• On Sorrow, Roadside Shrines, and the Brushed Steel Stereo From My 1987 Nissan Maxima

    Ander Monson Considers the Elegies All Around Us

    I remember the radio in my 1987 Nissan Maxima, a car I bought in 1998, in Des Moines, Iowa, after my stepmother’s Camry finally died for the last time: it was brushed steel, with a volume and a fader knob up top, accompanied by a tape deck with some logos: Stereo, Dolby System, something next to some text reading “CK 145.” Some buttons I never figured out what they meant: PLAY/PRO meant play and something else; REW and FF were easy enough, but both also read APS, whatever that was. What MTL did I never learned.

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    The radio itself came accompanied by an impressive-looking seven-band graphic equalizer (“CU115”) in which you could manually adjust the sound at 60 Hz, 125 Hz, 250 Hz, 500 Hz, 1 kHz, 3 kHz, and 10 kHz by sliding metal bars up and down. I fiddled with it constantly, trying to come up with the ideal sound that fit perfectly whatever jam I was listening to then. 

    The Maxima was not a great car: the cruise control was wonky, it had a burned-looking mark on its hood where the paint was starting to flake off, and the sunroof had some damage and leaked when it rained, which was often, this being Iowa. Later I would find out that it had quite possibly been through a flood, which may have been why I could afford a car with a V6 and such an impressive-seeming radio at that point in my life. I mean, it had an impressive stereo.

    The radio itself just did what it did: it picked up signals broadcast from towers I could see and wonder at as they jutted high above field after field of corn, vertical reminders of just how flat everything else was. The internet tells me now it was a Clarion Model Pn-9130, and I can buy one, disambiguated from its Maxima, from eBay for $124.99 + $24.99 shipping. 

    I couldn’t tell you what the stereo on the car I drive now looks like. It’s way more advanced, I sense, and I use it all the time, but more often than not I’m scrolling on my phone through a playlist or a podcast, or just hitting Scan and hoping for something magical. And when a song that I like arrives, I rarely think that since what I’m listening to is old, the singer may well be dead. The band’s almost certainly broken up. Maybe someone else hijacked their brand and is doing casino-nostalgia tours.

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    It’s old news that arrives, that makes me feel like I felt when I was new. Besides, old news is what radio is: news and past, the result of a transmission sent just before I receive it. So when the not-quite-classic rock of 98.1 supersedes 98.3’s bleeped-out hip-hop stream I recognize the song: Cinderella’s 1988 power ballad, “Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone.”

    If you don’t know or remember this song, here’s its calculus: while what you used to have is now gone, now you know what you had, and more to the point, you know what you have: it’s just this song, and though it’s sure as hell not enough, it’s not nothing either. The beloved has vanished, but the shape she made remains in the form of this very song of longing, if longing is what it is, and though we might not wish it, the song is the enduring thing, and anyone who listens to it takes possession anew. 

    A sad song may be an artifact, but it’s also a memorial and a spectacle. If some songs are inspired by spectacles (“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”—surely one of the more funerary songs you may have heard a lot), some songs inspire actual spectacles: in 2016, Winslow, Arizona, erected a statue of recently deceased former Eagle Glenn Frey standin’ on a corner in Standin’ on the Corner Park as tribute to the Eagles lyric, and to remind tourists that Winslow, Arizona, once a mainstay on historic US Route 66, mattered, and maybe still does, even if it’s been bypassed entirely by I-40 since the interstate was completed in the late 1970s.

    And our sadness is a spectacle, too, even if unmemorialized or made into a song. How often have I made a wide berth around an adult just flat-out weeping in public? I’m so well wired to expect a “doing fine” or a “great” or an “aight” in response to my polite inquiries that I don’t know what to do when occasionally presented with a real answer. Even a brief encounter with someone in the throes of deep emotion—grief or frustration—can rewire me in the same way a brush with a brush fire as I drive by it on the interstate does. My day is punctuated into before and after the fire or the weeping. 

    In writing sadness or pain do we separate ourselves from the experience of it? Is writing feeling, or is it processing?

    I’m almost weeping now, listening to Cinderella, which is a sentence I never thought I would end up saying or writing. How is this dumb song the thing that stays? I think, too, of how rarely works of art (if you don’t mind me calling “Don’t Know What You Got” art) overtly acknowledge their being works of art, and what that means for the emotion or situation that motivated the making of the art.

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    I mean, I know it’s a shitty power ballad from a genre of music that got rightly extinguished by grunge, yet it registered with me—and it keeps registering. Now I know what I got, and it’s this song, and that takes me back, but it’s not so easy, and it takes so long. It’s almost as if all I have is the glass slipper that so seared me but no memory of the foot it once fit. 

