The Voices of the Dead



Christmas 2005. The Christmas before my father's death. The last one I will ever have with him, though I don't know it at the time. His gift to me is a book of poetry that includes three compact discs of poets reading their work. There's all the Modernists--Eliot, H.D., William Carlos Williams, and so on. There's Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. And there is my beloved Sylvia Plath. I've never heard her voice before. I put the compact disc in my CD player and put on my headphones.

She starts to read "Daddy" and then "Lady Lazarus". I begin to weep. I am utterly captivated and moved by hearing her voice read poems I have only ever read in my edition of Ariel. My mother comes into my room and I'm still sobbing and I tell her that I heard Sylvia Plath. Even now, all these years later, I don't know how to describe it and I feel a bit ridiculous about how emotional I was, but I know I shouldn't be. She mattered to me at that time and she matters to me still. It mattered that her voice was there, reading the poems that helped me survive.

Years later, in 2009, I come across the only known recording of Virginia Woolf's voice. It is late at night. I have no headphones and my mother is in the room so I have to keep the volume very low and position my head close to the laptop speakers.  The voice sounded the way I expected it to--erudite and intellectual. Her voice made her seem more alive despite her death. To hear this woman writer was to experience her in a different way, to come closer to her even while knowing you could never really grasp her at all. I don't remember crying when I heard Woolf's voice, but the recording moved me.

I have no recording of my father's voice. I cannot open an audio file and hear him speak to me. He died in 2006, before the sudden burst of new technology, like cellphones and laptops, started to saturate our lives. We had no money for such things. We were poor, barely surviving. So there's nothing of him left except some photographs and a few VHS tapes that he doesn't speak in.

Often, I want to hear his voice. I hear it in my mind, though I feel like my mind is a tape cassette that is slowly degrading and I'm not sure if I remember his voice as strongly and intensely as I once did. How do you write a voice? How do you describe it? I have the voices of all these dead writers--Woolf, Plath, Sexton--but not of my own father. There's a cruelty about it. I can look at a picture to remember his face. I still have his bottle of cologne that evokes his scent. But I'll never have the sound of him. It makes me feel empty. I cry about it. I can't change it.

I want to encourage those who are reading this post to not end up like me. If you have people in your life whom you care about and you're able to record their voices, you should. Save their voicemails. Interview them using your laptop microphone and record it and save it somewhere. Do what is in your power and financial situation to have some sound recording of those you love because when they are gone and you can't hear their voices again it's agonizing.

The voice can outlive the body. Plath and Woolf died long ago, but we have their voices, we have a small part of them when they were alive and we treasure it. They make contact with us through time and space and impact us through their voices. I wish I had my father's voice. I wish I could go back and get it somehow. What if, one day, I forget it entirely? It frightens me. He seems to disappear as the years go by, time separates us, we are so far from each other now and the distance will only grow. I'll try to keep remembering.