Rachel Zucker is the author of nine books, most recently, a memoir, MOTHERs, and a double collection of prose and poetry, The Pedestrians. Zucker teaches poetry at New York University and is currently delivering a series of lectures on the intersection of poetry, confession, ethics and disobedience as part of the Bagley Wright Lecture Series. Zucker is the mother of three sons; she has lived in New York for 38 out of the 44 years of her life.
When the manchild says, You’re not listening, I am not listening.
Another time, when the manchild says, You’re not listening, I am. But it isn’t the right kind of listening. It isn’t a listening that feels, to the manchild, like I am listening. He does not, as the saying goes, feel heard.
When I ask the manchild to stop doing X, he does it again. Some kind of clicking or ripping or fidgeting, a certain kind of language or patting the head of babymanchild or one of the many things babymanchild does not like the manchild to do that the manchild does over and over and over. Stop, I say. The manchild does it again. The way he looks at me as he does X again is called “not-listening.” It is also how I know he heard me.
Writing is a way of paying attention, I tell the students. They continue doing X, which in this case is looking down at their notebooks, which in this case tells me nothing about whether or not they’re listening.
Sometimes, when the manchild speaks, I listen my brains out, listen with my whole heart. But it is not enough. I am the wire monkeymother with a bottle when he needs something soft and cloth-covered.
You’re not listening, says the manchild again, sometimes just like that, in lowercase, more often with cursing and doorslamming.
The figurative bottle means nothing to the manchild; he is not hungry. Actually, he is hungry. He is always hungry but I never seem to have enough food or the right food. He has grown taller than I’ll ever be and is ravenous.
Sometimes I listen as if my life depends on it, but all I hear is the silence after a doorslamming. It is the sound of the manchild not feeling heard.
Actually, it is not silence. It is a muffled tumult in the other room. It is the sound of not wanting to go after him. It is the sound of my body crossing the room, my hand on the doorknob.
Sometimes it is I who slam the door and then lie in bed listening to the sound of my own breathing and then my crying.
When the Husband says, It’s hard to teach him not to slam the door when you slam the door, I think, How true, and I listen to the sound of myself not slapping the Husband hard across the face. That is the sound of my breathing. The sound of the stare between us.
Do you have any questions? I ask the students. How are your dream journals going? How about the automatic writing? Well, I say, I guess this is the part of class when I ask questions and no one responds. Ok, then, I say, Then we’re all in agreement. Alrighty, I say. I can’t believe I just said alrighty, I say.
On the way home I listen to a podcast about how the value of diamonds is held constant by limiting the number of diamonds entering circulation and convincing people not to sell the diamonds they already own. During World War II De Beers—the company with a monopoly on the production and distribution of the world’s diamonds—considered dumping a vault-load into the ocean as a way of staving off deflation.
Can you hear the sound of the white plate breaking in the sink? Can you hear the sound of my widened eyes? Or the text I send my friend saying, “I have become a person who breaks a plate in the sink.”
Sometimes, when the manchild speaks, I am listening to the sound of wanting to be elsewhere and the sound of myself thinking stay and listen, which sounds like the sound of the soundmachine over the Husband’s snoring or perhaps the sound of snoring over the soundmachine, which is to say two sounds at once, which is to say hard to make sense of, which is to say effortful, which is to say a kind of listening unsatisfying to the manchild. Perhaps he wants my listening to look effortless which looks to him like love. Or perhaps he wants more effort?
On the subway two women scream at each other. One says there is no more room, take the next train. The other says, You’re taking up more than one space, and presses into the crowded car. Everyone is listening intently to something on his headphones or has her eyes closed or pretends to be completely unaware of the two women, inches apart, screaming. Stop screaming, I scream above their screaming when I can no longer stand it. Don’t talk to each other that way, I scream, my voice barely audible above their cursing. No one meets my eye. Trash, one yells. Get the fuck out of my face, the other yells. Stop shouting, I shout. No one can hear me.
