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

    Ander Monson Considers the Elegies All Around Us

    Consider the elegy, delivered after a passing: like a funeral, it’s the living’s custom, not the dead’s, a rite for us, not them. I can’t imagine York thought of his book as a self-elegy, and this sure isn’t an elegy for him or any of them, but I do want to register their passing and mark it in the way I know best: on the page. 

    Maybe I’m thinking of this because the small press I edit is publishing An Exchange for Fire: The Lonely Poet Guide to Volcanoes, the last unfinished work by Craig Arnold, a poet who disappeared in 2009, having presumably fallen into a volcano on Japan’s Kuchinoerabu Island. I knew Craig a little when he was alive—he stayed the night with me in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, some years ago, as a favor to a friend, and we’d crossed paths a few times after—but since his death he’s begun multiplying.

    A colleague tells me she used to date him. A former student dated Craig’s then girlfriend after he had disappeared, and could always feel his echo in the relationship, and maybe that’s what fucked the relationship up (or maybe not: it’s hard to accurately assess the work of ghosts). And though Craig has faded to me as a person, his work’s begun to mean more to me. 

    Rebecca Lindenberg, his partner and literary executor, is working with us to make his unfinished manuscript as well as a series of posts from his blog Volcano Pilgrim into a book. We’re trying to figure out how best to present the intentions and the shape of this last work, and how much to edit his work, if at all. I wonder what these conversations must take out of her, whether doing this is any different from making a descanso of his work, but I don’t ask, not wanting to open a seam that I know must be hard. 

    Craig titled the book after a quotation from Heraclitus: 

    This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was, is, and will be: an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out All things are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, just like goods for gold and gold for goods. 

    The quote—and the book—asks: What fire do we exchange when we devote our lives to art, even at the expense of our lives (literally or metaphorically)? And what knowledge or whatever else do we get back in that exchange? Or, once removed, what do we exchange when we make the things we make? Are they diminished versions of emotion? Are they things that prompt or contain emotion? It would be foolish to believe nothing is consumed in the chemical reaction of the making of a power ballad or a poem. 

    To note the dead is to pick up their signal again, if just for a minute.

    Or consider a more troubling equation: What do we as listeners or readers exchange for the fire we take away from an essay or a song and the way it burns in us thereafter? 

    I have to believe the flip side’s true too: something must be gained in the exchange: the making as well as the reading or the listening. We bring something flaming back with us when we go there, and the process is additive as well as transactional. If we’re seared and want to sear another with what we learned, then we’re also a little bigger than we were before. Otherwise why would we go at all? 

    A few miles away, there’s a wall at the back of El Tiradito, “the only shrine in the United States dedicated to the soul of a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground.” According to the plaque on that wall, “The many legends about its origin all involve a tragic triangle love affair in the early 1870s.” The person to whom the shrine is dedicated is Juan Oliveras, a man who “falls in love with his mother-in-law and is murdered by her husband in a jealous rage,” according to Tucson magazine Zócalo.

    Or, I should say, it’s dedicated to his story—legend, really, since accounts naturally differ—and to the power of desire and memory itself. If you’re in town, you can find it on Main, just south of the Tucson Convention Center. Like the best shrines, it’s kind of half-assed and you come upon it with a minimum of fanfare and you wonder just what it is you’ve stumbled into.

    There, in the lot right next to what’s now El Minuto Café and right up the street from Castillo Middle School, where “attendance is important,” the sign reminds me, I find handwritten notes stuffed in hundreds of cubbies and the wax from countless candles burned in hope of making contact with the dead or in pursuit of wishes that might be granted to the supplicant. No music presents itself but I think each of these notes, rolled up, looks like an antenna jutting out into the superheated summer air. 

    Zócalo tells us that “El Tiradito invites anyone wanting to make a petition to Juan’s ghost to bring a candle; it’s said that if one’s candle remains lit throughout the night their wish will come true.” The shrine is prefaced by an iron frame with spaces for 157 candles, none occupied at the moment I am there. Behind it I find a wall with many fake flowers, some real ones, quite a few handmade angels, a rusted bicycle wheel, several faded photographs in frames, graffiti (samples: “I Love You Momma” and “In Meamory [sic] of Michael Olivas,” “Obey,” “Let God Touch You”) written on and scratched into a concrete alcove, and a cigarette butt and a penny seemingly placed as offerings atop a stone. 

