The Absence of Sound

Schweigen und Klang im Wartesaal


  • Christoph Singer



loss of identity, waiting room, pain, poetry, temporality, perception of time


The words ‘patient’ and ‘patience’ are, etymologically speaking, closely related to the idea of endurance, particularly that of time and, consequently, to a (temporal) crisis. Both terms derive from the Latin pati which means ‘to suffer’. This notion of suffering time translates directly to the (medical) waiting room as a timescape: the waiting room is a liminal space of paradoxical temporalities, where patients await diagnosis and a treatment that will hopefully allow them to return to a pre-crisis mode of life. And this experience of time is anything but mundane. For patients and clients, who are facing uncertainty and a loss of agency, waiting becomes a form of (self-)control. Medical waiting rooms are thus spaces of peculiar temporalities, where those who wait are caught in a liminal space between outside and the doctor’s office. These spaces come with expectations intended to control those waiting on to ideally result in some sort of panoptic self-control. In a situation where the observation of others is discouraged, a form of self-surveillance leads those in waiting to direct the gaze at and against themselves. This article will examine how modernist and postmodern poetry represents and examines these spaces and their particular temporalities.

These poems often represent patients at the moment of animated suspension and depict the resulting insecurities and anxieties. A particular focus will lie on the soundscapes of these waiting rooms, ranging from the representation of literal sounds like chatter, TVs, radios or other technological devices. More interestingly, sounds and perceived forms of silence are used by authors to metaphorically express what is regarded as inexpressible: one’s physical and psychological pain, a pain that destabilizes a coherent sense of self and suspends a sense of identity. This dissolution, consequently, is often depicted as a cascade of dissolving entities: space and time, self and other and, ultimately, language.

I will, firstly, discuss contemporary ‘waiting room’-poems that express and verbalize how a physical and psychological sense of self and the perception of fragmented time intersect. To that end, this article will focus on a range of contemporary anglophone poems, ranging from Elizabeth Bishop’s seminal “In the Waiting Room” (1976), a poem that traces the effects of temporal dissociation on a narrative sense of self, to Julia Darling’s poem of the same title (2015).




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