The poem is what I listen to when listening to the city is just too much. The poem is a way of not paying attention. Of paying attention to the poem instead of. The poem is a soundmachine.
Uh-huh, I say to babymanchild as I walk him to school. He is either talking about Ellen Degeneres or professional soccer. I am not listening. Sure, I say. Ok, I say. I am not listening. I am still not listening.
Actually, I am listening. I am just not listening to him.
On the listserv which is everywhere and always I am accused of conflation. I am asked to be quiet. To listen. I am asked to read the offered links more carefully and to think about my behavior and the way in which asking the questions I’ve asked has caused people of color to perform labor on my behalf such as having to explain racism to me which is exhausting for them and a kind of white violence on my part. I am asked not to conflate race and gender. I am asked not to conflate the Confessional with Appropriation. I am asked not to conflate the personal with the conceptual. I am asked to understand that I will never understand, can never understand, what it is like to be other than who and what I am. I am asked to examine my privilege but quietly, to maybe think about why white people feel the need to take up all the space, why white people like me talk so much, use so many words. I am asked to listen more and talk less. I am asked to consider intersectionality.
You’re not listening, says the manchild when he finds me reading and re-reading the links.
On the subway some manchildren are jostling and joking and using language I don’t want babymanchild to hear. I am trying to read to him but he isn’t listening. He is listening to the manchildren, to the sound of his future. No, not his future for he will likely never speak like these manchildren. He is listening to the sound of his whiteness, which maybe for once is the sound of listening.
On the platform a man is lying on the ground, a wrapped granola bar inches away from his closed eyes. I can’t get reception here, I say to babymanchild, pulling him away.
I want to ask the listserv about the difference between conflation and intersectionality, but I do not know how to ask this question while being quiet which I have been asked to be. I do not know how to listen more visibly, especially on a listserv where no one can see me reading the links and being quiet and sitting as still as possible, even ignoring my children and waiting for someone to post something new for me to listen to. Somewhere, on the listserv: a doorslamming. More than one. I read and re-read the links. The links tell me that I am suffering from “white fragility.” The links say I should listen.
Can you hear me? my friend asks, while reading me a new poem as I sit on the steps of a brownstone and shield the microphone from the sounds of the city. Yes, I say, I can hear you.
I lost you in the elevator, I say to another friend, whose mother is just home from the hospital and lives two blocks away from me and is very private and no, there is nothing I can do. When I ask if there is anything I can do for my friend who lives far from me and far from her mother just home from the hospital, my friend says, Yeah, shoot me.
I call a third friend to read her this poem. She says, Take out the parts about the listserv—only the people on the listserv will understand those parts. Don’t you know, I joke, that this poem is only for you? No one else will care about any parts. Also, she says, People might think that manchild and babymanchild are the same person unless you mention them both in the very beginning. Also, she says, It’s too long. I make it longer.
I’m leaving, the Husband texts. In this context it means he is coming home.
I’m going to bed, I respond, which means, in a way, I’m leaving.
The poem is a soundmachine. Whatever the family says they say over the sound of the soundmachine.
When babymanchild mentions Ellen Degeneres or professional soccer as we walk to school I am relieved because this means I can think about other things and let his barely audible voice bleed into the city’s ever-encroaching surround-sound and in this way I am listening but this time to my own thoughts. Surely I am allowed from time to time such a luxury am I not?
My thoughts, I’m thinking, are associational and interrupted just like my writing and I am probably thinking about my writing and about how a novelist friend once told me the secret was to not allow children to steal your muse time. She thought about her novels while watching her kids in the sandbox, while giving them baths, while putting them to sleep. Don’t waste time wondering whether you have Cheerios in the pantry, she said to me, years ago. The relaying of this writerly advice to you is the length of time in real time it takes for babymanchild to yank my arm. His narrowed eyes and the line of his mouth accuse me. I am not listening. What was I thinking?
Goodbye for now, I write to the listserv. I am tired of feeling wrong. Turns out I am not so good at listening, I write, and I am tired of being wrong. After that I sit and listen to the virtual wall between their posts and me. I have turned off the listserv, which is still everywhere and always but all the other soundmachines whirring and whining.
