In Satellite Landscapes the artist Jenny Odell painstakingly erased the earth from Google maps, and in doing so, left the architecture of industry exposed. In one image a power plant, a huge sprawling construction, looks like an octopus with tentacles stretched out in every direction. In another landscape, row after row of idling cars are no longer connected to bitumen, and so, look as though they are levitating. These edited maps are mesmerizing. The scale of industry is made so obvious the images are almost shocking. And yet, most days, when we navigate the world using Google maps our eyes slide over the earth and industrial estates, and rest instead on shopping centres, fast food outlets, office blocks, places of convenience and ‘purpose’. With Satellite Landscapes Odell sought to bring “the strangest architecture” into sharp relief: “These mammoth devices unblinkingly process our waste, accept our trash, distribute our electricity. They are our protheses. They keep us alive and able…our total biological dependence on a series of machines, wires, and tubes, humming loudly in some far-off place.”
Ian Maleney’s debut collection of essays Minor Monuments also takes stock of overlooked landscapes, including the bog next to his family’s small farm in the Irish Midlands, a region that he describes as “flyover country”. In the opening essay, ‘and the wind it tremendously blew’, even Maleney admits that the bog is “not much of a destination, but it’s about the only place you can go if you want to get out of the house”. And when locating the reader, he describes the family home as: “The last stop on a narrow road to nowhere, the last house before the wastes of the bog.” The wastes. Bogs have long been considered barren tracts of land, soggy and inhospitable. They are an accumulation of dead plant material, including fossilised woodlands, packed down in soft concentrated form.
I first learnt about the ancient qualities of bogs when I was studying for my final school exams. My high school, located in Western Sydney, had selected the poems of Seamus Heaney as our main text. According to our teacher few schools looked at Heaney and this would allow us to stand out. With “less competition” we would hopefully gain more marks. We worked through his poems slowly, tripping over the dense language, consulting dictionaries for unfamiliar words, which often didn’t seem to exist. The module was tedious. Heaney’s poems seemed to be about soggy fields. Our sports oval was balding and sun beaten. The people he wrote about were worn to the wick, whereas our faces carried the high sheen of youth. He wrote about the ancient rituals and sombre incantations that accompanied death. We wrote essays in response to these poems guided by the marking rubric. We were heavy handed with words like juxtaposition, postmodernism, synecdoche, intertextuality et cetera. Large, monumental words that we hoped would hide our lack of understanding.
It was some months into the school year before I thought about asking my parents if they knew Seamus Heaney. It felt like an act of desperation, as neither of them ever read for pleasure, which was partly practical as they were exhausted from manual labour and shift work. But it was also a reflection on what they described as “a lack of proper education” – they had grown up in rural Ireland in a time when classrooms were heaving with students and governed by teachers who preferred corporeal punishment to correcting spelling mistakes. They had never considered reading a leisure activity. And they had never heard of Heaney. So I asked them: could you at least tell me what a bog is?
They read Heaney’s poems and quickly translated the language, most of which wasn’t poetic so much as a plain, hard heeled language of rural practicalities. A language that felt true and familiar and represented an Ireland that they knew. This in turn started a conversation that has now spanned almost fifteen years; my parents, having realised how little I know about their childhoods, now talk at length about the skills and realities of living on the land. The seasonal routines of saving hay, fattening cattle and cutting turf. Routines that are still performed by their brothers and sisters, my aunties and uncles.
Heaney, I realise now, had a firm, understated approach to describing bogland (“The ground itself is kind, butter black / Melting and opening underfoot, / Missing its last definition / By millions of years”). Maleney’s essay collection is inspired by Heaney’s approach: “The feeling was similar to that of my first exposure to Heaney’s poems, which suggested that the kind of place I came from could be the stuff of poetry and not just a blank and backward wilderness from which to escape.” In an attempt to fill in this blank pocket of earth with clear and specific detail, Maleney begins to spend hours at the bog, an experience that is informed by his training as a sound engineer. Standing “in all kinds of weather out on the high bank with my recorder aloft”, accumulating “hours and hours of recorded emptiness”, this process slowly and unexpectedly alters his relationship with sound.
I used to always say that music sounded so much better live: fuller, thicker, more enveloping. I used to say that a mark of a good gig would be when I could no longer listen to the band’s album as the recordings had been ruined and now sounded so thin, so dull, in comparison. It’s only recently that I discovered that most mixes of songs are divided into layers—bass, vocals, drums—and are funnelled into either ear, thereby creating a sense of surround sound. And so, being profoundly deaf in my left ear, I’ve been listening to skimmed back versions of songs, not fully cognisant of the gaps and spaces and voids.
