls of your apartment? Do you feel scared there? Alone? Do you feel safe? Can anyone join you? Does anyone know about it? Have you invited anyone in? How often do you go there? What makes you? What do you do there? Do you cry? Do you breathe? Do you scream? What makes you come out? And then go back in? Do you wish the world was a little quieter? Do you think it’s too loud? Too soft? Too hard? When you go outside, what is your first inclination? Have you ever pulled yourself deeper into your coat? Is the whole world a bit like the deep end of the pool? When someone calls your name, what do you do? Do you say hello? Do you pretend you’re not home?