The city is nothing if not conflation and believe me this city is not nothing. The city is a soundmachine.
When I read to babymanchild I listen to myself reading to babymanchild. Usually it sounds like a childhood. Like a child happy to have a mother who listens even though it is actually the sound of a child listening to a mother reading. Actually, it is the sound of two people listening to a woman who long ago was writing to someone or no one: how was she to know?
The book requires explanation. We stop listening to the mother (me) reading and listen to the mother (me) explaining. Such as rape. Also racism, Hitler, violence against children and what Atticus means when he says: “There’s nothing more sickening to me that a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourself—it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it.”
Perhaps all I am is conflation. What then? I would like to ask but can’t ask it on the listserv because I’ve signed off.
When I finish explaining everything in the world to babymanchild and have sat and held his hand until he’s fallen asleep because it is hard to fall asleep when one’s mother has just explained the worst of the world, I tiptoe from the room knowing that all this time I have not been listening to the manchild who has been waiting for me to come and listen. The manchild has been waiting to tell me that I am not listening, which is sometimes all he has to say.
Perhaps thinking is the soundmachine. The city is full of them. Faux rainforest, faux ocean. The jackhammer of it all.
Whirring and churning until the death rattle.
A friend suggests non-violent communication, suggests I cultivate silence. The listserv says nothing and cannot see me listening.
When the husband and I speak to each other we hear things the other did not say. This may be because we are not listening. Or perhaps because we are listening too hard. Or listening wrongly. We break each other like plates in the sink. Other times the breaking is more like forgetting to water a plant for months at a time.
What? he says when I have said nothing. Your face, he says, What??
I didn’t say anything, I say. Perhaps my face is the face of a person who is listening, trying to listen. Perhaps this is the problem since everything we say sounds like disappointment and our silence is overfull of sorrow.
So sorry, I say when a woman bumps me on the subway. She looks at me with diamond-hard rage.
So, I say to the class, Can anyone tell me, what are some effects of addressing someone or something inanimate or absent in a poem? This is called apostrophe, I say. The poet brings the unreal closer, into the real, but the poem itself becomes a fictive space. I look around at real people around me who saying nothing. During quiet writing I put them in the poem where they respond as readily as they do in real life.
Goodness, my friend says when an emergency vehicle passes by, while I’m sitting on the steps of a brownstone while she’s reading me her long poem over the phone.
It’s too long, the other friend says, when I read her the poem while she is in a hotel, alone, in Philly, when the poem is half as long as it is now.
Don’t go, someone backchannels.
Good luck, another backchannels.
We will miss your voice.
My voice is all over the city.
Sometimes, at night, I beg the Husband to be quiet. I want his weight. Tell me, he asks, Just tell me what you want. What I want is no talking.
I am conflating again. Husband, manchild, babymanchild. Gender, sex, the personal, listserv.
I do not have Cheerios because no one in my family eats Cheerios. Otherwise I would have Cheerios. I am thinking about Cheerios. I still thinking about Cheerios. If you said anything just now I was not listening.
In the crowded car I try to step carefully around a stroller so more people can enter the train. Stay there, I tell babymanchild. Hold the pole. No one helps him. The woman with the stroller glares at me.
I suspect that sometimes, when the manchild says I am not listening, he is not saying what he wants to say. He says and says and says and of course I am not listening because he wants me to hear something else, something he is not saying. The thing he is not saying underneath the thing he is saying. Sometimes I think I know what this might be. Other times I think there is no other thing, this is just a way of excusing myself for being a poor listener. Either way the sound of my own thinking takes up too much space in this family.
Stop, I say to the manchild. He keeps going. Isn’t that what I want, isn’t the way he keeps going a sign of his resilience and of my maternal success?You’re not listening, says the manchild. You’re not listening. Stop talking, the world says to me. Stop talking, says the part of me who imagines the world is telling me to stop talking.