The Lyric Ear

Megan J. Arlett

2024 Nonfiction Spring Contest Winner

As a child during The Blitz, my grandfather clambered over the debris of collapsed houses in Gravesend, Kent. He hit capsules of dynamite with a hammer. It made the sound of his friend’s mother as she walked outside to bring tea to the roofers in the garden. It made the sound of what was recovered: a single finger.

In his twenties, a doctor prescribed streptomycin to my grandfather to treat tuberculosis. The hairs within his ear curled up into themselves at the taste of it. 

Listening isn’t just about what is said, but how it is held between two people. 

Light as it reaches the ozone.

The sight of a record playing.

How the ear softened as he aged, lay a second deafness over the first.

He talked about the war. He called his childhood one of bombsites“They didn’t drop little leaflets out of the sky.”

“Do you know how the National Car Park Company started?” he asked me, once.

I remember the white of his hair.

I remember the whorl of his ear and the device within it like a hermit crab of sound.

A deafness of circumstance, genetics, and antibiotics rolled into one. 


My grandfather gifted me an anthology of prose poems. He had read a small article in The Guardian about the form. Non-poets rarely give poets the books they want. But here it was, perfectly formed. Filled with lines like: Black frost. The ground is hard, the air has a bitter taste. Your stars make unlucky figures. 


As a baby, nothing startled my sister. A door slammed shut by the wind barely made her blink. The audiologist said, “Her hearing is fine. She’s just completely unbothered.”

My mother has needed hearing aids for twenty years and worn them for two. Her audiologist suggests we (her daughters) test the waves we do and do not hold in our heads so we can make marks of what is lost.

Reverse slope: looking up the startled crags of a mountain.

Reverse slope: clear tinny whines from the dishwasher a room away, but uncertainty over the words from a deep-voiced colleague across a desk.

I cannot hear men as clearly as women. The accidental politics of my hearing.

“Maybe men just mumble more,” I tell my audiologist. An apology in the shape of an excuse.

What is the word for hearing, but not knowing what was just heard?

My boyfriend says something in the kitchen: dappled light over a dappled field.

My boyfriend faces me and the words he says are a glass full of sparkling water between us on the table. He turns away and they fold into origami versions of themselves.

Not an underwater feeling or a cotton ball sound. More like an overcast hour of the day. More like searching for clouds shaped like dragons, dogs, rhododendrons, amid a chronically cohesive sky.


In his eighties, my grandfather was approved for a cochlear implant.

Of course, the jokes around the kitchen table were pornographic. How he heard the word cock in place of cochlear. His four grown children ricocheted over each other’s laughter.

The ghost of him lives in my email inbox. “The operation took about three hours and when I woke up on the ward with my head covered with a large bandage, I understood why people sniff poppers and glue. I was on cloud 9 for at least an hourI might try it again sometime!”

I was excited to speak with my grandfather.

I was excited to hear him talk of the birdsong dancing around inside his head for the first time in twenty-five years.

The birds outside my window this afternoon sound like pine needles.

All the years my grandmother passed the phone to her husband so he could say, “I can’t hear you, but I love you. Take care.”

A memory: he sits at the kitchen table staring out at the garden while his children and grandchildren chatter around like sunlight.

A memory: he tells me he worries about his isolation. He worries about the link between his deafness and dementia.

Fifty years hard of hearing. Twenty of deafness. Nobody ever thought to speak to him with their hands.


Can I tell you about the dream where I saw him again? Can I tell you how in that dream what came from his mouth had wings?

Cycling home in the midnight August heat. The red and white lights on our bikes blinked yes yes yes.

We are the half and half again, we are the language stump. Anne Carson


“The Germans didn’t drop little leaflets out of the sky. I had about twenty unexploded incendiary bombs in the shed. At the end of the war, there was this soldier released from the army. They were given something like forty pounds. He turned the bomb sites into a couple of car parks. Mega, mega, mega fortune.”

“We were bombed. The back of the house was completely blown off by a V1.”

Not leaflets out of the sky.

“If you opened them up and hit them with a hammer, it was a hell of a lot of fun. I still have all my fingers! Luck, really.”

I remember his fingers deadheading roses in the garden.

“My best friend’s mother was in the house. A V2. A rocket. She was buried in a coffin the size of a shoe box. That’s all they found of her. And the men working on the roof opposite, they never found any of them. I was never scared. Bomb sites were ever such fun. When victory was declared, all of these fireworks appearedwe hadn’t seen fireworks for yearsNovember 5th went on for weeks that year.”

The sky shot through with light.


In the soundproof booth, I watch peaks and valleys form on the screen. To test the functioning of my middle ear, I hear whirs. I hear drones.

I repeat words. “You will say: wedge. You will say: table. You will say: girl.”

Wedge. Table. Girl.

When I hear a beep, I press a button.

We are measuring the movements of my eardrum. I ask how it works. “It’s complicated,” the audiologist replies.

The graph of my hearing looks like a cookie bite. This is a technical term. A U-shape. A chocolate chip diagram.

I am surprised to hear myself tell her, “I don’t want hearing aids.” I didn’t know I thought this. Even as I say it, it doesn’t feel like something I would say.

On the way home, I stop into the grocery store and buy a decadent boxed brownie mix. All this talk of food has made me want dessert.


A year before his death, I sat in the sun-stroked light by the open patio doors with my grandfather. We talked in the only way we could. He spoke aloud. His voice, an old-aged low fog. I spoke and watched the words form on my phone. I held the screen up for him to see. 

In the garden, the greens rang loudly. Pink flowers sang. Bees vibrated between stamen like glyphs.


Types of loss: flat, sloped, noise-notched, rising, reverse.

What caused the stars and moon to disappear and the sky to turn into a blotted sheet even on these nights clear as a rooster’s eye? Amjad Nasser trans. by Khaled Mattawa

In the testing booth, I can hear so much: the chair beneath me like an old ship, my stomach’s hunger, dry lips parting.


“He’s riddled with it,” the transatlantic voice (my father) on the phone. “He has weeks. If that.”

A riddle of cancer. Like a flock of birds.

Waking from the morphine-deep sleep he’d dwelt in for days, he looked around what had been his study at the hospital bed, and the bedpan, and his own wasting body, turned to his eldest son and said, “Simon, we’re going to have to have a talk about all of this.” Then, just as abruptly, fell back asleep.

I wanted to talk to him, but he couldn’t hear me.

I wanted to talk to him, but the new machinery of his head was still learning. 

When I last spoke to my grandfather, it was like every other conversation we had for the last fifteen years. He spoke and I nodded. Even if I said anything at all, he would not be able to hear me. My dad held the iPad up to him in his hospital bed.

And I was out of range. And I was a long haul flight away. And my visa renewal was processing. And if I flew to him, I couldn’t get back. And I didn’t have time. And he couldn’t hear me when they held the screen up to his face so I could say goodbye. 

All those years of him on the phone: “I can’t hear you, but I love you. Take care.”

Me, on a video call, liquid with grief: “I know you can’t hear me, but I love you.”

Even if his ears had worked, he wouldn’t have heard me.


Soon, I will turn bionic. 

Soon, I step further into my inheritance.

Soon, the future will root inside my ears.

Soon, I will learn to talk with my hands.

Megan J. Arlett was born in the UK, grew up in Spain, and now lives in New Mexico. The recipient of two Academy of American Poets Prizes, her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2019, Best New British and Irish Poets, Gulf Coast, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Passages North, and Prairie Schooner, among others.

You can find Megan on X @mjarlett & on Instagram @megjessie.

Artwork: “Abstract Waterfall” by Kelly Haneklau


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