Jay Leeming

John Cage and the Anechoic Chamber

Arranger of absences, gray-haired composer
   of blank, Zen-minded man
       who’d given accident a voice

and had followed the hexagrams of the I Ching
   through to a concerto for chance
       and twelve spare radios: he’d come

from New York to Cambridge on the train
   for he’d heard they had an insulated room,
       a honeycombed box of fiberglass and felt

where all the clatter of the world
   was taken away. Maybe there
       he would hear the raw noise made

by nothing at all, an absolute silence
   like that out of which the universe began.
       But when he stepped inside he found

that there were still noises: one
   like the muΔed utterance
       of a distant ocean, another like the high whistle

of wind on wire. The engineer told him
   this was the rustle of blood in his veins,
       the whisper of voltages flickering

through his own nerves. So there was no
   absolute quiet, no throne of stillness
       where you could sit as one removed from earth

and drink down the pure void. Instead
   there was only his dream of silence
       that he’d followed all the way to this room

at Harvard, where his very presence
   made a sound, and his own listening
       became the music he had come to hear.


Jay Leeming is the author of the poetry books Dynamite on a China Plate (Backwaters Press) and Miracle Atlas (Writers and Books). His poems have appeared in a variety of magazines including the Gettysburg Review, Pleiades, Ploughshares, and Poetry East, and he has been a featured reader at Butler University, the Omega Institute, Robert Bly’s Great Mother Conference, and the Woodstock Poetry Festival. He has taught poetry workshops in Santa Cruz, Minneapolis, England, Colorado, Oregon, Scotland, Rhode Island, and Maine, and is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the founder and editor of the magazine Rowboat: Poetry in Translation and makes his home in Ithaca, New York.

“John Cage and the Anechoic Chamber” appears in our Spring 2013 issue.