Till human voices wake us, and we drown

Because of a family medical history predisposing me to cancer, I have an MRI screening at least once a year, sometimes twice. Most people I mention this to express a claustrophobic terror of this experience, but I find there’s something perversely peaceful about it. Getting tucked into a heavy double layer of blankets, I start to withdraw into myself for this internal experience. First face up, then face down, on the table that slides me into the long tube with a periscope on the end that makes me feel like I’m falling towards the floor, I close my eyes and wait for the sounds to start.

A loud buzz signals that the metallic hammering is about to begin, a technological blacksmith pounding my molecules against an electronic anvil. The noises vary in pitch and length, long patterns that hold for a while and then change, slamming against the giant red noise-canceling headphones that can’t keep out the aural onslaught. But the sounds make patterns, comforting in their regularity, engaging in their changes.

First, the intro to MIA’s “Paper Planes” seems to be playing, but the chord change never comes and I settle into its sameness for a while. Then I imagine the sounds to be a big long Philip Glass opus, like the score for Koyaanisqatsi; I imagine the landscapes and urban decay and people mobs of those images set to the clinks of the MRI machine. I think of Bang on a Can, Aphex Twin. I remember the movie Altered States.

I imagine that if an entirely spondaic line of poetry could exist, it would sound like this. The machine throbs. I think about those pod-bed “hotels” in Japanese airports. The pulse intensifies. I hear the poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” when she imagines the mourners tromping, “treading—treading–” across her soul with “boots of lead.” The tempo shifts. The pitch increases. I am in a private space and my mind is meandering first to concrete comparisons and favorite people, then just abstractions, flashes of color and feelings of sound.

The technician interrupts on the loudspeaker every few minutes to let me know when another round of noises will begin, and I find that when the noises stop, I start to wish he wouldn’t say anything. I am sure he does so because most people find it comforting to hear the human voice, but I like the buzzes and beeps and the total retreat.

In between rounds, the technician reels me up to the surface and I find I don’t really want to go. He makes fun of me for looking away when he hooks the IV into my arm, and I object to this because I am really not freaking out; it’s just that no one actually likes to watch that jab, right? Or looks forward to it? It makes me want to dive back inside to escape his jollity.

Instead, since it’s not up to me when I glide back in, I ask the technician what makes the noises, and he says the sound is there to move the microelectrons in my bloodstream, to upset them so they register an image. A few minutes later, face down in the tube, I feel the cold contrast dye seeping sluggishly into my vein and settle in for the next song. And I can feel the electromagnets pulling on the fluids in my body like a lunar banshee of a moon-tide. My ear piercing vibrates under the headphones as the force of science tugs at it. But the itch stops soon and all that’s left is the hail of pure powerful sound.

I emerge from the tube with deep red grooves on my cheeks from lying face down on the face cradle. I absently mention that the music was good and he says oh boy, I’m worried now, she’s hallucinating, so I stop talking about it. Groggy and quiet after my time in the tube, I want to keep my thoughts to myself. I duck my head as I walk through the loud waiting room in hopes that my hair will hide the marks on my face, into the different sounds of a different atmosphere. I sort of miss the music.

9 responses to “Till human voices wake us, and we drown”

  1. Tim says:

    This is a lovely prose poem if I’ve ever read one. I particularly enjoyed, And I can feel the electromagnets pulling on the fluids in my body like a lunar banshee of a moon-tide. thanks for taking us into the tube with you!

  2. Rachel says:

    I have had one such experience (a scan of my head, for so-called “thunderclap” migraines, which are exactly as debilitating as they sound). They gave me an anti-anxiety drug for the experience (because I expressed, well–anxiety–about being in the tube) that slammed me with tranquility. I remember feeling really peaceful and floaty as I listened to the machine music. This post was a perfect evocation of that experience.

    Have you heard Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “IRM”? She had a head injury that required a lot of scans, and those sounds underpin a lot of her recent music.

    Miss you, Swells. Be well.

  3. Ivy says:

    I had to have an MRI and was quite anxious about it as someone I once knew found it the most terrorising experience of his life, such that seeing a machine on TV made him cry. But I liked it. I thought, Ah, twenty minutes where noone is pestering me. I had a DVD and an unrelated soundtrack to enjoy (creating some odd juxtapositions), but I would have been just as happy without. Some of us just do manage to find the rhythm in the random. I met a nurse once who had a scan and went to sleep.
    #2: ever tried beta blockers for migraines? I am taking them for Meniere’s, which is related in some people, and the bliss of being headache free is quite astonishing. AND it mostly works for the vertigo.

  4. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Internet keeps eating my comment, and it isn’t even much of a repast. Take III:

    I’m going to hear several hours of Philip Glass in several hours. I will at some point imagine I am in a tube.

    Anyway, I found this entry rather hypnotic.

  5. J-Man says:

    I love your description of the changing patterns that sound like music to you. I suppose I would have enjoyed the MRI I had to have much more if I weren’t strapped down in a machine. Repetitive sounds actually drive me crazy (e.g. ticking clocks) but I do recall being somewhat intrigued by the mechanical harmonies. You should try isolation tanks, where you float in utter darkness in salt water. It’s a similar experience, except the only thing you can hear is the blood coursing through your veins.

  6. jeremy says:

    This is a lovely piece of writing… (although you make MRIs so magically poetic, I am still sorry that you must have them so often).

  7. Trixie says:

    God Steph- this is so gorgeous. I absolutely loved it. I could totally imagine what it feels like for you in the tube. I can’t remember where Charlotte Gainsbourg was interviewed (fresh air maybe?) but I remember her trying to explain her (similar) experience with MRIs. I found her description (and also, unfortunately, the record of songs inspired by it) much less compelling than your prose. Not because hers was boring, but because of how hypnotic this is.
    I wonder what it would be like to ask the guy to not say anything thoughout the test’s entirety? Too disorientating?
    Thanks for sharing this.

  8. trixie says:

    For stupid reasons, I finally got caught up on TGW yesterday. Man, this post was superb, Steph. Really one of the best TGW posts for a long while. Thank you. I wish you wrote like this more often. But maybe it’s the rarity that makes it special. But still, can’t you try? I start to forget what an exceptional writer you are. Oh, and like Jeremy, I wish you didn’t need to get these dumb MRI things. But lucky us. You make poetry of it!

  9. farrell fawcett says:

    oops. that was me.