    I pull the car off to the side of the road to let the song finish. It’s held up well over the years, if not quite as spectacularly as Sappho’s odes, and I wonder about how we register and aestheticize and process sadness. It hurts, the memory of pain and the sadness it invokes, and when we write about pain (or loss, which prompts pain, or sadness, which often comes after), as we necessarily memorialize it, are we also insulating ourselves in aesthetic or affect?

    I mean: In writing sadness or pain do we separate ourselves from the experience of it? Is writing feeling, or is it processing? I remember an essay I once read about writing love poems that suggested that in order to write a truly great love poem the poet must love the poem more than the beloved. 

    I don’t remember the author, but I see her point, even if it’s still hard for me to swallow: if you love the poem more than the beloved, then I can see how it might be a better poem, but it may not be a better love poem. (I doubt it’s a better love.) And that I remember the sentiment but not the author makes its own point well enough. 

    I mean, I know it’s probably necessary—it is, right?—to separate an experience into artifact so as to get some distance from it, but is it okay? Is that the same effect that dulls us to the shock of gunfire and how easily we go back to our regular lives even though much of the territory in which we live is stained with blood, and to the extent it is “ours” that also means it’s not (it used to be) someone else’s? How many years does it take us to shop again at that Safeway, or to bring those jarts back out of the shed after they punched a hole in your brother’s foot? Would it be quicker if we could leach those feelings out into a song? Is that even desirable? 

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    At the Eckstrom-Columbus Branch of the Tucson Public Library I find an archive of condolence cards written by schoolchildren to those hurt or killed in the January 8th attack. On one, Zevi Shane Bloomfield writes: “Pain does’t [sic] just wash away like the sea. Pain covers your body until it melts beneath your heart . . . until you can’t bear it any longer. Pain stays there forever until you talk about pain. It washes away and never comes back until sorrow.” 

    That’s a hell of a formulation, and not one I could have come up with: talking about pain is the only way to wash it away, but sorrow (perhaps pain’s echo?) brings it back. Bloomfield may or may not know that, in English, sorrow is a deeper and longer state than sadness. The OED glosses sorrow as “deep sadness.” The 1947 edition of Funk & Wagnalls Standard Handbook of Synonyms, Antonyms & Prepositions tells us that “grief is more acute and less enduring than sorrow; sorrow and grief are for definite cause; sadness and melancholy may arise from a vague sense of want or loss.”

    S. I. Hayakawa’s Choose the Right Word (1968) tells us that sorrow combines sadness with regret. Pain may be “washed away” by talking about it, but sorrow is a deepened state, perhaps the sort of state that memorials touch and are meant to externalize. 

    My Tucson, my desert city, has more memorials than most, even if they’re often unofficial, contingent, only semipermanent. Descansos (“resting places”; from the Spanish, literally: “to rest”), makeshift memorials for those who died at the site, litter our roadsides and are found on many roads in the Southwest. I saw one at a park I took my daughter to along the wash just today. She and I have been discussing death in the context of our recently deceased favorite cat, Napoleon, so it’s not an uncomplicated subject to arise from the walk back from the jungle gym to the parking lot.

    Some descansos slant a little political, like the white-painted ghost bikes that remind us to be cognizant of those with whom we share the roads, but more often they’re personal, and those are the ones that penetrate: the fresh Arby’s meal left by a cross, still sun-warm in a bag. The pictures and the notes. When I pass one on foot I stop and gawk. I take a picture, but it’s complicated. I don’t want to seem irreverent, and I’m not, but they rivet me: to mourn so openly, so publicly: it’s wonderful and raw. 

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    At first I was a little shocked by these installations: I never saw these in the Midwest growing up, and not just because of the snow that covers most of everything for long stretches of the year. They come from the cultural traditions and iconography of Mexican Catholicism and have been spreading slowly outward into the rest of the country. I appreciate that in a place like this one they stay and keep on marking. This region’s more honest than most about how we exist among the dead.

    For instance, Tucson hosts the yearly All Souls Procession (not to be confused with a parade), an Americanized, Tucson-specific version of Día de los Muertos: one night a year you can attend a procession in memory and celebration of the dead and how we want to remember them. And it’s not a comfortable spectacle either: it doesn’t minimize.

    It’s often silent, somber, spectral, and mostly it’s a potent combination of the beautiful, alarming, reverent, and truly upsetting: I remember my friends Erik and Nicole coming down from Flagstaff to attend it with their daughter, Zoe, then three years old, and the succession of emotions that played across her as thousands of painted skeletal faces passed, often in silence or accompanied by the beating of huge drums.