    If this is what we offer the dead, besides our songs and our poems and our assorted other words, what should we ask of them? Anesthesia? Analgesia? Relief from pain is one common request I see on the notes stuffed in the cubbies (yes, I read a few, even at the risk of canceling their magic). We ask for forgiveness and to be reunited with the ones we loved and lost. We ask that our sons be accepted, and for the strength for us to carry on. One asks simply, “Please bring my family & I peace & happiness and to let go and move forward.” I wonder: Do we wish for them to let go or to let go ourselves? 

    Granting wishes has got to be pretty low down on the dead’s list of tasks. If tasks they have, perhaps chief among them is remembering us, running their hands along their memories of loss, that somehow have a mossy smell, accentuated as they’ve been left alone too long and have become a little gross, eventually overpowering every other scent: that is, if the dead could smell.

    They might sing of their memories, or stage their own parade opposite the All Souls Procession in which they remember us, we who remember them and are seared by them, even in a crappy song on 98.1 that briefly interrupts the hip-hop of 98.3 before it disappears. There isn’t signal everywhere for them, and sometimes they have to punctuate ours to make a point. 

    To note the dead is to pick up their signal again, if just for a minute. Cocteau was right in having his Orpheus listen closely to the car radio. I’ve always been enamored of those scenes in that movie, and of the essential mystery of the radio: it’s there and it’s not; with the right equipment we can pick it up and it can mean: it can split a day in half with just a fragment of a song, and remind me of what I felt so long ago. It cross-fades back into beats I don’t recognize, and I shut the whole thing off. 

    I’m always surprised to see the Radio Society of Tucson’s Fall Hamfest (hams are amateur radio operators) out back of the Old Spanish Trail Target I shop at some weekends. Just beyond the three-foot red concrete balls that separate the parking lot from the entrance to the store, the north half of the parking lot is mobbed with trucks license-plated with their call signs and old vans bristling with antennas.

    Old guys in vests and Boy Scouts in vests mill around, excitedly brandishing obscure-looking equipment and discussing the finer points of their usage or construction. These guys spend their nights in pursuit of signals that most of the rest of us aren’t even aware are out there, and they love to accumulate or build equipment that extends their reach. 

    Who could blame them? The nights here are cold and dark and open, and the overwhelming sensation is one of space, and then of loneliness, and then maybe you look up to Mount Lemmon and its cavalcade of transmitters winking red lights down on us and wonder what signals they carry through the sky. 

    It’s worth remembering now, in the age of the supernew, that the technology of radio remains both magical and undersung. It seems like radio came and went within my lifetime, but I’m reminded that it’s still ever present. Even if I’m not listening to it, I know others are. It’s refreshing to be able to tune something in and get a transmission. And as a technology, it’s old but not that old: in 1941 Hadley Cantril and Gordon Allport felt the need to argue for the unique qualities that differentiated radio from live performance in their book The Psychology of Radio.

    The image that begins this essay was taken from that book, particularly the chapter “Radio: A Psychological Novelty.” Its caption reads: “The social situation in radio, showing the linear relationship between the speaker and his auditors, and, excepting where listeners are grouped in their own homes, a complete absence of social facilitation in the audience.” By auditor they mean hearer, and commercial radio has this quality, it’s true: the same stimulus gets transmitted, and we each receive it differently.

    If we’re in the same room with someone else, making out or on our way to making out, for instance, it soundtracks our shared pleasure and desire, or perhaps it reminds each of us of former griefs or lovers: even though we listen to it together, we listen to it alone. If we hear it by ourselves in a car, it soundtracks our thoughts or our loneliness or the dull natures of our drives. 

    My friend Leonard and I had a radio show in college from 1 to 2 am on Saturday nights, a time slot we wouldn’t have chosen but one that allowed for a substantial amount of freedom. We had the sense that really no one was listening, not even our girlfriends or friends, and we could do whatever we wanted. So we’d play a whole album by the Dick Nixons (a Nixon-themed punk band that shockingly never achieved mainstream success) and cross-fade it into This Mortal Coil.

    We’d only occasionally be reminded of the communicative nature of what we were doing, that we were actually sending a signal into the world. When someone called in with a request or a complaint, it would come as a great shock. 

    It’s not just the disconnect between the chunky metal kit the Hamfest guys are obsessed with and the China-made slick digital plastic junk sold at the Target that interests me but the particular quality of their tech-frenzy that’s on display when you get a bunch of members of the Amateur Radio Relay League together. Maybe it’s just the glee of kinship, knowing everyone else in this parking lot knows Morse as well as you and can tell you on which of the following bands (160 meters, 30 meters, 17 meters, or 12 meters) is phone operation prohibited.

