White Noise Unconscious Sound in McKay's "Fridge NocturnE"

Every night, my sister uses a white noise machine to lull her to sleep. She says she cannot sleep in silence, and that hearing the same pattern of electronically composed crickets and raindrops classically conditions her to fall asleep more immediately. In his poem "Fridge Nocturne," Don McKay posits a similar idea: that the "humble murmer" of the fridge in one's home seems to create a manufactured sense of wilderness that lulls the body to sleep. I've included a sound clip advertised to induce sleep and relaxation that mimics the restless noise of a refrigerator, the same noise McKay centers his poem around. Turn it on, and let it play while you read.

In Don Delillo's fittingly named novel, white noise (or White Noise) is presented as a pattern of subliminal consumerist messages that are strewn throughout the narrative. In this sense, white noise seems much more fitting for a larger narrative than a poem, as a novel's sheer size allows for sound to be lost in the background, for patterns to be noiselessly weaved throughout the text and only become audible when one listens for them. Poetry draws so much attention to itself due to its shortness, so the process of embedding white noise becomes a much more tricky task in verse than in prose. In "Fridge Nocturne," MacKay's white noise seems to take the form of ambiguous pronouns. Much like Delillo's adverts, they almost seem natural but, when listened for, are found to be artificial and out of place. In the first stanza, McKay introduces the reader to three separate subjects: the hypothetical second person "you" (2), the masculine "sleep" (1), and the domestic "fridge" (4). This trio of subjects makes the "it" in the first line of the second stanza particularly ambiguous. Although McKay does not give the fridge in the first stanza a gendered pronoun, his use of stereotypical tropes of domesticity leads us to believe the fridge is feminized; the "it," as such, seems out of place when referring to the fridge. Similarly, the line "muddily gathers itself in pools to drop things in/and fish things from" only emphasizes the subject's ambiguity (9-10). It is likely that McKay is using ellipsis here, or the omission of words in a sentence that are unnecessary to its overall meaning: we may paraphrase the sentence as "muddily gathers itself in pools [for you] to drops things in/and fish things from." However, it is also possible that McKay simply meant just what he had written: that the fridge (or the river, or perhaps sleep) has the agency to "gather itself," to "drop things in" and "fish things from" itself. Here rises the primary tension of white noise: whether it is passive, stuck in background, unimportant; or whether it has agency and meaningfully affects the experience of the listener.

"Sleep, off somewhere tinkering with his motorcycle" (1-2).

Similar to McKay's ambiguous use of pronouns is his odd use of gendered subjects. The fridge seems to embody a feminized cult of domesticity, while sleep, gendered as "he," performs the stereotypical masculine action of "tinkering with his motorcycle" (2). The tension between masculine and feminine representations of inanimate objects and concepts underscores the larger binaries present in McKay's poem: between passivity and agency, and between the manmade and natural worlds. What is interesting, however, is that both sleep and the fridge are caught between the inside and outside spheres. Sleep has the power to move from domesticity to the natural world, but only by means of a manmade invention, ie. the motorcycle. The fridge, in contrast, is static in its domestic realm, yet is given the natural title of "weeping willow." This underlying tension between the natural and artificial world, which McKay genders in a problematic way, functions in the same way all white noise does: it seems natural, or it is hardly noticed, until someone points it out.

"Humble murmur" (6).

We must also be aware of the title of the poem itself, "Fridge Nocturne," in our exploration of white noise. When I had first read the poem, I assumed "nocturne" was simply being used in place of "nocturnal:" the french adjective, I assumed, chosen for its pretentious mystique, which is indicative of some attention-seeking English poetry. However, the term "nocturne" refers specifically to a musical composition, usually solo-piano, that is in some way evocative of nighttime (OED). Thematically, this title is clearly fitting of the poem: not only does it take place at night, but it specifically evokes a sense sleep as facilitated through the white noise of the fridge. However, what is particularly interesting about labelling the poem "nocturne" is that it elicits a sense of nonverbal representation in a poem that is made up of language. Having written my honours thesis on the tensions between oral and written modes of representation, this nonverbal label on "Fridge Nocturne" particularly intrigues me. By labelling his poem as such, McKay is setting up "Fridge Nocturne" not simply as a poem that concerns itself with white noise, but one that is white noise. Nocturne's, while clearly more thought-inducing than the manufactured rainfall used to lull people to sleep today, are often described as tranquil in same manner white noise is meant to be. The nonverbal label on "Fridge Nocturne," then, functions in two manners. In one sense, it may suggest that we view the language in McKay's poem not as signifiers referencing signifieds, but rhythmic, sound-words as in the case of "humble murmur." Or, conversely, attaching "nocturne" to a verbal piece of work could be McKay's way of urging the reader to be more aware of the meaning hidden within white noise; to view it as signifying something greater and not simply push it to the background.

However, seeking out white noise, or using it purposefully, in a sense destroys it. McKay, like Delillo and others, deconstructs the very essence of white noise by moving it from the background of our mental landscapes to the forefront. That is not to say that white noise does not function in the traditional, unnoticeable sense in McKay's poem. However, it is not through the image of the fridge, whose emphasis and poetic exploration moves it away from mere background sound. Rather, it is the tensions between passivity and agency, as voiced through the ambiguous pronouns; the tensions in gendered representations; and the tensions between the manmade and natural world that sneak their way into the ambient soundtrack of MacKay's poem. For, these seemingly natural, inherently hierarchical binaries that make up the white noise of life are what we really need to notice.

Sleep and white noise, although ambiguously blurred in McKay's poem, are quite similar: they both facilitate unconsciousness, and when one becomes aware of them is when they stop working. Just one more thing: did you forget about the fridge sound?


Works Cited

McKay, Don. "Fridge Nocturne." 70 Canadian Poets. Ed. Garry Geddes. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

"nocturne, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 21 March 2017.


Created with images by Mickyboyc - "Hareshaw Linn Low Falls" • jarmoluk - "water drops fridge" • WolfBlur - "motorcycle chopper chrome"

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