Before becoming a sound engineer, Maleney spent his teenage years recording music in a small cattle shed. The recording studio was a homespun conversion: a single naked lightbulb, bare block walls, squares of salvaged carpet covering the concrete floors, and “a pen for sick or calving animals”. When he leaves the farm for college, he is keen to learn the trade of creating perfectly composed and considered tracks. And then, as is often the case, life intervenes. After graduating college, he reads the work of English musician David Toop, who writes about music should be a generative process, rather than engineered for balance and precision. After having spent fifteen years learning about the technical aspects of recording sound, from microphone placement to testing cables, Maleney begins to consider how “music might more accurately reflect our experiences as people in the world, blurring the distinctions between the musical and the non-musical”. An insight that triggers his curiosity to document life as it unfolds noisily, messily and unexpectedly. In short, Maleney learns how “to listen”. Night after night he attempts to capture the church bells he hears from his flat in Dublin. This task becomes at once complex, as these field recordings aren’t an accurate rendering of what feels true:
I balanced my portable recorder on the sill inside the window, which was open just a crack, hoping to capture something of the atmosphere. I failed every time. Sometimes sound is essentially a function of the light, inseparable from the colour of the air it passes through. The bells permeated a deep, watery blue with a texture like rough paper. Without the light, the sounds became thin and distant, lacking completely the starting sense of proximity they possessed in real time. Sitting on my bed, lit only by the blue glow from the window, it felt like I was draped in that sound, shrouded in that light.
I read this passage again and again. It’s the first time I’ve read anything that comes close to articulating sound in a way that makes sense to me as a Deaf woman. Sound as being something more than just noise, but consisting of colour and texture, as well as, in my experience, something that has taste and mouthfeel.
Not long after these night-time experiments, Maleney loses faith in capturing “the perfect take”, and so, to borrow Odell’s phrase, he begins to visit the bog and seeking to understand “the strangest architecture” of this soundscape: silence.
In English, there are is a small vocabulary for silence. Beyond the word ‘quiet’ other synonyms include: still, calm, and dead. All of which indicate a sort of stasis, as if things stop and allow silence to occur. And so, other words used to indicate the silence—gap, pause, negative space—imply that silence is on the margins of sound, used to create an outline, but it is never the focal point. Sound engineers typically use the phrase ‘dead air’ to describe silence.
A doctor once described my left ear as dead. Even now, years on, my memory of this causes my body to clench. It is an oblique and troubling feeling to have part of your body declared as deceased. Though my experience is far from unique. The original meaning of the word deaf in Proto-Germanic indicates, a wider, all-encompassing state of being “empty, barren”. These sentiments continue to seep into the discourse around deafness, with hearing loss widely considered to be incompatible with living a complete and worthwhile life.
And so, it feels like a relief to read essays that consider silence in a generative manner. Maleney doesn’t parade his technical knowledge about sound engineering, instead he reaches for the Irish language as a way of articulating the bog’s soundscape: “Tost is a silence that implies its own interruption, a silence which makes sense of that which surrounds it. Silence, tost suggests, does not happen solely in the present – it retains an awareness of what has come before, and what is yet to come.”
The recorder acts as a means of alerting Maleney to the possibility that something can occur at any moment: “When the small red light is on, I hold my breath and feel every breeze, every raindrop, and every insect against my skin.” It becomes a way of tuning in to the very energy, the very potential of the landscape. These visits to the farm coincide with his grandfather’s decline with Alzheimer’s disease. Their conversations increasingly acquire gaps and spaces and voids.
While training to become a physiotherapist I studied anatomy via cadavers that reeked of formaldehyde. During these tutorials we looked at brains that had been thinly dissected and pressed between Perspex. Slowly we learnt how to read these slides like topographical maps. And unlike the defined architecture of bone or the ropy strength of muscles, the brain looked lumpy and completely underwhelming.
Even though the brain has been so thoroughly researched, it continues to be the least understood organ in the body. We cannot see it in full flight, twitching with thinking-ness. And so, we reach for metaphors and storytelling to fill in our gaps of understanding. There is a physicality to the way we talk about thinking: we can get lost or be deep in thought, as if thinking is a process of journeying or burrowing, requiring a kind of momentum. Thinking can also figuratively involve teeth and tongue and hands, as we ruminate, chew, digest and gather our thoughts. Equally, the retrieval of memories takes on spatial qualities: the word will come to me, it was on the tip of my tongue, it flew out of my head, just let me find it. And if someone loses the capacity to source memories, this brings a new set of metaphors, which are more urgent in their sense of disorientation and dislocation. Dementia is often talked about as a person lost in time, the word itself comes from the Latin de mentis, which literally means being ‘out of the mind’. The ways in which we talk about dementia continue to upend and expel the individual from their body.