    Or maybe it’s that the look in their eyes reminds me of dark nights spent in my youth trying to dial out from Upper Michigan and in to Bulletin Board Systems in California before the internet connected all of us so we could all be chirping at each other all the time online. Many of the hackers and pirates I spent time with in those days doubled as hams, collecting broadcasts and signals from the night and posting inexplicable messages about them on the discussion boards. These two kinds of nerdiness often spilled over into one another, and while I admired their project, it felt outdated even then, 30 years ago.

    Radio, you may be an unsexy technology these days but you still know how to cut me and show me what’s on the other side.

    To be in love with radio of all things seemed incomprehensible, but that was before I took incomprehensibility as a challenge. There was the telephone to be enamored of, for starters, and the modem that connected the computer to the telephone, and the networks of computers connected together through the telephone and through hardwired lines in rich or university towns, and even from here I can imagine lines connecting networks to networks and whole arteries lighting up throughout the country, and then the phone would ring and I’d hear the garbled handshake tone, and all of a sudden I was somewhere else. I even felt like someone else.

    That was what excited me, and still gets my signals firing, these years later. So I get it. Both of these constituencies have in common a romantic confidence in connection as a central and unrivaled good, a way in which the more nodes you can light up and write down the better your world becomes. Only connect goes the Forster quote that seems to have been his most memorable data chunk, and it’s easy to see why these, of all his words, remain. But it’s no “Don’t Know What You Got . . .” 

    In 1936 early radio theorist and critic Rudolf Arnheim tried to get at what was essential about radio in his book Radio: 

    The sound of mourning, more directly than the word of mourning, transmits sorrow to the hearer. And all natural and artificial sounds of mourning which are soft and long-drawn-out and in a minor mode, are appropriate for increasing the effect of the mourning-chorus. To add such sounds skilfully, without constraint or redundance, to reinforce the expression and to purify it, is the task of the artist in radio drama. 

    He continues: 

    The rediscovery of the musical note in sound and speech, the welding of music, sound, and speech into a single material, is one of the greatest artistic tasks of the wireless. But what we mean is not the cultivation of the sung word for instance. That has been cultivated quite enough; the wireless, too, cultivates it quite sufficiently. The new possibility is quite different. Novalis says: “Our speech was at first far more musical, but it has gradually become prosaic and lost its note; it is now a noise or a ‘loudness’; it must become song again.” 

    That’s what I think I’m after here, trying to reclaim some fragment of Cinderella, or listening to Cinderella after a shooting in Tucson, by quoting Arnheim quoting Novalis (that was just his call sign; he was born Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg). 

    I mean, that bit of Cinderella somehow playing on the radio seems to me proof of the beyond better than anything else I can think of. Not just Cinderella but the radio that converts it from energy in air to a thing that means in my car’s interior. Radio, you may be an unsexy technology these days but you still know how to cut me and show me what’s on the other side. 

    That other side is where the songs come from, and probably where they disappear to afterward, leaving only our memories of our own loss and pain and what prompted all those feels in us wherever we were listening in from after all these years. 

    I think of Arnold and his volcano, of York and elegies and hot concrete, and of the descanso just up Pantano toward the wash: all these places are marked by death. What place worth anything isn’t? Like you, probably, I live in a place of death. I sing to thee of Cynthia, the woman from whom my wife and I bought our current house: her husband had died (too young) of mesothelioma after a career as an electrician working in asbestos-insulated attics in England.

    When we walked through it for the first time, I had the sense that the house was only half-inhabited: it was too big for her, and was filled, I’m sure, with memories of him and the two of them together. How could she get any separation from the past while still living in it? Now they’re both gone, and the house is ours, and we play our songs and dance to them, and we think we understand, as we always do. 

    Our own deaths will cut the cord that connects those we remember best to the places we knew together, and after that we will be alone. That is, unless someone else leaves a mark or writes a poem or sings a song or calls in a long-distance dedication to tell us who was here, and for how long, and how and for whom their Os moaned in a minor mode, and who they loved and were seared by, and who they were made by, and what they became after, and what we are meant to make of it. 


    Excerpt from “Exchange Rate,” from I Will Take The Answer. Copyright © 2020 by Ander Monson. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org. Full essay originally published in the Gettysburg Review Summer 2019 issue.

    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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