    This, you could tell, was something she was not prepared for. Who is? Its solemnity is hard to take. Perhaps this buildup of emotion is why the procession ends with a huge bonfire, in which the names of the dead are burned. 

    For the rest of the year the city has decreed that descansos can usually stay where they are placed. The City of Tucson Department of Transportation Policy 30.35 on Roadside Memorials indicates: 

    [They] may be left in place within the City of Tucson’s [right-of-way] as long as they are well maintained by others and do not pose a safety hazard or sight visibility issue. Memorials that do pose an issue should be moved to accommodate visibility and safe passage, but not removed.

    It’s not just my weird city either. Arizona Department of Transportation guidelines (which apply to state highways and the interstate) indicate that markers 

    —may be no more than 30 inches high and no wider than 18 inches; 

    —may have a foundation no more than 12 inches deep, and that foundation shall not involve concrete or metal footings; 

    —may be fabricated from wood or plastic/composite material; 

    —may include components no larger than 2 inches thick and 4 inches wide; 

    —may include a plaque up to 4 inches by 4 inches and 1/16 inch thick listing the victim’s name, date of birth, and date of death; 

    —may not include a photograph. 

    Words and iconography are allowed, but likenesses are not. It’s odd that they find it necessary to note that “only one marker is allowed per victim.” And why no photographs? (And I’ve seen a lot of photographs, so this must be more a guideline than a strict prohibition.) Is a photograph too personal and less of an emblem, or is it technical: photographs fade quickly in this here sun? 

    My bookshelves, like yours I’m sure, are filled with the dead, which I don’t like to think about too much.

    You’d have to overlook these remainders intentionally to miss them here, though after a while it’s true that you do norm to them, and they begin to become just scenery as parsed from a passing car. That’s what happens to all the dead and all the debts we owe them; we can’t think about everything all the time. 

    It’s when I’m running that I pay the most attention, in part because I’m most in my body then; I’m more my body than I am otherwise, and to stop short and short of breath at the site of someone’s death is no small reminder that there’s less to separate us than I’d like to think, and all it would take is one lapse of attention or the wrong blood vessel’s bursting to add another cross and photograph and beef-and-cheddar to the sidewalk spot.

    If I die here, I tell my wife, remember me with a lot of Doritos, like as many as you can buy. Just pile them up. When you die, my daughter tells me, I’ll remember you with your photograph. 

    There is no official limit to how long descansos may remain, but the city notes that they may be moved with 60 days’ notice if construction is planned. Mostly they seem to stay, as long as they’re maintained, which means in part as long as they continue to serve the purpose they once did to the living. What will it be like, I wonder, when every block in the whole city is finally adorned with one? When we are only too aware that everywhere we are people have died—often been killed, and by us, even, or people a whole lot like us.

    That’s an uncomfortable thought, so I hold it as long as I can, which I know isn’t really long enough, but what could be long enough to properly pay back all I’ve been given? And at what point do those thoughts become too much, an unparsable mass, and fade into background noise? I mean, if they haven’t already? 

    My bookshelves, like yours I’m sure, are filled with the dead, which I don’t like to think about too much. For instance, I pull down Jake Adam York’s last book of elegies, Abide, posthumously published. Reading it, I’m filled with something I can’t quite name: a combination of reverence for the dead poet whom I knew and a palpable feeling of heaviness, the knowledge that there will be no more Jake Adam York poems, or no more poems by Jake Adam York at any rate. (Let this little moment pass without our calling it a poem, as it is not one.)

    Because I didn’t know him well enough to generate the kind of lasting sorrow that occurs when a loved one dies, the idea of him is a little hazy, so it’s easier for me to miss not the man but the idea of the man, or his kindnesses and the ways in which his poems construct a Jake Adam York of words, which, as any writer knows, is no substitute for the real self, even as it is for most of us the only thing we’ll leave. And so I take a couple of steps back. 

    From here the book becomes an epitaph, a descanso on my shelf, marking that he died if not where exactly (his driveway is what I remember—and suddenly and young, roughly my age, surely one thing that drives the nail of his death into me a little further, and I too stand in the driveway and look up into the pressing dark).

    There he is, upright and stacked, not far now from other dead poets I knew personally, if only in passing, but whose work I obsessed over: Reginald Shepherd, Brigit Pegeen Kelly. And here’s Unbidden Angel, the only published book by Robin Metz, the best teacher I ever had, who died yesterday. 

    Ander Monson
    Ander Monson
    Ander Monson is the author of Letter to a Future Lover and Vanishing Point, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as The Gnome Stories. He lives in Tucson, where he teaches at the University of Arizona. I Will Take the Answer is available from Graywolf Press.

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