In writing about his grandfather’s experience of Alzheimer’s disease, Maleney leans heavily on seafaring metaphors to demonstrate how John Joe is becoming increasingly unmoored. In the essay, ‘a kind of closing cadence’, John Joe is likened to being “a boat in a storm” and as his cognition decreases, “this buffeting was disorientating and frightening. In that kind of environment, it is natural to seek out anchors to steady us, life jackets that will keep a head above water…John Joe’s reliance on Nana was absolute; she was the most important anchor, so she bore the majority of the strain.” So even while landlocked on the family farm, dementia has seemingly unearthed John Joe from his body. Maleney goes on to say, “As his life faded away, he belonged only to the house and to her. Only dying could return him to the world.” This sweeping statement comes at the midpoint of the collection and stands apart from Maleney’s otherwise carefully hedged musings about rural life, urbanisation and sound ecology. Its grand certainty might be aiming for a tender poetic flourish to round out the essay, but it also reveals how Maleney, and more generally society, tend to think of Alzheimer’s disease as a condition that robs a person of their very personhood.
After studying the metaphors used in popular culture to describe Alzheimer’s disease, researcher Hannah Zeilig found that the condition “is so persistently associated with crisis, war, uncontrollable natural disaster, and death, [it] has become synonymous with a general sense of calamity”. Zeilig suggests that “The language of medical science is not neutral, and it is echoed by the wider cultural stories that we tell about dementia.” The most common metaphor that has seeped from medical literature into popular culture—including into Maleney’s book—is likening people with Alzheimer’s disease to zombies.
In descriptions of people with Alzheimer’s disease, the zombie trope often manifests as: exaggerated descriptions of bodies (a lurching gait and vacant stare); likening the condition to a plague; implying that the condition is cannibalistic nature with ‘victims’ that are ‘consumed’; and suggesting that death is preferable to this state of ‘unliving’.
And while Maleney attempts to unpack the language surrounding Alzheimer’s disease in the essay ‘machine learning’, including making reference to Susan Sontag’s seminal work ‘Illness as a metaphor’, he seems oblivious to his own brute use of metaphor. For instance, in the essay ‘a deathly thing’, he writes:
Death is never a single end, but a collection of terminations ordinarily bound so tightly together in time that they coalesce, as single and colourless as light, into a unified experience. Alzheimer’s disease undoes that unity by extending death, by drawing it backwards into life from its final closure. This dying process may take several years to reach its conclusion and, in this time, we can observe death’s interlocking components, and follow its immaculate, pitiless logic.
We have been conditioned to think of the mind and body being two separate entities, or rather a hierarchical structure with mind presiding over matter. As a result, people losing their cognitive capabilities can easily be objectified or othered or pre-emptively mourned when they are still very much alive. Zeilig argues that “metaphors have a dual relevance when considering dementia because they are innate to linguistic expression and they also influence the way our thoughts are patterned”, and by extension these patterns inform our actions and interactions. This othering can lead to a complacency of care. And while, this is not the case for John Joe, as he was deeply and tenderly cared for by his family, I still found it difficult to read when Maleney suggests that death is the only way of restoring John Joe.
Maleney is a fine writer, who is attentive to detail and driven by curiosity, but perhaps his use of metaphor was unavoidable? The zombie trope is so entrenched within discourse about Alzheimer’s disease that researcher Susan Behuniak admits “as negative as the zombie trope is, it is difficult to fight or to resist…it continues to resonate with scholars, care-givers and even people with Alzheimer’s disease”. Behuniak recognises that ‘dependency’ is a “contested term that implies burdensomeness, a lack of agency and an inferior position of power”, a perspective that erases the essential nature of what it means to be human. She suggests that “it is in recognising the power of this zombie trope that its negative impact can be actively resisted through an emphasis of connectedness, commonality, and inter-dependency”. And while Maleney’s descriptions of Alzheimer’s disease evoke every aspect the zombie trope, he eventually reaches a strikingly similar conclusion. In the final essay, Maleney suggests community and co-dependency should be valued and cherished. He concludes that to care for someone requires listening—deep, attentive listening—like the red light of a recorder switching on, even when there are gaps and spaces and voids. ◆
Fiona Murphy is a Deaf poet and essayist. Her work has appeared in The Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, amongst others. She’s currently working on a collection of essays about Deafness.