The Sound of Metal

Last night finished The Sound of Metal on Amazon Prime and it’s been resonating more and more deeply on hindsight today: Story of a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing, joins a deaf community against his will, and rejects his deafness by way of surgical implants.

When separated from the rest of the world as a member of the deaf community (with its vowed silence and monastic overtones), Ruben learns to sign. His sponsor Joe requires only that he learn how to be deaf by sitting each morning with a pot of coffee and writing in a notebook, a practice not unlike my own.

Despite becoming an integral member of the commune(ity), Ruben’s desire to pick up where he left off with his band leads him to the operating room for implants that bypass the ear canals and stimulate the brain producing a metallic imitation of sound. This disappointing replica lends the movie’s title its second meaning: We go from heavy metal to the scratches of neuronal frequencies that fall short of and fail to do justice to the whole throbbing beauty of natural hearing.

The crux of the movie is the following, Joe’s reaction to Ruben’s choice: “I wonder, uh, all these mornings you’ve been sitting in my study, sitting, have you had any moments of stillness? Because you’re right, Ruben. The world does keep moving, and it can be a damn cruel place. But for me, those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.”

Hard to imagine a more eloquent description of what I have enjoyed in poetry than that. Rae Armantrout’s complaint that “the nonnarrative, declarative sentences of many language-oriented prose poems leave little room for the experience of silence” (Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, p. 429). Creeley’s idea of poetry as “that place we are finally safe in” where “understanding is not a requirement,” too, speaks to stillness as the great bounty of poems: a kingdom protected from that “damn cruel place” where we enact ourselves, a kind of sanctuary.

In the last scene, Ruben removes the staticky hearing apparatus and in total silence turns to his surroundings: A silent steeple, skateboarders, gleam of sun in the treetop among contrails. With him, we enter a stillness, Roethke’s “imperishable quiet at the heart of form,” as if subject matter had melted wholly away. And the credits roll for a moment in that imperishable quiet. What a movie.

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